If there is one thing it is safe to say about school reform in Washington D.C. public schools — seen as a model across the country — it is that the people in charge love to use data — especially that gleaned from standardized test scores. In this post, a D.C. parent expressed — in just a few minutes — 15 years of frustration at data-obsessed school reform in the district and its effect on students. This was written by Natalie Hopkinson, Ph.D., a writer and scholar currently researching her third book on culture. In addition to publishing essays, features and books, she does applied community projects that often explore the arts, gender, place and identity as a fellow of the Interactivity Foundation. Her most recent book is Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. This appeared on her blog, and I am republishing it with permission.

They say if you torture numbers long enough, they’ll tell you whatever you want.

This week,  I had three minutes, as a D.C. parent, to distill 15 years of frustration at the uses and abuses of data in education reform. I appeared along with policymakers on a March, 29, 2016, panel at the Urban Institute: Washington, D.C.’s Next Generation Education Data and Research.

Here are my remarks:

As a Ward 5 parent, my concern is that in D.C., the obsession with data is obscuring and exacerbating the larger inequalities along the usual lines of race and class. It has all of us chasing our tails and not seeing the bigger picture. Two years ago, when I moderated the mayoral education debate, I gave each candidate a math problem:
–In 1965, the District had 147,000 students and 196 schools. That’s [an average of] 750 kids per school.
–In 2014, we had 85,000 students and 213 DCPS [D.C. Public Schools] and charter school buildings. That’s [an average of] 399 kids per school.
That means we have half the kids that we had in the 1960s, and more buildings, many of them gravely under-enrolled. Yet, we still authorize up to 20 new charters per year, and an unclear number of DCPS new schools. Enrollment is flat. At what point do we match school growth with enrollment needs, geographic balance, and transportation planning in mind? At one point do we focus on using data to invest in and manage the schools that we have?
At one point do we demand a common data language to talk about what is working across all sectors? We’ve been lab rats since Congress introduced the 1995 DC School Reform Act. Hundreds of millions of dollars and two decades later, we should have a wealth of “data” from these successes and failures. Yet, each year, we reinvent the wheel with some new school as if we have never seen these historically systemic challenges before.
I did not get a real answer from the candidates then, and I’m still waiting two years later. In my mind, the real question is: When you do find a disparity, inequity, an inconsistency in the data, who is authorized to do something about it? Parents have no power to act. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education is just authorized to collect data, but not act on it. The mayor is nominally in charge, but she has no authority to implement policies on the charter side other than appointing new board members for the system. There is effectively no responsible grown-up in charge, an ed policy expert with the authority to make strategic choices and smart investments in a unified system.
Who can step in and look at the larger picture: poverty, racial equity, re-segregation (which we know is happening), and then act accordingly? Who is making sure we are not cannibalizing our resources? Who is protecting the children so they stay in school and get what we are paying for?
There is an attitude in some corners that “transparency” and “sunlight” will solve all problems. When the data is made public, charter operators who are blasted for, say, their expulsion rates, will be shamed into doing the right thing. This puts more faith in proven bad actors than frankly they deserve. It also is an incredibly callous attitude toward children who find themselves out on the street, with no school or safe place to belong to, waiting for the sunlight to do its magic. Maybe hopefully does its magic.
The use and abuse of data is one of the key factors driving rising inequality in this city. Test scores reinforce and accumulate privilege. The higher the scores, the more likely better-resourced parents are to demand access to a particular school. The lower the scores, the less resourced parents whose kids are enrolled shrug and cope. It really drives me crazy when they come up with these grand ideas, like a newfangled “tier” system. Guess what, families? YOU get to CHOOSE between three tiers! What parent is going to say, “Yeah, I want my kid to go to a third-rate school!” No. If you are privileged, you push and push for the top tier, hire a consultant if you have to, and if you don’t get in, you go private or leave for the suburbs. If you are not privileged, you deal with the crumbs left over. Then you pray.
That is how you get the scene I watch from my house near North Capitol Street. It’s straight-up racial apartheid. If I see white children walking to the parks, I knew they are from Mundo Verde or Inspired Teaching schools. The lack of white faces in a group of children makes me know the kids are from Langley, Harmony, or KIPP.
Not only does the ideology of non-governance perpetuate these racial and socioeconomic patterns, the data game compels the charter and public sectors to focus exclusively on putting points on the board—whether it is reading and math scores, or opening new school campuses. In the meantime, there is no basic quality control, or even basic bean counting. As a result, D.C. taxpayers must tolerate a level of waste, duplication, lack of quality that is unacceptable in better-resourced, less-transient communities. There are no economies of scale or policy expertise.
They smile and play nice, but the public and charter sectors are at war like divorced parents, hemorrhaging kids who weave in between them. This is when the data really becomes beside the point. Debates over rising/dropping reading and math scores are really a game of 3-card Monte. Who can take credit/blame for a kid who switches schools four times before middle school? It gives the illusion of movement, efficacy and rational decision-making. We have none of that in D.C.
As long as we tolerate this basic dysfunction in governance across the charter and DCPS sectors, inequality will continue to rise. There is no space for those of us in the middle. We city dwellers are eminently tolerant people. We put up with a lot.
But there has to be progressive change and true responsiveness and accountability. Honestly, in my years, I have started to see SOME of that especially on the DCPS side, but none of it as a promise across the board, which completely undermines that progress. In the past 15 years, the city has changed dramatically, but that has not. If you have a kid, it is still win, lose, or move.
Show me the data set that changes that basic equation. Otherwise, we are just squirrels collecting data about our tails.