The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C.’s education system needs an independent mirror

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Arne Duncan, a former chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, was education secretary from 2009 through 2015.

Rigorous research on public education systems can be revelatory: Knowledge that researchers generate through their study of school data can change education practices, policies and schools. But to do so, researchers must be able to hold an independent mirror to the entire public education system, pursuing an agenda of serving public interest, not one that benefits a certain branch of government or a specific education agency.

I served as the chief executive of Chicago Public Schools for seven and a half years, and I constantly had to look in the truth-telling mirror held by the Chicago Consortium on School Research. The consortium was created in 1990 as an objective observer of Chicago’s public schools. The researchers at the consortium are not employees of the Chicago Public School System or the city government; they are employed by the University of Chicago. And they have only one job: conduct research on the Chicago Public Schools. They set their research agenda independent of city politics, and they finance themselves almost entirely through foundation grants. For more than 30 years, they have been collaborating with schools, using student-level data the school systems voluntarily give to the consortium, discovering many truths the school system hid from parents, students, teachers and policymakers.

I was shocked when I learned from the consortium that students we considered as successful — those who met academic expectations according to the Illinois Standards Achievement Test — were incapable of achieving the lowest score necessary on the ACT to be accepted at, let alone successfully complete, any college or university in Illinois. Think of what that means to students and parents: Students were fooled into thinking they were good enough to get into college when they graduated but were many years behind. Parents were told that their public schools were good and their children were learning, but the schools were inadequate and their children’s education was mediocre. The consortium’s research revealed these lies.

The D.C. Council is considering legislation to establish a similar entity: a research-practice partnership to study D.C.’s public school data. This is a very good thing. I urge the council to shape the legislation to reflect what we in Chicago and others in places, such as New York City, New Orleans and Massachusetts, have learned about how successful research-practice partnerships operate.

Amendments to the original proposal indicate that the D.C. Council recognizes a research-practice partnership must be independent and not compromised by politics. The plan to put the partnership under the control of a politically appointed board has been scuttled in the bill’s latest version. That’s wise. The advisory board should mainly be concerned with scientific merit and the information schools need. The board should reflect a diverse set of perspectives and help shape long-term research goals but not put each project through a political stress test.

The bill also no longer charges the research-practice partnership with research and audit functions at once. This, too, is smart. Audits are intended to uncover internal control weaknesses. For example, do we measure graduation rates correctly? Auditors and investigators can find out. Research is intended to provide information schools need to adopt structural changes that can truly improve teaching and learning -- for example, how can we improve graduation rates? The Chicago Consortium told us to focus on freshman-year achievement. And it was able to discover this because it had nothing to do with auditing schools.

A healthy research-practice partnership in education is not some cabal of education-obsessed partisans. Rather, it should be a group of serious researchers with no agenda other than revealing truths. It is best based in a university or a research organization, focused squarely on examining the public school system data and following a research agenda it sets in collaboration with partners. Researchers should have one foot in their offices and the other in schools, continuously talking to teachers and principals, building trust so educators will take their findings seriously and incorporate them in their practices.

The District’s attempt to create an education research-practice partnership and seed it with public funds is commendable. But the city government should work with a university or research organization to start a partnership with its sole focus on research. The researchers and education partners can work out governance issues, including the research agenda and data-sharing agreements. With this structure in place, the funding can come from private foundations or the federal government, which ensures independent publication rights for researchers and eliminates any perception that research is politically motivated.