A Plan for Evaluating the
District of Columbia’s Public Schools
From Impressions to Evidence
Committee on the Independent Evaluation of DC Public Schools
Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES
THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS
THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS 500 Fifth Street, N.W. Washington, DC 20001
NOTICE: The project that is the subject of this report was approved by the Governing Board of the National Research Council, whose members are drawn from the councils of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The members of the committee responsible for the report were chosen for their special competences and with regard for appropriate balance.
This study was supported by Award No. ODCA 2010-01 and ODCA 2011-01 between the National Academy of Sciences and the Government of the District of Columbia; and Award No. 201000123 between the National Academy of Sciences and the Spencer Foundation. The study was also supported by the National Science Foundation, the CityBridge Foundation, the Philip L. Graham Fund, the Kimsey Foundation, the World Bank, and the Diane and Norman Bernstein Foundation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations or agencies that provided support for the project.
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Copyright 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
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Cover credit: Photograph by Sabryn McDonald, seventh grade student from Cesar Chavez Middle School, District of Columbia, as part of the Critical Exposure Program, http://www.criticalexposure.org © 2011.
Suggested citation: National Research Council. (2011). A Plan for Evaluating the District of Columbia’s Public Schools: From Impressions to Evidence. Committee on the Independent Evaluation of DC Public Schools. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES
Advisers to the Nation on Science, Engineering, and Medicine
The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit, self-perpetuating society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. Upon the authority of the charter granted to it by the Congress in 1863, the Academy has a mandate that requires it to advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters. Dr. Ralph J. Cicerone is president of the National Academy of Sciences.
The National Academy of Engineering was established in 1964, under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, as a parallel organization of outstanding engineers. It is autonomous in its administration and in the selection of its members, sharing with the National Academy of Sciences the responsibility for advising the federal government. The National Academy of Engineering also sponsors engineering programs aimed at meeting national needs, encourages education and research, and recognizes the superior achievements of engineers. Dr. Charles M. Vest is president of the National Academy of Engineering.
The Institute of Medicine was established in 1970 by the National Academy of Sciences to secure the services of eminent members of appropriate professions in the examination of policy matters pertaining to the health of the public. The Institute acts under the responsibility given to the National Academy of Sciences by its congressional charter to be an adviser to the federal government and, upon its own initiative, to identify issues of medical care, research, and education. Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg is president of the Institute of Medicine.
The National Research Council was organized by the National Academy of Sciences in 1916 to associate the broad community of science and technology with the Academy’s purposes of furthering knowledge and advising the federal government. Functioning in accordance with general policies determined by the Academy, the Council has become the principal operating agency of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering in providing services to the government, the public, and the scientific and engineering communities. The Council is administered jointly by both Academies and the Institute of Medicine. Dr. Ralph J. Cicerone and Dr. Charles M. Vest are chair and vice chair, respectively, of the National Research Council.
COMMITTEE ON THE INDEPENDENT
EVALUATION OF DC PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Christopher Edley, Jr., Cochair, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley
Robert M. Hauser, Cochair, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council, Washington, DC, and Vilas Research Professor, Emeritus, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Beatrice F. Birman, Education, Human Development, and Workforce Program, American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC
Carl A. Cohn, School of Educational Studies, Claremont Graduate University
Leslie T. Fenwick, School of Education, Howard University
Michael J. Feuer, Graduate School of Education and Human Development, George Washington University
Jon Fullerton, Center for Education Policy Research, Harvard University
Fernando A. Guerra, Metro Health, San Antonio, Texas
Jonathan Gueverra, Office of the Chief Executive, Community College of the District of Columbia
Jonathan Guryan, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University
Lorraine McDonnell, Department of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara
C. Kent McGuire, Office of the President, Southern Education Foundation, Atlanta, Georgia
Maxine Singer, Carnegie Institution of Washington
William F. Tate IV, Department of Education, Washington University in St. Louis
Laudan Y. Aron, Study Director (until December 2010)
Alexandra Beatty, Senior Program Officer
Natalia Pane, Visiting Scholar
Kelly Iverson, Senior Program Assistant
Jeremy Flattau, Mirzayan Fellow
Christina Maranto, Mirzayan Fellow
Jessica Schibler, Summer Intern
The District of Columbia has struggled for decades to improve its public education system. The school system’s problems in many ways reflect its context: a city whose history has been characterized by sometimes stark racial and class divides. The District is not part of any state, and, for a variety of legal and historical reasons, the U.S. Congress has control over many aspects of its affairs and budget. The city’s schools have been governed differently and with more volatility than any other urban district: 17 different management structures have been tried since 1804.
The most recent change, in 2007, was surely the most dramatic. The enactment of the Public Education Reform Amendment Act (PERAA), gave primary control of the schools to the mayor and a mayor-appointed chancellor, and instituted a host of major changes to management and governance. The authors of PERAA recognized the importance of obtaining a clear, objective, politically independent, and accurate picture of the schools’ progress as these reforms were pursued; and they recognized the complexity of the technical challenges associated with designing and implementing an evaluation that could yield that sort of information.
The city council, under the leadership of Chairman Vincent C. Gray (who has since been elected mayor and has supported this project throughout) approached the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies to carry out this charge. Assembling an expert panel required special attention to local, national, and other demographic factors; expertise in the myriad relevant research fields that inevitably must be included in a comprehensive effort; political and ideological balance; and, given the
ambitious timeline, sufficient prior experience among participants to ensure efficiency in deliberations and the preparation of a final report.
Perhaps most important was the decision about just how ambitious to allow the first phase of this initiative to become. Following negotiations with the DC government, the Committee on the Independent Evaluation of DC Public Schools was charged to develop a plan for the multiyear evaluation of DC’s public school system; identify available data and assess its quality and utility; consider preliminary indicators; and engage with a wide cross-section of local stakeholder groups to explore the feasibility and scope of the next phases of an evaluation. In accepting this unusual assignment, the NRC recognized that there is no well-established model for evaluating the progress of school reform, and that reform in an urban district is a moving target. Understanding a school district’s progress—and isolating the effects of a complex policy—entails answering an array of questions large and small.
The committee spent much of its time deepening its understanding of the unique features of Washington, DC, and its public school system, examining research and key parts of a large literature on school reform, conferring widely with experienced educators and evaluators, and identifying the most essential elements to be included in a sustainable and robust system of evaluation. In the course of this phase of the initiative, and based on careful study and deliberations, the committee developed preliminary impressions of DC schools under PERAA, which reinforced the committee’s position that sound policy and practice will, indeed, necessitate more than “impressions.” The fragility of inferences that are derived from first looks at data is our principal rationale for designing and advocating a rigorous long-term program. The main output of this first phase, then, is a framework for such a program.
We hope the report opens and facilitates new dialogue about the current and future prospects for infusing in the city’s ongoing school reform efforts the best that scientific evidence can offer, and that this dialogue will reverberate in other cities confronting the challenge of improving their children’s educational opportunities.
This study could not have happened without the support and contributions of many people. In addition to the basic financial support provided by the Government of the District of Columbia, for which we are grateful, we acknowledge the U.S. National Science Foundation for its contribution of an important planning grant. We also acknowledge grants from the CityBridge Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Philip L. Graham Fund, the Kimsey Foundation, the World Bank, and the Diane and Norman Bernstein Foundation. Michael Gewirz and Debbi Yogodzinski provided much needed moral support and were instrumental in facilitating connections to leading business figures in the city, without whose support the
prospects for a successful initiative would have been questionable. These organizations and individuals sensed the potential for this venture, and we are extremely grateful.
We are also grateful for the assistance of many other individuals, too numerous to name here. Many city officials, private citizens, business executives, parents, teachers, principals, and others made presentations to the committee, met with staff and individual members, and supplied information and materials. A group of accomplished researchers; DC Government officials; civic, business, and labor leaders; parents; experienced evaluators; and others participated in a critically important planning conference that helped shape—and contain—the parameters of our initiative.
We thank Brenda Turnbull of Policy Associates Inc. who developed a thoughtful background paper on education indicators. The committee is also very grateful to Sol and Diane Pelavin, emeriti president and vice president of the American Institutes for Research, for donating the time, wisdom, and service of Natalia Pane, who served as a visiting scholar for the study. We benefited greatly from the assistance of two National Academies Mirzayan Fellows, Jeremy Flattau and Christina Maranto, and a very capable summer intern, Jessica Schibler. A special thank you goes to the NRC staff who supported every aspect of this ambitious study, Michael J. Feuer, executive director of NRC’s Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (until August 2010); Patricia Morison, director of DBASSE’s Office of Communications and Reports; Jean Moon, scholar; Laudan Aron, study director (until December 2010); Alexandra Beatty, senior program officer; and Kelly Iverson, senior program assistant. Finally, we thank our fellow committee members who volunteered their valuable time and intellectual efforts. Without their critical expertise and guidance, this report would not have been possible.
This report has been reviewed in draft form by individuals chosen for their diverse perspectives and technical expertise, in accordance with procedures approved by the NRC’s Report Review Committee. The purpose of this independent review is to provide candid and critical comments that will assist the institution in making its published report as sound as possible and to ensure that the report meets institutional standards for objectivity, evidence, and responsiveness to the study charge. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the deliberative process.
We thank the following individuals for their review of this report: Richard A. Berman, Licas.net; Lawrence D. Bobo, Department of African and African American Studies, Harvard University; Mark Dynarski, Pemberton Research, East Windsor, New Jersey; Robert E. Floden, Institute for Research on Teaching and Learning, College of Education, Michigan State University; Margaret E. Goertz, Graduate School of Education, Uni-
versity of Pennsylvania; Jane Hannaway, Education Policy Center, Urban Institute; Ernest R. House, School of Education, University of Colorado; Alan J. Ingram, Springfield Public Schools; Robert L. Johnson, Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-New Jersey Medical School; Richard C. Larson, Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals, Learning International Networks Consortium, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Robert Rothman, Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, DC; Allan Sessoms, University of the District of Columbia; William T. Trent, Department of Educational Policy Studies, College of Education, University of Illinois.
Although the reviewers listed above have provided many constructive comments and suggestions, they were not asked to endorse the conclusions or recommendations nor did they see the final draft of the report before its release. The review of this report was overseen by Adam Gamoran, Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin, and Caswell A. Evans, College of Dentistry, University of Illinois at Chicago. Appointed by the NRC, they were responsible for making certain that an independent examination of this report was carried out in accordance with institutional procedures and that all review comments were carefully considered. Responsibility for the final content of this report rests entirely with the authoring committee and the institution.
Christopher Edley, Jr., Cochair
Robert M. Hauser, Cochair
Committee on the Independent
Evaluation of DC Public Schools