A thorough and useful effort to ask how well DC schools—or the schools in any district—are faring needs to begin with a comprehensive picture of the district’s responsibilities to students, families, and the community. School districts have many functions: some, such as procurement and management, are like those of any large organization. Others, such as the intellectual guidance of teaching and administrative staff and the responsibility for students’ intellectual development, call for other capacities. To guide our examination of first impressions of the District’s schools under the Public Education Reform Amendment Act (PERAA)—and also the comprehensive evaluation plan we describe in Chapter 7—we identified five broad categories to capture the broad range of responsibilities for which any school district is responsible:
- quality of personnel (teachers, principals, and others),
- quality of classroom teaching and learning,
- serving vulnerable children and youth,
- promoting family and community engagement, and
- quality and equity of operations, management, and facilities.
Each of these categories encompasses many specific responsibilities and thus entails many possible evaluation questions. Our purpose in using these categories is to ensure that even first impressions about DC schools under PERAA are not driven by the data that happen to be most accessible, but by the questions that it is important to ask. A range of measures is needed to produce a picture of how well a district is functioning in these areas. In
this chapter we discuss the general issues and research on each topic and then offer our impressions of the District’s activities to date.
The five categories are convenient, if somewhat arbitrary, and there is overlap among them. For example, professional development for staff is important in thinking about the district’s responsibility to attract and retain an effective workforce, and an equally critical aspect of its responsibility to ensure that students receive high-quality instruction. Our purpose is not to provide a definitive taxonomy of what districts do, but rather to impose a structure on the seemingly boundless number of important questions about DC schools’ performance and progress under PERAA.
Before discussing the available information about school quality and operation in the categories, we discuss two topics related to data—the sources of data for our first impressions and the DC effective schools framework—which is the city’s broad plan for improving education in the District.
For the purposes of developing our first impressions, we had three categories of data: materials published before PERAA, materials published after PERAA, and unpublished materials made available by the District of Columbia. Included in the first category are 1989 and 1995 reports by the Committee on Public Education (summarized in Parthenon Group, 2006); reports from the Council on the Great City Schools (CGCS) (2004, 2005, and 2007); a study by the Parthenon Group (2006), which was an important factual resource for the developers of the PERAA; studies focusing on special education issues by the DC Appleseed Center (2003) and the American Institutes for Research (Parrish et al., 2007); and studies on charter schools and vouchers by the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute (Stewart et al., 2007; Sullivan et al., 2008) and the U.S. Government Accountability Office (2005a, 2005b) and Ashby and Franzel (2007).
Resources published after PERAA include two reports published by the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO) (Ashby, 2008; U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2009); a study by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (2010); and two studies commissioned by DC educational agencies: one for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, by the 21st Century School Fund, Brookings Institution, and Urban Institute (2008), and one for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education by the Development Services Group (2008).
These studies were done for different purposes and used different methods. Some were very broad (e.g., the Council on the Great City Schools
and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee reports), while others were much narrower (e.g., the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute and Development Services Group reports); some presented new analyses of primary data (e.g., the 21st Century School Fund and Georgetown University reports), while others provided synthesis of existing secondary data (e.g., those of the GAO).
In addition to these published reports, the committee obtained information directly from city agencies and officials, which included publicly available documents and information on websites, as well as information given to the committee by agency and city leaders. City agency information included strategic plans, annual reports, and analytical documents from DC Public Schools (DCPS), the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Education (DME), and the Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization (OPEFM).
In May 2010 the committee held a day-long public forum at which community representatives described their experiences with DC public schools and their perspectives on priorities for this evaluation (see Appendix A). Participants included principals and school administrators; teachers; charter school representatives; special education providers; education providers for children and youth; representatives of colleges, universities, and job training programs; students; and parents. The committee also reviewed stories in the local press, including the Washington Post, which has published numerous articles on the District’s schools and their governance.1
In discussing the impressions we have drawn from these sources, we distinguish between information reported by city officials and agencies and independent assessments of circumstances in DC schools or of actions taken by DC officials. The committee was able to amass a considerable body of information, and we believe it provides a useful preliminary picture of what the District is attempting to do and how it is faring. However, the information available was inconsistent; both the published reports and the data and other information available from the city provided much more information about some issues than others.
This chapter does not offer a systematic evaluation of either what the District has done or how it is measuring itself, but we did find that the Dis-
1We note that although several provisions in PERAA cover charter schools, traditional public schools have been the primary focus of studies calling for reforms. Time and resource constraints limited the committee’s ability to focus on charter schools, but it will be important to include them in the independent evaluation.
trict collects a significant amount of data to monitor its own progress.2 DCPS staff provided the committee with a list of the databases that are relevant to public education, which is included in Appendix C. Because of limitations in time, resources, and access, we were not able to review these databases in order to assess their quality and utility, though this will be a high and early priority once the evaluation begins. We do have several observations, however, on the basis of the materials we have reviewed.
In a study commissioned by the committee, Turnbull and Arcaira (2009) documented the data gathered by DC and three similar districts (Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago) in six broad areas and found that all four were roughly comparable in their coverage. (Appendix B provides more detail about the study’s findings.) For all four districts, there are a number of areas in which data are collected but not made public, however. The study also found that in some areas “the…indicators were idiosyncratic, and most of the indicators reported served to highlight positive achievements of the district” (p. 19). For example, DCPS (and other districts) report on outreach efforts as a gauge of community engagement (e.g., the number of school partnership programs that have been established or the number of business volunteers spending time with students), but they do not report on the outcomes of those efforts.
This analysis highlights the fact that districts have many options when it comes to measuring their own progress. Table 6-1 shows some of the outcomes a district might measure (in the left-hand column) and some of the means by which they can be measured (in the right-hand column). This list, while far from comprehensive, suggests the range of what an evaluation should address (looking beyond test scores), as well as the importance of a detailed documentation and analysis of the District’s current data collection efforts.
A few points from the literature on performance management will be useful in the analysis of the District’s data collection efforts because such systems vary widely by intended purpose. For example, as Childress et al. (2011) found in a study of the performance management system within New York City’s Department of Education, such systems can be perceived as punitive or they can be used to build an organizational culture in which excellence is valued and teachers and others feel accountable in a positive way for their efforts.
Professional guidelines for performance management are somewhat general, but several summary discussions that have focused on measurement are worth noting. In a summary of the literature, Behn (2003, p. 588) concluded that public agencies “use performance measurement to (1) evaluate,
2In considering the District’s efforts we include those of DCPS and the other offices concerned with education, including the office of the mayor.
TABLE 6-1 Sample Outcomes and Measures to Evaluate School Systems
Student Learning and Achievement Gaps
State test scores of cohorts (e.g., average scores for grade 4 in 2007 and 2009)
State tests and NAEP average scale scores
Test scores over time (e.g., comparing the growth of students from grade 3 to grade 4 and also comparing students who enter grade 3 from year to year)
Other assessment scores, e.g., AP, SAT, PSAT
Course enrollment and completion
Grade attainment in coursework
Data sources: State or districts, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)
Student and teacher attendance rates by grade from the district or NAEP background surveys
Students’ self-reports of engagement, including whether schools are safe and supportive places
Teachers’ self-reports of engagement, including whether schools are safe and supportive places
Data sources: Districts, NCES
Elementary Grade Progression and On-Track High School Credits
Grade progression in elementary grades and credit accumulation, including passing core subjects, for secondary grades
Data source: Districts
Graduation rate, longitudinal and cohort annual data
Data sources: Districts, NCES
Participation in Postsecondary Education and College Readiness
Percentage of students entering postsecondary institutions, persistence, and completion postgraduation (by survey)
Data sources: District survey, or district or state program data (e.g., DC scholarships)
Job/Career Readiness (maturity, civic engagement, organizational skills, responsibility, access to and qualifications for labor market opportunities)
Percentage of graduates employed, follow-up survey data on employment status and occupation, social participation, voting rates, use of public welfare, marital status
Source: District survey of students, survey of employers
Physical and Mental Health
Rates of alcohol and drug use, obesity, smoking, unplanned pregnancy
Mental health or illness, satisfaction/happiness
Exercise, leisure activities
Sources: Local and state agencies
Contact with Criminal Justice
Rates of victimization and of arrests, incarcerations, and juvenile justice placements
Sources: Local and state agencies
Parent Involvement and Participation
Parent involvement and participation (in school activities and in organizations such as the PTA; frequency of parent appearances in school, parent involvement in school decision making
Parent self-reported satisfaction (by survey)
Community (increased community participation, buy-in and commitment to education institutions and strategies)
Counts of avenues of accessibility for parents and other residents, and use of data
Number of parent requests and to whom they are directed (e.g., chancellor, Board of Education, or DC Council)
Public accountability and transparency
Integrated Data Collection (public modes of access and use, role of the board versus council, public accountability and transparency)
Parent/community accessibility to, understanding of, and use of data
Independent ratings of data systems and transparency
Parent and community ratings of access and transparency
Use rates for data (via web tracking) and other resources
Review of documented responsibilities, inquiries and responses of government bodies
Sources: District documents, district web services, surveys
(2) control, (3) budget, (4) motivate, (5) promote, (6) celebrate, (7) learn, and (8) improve.” Others (e.g., Hatry, 2007) would add that an important purpose of performance measures is to promote trust in public agencies by transparently tracking results, efficiency, and equity.
Given the numerous potential purposes, Behn (2003, p. 600) cautions that “a public agency should not go looking for their one magic performance measure,” but develop an array of measures aligned to the users and purposes. The Office of Management and Budget (2003) generally advises that priorities for performance measures include a focus on quality over quantity, relevance to budget decisions, clarity to the public, feasibility, and collaboration. The trend in the private sector has been away from treating the financial bottom line as the primary performance measure—a trend that could be seen as analogous to the trend in education away from treating test scores as the primary performance measure.
The National Performance Review (1997) study of best practices in performance measurement recommended that any performance measurement initiative have these elements (pp. 2-3):
- strong leadership: clear, consistent, and visible involvement;
- a conceptual framework: clear and cohesive performance measurement framework;
- effective communications: effective communication with employees, process owners, customers, and stakeholders;
- accountability: clearly assigned and well-understood;
- intelligence for decision makers: actionable data;
- rewards: linked compensation, rewards, and recognition;
- no punishments: learning systems with tools, no “gotcha”; and
- transparency: openly shared performance with employees, customers, and stakeholders.
Likierman (2009), in contrast, pointed to a number of “traps” in performance management. Among the common mistakes were making comparisons only against prior performance within an organization, focusing on the past, focusing on the existence of data and not its quality, and “gaming” or otherwise distorting measures. Gaming refers to such practices as selecting measures that may make performance appear better than it is. For example, if school safety is one of the areas the district seeks to address, student reports of their perception of school safety may be a better measure than parents’ perceptions.
Pursuing this example, we note that the District’s key measure on this point in Schoolstat is parents’ perceptions.3 Across all schools for which
3Data from CapStat, see http://capstat.oca.dc.gov/PerformanceIndicators.aspx [accessed July 2009]. SchoolStat and CapStat are discussed later in this chapter.
the district had data, 77 percent of parents in 2008-2009 reported that they were satisfied with safety inside the school. However, 69 percent of students reported feeling safe, a difference of 8 percentage points.4 In some schools the difference is significantly larger: in Johnson Middle School, for example, 60 percent of students reported that they feel safe but almost 90 percent of parents reported that they are satisfied with safety—a difference of nearly 30 points. The parent report data are also incomplete: for example, Ballou and Anacostia—two high schools that are located in high-crime neighborhoods—had too few parents who responded for researchers to include their data. On this issue, as an alternative, the District might use the number of students who report that their school is “orderly and in control;” for Johnson that number was 31 percent of students.
Decisions about which data to report might also influence the extent to which an indicator is seen as improving. For example, another annual measure used in the District is the number of students whom DCPS referred to nonpublic schools (that is, private schools that specialize in special education). Because of the high cost of nonpublic placements, tracking the rate at which such placements are made seems logical. However, if the goal is to gauge progress toward improving special education for students who need it, other measures would also be needed. For example, random independent assessments of services and updates on the status of individualized education plans (IEPs) at individual schools would provide more information about the services actually being provided.
We cite these examples not as an evaluation of the District’s data collection efforts, but as suggestions of the sorts of questions that are likely to be asked in a full-scale evaluation.
DCPS’s responses to PERAA are part of a broader plan for improving the schools that was articulated in a six-element “effective schools framework” (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2009a). The framework is relevant to all of the areas of responsibility we discuss in this chapter. It has six elements (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2009a, p. 2).
Element 1: Teaching and Learning All teachers engage in a strategic instructional planning process and deliver high-quality, rigorous, standards-based instruction to ensure continuous growth and high levels of student achievement.
4Information downloaded from http://dcps.dc.gov/DCPS/Files/downloads/ABOUT%20DCPS/Surveys-08-09/DCPS-Stakeholder-Surveys-District-level-2009.pdf [accessed October 2010].
Element 2: Leadership All school leaders fully understand their role as high-impact instructional leaders and create a coherent organizational structure to support teaching and learning.
Element 3: Job-Embedded Professional Development High-quality professional development is job-embedded, aligned to district and local school goals, data-driven, and differentiated. It supports in-depth development of teachers and leadership and is directly linked to the District’s Effective Schools Framework.
Element 4: Resources Resources (funding, staff, materials, and time) are allocated with a specific focus on instructional improvement and increasing student achievement.
Element 5: Safe and Effective Learning Environment Policies, procedures, and practices are in place to support a safe environment characterized by high expectations, mutual respect, and a focus on teaching and learning.
Element 6: Family and Community Engagement Schools make families and community members aware of their important roles in creating effective learners and schools, and invest families and community members in that work.
At the center of this overarching framework is the teaching and learning framework, which describes the specific instructional practices the district has identified as most likely to promote student learning. This second framework is designed to articulate clear expectations for teachers that can be aligned with professional development activities and provide a “common language” for discussion of instructional practice. It provides both objectives (e.g., “effective teachers adopt a classroom behavior management system”) and examples of what that behavior looks like (e.g., “successful classroom behavior management systems include norms and rules that are clear, age-appropriate, positively worded, and few in number”) (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2009a, pp. 8-9). Thus, the framework is designed both to be useful in providing support to struggling teachers and as an important basis for evaluation.5
5Both the effective schools framework and the teacher and learning framework draw heavily from the work and thinking of Michael Moody, who was special adviser to the chancellor on academics (under Chancellor Michelle Rhee), and his California-based consulting firm, Insight Education Group.
The knowledge and skills of teachers, principals, and administrators influence student learning and, as in any organization, the performance of all staff members is important both to outcomes and to the culture and the nature of the working environment. Attracting and retaining high-quality staff for every role—from top leadership to support staff—and supporting them in doing their jobs effectively is a critical school district responsibility.
Of all the factors that a school district can influence, the quality of its teachers has perhaps the greatest effect on outcomes for its students (see, e.g., Clotfelter et al., 2007; Kane et al., 2006; Rivikin et al., 2005; Rockoff, 2004; Wenglinsky, 2002). In light of this clear finding, it is noteworthy that districts have persistent difficulty in making sure that students in the highest poverty schools have experienced teachers with preparation in the subject they teach (Lankford et al., 2002; Peske and Haycock, 2006).
Defining teacher effectiveness and identifying the factors that contribute to it have been continuing challenges for researchers, but it is clear that differences among teachers can account for a significant degree of the variation in student outcomes, even within a school. The challenge lies in identifying teacher characteristics that are easy to use as markers for new teachers who are likely to be effective. For example, teacher credentials—such as scores on licensure tests or academic degrees—have not been useful in predicting which teachers will be more effective with students; in contrast, a teacher’s years of experience do appear to have some predictive power (Buddin and Zamarro, 2009; Kane et al., 2007).
Other factors that may account for differences among teachers have also been studied. Knowledge of the subject they teach—that is, a body of conceptual and factual knowledge in a particular field—has been identified as a necessary, but not sufficient, foundation for teachers. To foster learning, teachers also draw on understanding of how knowledge develops in a particular field, which means understanding the sorts of difficulties students typically have as their learning progresses and how to build on students’ gradually accumulating knowledge and understanding (for summaries of this research, see National Research Council, 2000, 2005a, 2010b). Other knowledge and skills, such as classroom management and the capacity to plan effective lessons, also play a role. Teachers in any district are also likely to be responsible for students with varying degrees of fluency in English and a range of cognitive and physical disabilities: in 2000, 20 percent of all
children under 18 in the United States had parents who were recent immigrants (Capps et al., 2005), and 9 percent of the population aged 3 to 21 received special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
School and district leadership also affect student learning. A review of qualitative and quantitative research on school leadership found that principals’ influence is nearly as important as that of teachers (Louis et al., 2010). The study identified several practices that make school leaders effective: setting goals and direction for teachers; providing intellectual influence, individualized support, and models of best practices for their teachers; and developing and fostering organizational structures and practices (e.g., fostering collaboration) that support teachers in working effectively. A meta-analysis of quantitative research on the characteristics of effective schools, teachers, and leaders found that principals have a measurable effect on student achievement and identified a focus on specific practices aimed at boosting student achievement as one of the factors likely to explain the correlations (Marzano et al., 2005). Others have also studied the importance of principals’ leadership in cultivating a culture of shared responsibility for meeting rigorous academic goals (e.g., Bryk et al., 1999; Porter et al., 2008; see also Horng et al., 2009). Recruiting, developing, and retaining high-quality teachers is another way in which effective principals benefit their schools (Béteille et al., 2009; Leithwood and Jantzi, 2000).
The capacity of central office staff is also important. Much of the research on districts’ influence on student learning has focused on policy and strategy and on districts’ capacity to implement reforms (Duffy et al., 2010; Spillane and Thompson, 1997, 1998). For example, a number of studies have pointed to the importance of such factors as sustained focus on student achievement, clear articulation of goals, informed use of student achievement data and other data to guide planning and instruction, and coordination among staff responsible for curriculum development, assessment, professional development, and other aspects of the system (see, e.g., Louis et al., 2010; Massell, 2000; Shannon and Bylsma, 2004; Waters and Marzano, 2007). Other factors that are often considered include such skills as the capacity to interpret and use student data to guide planning and instruction (Data Quality Campaign, 2009; Massell, 2000).
There are a number of ways districts can influence the quality of their personnel (see, e.g., Chait, 2009; Loeb and Reininger, 2004; Moon, 2007;
Murnane and Steele, 2007; Steele et al., 2010; Stotko et al., 2007). The requirements for new teachers, compensation structures, hiring and recruitment practices, and mentoring for new teachers are tools for attracting and retaining effective new teachers. Professional development and career ladders that provide room for growth and allow newer teachers to learn from those with more experience are tools for improving and updating the practice of current teachers. Similar practices are useful for developing effective principals. Districts can develop structures designed to foster collaboration and develop communities of practice through which teachers and administrators can learn from one another. Some research suggests that particular strategies for management and data use help administrators create successful learning environments in which their staffs are adept at self-assessment (Tozer et al., 2001). The tools may vary, but the primary goals are the same: to attract high-quality teachers to the system, retain them, set high expectations for them, and promote policies and practices that allow them to meet these high expectations (see, e.g., Elmore, 2004; McLaughlin and Talbert, 2006; Rivikin et al., 2005; Wenglinsky, 2000).
Improving human capital is one of the areas PERAA identified as a focus for improvement and evaluation. Reports have documented the District’s long-standing problems in managing its human resources (Council of the Great City Schools, 2004, 2005; DC Committee on Public Education, 1989; District of Columbia Public Schools, 2006b), and the share of educators teaching core classes who are highly qualified has been among the lowest in the nation (55 percent) (Birman et al., 2009).6
We look first at what the District has said about its efforts in this area. DCPS describes strategies and performance targets for human capital in its 5-year action plan and annual performance plans (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2010d). In the case of teachers, for example, the action plan calls for the “replacement of poor performers, improved induction…professional development, career ladders, compensation, and evaluation” as the major strategies (p. 28).
A major step for DCPS was the adoption of a new performance management system, IMPACT, which was designed to take into account a range of measures of teacher performance and to be used as the basis for recognizing highly effective teachers, strengthening professional development strate-
6The percentage is based on the District’s own definition of qualifications to teach core subjects. (For the purpose of meeting the No Child Left Behind [NCLB] requirements, states and the District are free to define their own standards for qualified teachers, as long as they also meet the NCLB minimum standard.)
gies, and removing ineffective teachers. According to IMPACT guidebooks published by DCPS (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2010f), the new system yields scores for teachers with several components. One major component for a general education teacher is value-added student achievement data, which is 50 percent of the score. Value-added modeling is a statistical method for measuring changes in individual students’ achievement from one year to the next to identify the contribution to their achievement made by their teachers (for more on this method, see National Research Council, 2010a). The next major component of a teacher’s score is a measure of instructional expertise, which accounts for 35 percent. Instructional expertise is the extent to which the teacher follows the teaching and learning framework (described above). The remainder of the score, 15 percent, covers measures of professionalism, commitment to the school community, and value-added scores (of student achievement) for the school as a whole. The guidebook provides specific descriptions of subscores for these categories, as well as descriptions of what it means to meet expectations for each. For example, to score at the highest level for “leading well-organized, objective-driven lessons” (p. 17) under the teaching and learning framework, a teacher will accomplish such goals as ensuring that students can “explain what they are learning, beyond simply repeating back the stated or posted objective.” It is important to note that measuring teacher effectiveness is a complex endeavor about which there is no established consensus in the education research community. A March 2010 agreement between DCPS and the teachers’ union calls for an independent review of IMPACT to see if it meets or exceeds recognized standards for teacher evaluation and to make recommendations for improving it.7 The results of this review (which is separate from this PERAA-mandated evaluation) are expected in mid-2011.
Evaluation of IMPACT will clearly be a high priority for the next phase of the evaluation called for by PERAA. Prior to IMPACT, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (2009) reported that DCPS could not assess changes in the quality of its teacher workforce because the existing evaluation system did not measure teachers’ impact on student achievement—and because “almost all teachers received satisfactory ratings” under the old system (p. 25). A thorough evaluation would examine both the characteristics of IMPACT, in light of research on teacher evaluation, and its effects thus far on the composition of DCPS’s teacher and principal workforce.
Another high-profile action was DCPS’s dismissal of a large number of central office staff and principals, and later, teachers. At the end of the 2008 school year, about one-fifth of teachers and one-third of principals resigned, retired, or were terminated (U.S. Government Accountability Office,
7See the Memorandum of Understanding: http://www.wtulocal6.org/custom_images/file/DCPS%20WTU%20MOU%20031910.pdf [accessed March 2011].
2009). Then, in October 2009, DCPS announced the dismissal of 388 staff members, including 229 teachers, and said that the decision was the result of a budget shortfall.8 By comparison, only 1 of more than 4,000 DCPS teachers had been removed for poor performance in the 2006-2007 school year (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2009). Changes in the way teachers are employed and managed by DCPS have attracted significant local and national attention. Teacher dismissals have been a flash point in the city, and the fairness of IMPACT has been a frequent topic in letters to the editor of the Washington Post and other public forums.
Another important development was DCPS’s negotiation of a contract with the Washington DC Teachers’ Union, which took effect in July 2010, and which DCPS described as “groundbreaking” (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2010a). DCPS points to the “mutual consent” provision (that both the teacher and the school must agree for a teacher to work in a particular school) and accountability for teachers, based on the new teacher evaluation system, as the most important features of the agreement. The agreement provides teachers with a 21.6 percent increase in base pay over 5 years: that increase will bring DC educators’ salaries closer to those of teachers in neighboring districts in Virginia and Maryland. It also allows for voluntary performance pay based on multiple measures, including improvement in student test scores. This provision could add $20,000 to $30,000 to teachers’ base salaries, with salaries for high-performing teachers in high-need schools and subjects earning as high as $140,000. The contract also covers professional development for teachers in various areas, including managing classroom behavior and discipline, using achievement data, and working with special-needs students.
The importance of the provision that displaced teachers will no longer be guaranteed another spot in the school system was noted as a key in the agreement (Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, 2010). Instead, displaced teachers must find administrators willing to take them. If they cannot do so after 60 days, they have three options: a $25,000 buyout, retirement with full benefits if they have 20 or more years of service, or receiving a year with full salary and benefits while they look for another position in the system. The contract does not affect salaries for school principals, although increasing principals’ salaries and thus narrowing the gap between those in the District and those in neighboring jurisdictions is a priority for DCPS. Other observers have noted that the contract’s provisions included concessions from the union that went sig-
8For information about this action, see the “Frequently Asked Questions” page of the DCPS website at http://dcps.dc.gov/DCPS/About+DCPS/Press+Releases+and+Announcements/General+Announcements/Frequently+Asked+Questions+Concerning+The+Budget+Shortfall+and+Staffing+Reductions [accessed January 2011].
nificantly beyond what most urban districts have been able to obtain, in return for the prospect of significant increases in compensation (see, e.g., Wingert, 2010).
In its latest annual performance plan (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2010d), DCPS has included measures of the share of teachers who are highly qualified and retention rates for teachers rated highly effective on IMPACT. It has set several goals, including increasing the percentage of teachers who are highly qualified, from 60 percent in 2009 to 85 percent in 2012, and increasing the recruitment of principal candidates who are highly rated.
DCPS officials reported to the committee that they intend to begin tracking additional indicators related to the quality of their personnel. OSSE has also adopted a number of performance measures related to the education workforce and human capital management, such as the percentage of classes in core subjects taught by highly qualified teachers, the percentage of paraprofessionals who have been designated highly qualified, and the percentage of pre-K teachers who meet new qualifications.
What occurs in classrooms is at the core of a school district’s responsibility to its students. Many factors influence classroom instruction: although this category could encompass much of what districts do, we discuss here the main ingredients of an academic experience that leaves students well prepared for postsecondary education and the workplace.
A school district’s responsibility begins with primary structures: well-designed and rigorous content and performance standards, and curricula, professional development, and assessments that are aligned with those standards (see Chapter 2). There is a large body of research and analysis on standards—how they function and what their effects have been (see, e.g. Gamoran, 2007; Goertz and Duffy, 2003; Hamilton et al., 2008; Swanson and Stevenson, 2002). Views about standards and their role in education have been constantly evolving. In the 1990s, a number of organizations issued rankings that graded states’ standards on such criteria as clarity and rigor, and much attention focused on the use of assessments to measure progress and hold educators accountable. Although states aspire to have rigorous standards, comparisons among standards showed that they vary significantly, and many observers have suggested that states reacted to the improvement targets included in NCLB by diluting their expectations (see, e.g., Porter et al., 2008; Stecher and Vernez, 2010).
More recently, researchers have explored more nuanced views of the role standards can play, examining ways to link content and performance standards to findings from cognitive researchers about the way learning develops.9 This approach has important implications for the design of curricula, assessments, professional development, and other aspects of education (see National Research Council, 2005b, 2008, and 2010c for more on these issues). It is important in part because of the concern that large-scale assessments—which tend to measure only a small portion of what educators view as important teaching and learning goals—have come to function as de facto standards because of the high stakes attached to them (National Research Council, 2010c).
The recent adoption of new common core standards by 36 states was an important development in thinking about standards because the new standards are designed to make expectations for students more consistent across the nation and also to build on exemplary standards from both states and other countries.10 Since districts ordinarily are covered by—and must comply with—state standards, their own standards have tended to attract less attention. However, some districts have used the common core standards as a reform tool (see Bulkley et al., 2010; Goertz, 2000).
To have the desired results, standards, curriculum, and assessments have to be implemented effectively and equitably. That implementation means ensuring that every student has access to rigorous courses and other academic programs, such as advanced placement or international baccalaureate courses; catalyst programs; foreign languages; career and technical education programs; athletic programs; and courses in the visual, performing, choral, and instrumental arts. Every school needs to have the resources (books and other materials, computers, internet access, laboratory facilities, etc.) necessary to meet standards and effectively implement the curriculum.
Every school needs teachers who have the knowledge and skills needed to teach the curriculum and guide students in meeting the standards. Addressing the undersupply of effective, qualified teachers in schools that serve low-income neighborhoods is a persistent district problem (which can be considered both in this category and in the category of quality of personnel). What is key is that both the personnel management tools designed to secure excellent staff for these schools (e.g., compensation and hiring strategies) and the strategies for intellectually engaging all teachers
in the work of implementing rigorous standards (e.g., through professional development, mentoring, and communities of practice) are high priorities.
One strategy that many states and districts are pursuing is the adoption of college-preparatory curriculum standards for all students. A recent study by the Chicago Consortium on School Research (Allensworth et al., 2009) suggests mixed results from this approach. In Chicago, a 1997 policy that eliminated remedial classes and required all high school students to take college-preparatory coursework did reduce inequities in 9th grade coursework, but the failure rates increased, grades declined slightly, test scores did not improve, and students were no more likely to enter college.
Another strategy that has been developed is a composite measure that can indicate whether students are on track to graduate on time. A study of this approach found that students who accumulate at least five semester credits and fail no more than one core course during their freshman year were almost four times as likely to graduate as students who do not do so (Allensworth and Easton, 2007). These measures have been built into an “on-track indicator” adopted by Chicago and other urban districts as part of their overall accountability systems.
Reports that span more than 20 years (Council of the Great City Schools, 2005; DC Committee on Public Education, 1989, 1995; District of Columbia Public Schools, 2006a, 2006b) have described the urgent need for redesigning teaching, curriculum, and testing with the goal of improving students’ academic performance. Even before PERAA, DCPS had adopted new, higher standards (adapted from Massachusetts’ state standards). Now, under the terms of the grant DCPS recently received from the federal Race to the Top Initiative,11 DCPS has committed to adopting the common core standards developed under the leadership of the Council of Chief State School Officers and Achieve, Inc. (see Chapter 2), and, eventually, an assessment system that will align with those standards (currently under development). According to the city’s Race to the Top application (Office of the State Superintendent of Education, 2010), both DCPS and public charter schools will use interim assessments that will be aligned with the new state standards.
DCPS reports several efforts to improve the learning experience for students. For example, they report that they have transformed 13 (of 16 in total) high schools into “catalyst” schools that offer in-depth instruction in arts integration, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics),
11For a description of the initiative and the winners, see http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/index.html [accessed March 2011].
or world cultures. DCPS also reports having expanded its specialized preschools to include Montessori- and Reggio Emilia-inspired programs and has instituted dual-language education at some secondary schools.
An earlier report (Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, 2005) found that higher-level instruction was mostly limited to the advanced placement (AP) courses offered at comprehensive high schools or the six selective schools that require applications for admission. More recently, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (2010) found that AP courses were offered at all but four high schools and that the new catalyst schools offered additional options. The report notes progress in making advanced coursework accessible to all students, but it also notes that instructional offerings are still limited in many schools, especially in the areas of foreign language, art, and music.
Another study (21st Century School Fund, Brookings Institution, and Urban Institute, 2008) analyzed the academic offerings in DC by examining the District’s schools in each of three categories: (1) basic schools, those that offer grade-level coursework and have no special programs; (2) themed academic, career technical, special education, or alternative schools (one to which students are assigned because of chronic behavior or other problems); and (3) adult education programs. The study further analyzed the offerings by the number of each type of school in each of the city’s eight wards: see Table 6-2. This information shows a disparity in the distribution of the different types of schools between Wards 7 and 8, which serve high percentages of students living in poverty and Ward 3, which serves the most affluent students.
TABLE 6-2 Number of Public Schools (DCPS and charter) by Educational Program and Ward
|School Program Type||Ward||Total|
|Total Schools [in ward]||36||19||14||33||49||38||40||44||237|
NOTE: Several schools were not included in this analysis; see 21st Century School Fund, Brookings Institution, and Urban Institute (2008) for details.
SOURCE: 21st Century School Fund, Brookings Institution, and Urban Institute (2008, p. 42, Table 2-1).
Identifying valid and reliable measures of how well a school district is doing with respect to its fundamental mission is a challenging task. Test scores and enrollment numbers are often used because they are readily available and because many people believe they are very important (as discussed above). Enrollment is a basic measure of the success of a school or school system, particularly in DC, where many families have opted for public charter or independent schools, applied to traditional schools that are “out of boundary,” or moved to suburban school districts. In 2010, DCPS announced its first increase in enrollment in 39 years (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2010b). More specifically, enrollment had increased at schools in all eight wards; a number of schools had seen major increases in enrollment; and early childhood education was growing rapidly, with the most recent annual increase of 481 preschool and prekindergarten. A 2008 study (21st Century School Fund, Brookings Institution, and Urban Institute, 2008) found that the District’s current system of choice does not meet many families’ demands for quality schools (21st Century School Fund, Brookings Institution, and Urban Institute, 2008). The study concluded that the schools in greatest demand are not located close to where most students live and that many families seeking high-quality schools look outside their boundaries. The same study also found high mobility in the city’s public schools (as we discuss in Chapter 3), with many students exiting early (changing schools before the final grade). The study concludes that the District should do more to support families and students in establishing long-term commitments with schools and schools in maintaining long-term presences in their communities.
Other factors affect DC families’ confidence in their schools. As one study found (21st Century School Fund, Brookings Institution, and Urban Institute, 2008), parents identified curriculum and programs as a top priority for their children’s schools, but were also concerned about school safety, the location of the school, and the quality of the teachers. In a study of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (a federally-funded voucher program that provides about 1,700 low-income DC students up to $7,500 a year for tuition at a private school), parents were asked how they measured their children’s success (Stewart et al., 2007). The parents cited their children’s academic development as critical, though they reported measuring academic progress “by the level of enthusiasm the students express about school and their improved attitudes towards learning” (p. vii) rather than by grades or test scores.
DCPS has adopted or is considering a mix of different measures of the overall quality of schools that include test scores, course offerings, student engagement, student safety, and postsecondary student outcomes. These
measures include (personal communications, DCPS staff, July 2010 and February 2011):
- performance on DC Comprehensive Assessment System (CAS) in reading and math, including percentage scoring at each level, median performance levels, and annual growth for individual students;
- 4-year and 6-year graduation rates;
- share of students who have earned at least one passing score on an Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) exam;
- Student engagement score (derived from student responses to a district-wide survey);
- retention rate of effective teachers;
- share of first-year 9th grade students who are promoted to the 10th grade;
- average daily attendance rate;
- suspensions and expulsions;
- student re-enrollment;
- number of serious incidents at schools (e.g., behavior infractions or violence);
- share of 8th graders who pass Algebra 1 with a C or higher grade and pass the end-of-course exam;
- Share of students identified as ready for 4-year colleges based on their grade point averages and results of the preliminary SAT (PSAT); and
- Scores in school safety, community satisfaction, and parent engagement (all derived from parent, teacher, student and staff responses to a districtwide survey).
These sorts of data could be used to examine results for subgroups of students and neighborhoods.
Districts are responsible for meeting the needs of every student, and many children and young people require special services and supports to succeed in school and in other ways. In this category we include students with disabilities; students who are not yet fluent in English; students whose lives have been disrupted by such stresses as family dysfunction, poverty, frequent moves, and violence or crime; and young people who fail to thrive academically and are at risk for school failure and dropping out—or have already dropped out of school or are incarcerated. Attention to the needs of these students encompasses many aspects of schooling, as well as the missions of other city agencies.
Coordination among city agencies concerned with child welfare, juvenile justice, public health, housing, and other social services has become a focus in many cities as these agencies recognize the overlap in their responsibilities (see, e.g., National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2007). Many of the children and youth at risk for school failure have multiple challenges—including chronic health problems, mental health or substance use problems, dysfunctional family situations, or homelessness—and thus require a range of services and supports, typically provided by different agencies. Each agency is better able to help if staff are aware of all the relevant circumstances and can readily communicate with the others who have relationships with the young people and their families. Challenges to effective coordination include preserving confidentiality while sharing important information and coordinating data systems, but many jurisdictions have explored solutions (see National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2007).
Beginning with the youngest children, disparities in the characteristics that predict academic success are evident as early as 9 months of age, and children from low-income families and children whose mothers have the least formal education are at the greatest risk for later difficulty in school (Halle et al., 2009; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2001). Many districts and states have focused on providing preschool options for children aged 3 to 5, but the existence of disparities among infants under age 1 indicates that other supports are needed to ensure that all children are ready to learn when they enter kindergarten.
Academic achievement gaps only widen as children progress through school, and risk factors that affect individuals, schools, and communities play a role. Strategies for supporting students with multiple risk factors are an important district responsibility. Such strategies might begin with ensuring that students in every school have access to challenging coursework and the resources and support they need to succeed. They would also encompass coordination with social service and health agencies and the juvenile justice system to identify students with particular needs and connect them with sources of assistance.
Students with disabilities, including mild to severe physical, emotional, and cognitive impairment, require a wide range of supports, the provision of which is covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Districts are expected to provide these services in the least restrictive possible setting, which has increasingly meant educating them in regular classrooms, with teachers and special educators providing supplementary
supports. Districts face a challenge in accurately identifying students’ disabilities and matching students’ needs with appropriate accommodations and supports. States and districts vary widely in their criteria for identifying disabilities and the measures with which they address them (National Research Council, 2002, 2004).
Similar issues affect students who are learning English (National Research Council, 2004; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 1998). These students come from very diverse backgrounds—some districts are educating students representing many linguistic backgrounds, but even among native Spanish speakers, the largest group, prior educational preparation and academic skills vary widely. Districts face the challenge of continuing to build these students’ skills and knowledge in every subject while they are improving their facility with academic English.
Special Education Many studies have documented problems with the District’s capacity to serve and support special education students (Council of the Great City Schools, 2005; DC Committee on Public Education, 1989; District of Columbia Public Schools, 2006a, 2006b): see Box 6-1. The achievement gap between special education students and others has grown since 2006; the most recent data show that the gap on DC CAS is 5 percentage points for reading and 11 percentage points for math (Office of the State Superintendent of Education, 2010, p. 48). The gap may be accounted for by a variety of factors, including efforts by DC to educate a greater proportion of special education students within the system, rather than placing them in private schools, but the need for attention to special education in DC is clear.
Since PERAA, DCPS reports that OSSE has made changes in procedural aspects of the special education system (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2010h; Simmons, 2010). These include providing more “related services” as called for by IDEA,12 developing individualized education plans (IEPs) in a timely manner, resolving disputes more quickly, identifying developmental delays and disabilities among children aged 3 to 5, recouping payments from Medicaid, and monitoring and supporting students in nonpublic placements.
Other Vulnerable Youth The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, OSSE, and DCPS also report efforts to improve educational and other
12“Related services” are defined by IDEA as services needed to address the individual needs of students with disabilities so that they may benefit from their educational program. Examples of related services include occupational and physical therapy, school health services, and special transportation assistance.
Special Education in the District
It is difficult to overstate the extent of the problems the DC public school system has had in identifying and educating students with special education and related needs (Parrish et al., 2007; DC Appleseed Center, 2003; Washington Lawyers’ Committee, 2010). Problems with special education have had negative ripple effects throughout the public education system. A recent study of special education financing in DC concluded (Parrish et al., 2007, p. 1):
[…] a radical re-direction in current policies and practices in the District is imperative. While the financial commitment to special education in the District is substantial, a great deal of this money is being spent on relatively few students in [non-public schools] whose special education needs in terms of disability categories do not appear to set them apart, many of whom—it could be argued—are being served contrary to the least restrictive environment (LRE) requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In addition, special education transportation consumes a considerable portion of the overall budget.
The district has one of the highest per-pupil expenditure rates in the nation (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008). In comparison with other school districts, more students, 17.5 percent, are identified as needing special education than the national average, 13.8. More of DC’s identified students are placed in restrictive placements, meaning in public or private schools exclusively for special education students: about 25 percent in comparison with 5 percent station average nationally.
It is not clear to what extent this disparity in expenditure reflects greater needs in the city’s population in comparison with those of other states, but private settings place a large cost burden on the school system. Almost 20 percent of the city’s special education students are in private schools, for which the District pays about $57,700 annually per student (in fiscal 2008), and transportation costs add another $19,000 to this figure. These tuition expenditures represent 17 percent of DCPS’ total budget, and the funding for special education transportation represents 9 percent of DCPS’ budget. Together, these functions account for more than 25 percent of the budgeted allocations for DC public schools.
Because of its failure to comply with federal special education regulations, DC has been designated a “high risk grantee” by the U.S. Department of Education, and in June 2009 it became the first jurisdiction to have 20 percent of its federal special education funding withheld. The school system is also currently under two federal consent decrees. The Petties Consent requires that DCPS make timely special education tuition payments to special education schools, residential facilities, and private providers of related services, as well as to provide requisite transportation for these services. (The court also appointed an independent special master to monitor compliance with the consent decree and to oversee payment issues.) The Blackman Jones decree is also based on multiple violations of federal regulation and requires DC to provide due process hearings within 45 days of hearing requests and to maintain a community-based service center for parents of special education students and maintain an accurate reliable data system.
services for vulnerable youth. While the needs are clear (21st Century School Fund, Urban Institute, and Brookings Institution, 2010; Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, 2010), the results of new programs, such as DC START, Second Step®, LifeSkills® Training, and the services and supports under the city’s new strategic education and youth development plan (described in Chapter 4) are not yet clear. DCPS has also established the Youth Engagement Academy for students who are not doing well in traditional school environments and who can benefit from smaller settings with added supports and alternative approaches to teaching and learning. It has also revised its attendance and truancy policies with the goal of increasing attendance (DCPS staff, personal communication, July 2010).
DCPS reports that it provides a variety of resources for vulnerable students, including alternative programs and schools in every ward (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2010e). For example, DCPS reports that 16 elementary schools are using a schoolwide applications model to provide academic, health, and social services; youth and community development; and community engagement. The goal is for the school to be open daily to the community, including evenings and weekends.13
In 11 middle schools, DCPS is also piloting the full-service school program, which is designed to promote academic success as well as social, emotional, and behavioral well-being. At the high school level, DCPS offers alternative programs in comprehensive high schools that are designed to retain students who are not succeeding in traditional high school settings by providing them with more student-centered supports and instruction, as well as a broader array of career and technical programs. A number of academies and programs are provided for students who have been suspended or have dropped out (or are at high risk of doing so), are incarcerated, or have been detained by the juvenile justice system and are wards of the state.
In addition to these special programs and academies, DCPS has a high school credit recovery program in which students who have fallen behind can catch up by taking after-school credit recover courses and perhaps graduate on time (within 4 years); free tutoring supports for students in Title I schools that have failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for 3 consecutive years; and visiting instructional services for students whose education is interrupted because of a temporary physical disability or health impairment.
DCPS’s Office of Youth Engagement coordinates a variety of education and other service providers with the goal of registering, enrolling, and sup-
porting regular school attendance; these include a student placement team who engage students and find placements for them; a homeless children and youth program that ensures that homeless children continue with their schooling and that their basic educational rights are protected; a 12-week Saturday Scholars academic intervention program that runs from January to April.
According to the report from the 21st Century School Fund, Brookings Institution, and Urban Institute (2008), the city faces a big challenge in serving its vulnerable youth, particularly students in Wards 1, 7, and 8, who have the highest level of risk factors. However, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (2010) finds that under the provisions of PERAA, DCPS and OSSE have improved coordination among the city agencies that serve vulnerable youth in some way. For example, the city has resolved several class action lawsuits related to the provision of special education services, and it has improved transportation services for special education students. Although the costs of both transportation and tuition for serving special education students in private settings remain very high, the report found that DCPS had been able to move 155 of these students from private settings to public schools by 2010.
Relationships between public schools and the communities and families they serve are intuitively recognized as important. The importance of local governance of schools has long been a guiding principle in the United States, but expectations for these relationships go much deeper. In contemporary academic terms, this idea is discussed in terms of education’s contribution to “social capital,” the idea that social networks within communities play a critical role in helping individuals and their communities thrive (Buckley and Schneider, 2007; Putnam, 2000). Research has supported the view that engagement with school protects young people from negative influences in disadvantaged neighborhoods and supports their academic success. Strong ties to local schools build parental and community support for schools, and schools can be a community resource—a tool for building parenting skills and civic engagement for recent immigrants and disaffected communities (Battistich and Horn, 1997; Battistich et al., 1995; Blum, 2005; Bryk and Schneider, 2002; Epstein and Dauber, 1991; Jeynes, 2003, 2007; Lee and Bowen, 2006; Warren, 2005). A recent study of governance changes in New York City’s public schools (Henig et al., 2011) has noted that if parents and the broader community do not have a strong voice in the establishment of priorities for policy and reform, they may not support changes.
Effective community engagement can be a particular challenge in urban districts that serve large shares of low-income families (Schultz, 2006). Districts must learn effective ways of communicating with families who may be highly mobile, have language and literacy barriers, and have few connections to the internet or electronic communications. Schools in highly challenged neighborhoods may need extra support if they are to engage families (including connecting the parents themselves with needed programs and services) and build effective long-term relationships with them.
Strategies for those connections include the development of after-school and weekend programs in schools to serve and attract children and youth, their families, and other community residents. Such programs include sports and recreational programs, language classes, and other kinds of supports that meet community needs and provide young people with extra adult role models and mentors (see, e.g., Dryfoos and Maguire, 2002; Dynarski et al., 2004; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2003). Other strategies include structures for engaging parents in their children’s education; public forums, questionnaires, and other tools for gauging opinion and identifying concerns; clear and open channels for communication of individual concerns; the use of communication tools—both computer based and accessible to those without web access—to inform and engage families and community members; and professional development for staff to build communication skills and understanding of diverse cultural traditions represented in the school and district community.
DCPS has made student, parent, and community engagement one of its six overarching goals (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2009a) and has an Office of Family and Public Engagement (OFPE) specifically dedicated to these activities. Like all districts, DC is responsible for meeting federal requirements that school districts that receive Title I funds craft parental involvement policies jointly with parents. The federal regulations are designed to coordinate parental involvement policies across a host of other programs (e.g., Head Start, Reading First, Early Reading First, Even Start, Parents as Teachers, Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters, and limited English proficiency programs) and also to identify barriers to parent involvement, especially barriers to parents who are economically disadvantaged, disabled, have limited English proficiency, have limited literacy, or belong to a racial or ethnic minority group.
DCPS outlined goals for improving family and community engagement in its 5-year action plan (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2009b).
Among the issues DCPS hoped to address were the fact that many parents have felt unwelcome at their children’s schools and that the presence and effectiveness of parent groups varied considerably from one school to another, with schools in more affluent neighborhoods enjoying more parent support. DCPS also reported that it had no record of which community groups were working in which schools and no system for matching offers of help from community groups with schools that could most benefit. The 5-year action plan outlines specific strategies for engaging students in their own academic success, empowering parents and families to act as partners with students and schools and better advocate for their children’s educational interests, and improving ties with the broader community.
The city reports that it has established parent resource centers in Wards 1, 7, and 8. DCPS hosts monthly chancellor’s forums, other citywide community meetings, and smaller living room meetings, and has convened a Chancellor’s High School Student Cabinet and a group of parent advisers. DCPS also reports that is has made changes in response to input it has received (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2009b). For example, an official reported to the committee that DCPS had revised its out-of-boundary school application process in response to requests from families.
In addition to community- and school-based meetings, DCPS has developed its web-based and digital communications. The agency’s website won the 2010 Best of the Web in the K-12 District Education Website category from the Center for Digital Education, in recognition of innovative use of technology to meet the needs of students, parents, and educators.14 Among other resources, the DCPS website includes a profile for every school in the system that provides information on enrollment, test scores, student demographics, academic and extracurricular programs, and parent engagement. The agency reports that between the 2008 and 2009 school years, page-views on the site increased by 42 percent and the average time viewers spent on the site increased 31 percent (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2010c).
DCPS regularly fields several stakeholder surveys to collect opinions from students, parents, teachers, administrations, and staff about perceptions of school safety, school quality, and other issues (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2010g). The latest findings from the student survey reveal, on the whole, flat or more positive scores since 2007. It should be noted, however, that opinions such as those collected through stakeholder surveys are often a lagging, rather than a leading, indicator of change (Wooden, 2010). DCPS also uses other measures of family and community engagement (District of Columbia Public Schools, 2010e). Measures that either
14For more information on the award, see http://www.convergemag.com/awards/educationachievement/DEAA-BOW-Awards-Announced.html [accessed January 2010].
appear in the agency’s annual performance reports to the city or are being used or considered for internal management purposes include (personal communication, February 2011):15
- share of parents satisfied with schools’ academic programs and opportunities for parent engagement;
- school performance on the community engagement performance of the Quality School Review (QSR);
- share of families who attend parent-teacher conferences;
- number of community forums attended by the chancellor;
- retention rate of highly effective teachers;
- share of community that is satisfied with the direction schools are taking; and
- number of users of DCPS website.
Nevertheless, community engagement seems to be an ongoing challenge for the District. A number of organizations—including parent groups and the local philanthropic community—report having felt shut out from DCPS’ reform efforts in the wake of PERAA (McCartney, 2009; U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2009), and DCPS leaders have commented publicly that they understand the need to better engage the public about the many changes they are making. This position can be contrasted with a telling remark by the former chancellor (to the Aspen Institute): “cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated” (see Turque, 2009). Given the climate, the abolition of the Office of the Ombudsman for Public Education, mandated by PERAA, will be important to examine.
School districts are highly complex systems that require effective management of school buildings, vehicles, and many noninstructional business operations, including food and nutrition services, safety and security, information technology, and procurement. These underlying systems make it possible for school systems to function, and when they do not work smoothly, it is an immediate and powerful signal of an ineffective system. For example, many observers focus on school facilities. Problems with the aging stock of K-12 facilities across the country have been well documented by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (1995, 1996). Media coverage of dilapidated and overcrowded schools has highlighted the problem, though many districts are building new schools and renovating old ones.
15The Public Charter School Board (PCSB) is also reporting some limited data on community involvement and engagement (District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, 2010).
It is critical to note that researchers have documented correlations between the attributes of facilities and student outcomes, finding that both students and teachers benefit from having clean air, good light, and quiet, comfortable, and safe learning environments (Schneider, 2002). It would not be necessary, however, even if it were possible, to document empirical connections between each aspect of management and operations and student achievement to recognize that these functions are critical supports for the daily life of a school system.
A variety of measures are used to assess the safety and security of school facilities and other management and operations functions. For example, detailed measures with checklists have been developed to evaluate school grounds, buildings and facilities (including portable classrooms and restrooms), communications systems, building access control and surveillance, utility systems, mechanical systems, and emergency power (Schneider, 2002). There are also guides for mitigating various hazards including acts of violence or terrorism and natural disasters.
The Council of the Great City Schools (a national organization representing the largest urban public school systems) has examined districts’ responsibilities for operations and management and identified key performance measures as well as strategies for collecting and reporting data about these functions (Council of the Great City Schools, 2009). The performance measures they recommend are intended to support better resource allocation, management decisions, and policy making.
DCPS reports that it has taken a number of steps to modernize its schools. A report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil and Urban Affairs (2010) confirms this, noting that a 2001 master plan for modernizing the schools and addressing urgent problems was starved for funding, but that the governance change under PERAA has yielded “significant results” (p. 29). As described in Chapter 4, the new Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization (OPEFM) has used its independent procurement and personnel authority, as well as funding from a dedicated Public School Capital Improvement Fund administered by the District’s chief financial officer, to make improvements in many DCPS school facilities. An initial, immediate focus was to ensure that all schools had working heating and cooling systems and to reduce the backlog of facility repair work orders from about 25,000 to just over 5,000.
Following those initial steps, OPEFM initiated a phased modernization
program. The office focused on improving classrooms in elementary and middles schools (e.g., lighting, air quality, technology improvements, and furniture) in the first phase; then on other core spaces, such as cafeterias, gymnasiums, and school grounds; and finally on systems components, such as mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and security systems. For high schools, the plan calls for addressing all of these elements at the same time, with a preference for rehabilitating existing structures over new construction. According to the Washington Lawyers Committee report (2010), by the summer of 2009, the first phase had been completed at four schools and full modernization had been completed at five schools. Another five schools were in the process of being fully modernized, and still others schools are in the design or construction phases.
Some observers have suggested that capital investments have been disproportionately distributed—that they reflect the basic geographic and racial inequities in the city. For example, the 21st Century School Fund (2010), an independent advocacy organization focused on the infrastructure of DC schools, has argued that Wards 2 and 3, the most affluent sections of the city, have received the most funding for school improvements. However, DCPS (2010e) reports that its modernization efforts are focused on the most at-risk areas of the city, including Ward 8, where it has spent $133 million, the second largest amount spent in a single ward. A Washington Post analysis of spending patterns concluded that the mayor did not “favor particular wards” (Stewart, 2010). The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil and Urban Affairs report (2010, p. 37) agrees with that finding:
comparisons of short-term capital expenditures by ward in an effort to demonstrate a failure to serve neediest students are, at best, misleading. They ignore longer term expenditures, do not take into account factors such as overcrowding in some schools and over-capacity at others, and ignore the fact that some schools are attended by numerous students living outside the ward in which the school is located.
OPEFM tracks a number of performance measures related to school construction, maintenance, and operations, such as the number of modernization projects under way that are on time and on budget, the number square feet that have been modernized, the number of open work orders, and the average number of days it takes to complete a new work order (Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization, 2010).
The District uses its citywide performance measurement system, CapStat, to track performance in many areas.16 Under this system, each
16For information on CapStat, see http://capstat.oca.dc.gov/performanceindicators.aspx [accessed December 2010].
agency, including OSSE and DCPS, has developed performance measures that it tracks and reports on regularly. In addition to using these in their annual performance plans and reports, agency heads must report on their progress and outline steps for improvement at regular meetings. Some of these performance measures are reported publicly and others are not. DCPS has a wide range of measures that it is currently using or considering tracking for management purposes (personal communication, Office of the State Superintendent of Education, July 2010):
- share of data systems improving data quality annually until 96 percent accuracy is achieved;
- share of data systems hitting data usage rate targets;
- share of customers satisfied with central office services;
- number of monthly financial reports that are timely and accurate;
- share of invoices paid within 30 days;
- dollar reduction in central office expenditures;
- share of teachers that report having the necessary textbook and instructional materials;
- share of faculty and staff satisfied with school facilities; and
- share of central office staff that feels aligned to the DCPS mission.
We emphasize again that both this chapter and Chapter 5 report first impressions, based on the information available to the committee. It would be premature to draw general conclusions about the effectiveness of DC public school reform under PERAA from these impressions. The city and DCPS have implemented many changes. Evaluating whether the new and altered systems are operating as intended and whether the city’s implementation of reforms is yielding desired outcomes will also require much more than a review of a limited number of published reports or testimony from officials, teachers, parents, and students. Moreover, reforms of this magnitude can not be expected to take full effect in just a few years. Thus, it will be important to continue monitoring the system through an ongoing formal evaluation.
With that caveat, a few points are nevertheless evident now:
- The city and DCPS have made a good-faith effort to implement PERAA.
- Publicly available, aggregate data suggest that there has been modest improvement in student test scores, but they do not support any conclusions about the effectiveness of PERAA in improving student learning. To draw any conclusions about this will require
a longer period of observation and access to longitudinal test score data for individual students, population groups, and schools.
- The city has developed strategies for pursuing improvement in the basic areas of district responsibility, but more complete information will be need to evaluate them. Ongoing data collection and analysis are needed to assess whether these strategies were well chosen, as well as how they are functioning and what their effects have been.
The city has some tools in place for measuring its own progress, but not enough information is publicly available to support firm conclusions about the system’s progress under PERAA.
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