D.C.’s Education Leaders Put Aside Differences to Improve Schools
Last week, Washington D.C. education officials voted 6-3 to approve the District's plan to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal legislation governing American education.
For observers of political fights who are accustomed to seeing the “losing” side dig in their heels, what happened following the vote would appear unexpected. Instead of resistance, those who had opposed the plan came together and pledged to work for the schools’ and students' success.
“This is our plan, and we’re committed to moving forward and supporting it,” said Joe Weedon, a member of the District’s Board of Education who was one of the three opposing votes. Weedon doesn’t see the plan as carved in stone and said he hopes the community and local education agencies can continue voicing concerns and make recommendations for improvement.
“We still have some work to do,” he said. “We have to develop a measure for a well-rounded curriculum and ensure that it’s implemented in the best way.”
In an era of political polarization, the District's level of cooperation moving forward is notable, especially for a plan that will bring some substantial changes to the way D.C. public schools, teachers and students will be assessed and held accountable.
Schools Have to Make the Grade
One of the major changes included in the plan is a new accountability framework, or school quality ratings. Superintendent Hanseul Kang said that given the choice environment in Washington, D.C., where parents have a range of options from top-notch private academies to public charters and traditional public institutions, it’s critical to provide clear and consistent information on school quality.
Previously, D.C.’s public charter schools used a tiered rating system that allowed parents to compare options for where to send their children. The new public school report card will provide similar comparisons for all public schools using a star-rating system of one to five stars (with five being the highest).
The school quality ratings proposed in the ESSA plan are based primarily on student outcome measures, but will eventually be paired with school report cards, which the Board of Education and the State Superintendent will develop over the next year.
Catharine Bellinger, director for the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), said the report card will also likely include measures such as teacher retention (and possibly the retention rates of highly effective teachers), school safety and student discipline.
“Overall, D.C. is off to a strong start with ESSA implementation,” Bellinger stated. “It's important to note that school quality ratings – the product of the new accountability framework – will actually go hand-in-hand with this more holistic look at school quality. I'm optimistic about the direction D.C. is going.”
She also mentioned that it's probable that even those who opposed the District's plan will be engaged during the creation of the report card. “It's a time when the State Superintendent will want to work on consensus building, and it's also an opportunity to experiment and report out on new metrics, such as the school climate survey,” she added.
To Bellinger's point, board member Markus Batchelor, who chairs the Committee on Engagements and Outreach, voted against the plan but said it’s time now to focus on figuring out how to measure school culture and climate and whether students are receiving a well-rounded education. His committee held its first working session barely a week after the plan was approved to begin discussions on additional community and stakeholder engagement as well as accountability metrics.
New Assessment Reflects What Students Need for Success
The District's ESSA implementation plan is part of a larger effort to raise standards and improve college and career readiness. In 2010, D.C. adopted higher academic standards that focused on preparing students for success in college or for entering the workforce after high school. Shortly after, the District joined the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium to offer a new assessment that could be measured against student performance in other states. While critics complain that assessments are weighted too heavily when compared with other measures, Kang said there are multiple ways to look at the results of those tests. She noted that PARCC is “very different” from previous legacy assessments and more aligned with the skills that students need to succeed after middle and high school.
“We saw too many students do well in high school but then struggle in their first year of college,” she noted. “They spent time and financial resources learning things they should have already learned. PARCC starts with that end goal in mind: what does it take to thrive in the first year of post-secondary education and what do students need to know to achieve that?”
For example, Kang explained that a previous legacy test directed seventh graders to write an essay on their “perfect vacation.” PARCC asks students to read two passages from two different novels and compare and contrast how the authors developed their themes. The new education benchmarks and aligned tests were designed, in part, to respond to criticisms that students were graduating from high school without being able to solve real-world problems or analyze written texts -- skills that are necessary to succeed in college and the workforce.
“PARCC highlights a shift in expectations and in perception,” Kang said.
The District's plan sets some ambitious goals when it comes to student performance. It calls for having 85 percent of students score a "4" or higher on the PARCC test over the next 20 years, meaning students are meeting or exceeding expectations in math and English. For comparison, in the 2014-15 school year, only a quarter of D.C. public school students were meeting that bar in reading and a fifth were meeting that bar in math. The plan also calls for 90 percent of students graduating high school within four years; only 65 percent of students satisfied that metric in 2014-15.
Under the plan, Washington, D.C. public schools will be rated on student performance that is tied to scores on annual assessments, student proficiency and growth, as well as other factors such as measures of school climates like absenteeism and re-enrollment. The original school performance rating in the ESSA plan called for assessment scores to count for 80 percent of a school’s overall rating. Opponents whittled that down to 70 percent, which they see as better but not entirely satisfactory.
Washington Teachers' Union President Elizabeth Davis believes that test scores don’t always reflect student progress, especially among those who are two or three grade levels behind where they should be.
“Accountability measures should give credit for how teachers are helping students make progress,” she said. “We want the plan to reflect student growth and for that growth to count. We didn’t get the reduction we wanted but we did get it reduced. I tell my members, ‘If testing has been detrimental to student growth, we have to be able to say why.’ We have to be able to offer data and research behind our opinions.”
Nobody Wins If The Kids Can’t Read
In order to rally support for the District's plan, supporters sought out the endorsements of key influencers. Through DFER, 50 education and civil rights leaders sent a letter to the Board of Education asking them to approve the plan.
“We believe the District’s plan, on the whole, will create a more transparent, equitable, and effective accountability system for the District’s children,” the letter stated. “The plan will create an apples-to-apples comparison of all public schools in the district, primarily based on how much students are learning and growing on research-based measures of college readiness. As education and civil rights leaders, we have seen time and again the importance of transparency around public school performance in order to hold our city leaders accountable for serving our highest-need student populations.”
The signatories included a number of well-known and well-respected education and civil rights leaders, including Dianne Piche, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. She noted that more and more students are entering high school ill-prepared for the level of academic achievement necessary to succeed. In turn, those students graduate unequipped for the rigors of college or the workforce.
Piche complimented the District’s plan, noting that advocates prefer to see a combination of student achievement and other measures such as school environment, disciplinary measures and progress in subjects other than just the core subjects of reading and math.
“It’s a relatively good plan compared to what some others were advocating, which was really to loosen the reins on accountability and weight other measures much more heavily than academic achievement,” she said. “When you use other measures to offset achievement, you open the door for everything but getting the kids reading. You end up with a situation where everyone’s happy and there’s a nice school environment but if students can’t read or do math at grade level, schools aren’t doing their job.”
Kang and others believe the District’s plan will help ensure that the city’s schools are accountable to students and their families.
“Parents have a lot of choices in D.C., and sometimes what they’re looking for is hard to measure,” Kang said. “But when it comes down to whether you’re talking about a great school or a school that needs to improve, there has to be an accountability system.”
Moving forward, both supporters and opponents of the District's plan are focused on broadening community engagement. Davis wants to make sure that teacher outreach is “authentic” and ongoing. Weedon and Batchelor both said they hoped to change the perception of D.C. public schools from the ground up.
“We have to do more than newsletters and emails,” Batchelor said. “We’re going to be reaching out to organizations and individuals who have significant reach, building connections and building capacity on a school and neighborhood level.”
With cooperation across the board and strong community outreach, District schools are in a position to improve and offer the high-quality education that will set students on a path for success.
Jessica R. Towhey is a contributor to RealClearEducation.