Books Cooked at DC Schools: Will Star Chancellor Answer?

Books Cooked at DC Schools: Will Star Chancellor Answer?
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Education reformers never stop talking about “accountability.” But will they actually practice it? Here’s a test: What will happen after the revelation that the recently reported graduation rate increase in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) was mostly fraudulent? If accountability means anything more these days than “improving” the numbers by hook or by crook, then DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson should be out of a job.

After NPR discovered that Ballou High School’s magical improvement, from 57 percent graduation to 100 percent college acceptance in just one year, was the product of systematic fraud, the district commissioned an outside firm to do a thorough audit. Published earlier this month, the report found that absenteeism has risen across the district, as has the number of absentee students who nonetheless received diplomas.

Last year, only 178 out of 2,307 graduates from all DCPS high schools had satisfactory attendance. Almost half of DCPS students who missed more than half of the school year graduated last year. That’s up from about a quarter in 2015 — which is already far too much. Yesterday, the final report was released, providing an even fuller picture of the administrative misconduct: A whopping one third of students last year graduated with the assistance of clear policy violations.

After the findings of the initial audit came out, Wilson said, “[It] found numerous issues that were extremely troubling to me.” But he had already had this data. His office had received a grievance from a teacher about what was happening at Ballou. He’d been copied on an e-mail from a teacher telling him that administrators were instructing teachers to mischaracterize absences as medical related (and therefore excused). Wilson admitted he’d been aware of the complaints, but ignored them: “Our team, prioritizing impact, had not gotten to it.”

For reform-minded superintendents like Wilson, it’s all about the “impact.” If you show stellar statistical improvements, you’ll be seen as a star. Problem is, doing things the honest way isn’t likely to yield so-called “transformational” change. Fraud is a much more professionally promising course — unless you get caught. But even then, maybe getting caught doesn’t even matter. This wasn’t the first instance of mass cheating during Wilson’s short tenure in DC.

Last summer, Washington Post reporters discovered that the dramatic decrease in school suspension rates was also fake. Principals just took suspensions off the books. They’d tell the student to go home, circulate a do-not-admit list to teachers to keep the student out, but never tell the school district about it.

It’s hard to imagine a policy that could do more to alienate at-risk students. Administrators essentially told them, “We don’t want you here, so we’ll just tell you to go home and hope that we don’t get caught.” It hasn’t been fully established what Wilson knew and when he knew it, but it’s clear that his team was aware. Worse, Wilson wasn’t even contrite. He declared that he was “proud of schools who have embraced restorative practices, and [of] the nearly 40 percent reduction in suspensions.”

This wasn’t the first time Wilson has lauded a discipline reform that damaged school quality. He’s publicly touted the “social and emotional” learning practices he helped implement in Oakland, crediting them with halving suspensions. But that decline was driven by a federal investigation into Oakland’s discipline practices by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, not Wilson’s pedagogical philosophy. And the suspensions were not reduced thoughtfully or safely. A local paper noted that principals and teachers were “frantically trying to reduce suspension numbers” to comply with the demands of Obama administration officials.

The result? Academic growth plummeted. The year that ban was implemented, academic growth in Oakland was 44 percent of a standard deviation lower than the rest of the state. One standard deviation is about a year of growth, so it was as if he just told kids not to come back after winter break.

Wilson’s tenure in Oakland was also marked by extreme financial mismanagement. He spent about $12 million more than budgeted on administrators. That money came almost literally out of kids’ backpacks, as Wilson spent about $13 million less than budgeted on books and school supplies.

Of course, Wilson does not bear sole responsibility. This troubling trend of lowering standards through the floor to raise graduation rates in DCPS started before him, and the phenomenon is far bigger than him. To most people, accountability means taking ownership or responsibility for one’s actions. But too often in education it just means fudging the stats to make things look good. Wilson was a rising star and snagged one of the nation’s highest-profile education leadership positions because he made the numbers change and the crowds cheer. If not for the talented reporters at NPR and the Post, we’d still be cheering.

Thanks to them, though, we know what what really going on. If DCPS still has any standards left, Antwan Wilson should resign or be fired. The chancellor must be a role model for students. No parent would tell their child that this is acceptable. And if education reformers want to maintain any credibility in their talk about “accountability,” they ought to try practicing it.  

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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