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You can’t fix what you can’t face. But one thing I’ve noticed over and over again in my years as an education advocate in D.C. is the ways in which the District’s current education system prevents the community from confronting educational problems and undermines our ability to discuss and remedy them. I’ve come to believe that incentives built into the system prevent the release of dispiriting data, silence candid feedback from principals and teachers, and suppress public discussions that generate nuanced, effective responses to complicated problems.
I’ve just finished serving eight years on the D.C. State Board of Education. Here is my assessment of the educational system we have, the problems it has caused, and some solutions that make sense.
I. The system we have
In 2007, the D.C. Council, at the request of newly elected Mayor Adrian Fenty, adopted the Public Education Reform Amendment Act, which abolished the independent school board that previously oversaw DC Public Schools. As was the case in other cities that instituted mayoral control of schools, the law turned the reins of school district control over to the mayor, who was given the authority to hire and fire the DCPS chancellor. It also moved a relatively small office, the State Education Agency, out from under DCPS, and turned it into a stand-alone agency, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Some version of OSSE exists in every state and has responsibilities for oversight, collecting and reporting data, and providing technical support to traditional and charter schools. OSSE is run by a state superintendent whom the mayor also names.
The law also created a new deputy mayor for education, named by the mayor to oversee and coordinate the work of these agencies. It continued the Public Charter School Board, originally established by Congress, to oversee the charter sector; the board’s members are also appointed by the mayor. And the law created the first-ever DC State Board of Education, made up of nine elected members. It has no formal authority over any of the new education-related agencies, but a handful of OSSE policies require SBOE approval to go forward.
In the two decades before D.C.’s shift to mayoral control, largely beginning with Boston in 1991, as states and cities became frustrated with the quality of predominantly urban schools, “mayoral control” became a trend. The idea was that, as in business, tough problems need a tough, accountable CEO who could do the unpopular yet necessary things to get the schools on track fast. Elected school boards and standard-issue checks and balances that slow things down were luxuries that urban school systems couldn’t afford.
Since then, there has been plenty of debate about the pros and cons of mayoral control. Advocates note that the system enables speedier action, including the ability to break through political knots. It also typically makes the school district leader effectively a member of the mayor’s cabinet, facilitating coordination of the education system with other youth-serving agencies. On the other hand, it weakens traditional checks and balances and public input. As mayoral control expert Joseph Viteritti concludes in his book When Mayors Take Charge: School Governance in the City, “The most significant attribute that mayoral control can bestow … is agility … but quickness of action also generates risk … it increases the probability of error.”
Finding the right formula for mayoral control—enough authority to get things done, but not so much as to enable corruption, overly dismiss public input, or allow data to become propaganda—is a challenge.
One of the first things I learned as an SBOE member was that every school district’s form of mayoral control is different. D.C.’s version is the most extreme in the country. It is the only jurisdiction in the country where one person (the mayor) appoints the chancellor of the city’s school district and the state superintendent of education; thus the mayor has leadership, regulation, and oversight responsibilities for all the school districts in the state. (In D.C., DC Public Schools is by far the largest school district, and each of the 68 charter schools or charter school networks make up their own district.) Everywhere else where the mayor names a school district’s chancellor, the state superintendent is appointed by the governor or a state board of education or is elected by the voters, assuring separation between the overseers and the overseen.
D.C. is also the only large mayoral-controlled district where there is no local school board. In every other school district with mayoral control (or executive control, in places where the county executive has the authority), the mayor appoints all or most of the members, but a school board exists nonetheless. These boards hold regular public meetings where policy changes and the budget get discussed, the public can offer comments, and the board holds public votes.
In most other mayoral-control districts, basic protections for whistleblowers and employees who speak up about their concerns were unaffected by the shift to mayoral control. But D.C.’s unique policies make it more vulnerable: Principals were initially hired on one-year contracts (now up to two years), instead of more typical longer-term contracts. Teachers and principals are subject to a uniquely high-stakes evaluation system that affects job security and annual bonuses of as much as $25,000. In most states, if teachers or principals are terminated for what they believe is an unfair evaluation, they can appeal to an independent state or local board of education. Not so in D.C.
All of this together—uniquely limited checks and balances, no public school board, and a Damocles sword over the heads of staff—works against publicly acknowledging and addressing problems. It’s easy enough to just make them go away.
In his book, Viteritti worried that the authority mayors received with mayoral control could “turn the schools or their test scores into campaign props,” which is even easier “when the mayor’s press office has control over the varied data by which the incumbent might be judged.” As one observer told him about mayoral control, “The temptation to put the best face on school data is political catnip.” And they weren’t even talking about D.C.’s uniquely unchecked system.
II. The problems the system has caused
In our system, I’ve seen the catnip work in different ways. Important data has gone uncollected. Rules were bent—even violated—to assure the data looked good. Staff received pressure to go along. Even when alerted to problems, education officials didn’t always intervene to stop it. And, while attention was paid to suppressing the story—and moving on quickly once it became public—less attention was paid to grappling with the problem, hearing from teachers, principals, and students, and coming up with remedies. In each case, the cover-up began with bragging about progress.
Here are a few examples:
Suspension rates are down! … Not.
Following a spate of bad headlines about high student suspension rates in the early 2010s, OSSE released a report on the issue in February 2017. According to the Washington Post, it showed “a significant decline in suspensions” in both DCPS and charter schools. Days after this mildly cheery report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that, actually, D.C.’s charter sector suspended students at twice the national average.
The comeuppance for DCPS came five months later, when the Post took a harder look at suspensions. Although school administrators claimed that suspensions rates were down 40 percent, in at least seven schools, suspensions continued under different names such as “consequences,” according to the Post’s analysis. In some cases, they simply were not reported at all. At one school, only 7 percent of actual suspensions were recorded in the school database.
A follow-up article described how the misleading data reporting was abetted by DCPS staff—principals “under pressure to show progress” whose evaluations depended “in part on reducing suspensions” and “central office officials” who “turned a blind eye” because they were “also under pressure to show progress.” A teacher had alerted his superiors, but was “rebuked” and later resigned. The teacher had also alerted the chair of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Education to the misleading data. And OSSE, which was aware of the problem since at least 2010, had warned DCPS to stop sending students home without documentation. the Post reported, but the problem persisted.
Just this March, Maria Blaeuer, with Advocates for Justice and Education, testified before the D.C. Council that charter schools “are attempting to counsel out students or expel them rather than serve them.”
Graduation rates are up! … Not.
On Nov. 7, 2017, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education pushed out a press release claiming that “For the First Time, Graduation Rates at DC’s Public High Schools Exceed 70 Percent.” The uplifting success story was carried across the local media.
But as with suspension rates, we only know the truth thanks to deeper reporting. In a three-part series, WAMU explained that the ever-rising graduation rates were not due to greater learning but to eroded graduation standards. For example, according to WAMU, “Teachers say that even if students earn less than 50% on an assignment, 50% is still the lowest grade a student can receive.” According to an official audit, ordered by the mayor after WAMU broke the story, 34 percent of DCPS students who graduated did so even though they had excessive absences (more than 30 days) or earned “credit recovery” credits in violation of official rules designed to make credit recovery a “last chance” policy. We also learned from the audit that, as with suspensions, “teachers felt direct and indirect pressure by administrators to pass chronically absent students, and raised concerns that their performance review would be negatively affected if they did not follow ‘more-lenient policies.’” Some teachers who had raised concerns either lost their jobs or left voluntarily out of concern that a poor evaluation could lead to termination or a permanent blot on their record that would jeopardize future job applications.
The pressure on staff to go along can hardly be overstated. In a case currently in the courts, Carolyn Jackson-King, the former principal of Boone Elementary School, claims that she was demoted and then let go because of her opposition to a DCPS student discipline approach imposed mainly on schools in wards 7 and 8. She was extremely popular, and parents protested on her behalf. According to NPR, Richard Jackson, the president of the school administrators’ union, said principals “felt they could not question how the training would benefit their schools without facing retribution from school system officials.”
Marlon Ray, a top Boone administrator and plaintiff in the suit along with Jackson-King, was let go as well. He describes a “culture of fear and silencing” where staff are applauded when, as “mandated reporters,” they report parents for suspected harm to students, but are called “troublemakers” if they push back too strongly against internal practices they regard as harmful. I am aware of at least two other principals who appear to have been pushed out for their disagreements with DCPS policies they believed were unhealthy for their students.
Teacher turnover rates? Let’s not find out.
The suppression and manipulation of data created small scandals in D.C. But with teacher turnover, the scandal turned out to be a lack of data altogether. Scott Goldstein, director of EmpowerEd, a teacher advocacy organization, says that “for years, teachers tried to blow the whistle on our very high teacher turnover.” But the only “official data” from either DCPS or OSSE were DCPS promotional pieces on the very high rate of retention among D.C.’s “highly effective” teachers. There was no public report showing overall turnover rates or how long the highly effective teachers stuck around.
While I served on the SBOE, we decided to conduct our own turnover studies with the help of local education expert Mary Levy. The first set of data showed that D.C.’s turnover rate averaged 25 percent in both DCPS and charter schools, compared to an average of roughly 19 percent in other large school districts.
The Council held hearings on the issue, but for several years, not much changed. Then, in the spring of 2022, “after years of pressure from advocacy,” says Goldstein, OSSE published the first of what hopefully are annual reports on teacher turnover and other data on the teacher workforce.
But for Goldstein and others, while the new, regular report is very welcome, it still lacks some sensitive but vital data that advocates have called for. For example, the new report states the high rate at which effective teachers are retained each year, but, Goldstein asks, “how many of these teachers are still around for five years and 10?” Since teacher effectiveness rises with experience, that’s relevant information; if these experienced teachers leave at high rates, our students are constantly facing new inexperienced teachers. “Of the teachers who are rated ‘developing,’ [a low evaluation rating], what portion have improved after a few years? If we knew that, we would have a sense of whether these teachers had access to effective professional development,” Goldstein says. He also has argued for an annual exit survey that would provide information on why teachers were leaving. So far, OSSE has declined to collect that information.
Data matters. So does discussion.
Improving the quality of education is hard, slow, sloggy work. “No programs or policies work 100 percent. There are always unintended consequences,” says Joshua Glazer, professor of education policy at George Washington University. If a program or policy is not working as expected, it’s important to understand why.
Cathy Reilly, a longtime education advocate and the coordinator of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Students, says “too often we don’t even ask why we have the problem. We jump right into the solution, without the right discussions—and the solution can end up creating a new problem. These are hard issues without perfect answers, but they’d be better if they were publicly vetted.”
Regular school board meetings bring that vetting. The superintendent reports each month on new hires, the budget, and new policy proposals up for discussion. Board members ask questions and debate the issues among themselves and with the superintendent. The public has time to comment. Reporters are present.
If there was a pattern of staff feeling pressure to wrongly graduate students, it’s hard to believe this would not have come up. Instead of speaking to WAMU after the fact, teachers could have spoken to the Board months, even years, earlier. There would have been a public discussion. Why were students so far behind? What remedies would be appropriate?
In the scandal involving graduation rates, there was no such public discussion. But on Aug. 6, 2021, DCPS published a new grading policy that effectively codified the scandalous practice. According to the new policy, “If a student did no work on an assignment or did not turn in the assignment should be graded as ‘[waiting for submission],’” which is calculated at 50 percent credit. If a student did some work, “however minimal it may be,” they should get an F, calculated at 63 percent. While DCPS did some engagement with teachers and the public around a different set of grading and promotion policies in 2018, I’m aware of no public discussion about these grading changes.
The result? “We’re right back to the same place, where the grading policy is just as generous as before, where kids are graduating without having gotten the skills they need,” says David Tansey, a McKinley Tech math teacher.
I have heard from parents who took their kids out of DCPS as a result of these policies. I have heard from teachers who feel completely undermined in their ability to coax work from students. I’ve also heard from teachers and parents on the other side (though not as many). None got their say.
With no local school board to hear from and respond to constituents about education issues and a state board with only narrow, modest authority, the D.C. Council is the default school board.
Unlike a school board, the Council isn’t solely focused on education issues, it doesn’t give regular education updates, and the superintendent doesn’t work for councilmembers. Nonetheless, it’s the one democratic body in the city with broad policymaking authority on education and therefore the only place to go with concerns. And, whew, are there concerns! At this year’s annual budget hearing, 417 people signed up to testify; at its annual performance oversight hearing, more than 200 signed up.
At the oversight hearing, Sheila Carr, coordinator of Decoding Dyslexia DC, testified about OSSE’s failure to report aggregate results of newly required dyslexia screenings. “We fear schools won’t want to share this information because it may not reflect well on them,” Carr said.
Blaeuer, of Advocates for Justice and Education, raised concerns about the multiple ways in which special education students in charter schools are poorly served, including with “less protection than their peers in DCPS ” from “unsafe and inappropriate uses of restraint and seclusion.”
With hundreds of witnesses, the budget hearing lasted until midnight. That’s far from a discussion. Various witnesses have noted that it felt more like an assembly line.
Periodically, I hear people say the only problem with education oversight is that the Council needs to do more of it. There’s truth to that, but the Council can’t replace an empowered school board. A few hearings a year aren’t adequate, and the Council doesn’t have the capacity to hold many more, let alone the expertise that focused school board members would have.
Weaker policies mean a lot of lost student learning. It’s time to fix the system so we don’t keep doing this.
III. Solutions that make sense
When talk of altering our mayoral control system comes up, advocates of the current system claim that such changes would take us backward to the “dysfunctional” school board of D.C.’s past. But there are more options than returning to the old system. Just last month, the SBOE published a report offering a number of alternatives.
For me, what matters most is creating space for meaningful public discussions and making changes that address the suppression of unflattering data, whether through the failure to collect it, its manipulation, or the pressure on staff to stay quiet in the face of such manipulation. Here are five proposals, including some on the SBOE’s list.
Let the Mayor run the school district (DCPS) and appoint the chancellor. Let the SBOE appoint the state superintendent.
This would not alter one bit the basic function and goal of mayoral control in every other mayoral-control district: The mayor would appoint the chancellor, who would serve at their pleasure. DCPS would still function as a cabinet agency, closely coordinating with other youth- and family-serving agencies. But the state agency would be independent from the mayor, as it is in every other district under mayoral control. This would be similar to the practice in 16 states, where State Board of Education members, who are either elected or appointed, pick the state superintendent. (In nine states, the superintendent is elected directly by the voters. In most others, the governor appoints.)
Under this model, DCPS and all the charter schools would be overseen by and routinely submit their data (test scores, graduation rates, teacher retention, etc.) to a state education agency that is completely independent of the school district administration or the city’s elected officials—as is the case with every mayor-controlled district in the country.
Leave the state superintendent under the mayor, but add checks and balances by strengthening the SBOE (the weaker option!).
a. Authorize the SBOE to get data and research upon request from OSSE, DCPS and charter schools. This would require no bureaucratic changes but would render existing data more public and require the collection and analysis of essential data more quickly. Under this rule, the SBOE could have initiated the collection and reporting of teacher turnover data (including exit surveys) at the outset, instead of waiting some five years for regular public reporting to commence. It could have investigated the allegations of suspension and graduation data manipulation before the damaging practices had spread and harmed more students.
b. Fund the SBOE to regularly survey and hold focus groups. Under this proposal, suggested by Glazer of GWU, the board would regularly survey or convene focus groups with teachers, parents and others to hear about key issues, using an impartial, professional moderator. Perhaps we would have learned earlier about the pressure on school staff to wrongly graduate students and could have pressured the city to support needed interventions.
c. Empower the SBOE to initiate and adopt policy. Currently, OSSE is only required to seek SBOE approval on a narrow set of issues—mainly high school graduation standards, the citywide accountability system, accreditation standards for teacher prep programs, and statewide attendance, Even so, SBOE can only act to approve or disapprove a policy proposed by OSSE. It can’t initiate its own policy proposals or amend proposals brought by OSSE.
d. Give the SBOE “great weight” on a range of education issues. ANC’s are accorded great weight on a variety of issues that affect their local areas, so grant the SBOE the same power. For example, the board could weigh in on school openings and closings and program priorities.
Establish a local school board for DCPS.
Every other district with mayoral control has a school board. Its members are not fully independent; at least a majority, and sometimes all members, are mayoral appointees. The breadth of their authority is typically similar to the authority they had before mayoral control and so it varies, as school board authorities vary across jurisdictions. But they all meet regularly and publicly, they take public votes, and they allow regular public comment. They typically vote on budgets, school openings and closings, and new school policies. Even if board members are all mayoral appointees, for the sake of school improvement, we need this forum for public discussion.
Fix the DCPS evaluation system.
The Council should require DCPS and the unions representing teachers and principals to negotiate a new evaluation system, as is done in virtually every district across the country, to address the dysfunctional pressure on staff that currently exists. Current D.C. law prohibits negotiating around evaluations.
Allow the SBOE to hear appeals for wrongful termination.
D.C. teachers are the only public school teachers in the country who can be terminated or denied bonuses of $10,000 or more based on their evaluations. And, along with principals, they are among the few that cannot appeal their termination to an independent school board.
School improvement work is hard, and that’s true regardless of the governance system. There’s no nirvana out there. We need only read the news to know that school boards can bring their own problems (though I’m generally for more democracy, not less). Our education system suffers from lack of transparency and public input. We have created a system that allows problems to be buried rather than solved. It’s way too much about “looking good, not doing good.”
We don’t have to “go back” in order to fix it. There are ways to keep mayoral control while restoring checks and balances and creating vehicles for public input, features that other mayoral control systems never lost.
Ruth Wattenberg is a former Ward 3 representative and president of the State Board of Education.