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Searching For The "It" In School Reform

The District took a first step toward an independent evaluation of its education reform efforts Monday, and it was an ambitious if wobbly one.

For six hours, under the auspices of the National Research Council (NRC), thirty-six speakers strung across six panels--academics, public officials, school administrators, business leaders and actually a couple of parents--looked at the matter every which way. Near the end of the day, organizational sociologist Jane Hannaway of the Urban Institute seemed to capture the consensus sentiment:

"This is very hard," she said.

The 2007 legislation that established mayoral control of DCPS calls for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to submit an annual evaluation of the schools, addressing academic achievement, business practices and personnel policies. It also gives him the option to skip the annual reports and deliver a five-year independent assessment by Sept. 15, 2012

But for the better part of a year, Fenty and the Council couldn't agree on how to proceed. Gray finally reached out to the NRC, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, the Congressionally-chartered, private non-profit that dispenses advice on everything from climate change to how much weight women can safely gain during pregnancy.

Monday's inaugural planning meeting was pulled together by Michael J. Feuer, executive director of NRC's division of behavioral and social sciences and education, who opened the session by saying the study was "a very special opportunity" for the academy to take the debate on education reform and "elevate the discourse from what just might be political crossfire."

Much of the discussion Monday reflected uncertainty over exactly what to evaluate and how. The law isn't terribly specific. Is it an exercise to help Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee make mid-course corrections? Should it be an accountability document that measures promises made and promises kept? Or should it take the longer view and assess how far the system has come on Rhee's watch? How does such an inquiry get beyond the usual test-scores-up-test scores-down syndrome and drill deeply into the classroom to determine what impact Rhee's changes are having on teaching and learning? How much data will actually be available to make any reliable assessments?

"Is what is being done differently making a difference? I think that is the critical question here," said Ericka Miller, a vice president for The Education Trust, a school research and advocacy non-profit.

Or, in a play on the title of the recent Dave Eggers novel "What is the What," Columbia University's Jeff Henig asked, "What is the 'it'?"

Feuer said he and his staff would spend the next few weeks pondering "it." The tentative plan is to do a series of interim reports, spread over the next five years.

One issue was a familiar one when it comes to discussions about D.C. schools The meeting was conspicuously thin on representation from key school constituencies, namely parents, teachers and students.

Rhee and Gray spent part of their panel going back and forth on the issue of whether there had been sufficient outreach to the public on big policy decisions. Gray said the "the perception" is that there is not. Rhee said there will always be factions of the community that don't feel they've been engaged, but urged researchers to look beyond the usual naysaying voices and "rise above the platitudes the media has created."

And those who feel they haven't been engaged were there asking for engagement from those running the study. "I think it is important to hear from people who have been around and have the broader view," said Iris Toyer of Parents United for D.C. Public Schools.

Cherita Whiting, chairwoman of the Ward 4 Education Council who was invited but did not attend, said that overall parents felt they had been steered away from the session because of the scholar-heavy nature of the panels. "Parents once again felt very left out, very undermined," said Whiting, who works for the American Institutes of Research, an organization that had representatives at the meeting.

Feuer promised that this was merely the first of many sessions.

An even more basic question is how much money the group will have to do anything. The NRC relies on the voluntary participation of scholars and researchers, but will still need significant funding to pull off the DCPS evaluation. The District has put up $325,000, which is about 20 percent of the estimated $1.5 million price tag. Feuer said the National Science Foundation has provided a $200,000 planning grant. The rest will have to be raised.

Perhaps the most practical advice of the day came from Brian Betts, principal at Shaw@Garnet-Patterson Middle School: "I don't want another three-inch binder telling me things I already know. I have a doorstop already."

Bill Turque

By Bill Turque  |  July 28, 2009; 9:03 PM ET
Categories:  Bill Turque , Education  
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I'm sorry, did Mr. Betts actually say he doesn't need anything to tell him what he already knows? Well maybe he should rethink what he already knows considering his "rock star" status as a Principal as compared to his school's dropping test scores.

Posted by: scinerd1 | July 28, 2009 11:20 PM | Report abuse

The interesting thing is that Betts was at the meeting and talking to a reporter that the Chancellor herself won't speak to.

This suggests a preemptive rehabilitation effort for him and his school.

I predict that Shaw's scores will rise before they are officially announced on August 3rd.

There are other scenarios, but I'm not feeling Machiavellian enough at the moment to predict them.

Posted by: efavorite | July 29, 2009 8:02 AM | Report abuse

To add to my statement, I really feel like parents would have wanted to hear from those experts in the education field. Some may have come away with a better understanding of why DCPS operates the way it does, some may have left with even more concerns about DCPS. Bottom line is if you have a room full of experts let the parents hear from them as well. Most education experts speak to "best practices" and they stick to that.

Posted by: | July 29, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

I'm happy to see this news being covered, even if only online, but I do have a question.

I'm a DCPS parent. How do I find out about these meetings? Parents in this system are regularly accused of being uninvolved. I'm an involved parent and would have been delighted to attend this meeting or the Senate hearings last week. Unfortunately I only learn about them after the fact on this blog.

Is there a reason why DCPS keeps these sorts of events hidden from parents?

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | July 29, 2009 2:52 PM | Report abuse

Well stated scinerd1. He was the rockstar whose performance proved that there was no reason for his predecessor to leave. Of particular note, the school received more in resources, the staff was totally turned over and the kids were paid to go to school.

Posted by: candycane1 | July 29, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse


Community Forums are posted on the Chancellor's site:

Posted by: Tunafish2 | July 29, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the link Tunafish2, but you'll note that the forum Mr. Turque referenced in this blog post is not listed there. Why?

Posted by: Title1SoccerMom | July 29, 2009 6:48 PM | Report abuse

Will be hard to learn about the past 2 years because many of Rhee's start up team left already/; Chief of Teaching and Learning, Chief of Schools, Chief of Special Education, truancy officer, Chief of Academic Support, AD, Head of Bilingual Office, Chief of Procurement, half of Human Resources...

Posted by: greenoaks152 | July 29, 2009 11:25 PM | Report abuse

greenoaks152: Totally on point!

Posted by: candycane1 | July 30, 2009 7:14 AM | Report abuse

Everyone has made vital points, especially that parents should have been able to hear from the education experts. Clearly we've heard enough from Michelle Rhee and her revolving door of a camp. The message to her should now be clear: firing people is not genuine education reform and you don't discover educational strategies by going to people's houses for dinner and coffee.

As to the 'rock star' she hired for Shaw@Garnett-Patterson, perhaps he should have consulted the resource materials he so eloquently stated were a door stop. How arrogant can he be? (Oh, wait, he's one of Rhee's hires -- answered my own question.) Had he looked in the door stop of a binder, his scores wouldn't be in the trash. He along with the principal at Webb Wheatley were the supposed stars, the golden boys of reform. They BOTH received more resources than virtually all of the other principals, yet had garbage for scores. I wonder what resources the previous principals at those schools received? Where are they now? If they were able to get jobs in the case that they weren't blackballed as a result of the chancellor's many public statements about principals being removed because they were incompetent, how were their test scores at their current placements?

One last question: if performance or the lack thereof is the reason Rhee uses to remove principals, why is she still in place? Oh, that's right: she's accountable to the mayor and she is more powerful than he is. Why else would she be able to make a mockery of his education reform plan and still have made half a million dollars of taxpayers money with no accountability?

Posted by: southyrndiva | July 30, 2009 7:30 AM | Report abuse

Wow! $1.5 million and it will be completed in 5 years? Where is the sense of urgency and fiscal responsibility? Geez-- Massachusetts used to have an independent agency (EQA) that evaluated the educational quality and finances of at least 30 districts per year (including some much larger than DC) for a fraction of that cost. And the reports were amazing! (In fact so honest, that the district leaders finally got enough political clout in the governor's office to close the agency down--but, it was around for about 6-8 years and created a whirlwind of positive change). If the National Research Council wants to determine what the "it" is, perhaps they should review some of the documents that were used by that EQA. They looked at student results and linked them to key benchmarks in governance, curriculum, instruction, safety, etc. The agency had a diverse group of investigators that were expert in evaluating a range areas, for example: in classroom observations, board meeting actions, finances, parent networking, teacher development, curriculum alignment. Reports were heavy on the graphs and charts; the experts rated the district across key performance indicators. So, the reader/stakeholder/parent got a VERY good idea about positive, flat, and negative trends. In any event, it drives me nuts that we always think we need to reinvent the "it".

Posted by: Kathleen76 | July 30, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

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