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."
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