Independent evaluation of school reform begins
The four principal figures in D.C. school reform were on their best behavior Monday when they visited with the National Research Council (NRC) committee that will conduct an independent evaluation of their efforts.
The rare joint appearance by D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, State Superintendent of Education Kerri L. Briggs and Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso was part of an inaugural public meeting for the 13-member panel.
The evaluation is required by the 2007 law that gave Mayor Adrian M. Fenty control of the school system. After months of political squabbling and stalemate over the choice of an evaluator, the Fenty Administration and Gray settled on the NRC, the research arm of the National Academies.
The NRC has assembled a committee loaded with big names in the academic and education policy sectors, led by former Clinton White House adviser Christopher F. Edley, Jr., now dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, and University of Wisconsin sociologist Robert M. Hauser.
The panel's principal mission -- which will play out in a series of reports over the next three to five years -- is to determine what significant improvements in the school system, if any, are attributable to the Fenty-Rhee effort. On Monday, all four speakers said they welcomed the NRC inquiry, and committee members asked them what questions they would like to see answered by the study.
Rhee asked the panel to assess whether her "theory of change," about the District overhaul, which has emphasized raising the quality and effectiveness of teachers, was on target. She also asked the panel to reflect on whether there were organizational changes to be made "to better set ourselves up to be successful." Without explicitly criticizing the arrangement, she mentioned that the DCPS general counsel reports to D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, and that the agency's chief financial officer reports to D.C. chief financial officer Natwar M. Gandhi.
The soft-spoken Reinoso asked that the panel not make final judgments about the failure or success of an effort that he said will be under way for many years. "I don't think that the standard should be, 'Have we crossed the finish line?'" he said.
Gray urged the panel not neglect special education and career and technical education when looking at what the District has or has not accomplished. He cited the 2,800 special ed students attending private schools, at an annual cost of $166 million, because they have not been able to get their needs met by the District system. "We are spending dollars in some very ineffective and inefficient ways," Gray said.
Still, it was an unusually placid appearance for the three agency heads, who often find themselves locked in contentious public hearings with Gray. Edley even remarked how smoothly they worked as a group, each deferring to the person who could best answer a question.
"That's called punting," Gray quipped.
When the evaluation was announced last summer, Michael J. Feuer, the executive director of the NRC's division of behavioral and social sciences and education, said he envisioned a $1.5 million budget, much of it coming from private sources. That has been ramped back to $750,000, with the District contributing $325,000 and the National Science Foundation donating $200,000.
The committee, which hopes to publish an interim report this fall, will spend the next few months trying to figure out what school data it can use to make its assessments -- which by itself will be a challenge.
At a Sunday afternoon session Erin McGoldrick, chief DCPS' Office of Data and Accountability, said that when she came on board in 2007, she found "dozens of data systems that did not speak well to each other." Improvements have been made, she said, but numbers prior to 2005 are highly suspect.
Here are the rest of the committee members:
Beatrice F. Birman, managing research scientist, American Institutes of Research.
Carl A. Cohn, professor of urban school leadership,Claremont Graduate University and former head of the Long Beach State Unified School District.
Leslie T.Fenwick, dean, Howard University School of Education.
Jon Fullerton, executive director, Center for Education Policy Research, Harvard University.
Fernando A. Guerra, director of health, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.
Jonathan Gueverra, CEO, Community College of the District of Columbia.
Jonathan Guryan, professor, University of Chicago.
Lorraine M. McDonnell, professor, political science, University of California Santa Barbara.
C. Kent McGuire, dean, College of Education, Temple University.
Maxine F. Singer, Carnegie Institution of Washington.
William F. Tate, director, Center for Study of Regional Competitiveness in Science and Technology, Washington University.
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