Debunking Myths on DC Education and Mayoral Control with Evidence
Most people who are familiar with public education in the District have heard about the major problems DCPS faced years ago when schools, “didn’t open on time.” However, recently, the history shifted a bit. Two weeks ago the Washington Post Editorial Board added a detail that slipped through the cracks. The editorial asserts that under elected school board control, schools didn’t open on time, textbooks stayed stacked in warehouses, educators were hired based who they knew, and finally, students didn’t learn.
While these assertions have been part of the DC public school narrative for many years - they aren't, in fact, tied to failures of an elected school board at all. The editorial says that a “reminder of those terrible years when the elected school board was in charge is needed because — as hard as it is to believe — some members of the D.C. Council seem to want to turn back the clock.”
In today’s world of misinformation getting the facts right matters. It matters in local discussions and it matters in national ones. Importantly, the story that DC Public Schools were a disaster before mayoral control and have steadily improved since that governance change has had the twin effects of inspiring new teachers to join the system and encourages more parents to entrust their children to local schools, in both cases bringing new commitment and energy to DCPS. Despite those positive effects, that story simply isn't exactly right.
In short, it wasn’t the elected school board in charge when schools didn’t open on time. In November of 1996 the Congressionally created financial control board ousted the current Superintendent, took power away from the school board, and named former Army General Becton to lead DCPS. The next fall, DCPS opened three weeks late do to building maintenance. To be clear, schools did open days late two out of the prior three years...
In terms of textbooks, The Office of the DC Auditor's (ODCA) comprehensive study of staffing at a sample of eight elementary schools last fall found shortages and delays in supplies and materials. “To make sure that supplies are sufficient when school starts, this principal added, it is necessary to stockpile items in June, particularly because finance staff curtail access to purchase cards in September as the fiscal year is about to end. A teacher echoed these concerns, noting that once schools get an infusion of funds after the October 1 start of the fiscal year, they can initiate new procurements but will not receive the relevant goods or services before a significant part of the school year has elapsed.
A math teacher interviewed by the DC Auditor noted in the report that supply problems at her school threatened her ability to implement a new math curriculum known as “Eureka Math.” The school had received the Eureka Math modules for the first half of the school year but was still waiting for the delivery of the second batch of modules.” Finally, the all too well-known shortages of paper, by parents and teachers alike, highlight the lasting and current problem of school procurement problems. We have less transparent data regarding how educators are hired, their demographics, and turnover, unfortunately. In fact, the very legislative proposals decried in the Washington Post editorial aim to do something about the quality, comprehensiveness, and transparency of District education data by changing the governance structure of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education - our main educational data warehouse.
Finally, there continues to be debate regarding when and how student test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, NAEP or “the nation’s report card” increased. While the popular narrative asserts more growth post Mayoral control another perspective argues scores grew faster in the decade before 2007 than after. It's simply inaccurate to claim we know that mayoral control has led to rising test scores. And evidence from elsewhere demonstrates that more often than not, there is no evidence mayoral control increases student outcomes.
Further, Both the OSSE-funded audit by Alvarez and Marsal and a follow-up survey of DCPS principals by the office of the DC Auditor, found evidence of a concerning culture of passing students who don’t meet requirements. Of note, DC isn’t the first district facing these types of allegations in the era of high stakes accountability.
To avoid the mistakes of the past we would be well-advised to know our history and study any changes. This advice isn’t just a cliche; when Chicago Public Schools embarked on a new governance structure prioritizing local decision making the now-infamous University of Chicago Consortium on School Research was initiated to study this shift. In post Katrina New Orleans when school control shifted to the Recovery School District, the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans was born with the goal of studying this change. Similarly, in DC the Public Education Reform Act (PERA) required studying our shift to Mayoral control of schools.
Notably, the PERA report published by the National Academy of Sciences and overseen by the Auditor’s Office found that while overall District student achievement increased during Mayoral Control, opportunity and achievement gaps between black and white students persisted. And, importantly, the report called for more data, transparency, and research in the District.
Now, in the wake of multiple scandals that have again rocked stakeholder confidence in DCPS, the DC Council is legislating the beginning of a new Research Practice Partnership (RPP) for all DC public schools. RPP’s bring together researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and other local education stakeholders to decide together on everything from what should be studied to how findings are communicated and translated for multiple audiences. The most well-known RPP in Chicago, The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, recently summed up the motivation for this work, “there is no more important use of data in public schools than as a tool to identify and stop inequities that continue to leave the most vulnerable students further and further behind.” Unfortunately, at the time we most need more evidence, we are continuing to be fed misinformation from one of our nation’s most prominent publications. Thankfully, there are many in the District who do remember our recent school history. There is no turning back the clock to historical spin, there is only our forward momentum, powered by knowledge that while improvements have been made we still need to do much, much more for our students, educators, and schools. Until then, don’t believe everything you read.