3 Meetings, 3 Perspectives


Almost exactly four years after approval of a Mayoral reform bill that essentially eliminated the role of the D.C. Board of Education, who would have thought that the State Board of Education that remains would practically lead the city among elected officials in public approval ratings. Clarus Poll of D.C. Voters: Mayor Gray Posts Negative Job Rating

A brief synopsis of three public hearings I attended as a DC VOICE volunteer gives me some additional insight as to why.  The first hearing was hosted by the City Council Committee on Education, which for four years now has fallen under the Committee of the Whole making all thirteen members of the council a member of that very important committee.  The hearing was very informative.  Several students testified about the treatment they have been receiving at one local charter school.  Parents showed up in the middle of the day to talk about their experiences, good and bad, with their child’s current principal.  Long-time schools advocate and researcher Mary Levy reported on numerous findings including the fact that school children in ward 8 were twice as likely as kids in ward 3 to have teachers with two or fewer years experience.  She also pointed out that in recent years both Mayor Fenty and Mayor Gray’s budgets have substantially increased the amount of six figure salary positions that work in central administration – not in the schools.  

What was just as shocking about this data was that hardly anyone was there to hear it.  Only Council Chairman Kwame Brown attended the hearing long enough to hear from witnesses.  Interim-member and At –Large candidate, Sekou Biddle showed up briefly to deliver opening statements but failed to remain after he was done to hear from members of the public.  None of the other 11 members attempted to make even a cameo appearance.

A week later there was the Mayor’s public hearing on his proposed schools budget.  Three years ago, local advocates had to sue Mayor Fenty to make him hold such a hearing before submitting his education budget to the City Council as required by the law.  When he did, it was only announced on the Friday before a three day weekend and held on a Tuesday morning at a school in ward seven – not exactly convenient for students, working parents or anyone not working in the education sector.  So the properly noticed evening hearing at Eastern Senior High School near Capitol Hill was a welcomed change.  Seeing the newly appointed State Superintendent, and the Deputy Mayor for Education (both newcomers to Washington, D.C.) in attendance was even more encouraging given the catching up they have to do concerning local matters.  Unfortunately, neither they, nor the Mayor engaged in even the slightest level of dialogue with room full of parents, teachers, students, advocates and community members which had shown up.  Many people just started dropping their testimony off since it was clear they were just reading it into the record, not actually talking to anyone.  

True, the Mayor did not sit on his Blackberry throughout the hearing as had been the case at some previous hearings before this year, but to everyone that sacrificed their dinner hour, happy hour or homework hour to attend, there were no signs that anything said at that hearing was registering with any of the important policy makers in attendance, nor were there any questions posed to a single witness.  This fact was exacerbated by the extremely late availability of the DCPS budget only days before the hearing was held and the continued lack of userbility of the budget data made incomprehensible by the mounds of PDF documents separately posted on the DCPS website.

And then there was a hearing hosted by the State Board of Education the following week on the Health and Wellness of School Communities.  Notwithstanding its diverse make up of DCPS parents, working professionals, and even council candidates, one stark contrast of the State Board was that nearly all the members of this body were in attendance for the entirety of this four hour hearing.  One had hoped to see the State Superintendent present behind her nametag at the meeting as well.  But given the very modest compensation of State Board members for their service (approximately $15,000 a year) compared to the full time salaries of Council members and the Mayor (well over $125,000 on average), the full seats at their dais compared to the empty ones at the Council did not go without notice.  Even more refreshing then there mere attendance, however, was their apparent interest in the subject, the witnesses and their testimonies.  Witness testimony was utilized how it should be for public hearings – to start conversation on important matters, not BE the entire conversation.  The staff of this body was courteous and accommodating, not curt or unprepared.  And it appears that each witness even received a follow up email from the Board thanking them for their testimony and inviting them back for further discourse on what many still believe is the most important issue facing this city – Public Education.

In a time when independent evaluations of our city’s governance reveal that public education in this city suffers from a lack of accountability and responsive oversight (see “From Impressions to Evidence” by the National Academy of Science) and that our government and city council are among the highest paid in the nation (see “City Councils in Philadelphia and Other Major Cities” by the Pew Charitable Trust), we need more oversight and discourse from our well-paid policy makers in this city – not less.  Given the Mayors decision to keep Michelle Rhee’s Deputy on as his Chancellor (probably a good call in my view) and the apparent lack of anything transformative in the recently posted schools budget for 2012, it is unclear what the Mayor’s priorities are in this area or what will distinguish his leadership on this issue from his predecessor.  Given the council’s general absence on the issue other than showing up to question the Chancellor when she comes to the Wilson building, it is not clear that they care what those priorities are or how they are being implemented.  Yet each of these incumbents as candidates stated public education among their top priorities. 

I applaud the State Board of Education for working to make their relatively new role as State policy advisors relevant in this continuously changing landscape, and urge the more visible, outspoken, highly paid officials in this city who actually control the purse strings of public education to follow their example.  Be present, be engaging and be heard – it’s what we hired you to do.

Ready High School Project


What DCPS Comprehensive High Schools are Doing to Ensure that our Students are College and Career Ready

This year DC VOICE changed the focus of its community action research.  After six years of the Ready Schools Project’s focus on the supports all schools need in order to provide high quality education for their students, DC VOICE focused solely on the 10 comprehensive high schools, those schools that have open enrollment with no selection criteria other than the school’s geographical boundary.    Two conditions spurred this decision: 
  • Over the past six years, DCPS has improved how it provides schools the basic supports they need – and that is wonderful news, and is a testament to the power of the data collected by DC VOICE volunteers each year as part of our community action research.    Now it was time to go deeper in our information gathering.
  • One of the biggest challenges for our schools today is ensuring that our high school students graduate ready for the worlds of work and college.   While we knew that the stated mission of DCPS – and of the nation  – is to graduate students college and career ready, we also knew, at least from available test data, that many of our students arrive at our high schools – particularly the open enrollment comprehensive ones – several grades behind academically, and poorly prepared to fulfill that mission.
At the same time DC VOICE collected data through our interviews with high school principals we worked with the Data Team provided by our Collaborative for Education Organizing grant to collect publicly available data on DC high schools.  The big lesson learned from this latter effort was that there is a great deal of data available, but not all of it is readily accessible, and not in formats useful for the very persons most affected by the data, i.e. parents, students and teachers.  We are indebted to both the persistence of the Data Team and the assistance of DCPS’ Office of Accountability for additional information on our high schools.
We used a two-part survey instrument for the confidential interviews with principals: 
  • Part I continued to build on the community schools and parent/community involvement data DC VOICE has gathered in past years, leading to action by community members at  DC VOICE Town Hall meetings.  
  • The Part 2 questions were based on a college readiness framework developed by the Annenberg Institute (Annenberg Institute, 2007).  Based on the effective practices in a group of “beating the odds” high schools in New York City, the framework has four sections:  1) Promoting Academic Rigor, 2) A Network of Timeline Supports, 3) A Culture of College Access, and 4) Effective Use of Data.
This report presents the college and career readiness data.  While we reviewed suggestions from other sources (see list at end of this report), we based our inquiry on the Annenberg Framework because it reflects what is working at other urban high schools, and is research-based and field tested.  We adapted it to include: 
  • More emphasis on career as well as college readiness.  Not only are there many good jobs and careers that do not demand a college degree, but also the same readiness level is required for success in both career and college.
  • The importance of starting earlier than high school to focus on college and career readiness.  We added questions on whether our high schools are working with their feeder schools and whether career/college readiness work is beginning at 9th grade, and not waiting until 11th or 12th.
  • More emphasis on how much parents are involved in career/college readiness preparations and decision making.  Research continues to highlight the importance of high school students having strong supports from the adults in their lives, both at school and at home. 
  • Use of a four part rating system for the responses:  1) not implementing, 2) beginning to implement, 3) moderately implementing, and 4) full implementation.
Four themes emerged from the interviews conducted with the10 DC high school principals. Each of these themes becomes a call to action on issues presently challenging our high schools and their students in Washington, D.C.:
1)  Remedial vs. Advance Placement (AP) compete for resources/focus. 
2)  College/career supports are needed by all students and early on.
3)  Parent/community involvement is a great challenge for most high schools.
4)  High school leadership changes affect school improvement progress. 
DC VOICE thanks the many volunteers who helped design the Ready High Schools Project, and who attended training sessions and then conducted the interviews with high school principals.  We are also grateful to the principals who made the time to meet with our volunteer researchers and provide the information in this report.  We know how very busy and demanding their days are, and appreciate their willingness to participate in this year’s DC VOICE community action project. 
Our intent here is to provide baseline information about the college and career readiness of our high schools.  Our principals and indeed our whole community know much more needs to be done.  At this time of transition to a new Mayor who has promised to keep education reform front and center, our hope is that this report can spur high school reform efforts.  Such efforts – to support and enable our high schools to provide the quality education our students deserve to launch them successfully into the world – must involve all of us:  not just our schools, but the whole city of Washington, D.C.


©2009 The DC VOICE Ostrich |