Inspiration Morning: Weigh In NOW On How DC Should Judge Its Schools

[Ed. Note: Below are comments from DCPS teacher David Tansey and DCPS parent Danica Petroshius to our state superintendent of education’s office (OSSE) concerning how federal law to hold our schools accountable, ESSA, will be formulated in our city. OSSE proposes using an 80% weight for test scores. Many parents and teachers have protested this. Tomorrow, March 3, is the last day to comment to OSSE, which you can do here.]

Comment by David Tansey, February 22, 2017:

My name is David Tansey and I am a math teacher at McKinley Tech. Before this, I spent 7 years teaching at Dunbar Senior High School. I am also an active member of the recruitment team at Langley Elementary, my neighborhood elementary school, so I spend a lot of time with parents who are searching for the right school for their children.

When considering OSSE’s ESSA accountability proposal, the first question to ask is, “What problem are we trying to solve?” ESSA was passed to fix some of the problems caused, or at least not solved, by No Child Left Behind: over-testing, a widening achievement gap, and a high degree of segregation between schools by race and class.

In DC, these are very real problems. After 20 years of school choice and almost a decade of reform in DCPS, we still have schools that are largely segregated by class. As demonstrated in the scatterplot below, there is a very strong correlation between a school’s proficiency rate and the percent of its students that are “at risk.” That means schools know that by serving more at-risk youth, they risk lowering their proficiency rate, the primary number they are held accountable for.


[Credit: Guy Brandenburg]

ESSA allows states to design their accountability system to address their local needs. It allows us to change the perverse incentive structures that have perpetuated the class concentrations we have in our schools. It allows us to reward schools for doing the right thing–for working to serve all of our students rather than focusing on those most likely to test well. This can happen only if we focus on these two aspects of a school: its growth rate on tests and whether it has effective programs to serve students from every corner of the city regardless of their academic needs.

Growth is what distinguishes a school where students are learning a lot from one where students already know a lot. OSSE’s proposal has included growth measures for elementary and middle schools but not for high schools. If high school growth measures are not yet available, we should not approve OSSE’s plan until it includes the design of, and timeline for, them.

In order to promote growth, I propose we have a variable weight for proficiency and growth. A school with low proficiency would be rated primarily on growth and a school with high proficiency would be rated primarily on maintaining that high level. This would allow schools that serve primarily low-performing students to be recognized for the growth their students make in academic achievement (even if they are not yet on grade level). My school would be an example of that. McKinley Tech’s typical student grows more than 70% of their peers city-wide, the highest level of any DCPS high school. That information would not be included in OSSE’s current proposal.

The second aspect could be gauged with a well-designed school survey. Again, OSSE’s plan should not be approved until there is a plan to design and roll out a statistically valid school survey. Otherwise, we will not be able to distinguish between “drill and kill” schools and those that provide welcoming environments where students from every corner of the city feel they can reach their potential.

The purpose of our accountability system isn’t to make school choice easier for parents. It is meant to ensure our public schools are serving the needs of the city’s youth. All of them. We need to know that a school’s performance isn’t based, intentionally or not, on its ability to filter between “good” and “bad” students. We need to know that some schools are learning the lesson we desperately need to learn: how to help students who are behind get ahead. Ideally, we would find that some schools are doing this for our neediest students while also serving our more traditional students well.

And I’d argue parents, and all the residents of the District, care about these things too.

Comment by Danica Petroshius, February 24, 2017:

Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on the ESSA plan. I’m Danica Petroshius, parent of two at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan (CHML), LSAT committee member, and a Ward 6 resident. CHML is a citywide school with parents from every ward. Our community is very interested in ensuring that there is enough time to create the right ESSA plan.

OSSE has an important opportunity to shape a stronger, more modern accountability and support system through the new federal ESSA law.

The risk is that the new plan will define and drive our school accountability and support system for the next 10 years, at least. We know that major federal education laws take 10 years or more on average to overhaul. While the federal Department of Education may allow some adjustments and changes to DC’s plan during the next 10 years, the bulk of the plan will stay the same until the ESSA law changes.

To ensure that the ESSA opportunity outweighs this risk, we should not rush into a final plan by April 3; we should wait until the second submission window in September for three critical reasons:

1) Take the time to gain maximum engagement from parents, educators, and other stakeholders. Parents in my community are just beginning to understand the draft plan and its impact. They want to attend the outreach sessions and then go back again for more discussion and input because this plan is complicated and has direct impact on our kids, teachers, and schools.

2) Take the time to work with a variety of experts on various aspects of the plan from what is best for English language learners and students with disabilities to what are the best indicators of school success, in addition to testing, that are valid, reliable, and can be disaggregated and differentiated.

3) Give Chancellor Wilson an authentic, community-based opportunity to weigh in. It is unreasonable that Chancellor Wilson will not have time to get to know our school communities and use that new information to help shape a plan that he will implement for all 49,000 DCPS students. OSSE released its draft plan just as the chancellor came on board, and it will be final just two months later. Chancellor Wilson needs more time to understand and hear from all of DCPS’s school leaders and educators, eight ward education councils, numerous nonprofit partners, and tens of thousands of parents. We parents will hold the Chancellor accountable for DCPS’s success; he should have time to work with us before weighing in. DC charter school leaders have had time to engage their stakeholders, gather experts, and weigh in with OSSE since ESSA was signed in December 2015–over a year ago. To argue that our new DCPS chancellor has to make the same commitments to a new system and a new community in only two months is wrong.

Some may argue that by waiting until September, we are delaying a better system for kids. The reality is that whether a state applies in April or September, school year 2017-18 is the baseline year, and school year 2018-19 is when schools are to be identified for school improvement. If we apply in September, there is plenty of time to set up the systems needed to make this workable. In fact, at least 30 states have indicated that they will wait until September to submit their plans–states with much larger and more complicated systems than DC. To say that it can’t be done here in DC if we wait until September doesn’t pass the laugh test.

In addition, ESSA law requires and encourages more stakeholder engagement in creating the plans and in implementing them. That was part of the bargain for gaining so much more flexibility. We should not short-change that opportunity because we want to “get it done soon.” There is too much at stake.

To OSSE, it may feel like you’ve been working on the plan forever. In fact, OSSE, and the “100 organizations” that you met with in “50 meetings,” have had since December 2015 when the law passed to work on this plan. But DCPS parents and other stakeholders have only seen this draft since January 30, 2017. And have one month to submit comments on March 3. That is not a lot of time to research, meet with their own communities, and engage in the process.

In addition, it doesn’t pass the laugh test to think that OSSE can thoughtfully consider all of the feedback it receives from parents and community members between March 3 and late March, when its proposal goes to the state board of education for approval. If OSSE is serious about considering all of the feedback and giving thoughtful consideration to all of the perspectives and innovative solutions, you will wait to submit in September.

OSSE can do better on engagement. Other states like Colorado have had very open, transparent public meetings made up of committees of stakeholders working with the state educational agency in the light of day to develop their draft plan. OSSE has chosen to develop their draft plan with outreach in 50 back-room private meetings with “100 organizations.” This lack of transparency erodes public trust in the process and in the draft.

At the CHPSPO [Ward 6 education council] outreach meeting OSSE held [on February 21], I was concerned by OSSE’s response to parents’ questions about collecting more data that gives a fuller picture of our schools. OSSE’s comments seemed to say that we can’t collect new or different data because it’s too hard–and we already collect too much data from schools.

To me, that’s a defeatist approach. I agree that there is a lot of data collected. But it shouldn’t lead to inertia or “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Reform is hard; improving schools is hard. This ESSA opportunity should motivate us to look anew at where we need to go. Then figure out what data we already have that can get us there–or where we need to build more data sets. And in the process, decide if there is data we collect that is unnecessary or duplicative.

I also heard OSSE suggest at that meeting that they will implement a pilot project on culture and climate indicators that may be used in accountability systems. While our community supports such a pilot in theory, it’s very important for OSSE to have significant follow through and transparency on such a pilot. Specifically, OSSE should:

–Ask for input on the pilot plan and make the goals, process and timeline transparent and publicly available.

–Include in the ESSA plan a clear overview of the pilot and what the next steps will be: when will it end; what will the process be to share results and when will they be shared; what will the stakeholder engagement process be on the results and how they may or may not affect the current ESSA plan; and what the timeline is for all of the related decisions.

OSSE also indicated that whatever the final ESSA plan is, that it’s not really final. That the ESSA plan should be amendable as circumstances and knowledge changes. We agree.

However, history shows that OSSE and its related plans are not flexible and responsive to new information and new strategies. Inertia and lack of transparent process for changing anything trumps continuous improvement. To that end, OSSE should include in its plan a clear process and timeline for public stakeholder engagement on monitoring of implementation of the plan as well as a process and timeline for considering changes and improvements to the plan including to the accountability framework and measurement system. Only then will we all have a fighting chance to keep our system on a path to continuous improvement and to significantly close the achievement gaps plaguing our system.

To do all of this takes more time than exists between March 3 and April 3. We must wait until September to submit the plan to the U.S. Department of Education. We as a city must give ourselves time to get this right and ensure stakeholder buy-in so that there is widespread commitment to its success. This is a plan that will drive how my children and many others are educated and supported, their teachers valued, and their schools judged though their high school graduation day. We should be willing to wait a few months to make sure the next 10 years are the best they can be.

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