The Ballou Hearing: The Good, The Bad, & OSSE

Of all the incredible things said by parents, teachers, students, and policy experts during the more than 10 hours (!) of the December 15 council hearing on graduation accountability and Ballou, here are some selected highlights:

–Many testified about the good actions of the Ballou principal and urged the council to talk to teachers and students about their experiences, as the school and its community have been harmed.
–Many highlighted structural, systemic problems not limited to Ballou, including widespread absenteeism, tardiness, and the limitations of the 80/20 rule, which some said incentivizes students to not show up at all, as missing as little as two periods means being marked absent for the entire day.
–Many gave concrete recommendations, including reinstating Ballou’s principal; getting rid of the 80/20 rule; staggering start times of elementaries and middle and high schools so older students dropping off younger siblings can arrive on time; getting rid of the requirement that if you have missed a certain number of days, you automatically fail a course; ensuring there is no set number of absences, but better oversight and understanding of absences and individual students’ situations; better investment in interventions, including mental health and behavioral support; and reassessing the use of tardy halls, which keep students out of classes when they’re late.
–Several witnesses and council members called for an independent investigation, with better public release of disaggregated data on attendance and more honest conversations without PR spin.
–Several teachers noted that measurement of teacher performance mainly through standardized test scores and graduation rates means that those become the only indicators that count, warping their effectiveness as data points in addition to forcing unethical choices.
–Many noted pressure on teachers, reflected in teacher absences and pressure to pass students or raise grades, and the fact that even principals are not protected in their jobs.
–Several witnesses highlighted the need to understand how to teach students on nontraditional paths, especially taking in consideration their experience of trauma and poverty, and to prepare students better for post-high school options other than college.
–As councilmembers expressed concerns with credit recovery (that it incentivizes students to skip classes, that it may not be high-quality instruction), one teacher noted that the DCPS program for online credit recovery, Ingenuity, not only is a “poor facsimile” of a class but also allows scores to be entered without students doing the work and creates the appearance of more work than is really done. (In response to David Grosso, DCPS chancellor Antwan Wilson promised to give the council DCPS’s policy on credit recovery–but as of today, the council had not yet received it.)

Acknowledging that much remained to be explored, the council will be accepting written testimony until the end of this month (send to Ashley Strange via email (astrange@dccouncil.us) or snail mail: Council of the District of Columbia, Committee on Education, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Suite 116, Washington, D.C. 20004).

And yet, after hours of calls to action and expressions of concern, perhaps the most telling piece of that hearing is what is not being done or said by the office of our state superintendent of education (OSSE).

Despite calls from council members Robert White and Trayon White to have a full and independent investigation of all DC public high schools, the $390,000 noncompetitive emergency contract signed between OSSE and private firm Alvarez & Marsal will investigate mainly Ballou, with some cursory overviews of other DCPS high schools and DCPS policies on graduation rates and attendance. A report is expected out to the public by the end of January.

What makes this oddly one-sided view even weirder is that the head of OSSE, in response to a question from Robert White, testified that her agency does not even have official oversight of DCPS attendance policies, but is undertaking the investigation because the mayor asked for it.

(Hmm: Maybe someone might want to remind the mayor that not all high schools in DC are run by DCPS and that Ballou’s problems are not limited to its own sector. Or maybe the mayor just forgot about her role as the head of ALL city public education?)

To be sure, Kang noted during the hearing that OSSE will be working with the charter board to review citywide attendance and graduation data for all high schools and reviewing charter board practice for all charter high schools. But there appears to be no deadline, guidance, or even clear objective regarding that research project.

Moreover, since many functions of OSSE are specifically dedicated to enabling charter schools through federal fiat, it seems contradictory to expect that agency to effectively exercise authoritative and independent investigations of the very schools it inevitably enables.

For instance, as detailed on pages 32 and 91 of OSSE’s latest annual report on the Healthy Schools Act, six charter schools were granted $100,000 each by OSSE simply to meet the physical education requirements of the act. There was no explanation as to how those six schools were chosen and whether the effort was successful–which is nice for them, but perhaps not for the hundreds of other DC public schools that really could have used that $600,000.

And then there are the financial programs that OSSE oversees for charter schools, including awarding millions annually in federal funds (through a program called Charter School Program Dissemination) to a few DC charter schools to help create new campuses; school partnerships; and/or curriculum development. OSSE also runs the Office of Public Charter School Financing and Support, whose staff manages facilities financing and other funding issues that DC charter schools may face, with a standing committee overseen by OSSE to approve loans to charter schools.

And that’s not even getting into the superintendent’s own history. Hanseul Kang came to DC as a Bowser appointee from Tennessee, where she served as chief of staff for the head of Tennessee’s state education department, Kevin Huffman.

During his tenure, Huffman was assailed for problems with Tennessee’s standardized testing; allowing charter schools to be approved not by local school boards but on his authority; cutting school funding and teacher pay; and trying to tie teacher evaluations to test scores.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s not a coincidence: Huffman is also Michelle Rhee’s ex-husband, and Rhee and Huffman, along with Kang, are not only alums of Teach For America, but strong proponents for education reform, including heavy emphasis on test scores and standardized tests as indicators of educational and teacherly virtue. (Recall the nonresponse I and another parent got when we expressed concern to Kang about combining test scores for different tests into one number that represented no test score whatsoever.)

Still, OSSE’s role here might be all water under the bridge but for that hearing–most especially IMO the emblematic 20 minutes below, which I transcribed from the hearing video starting at 4:49:59.

To be sure, as a DC citizen I am grateful for the heroic efforts of the council during the Ballou hearing (especially to the two council members below who are not even on the education committee!).

But I really don’t want heroics: I just want democracy.

Unfortunately, the only people we DC citizens can elect to oversee education in our town didn’t show up to testify at the Ballou hearing (hello, state board! hello, mayor!). Perhaps worse, our elected state board has no power to hire, fire, or otherwise make policy.

Now, if you’re wondering what could possibly go wrong in that scenario, read this transcript–or, better, watch the whole exchange starting at starting at 4:49:59:

Council chair Phil Mendelson (PM): The 80/20 rule, which has gotten some attention today, is in OSSE’s regulations. Why?

OSSE head Hanseul Kang (HK): So, my understanding is the regulations are part of chapter 5A, which is actually DCPS’s old chapter. [She turns around to view someone behind her, who apparently is talking to her] I apologize: no, I’m sorry, you are correct. They are in OSSE’s regulations.

PM: And you are the superintendent for OSSE. So, why are they in your regulations?

HK: They are part of the definition for, uh, as part of the terms for attendance, they are part of the definition for what it means to be present. One of OSSE’s statutory responsibilities is to collect the attendance information for students.

PM: Yeah, OK, that tells me what they are, but why do we have that? Why are we defining truancy as 80/20?

HK: So, truancy is, I think, separate, based on the clarification that was pursued this past year.

PM: Well, no, let me cut you off. We get these truancy reports, we have truancy data, and it becomes a little bit of a labor for us to figure all of this out, as I think it is for everybody. And then there is a lot of misunderstanding, which is what we’ve heard throughout today’s hearing. For purposes of the law and what the council’s passed, there are referrals that have to be made, such as to see if there is educational neglect or there’s abuse at 10 days’ truancy. And we changed the law because of the 80/20 rule to make it clear that that’s a full day absent. So for the purposes of the council and the laws that we have passed (attendance, accountability, and so forth), we’re concerned about full days absent. We’ve never said 80/20. And so now we’re getting reports that say there are 100 kids who are truant, but only 20 of them need to be reported to CFSA [Child and Family Services Agency] because that’s the full day. That other 80 in the 80/20 and then everybody comes in here and says get rid of the 80/20 rule, which is your rule. So why do we do that? Why not just call it tardy and have a measurement for tardy?

HK: So, we are certainly open to revising the rules. I can explain why I believe they are where they are today. The law requires that OSSE reports on both the students who are present, who are partially present, and who are absent on any given day. Currently, the definition of present is that a student is present for 80% or more of the school day, partially present is being present for 20% or more of the school day, and absent is anything less than 20%. Different states set different requirements for this. Because OSSE is collecting what the daily attendance status is of students, there needs to be some parameter for those students who are present for less than 100% of the time.

PM: All of that makes sense–but the reports don’t say present, partially present, or absent. They say absent, and then we have to go sorting through the 80/20 or the full day. Let’s just be clear: to the extent that folks are upset about this, as I understand it this is not a DCPS policy, it’s not a council policy, and when we’re looking at truancy, we’re actually looking at full day and this is an OSSE policy. If it’s important to measure partial attendance, please change the nomenclature.

PM: I am going to ask this as well of you, Superintendent Kang: There seem to be some rules with regard to how many days a student can miss and then they’re deemed to automatically to have failed that course or how many days that they have missed and then they’re deemed to not be eligible to graduate. Am I correct about that and are those OSSE rules?

HK: Those are not OSSE rules. My understanding is that DCPS has an LEA-level policy. As Ms. Young [Rashida Young, Senior Manager for Equity and Fidelity at the DC Public Charter School Board] testified, some charters LEAs also may have attendance as part of their policies, but those are not state policies.

PM: What about with regard to failing a course?

HK: There is not a state policy tying attendance and course failure.

PM: There is not an OSSE state policy tying attendance to successfully completing a course or being able to graduate?

HK: That’s correct.

PM: What about seat time?

HK: Yes, there is currently to graduate in the requirements set forth by OSSE and approved by the state board of education that requires obtaining particular credits. And in order to obtain those credits, there is a Carnegie unit requirement, which requires a certain amount of seat time.

PM: Now, why isn’t that the same as attendance? I’m not in the seat if I’m not attending. If I am attending, I’m in the seat. If I’m not attending, I’m not in the seat. You were very clear: there’s no regulation with regard to attendance and completing a course or graduating, but now you’re saying there IS a regulation with regard to seat time.

HK: So I believe that OSSE’s only view into attendance is at the daily level. We do not have a view into whether a student has missed a particular course or not. So for example, if they missed just one period in the day, OSSE would not necessarily know that information, and so the Carnegie unit requirement–

PM: [interrupting] Whoa whoa–you DO know that because of the 80/20 rule. But putting that aside, the seat time. The Carnegie–what is this again?

HK: The Carnegie unit.

PM: Which is?

HK: I believe it is [looking over shoulder] 120 course hours throughout the year.

PM: Which means a student has to be present 120 hours?

HK: Correct.

PM: Only 120 hours?

HK: I believe they have to be enrolled in a course for 120 hours of [looking over shoulder] instructional time. It does not specify specifically that a student must be present in that seat for that amount of time.

PM: Huh?

HK: A student must be enrolled in a course for 120 hours of instructional time, but the definition of Carnegie unit does not specifically say the student must be present for that entire time.

PM: OK. So, I’m enrolled in world history at the beginning of the year, and I never show up. I’m enrolled.

HK: So we would expect that the school would not grant credit to a student who did not appear at all, given that they would not have earned a grade for that course.

PM: I am not understanding. Attendance is not a factor?

HK: Attendance is not a factor as defined in the state graduation requirements.

PM: But I also asked with regard to graduating or completing a course, and you said attendance is not a factor. But I have to be enrolled for 120 hours or I have to be present for 120 hours? Do these terms have meaning?

HK: Again, at the state level, we set forth graduation requirements that are based on a Carnegie unit, which requires 120 hours of instructional time. The presence of a student in that seat is determined by the LEA. And the student’s mastery or completion of that course credit is determined at the LEA level.

PM: I don’t want to use up all my time on this, and actually I have [“Yup” from David Grosso, committee and hearing chair] It makes no sense. I’m sorry, but it just makes no sense. So, 120 hours, but I don’t have to be there. But I have to be there. That’s what I am hearing you say.

HK: I don’t believe that’s correct.

PM: Well, help me. What’s correct?

HK: So again, we do not at the state level specify the amount of time that a student needs to be present to show that they have passed a course.

PM: But you specify 120 hours.

HK: Of instructional time.

PM: How do I get instructional time if I am not present?

HK: By being enrolled in the class. That does not determine whether a credit should be granted or not. It is simply the definition of a Carnegie unit as it currently exists in the regulations.

David Grosso [to Mendelson]: Mr. Chairman, I think the chancellor might be able to help with this answer as well, if he’s willing.

DCPS chancellor Antwan Wilson (AW): This is not unique to DC: Carnegie units of credit, which I believe is an outdated mode of assigning credit, is normally set at the course level, so it’s about how many hours have you established at the course level in order for students to complete the course. It’s one of the reasons why you see 9 week quarters, 18 week semesters, in order to satisfy the requirement that is set at the state level for the amount of time students have to complete the course. The question you’re asking is about independent student attendance, which is not typically the way the SEA [state education agency] measures how we set courses. Again, the expectation has been laid out here in terms of how we set up the course and the amount of time it takes students to master it. Different distinction is how often students were present in the course.

[Forward to council member Elissa Silverman (ES), at 5:00:13]

ES [to Kang]: I just want to understand: what is the credit recovery program and . . . is a credit recovery course a Carnegie unit?

HK: So currently there are no regulations around credit recovery nor do I think there is a single definition or understanding of what credit recovery is or how it is used at different high schools in the District of Columbia.

ES [incredulous]: So we have no guidance about what credit recovery is?

HK: That’s correct.

ES: That’s shocking. Superintendent, you formerly were in Tennessee, correct? Did Tennessee have a credit recovery program?

HK: I believe credit recovery is very common practice at most high schools.

ES: When did you become aware that we have no regulations regarding credit recovery?

HK: It was in preparation for this hearing.

ES [incredulous]: In preparation for this hearing. . . . [turns to Rashida Young, Senior Manager for Equity and Fidelity at the DC Public Charter School Board] Do public charter schools have a credit recovery program?

[Ms. Young replies that some charters have credit recovery and notes “it’s not uniform” and shared some charter high schools she knew about that have it: BASIS, with an absence recovery program; Chavez, with senior recovery; Idea, with senior recovery; and Kingsman; National Collegiate; Seed; and Somerset, with credit recovery programs.]

ES [to Kang]: So we have no regulations regarding credit recovery. So every school is basically willy nilly making decisions about what credit recovery is, how much course time is required, what it takes to pass a credit recovery course?

HK: Right now, LEAs are making that decision on their own. I agree that it’s an important area for further discussion and conversation about aspects that we think may need greater consistency and attention. Credit recovery serves as a very important opportunity for some students who may need an additional chance. . . . At the same time, I also acknowledge that there are a number of risks that come with credit recovery, particularly without parameters or common definitions or understanding, and so I agree that it’s an important area to look at further.

ES: Has OSSE taken a look at credit recovery before these allegations came to light at Ballou?

HK: It’s my understanding as there was work to come to a common understanding of what credit recovery might look like prior to my coming to the office of the state superintendent of education, that there had been discussions with the state board of education in 2014.

ES [turning to Rashida Young]: How do the charter schools regulate credit recovery–is it up to every one of the schools that you had named?

Rashida Young (RY): Each LEA is going to have their own format–again, the amount of time that the student is making up work, whether it’s something that’s done during the school day, after school, on a Saturday. When we conduct a transcript audit, we are asking for–if a student has failed a course, we’ll see in their file that they have made up the course through credit recovery, and that’s where we see it. But in terms of them submitting their credit recovery program to us for approval, that’s not something that we currently have as part of our oversight.

ES: So shouldn’t the charter school board play a role in creating policy about what credit recovery should mean, at least a minimum standard? Am I incorrect on that?

RY: I think it’s certainly something that my team will be discussing. It’s not something that we currently have oversight of.

ES: Let me just pose a scenario that I could go into a charter school where if I show up, you know, five times for an hour, that might be considered credit recovery for algebra 1 and right now, that would be acceptable. Is that my understanding of what’s going on right now with credit recovery?

RY: Right now, the LEAs do set that standard.

ES: So if my school decides that you show up for one week, you go an hour, and you go to all 5 hours, then you can make up basically a whole semester of algebra 1?

RY: Right now, the LEAs are deciding that.

ES: So that’s outrageous, I have to say. I am shocked to hear that.

ES [to DCPS chancellor Antwan Wilson]: So what is DCPS policy around credit recovery right now?

AW: I think first it’s important to recognize that credit recovery has always existed in public education. Credit recovery is simply students retaking a course. That’s happened all different types of ways throughout history. And most of that has been regulated at the individual classroom level. So it’s important to recognize that it is not unique to DCPS, public charter schools or public school in general. As it relates to DCPS specifically, DCPS does have specific policies, there’s an entire program related to credit recovery, there are rules as to how students earn credit, 70% mastery, taking the exams, they must demonstrate that they know the material, so on and so forth.

ES: Is a credit recovery course a Carnegie unit?

AW: The credit recovery is not laid out in terms of the same number of weeks, but essentially it is laid out in order to meet the expectations of the state that the state has set for graduation.

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