Come On, City Leaders, Do The Right Thing: Fully Investigate ALL Our DC High Schools

In the wake of the recent report on Ballou and some high schools by the office of our state superintendent of education (OSSE), we have learned a few things (not all of which have been written about, in at least one case):

–At Ballou, DCPS turned its back on staff and students. That included 1. not ensuring adherence to and/or training in DCPS grading policies; DCPS absence policies; and the DCPS credit recovery program; 2. not supporting teachers who were pressured to pass students or face poor evaluations; 3. not addressing prolonged and horrific teacher attrition (see page 10 of the Alvarez & Marsal interim report contained in OSSE’s report: in SY16-17, 22 out of 50 Ballou teachers teaching seniors that school year are now gone); and 4. not verifying community service hours of graduates.

–As page 2 of the report makes clear, the DC public school charter board exercises no oversight of its charter high schools in terms of adherence to attendance policies; how those policies affect credits earned; graduation requirements being made publicly available; and credit recovery. This means that what happened at Ballou may be happening right now at any DC charter high school, including having students take credit recovery classes concurrently with the classes they are using credit recovery for; passing students who have been absent for significant percentages of the school year; pressuring teachers to pass students; and turning a blind eye to absences in order to raise graduation rates.

–The charter board began its 12th grade transcript audits in 2011–15 years after DC charter schools began.

–OSSE itself could not access graduation requirements for all charter high schools, and most charter high schools have no attendance requirement for graduation.

Happily, our state board of education has now joined council members Robert White and Trayon White in calling for an independent investigation of all publicly funded high schools in DC. (The council will reconvene its public hearing on the subject on February 8–while taking in public opinion of the latest report here.)

But whether (and how) any independent and complete investigation will happen remains unknown.

Also unknown are answers to some incredibly basic questions:

–How is attendance recorded–and is it done the same way in each LEA?

–How is that attendance verified for each LEA? And is it verified in the same way for each LEA?

–Given that there are clear incentives to pass students (even when they miss large chunks of the school year) and to have them graduate, what safeguards exist to ensure that absences are appropriately flagged in every LEA and acted upon in a reasonable fashion, such that graduation rates, absences, and credits are accurate and similarly accounted for?

–When will we have city-wide rules for, and oversight of, credit recovery?

Pathetically, we may never get answers to any of these questions, given the data murkiness in which OSSE seems to operate–alongside the official silence that has greeted calls for an independent investigation.

For instance, in OSSE’s report on Ballou and other high schools, Capital City Public Charter High School (PCHS) showed a dramatic shift (page 25) in its attendance between SY15-16 and SY16-17 for its graduating seniors: 27.3% of seniors in the earlier year attended school at least 95% of the time, whereas 93.2% of seniors the next year did so.

What caused the dramatic shift?

Well, in its (first? only?) report on attendance–a separate document, dated November 30, 2017–OSSE gave a shout-out to Capital City on its attendance policies (pp. 14-15):

“Teachers at Capital City PCHS are able to make use of an Early Intervention Monitoring System that flags students as they accumulate unexcused absences. The school also provides a timeline of tardiness and early departure that corresponds to instructional minutes lost and the percentage of the day considered absent, bringing attention to how even partial absences can accumulate into a significant amount of missed school. Capital City PCHS is also making an effort to reduce student absenteeism by celebrating students with perfect attendance records. Such efforts seem to have made a real impact: at Capital City PCHS, approximately one out of three students who were chronically absent during the 2015-16 school year were chronically absent again in 2016-17, whereas two out of three students at the state-level had recurring chronic absenteeism.”

So that must be it: innovation cures the malignancy of chronic absenteeism!

Well, until you start looking at it:

For one, the 80/20 rule should ensure that this is already happening: “a timeline of tardiness and early departure that corresponds to instructional minutes lost and the percentage of the day considered absent.”

And then, flagging students “as they accumulate unexcused absences” should already be happening as well–otherwise, how would anyone know who is truant?

(Answer: they might NOT know who is truant.)

And finally, saying that “approximately one out of three students who were chronically absent during the 2015-16 school year were chronically absent again in 2016-17” is not exactly such a boon, even if it is better than the state average.

That’s because chronically absent students in one year are not necessarily (or at all) the same students chronically absent the next year–so the stated “improvement” here is entirely illusory except in comparison to (equally illusory) state averages!

Such vaunting of innovative practices at our schools would be funny if the end result here was not so dreadful for kids–OUR kids.

Of all official entities in DC, OSSE should count itself the least surprised by what happened at Ballou, given that its November 30, 2017 attendance report made clear that our publicly funded schools have pretty awful attendance rates all around—with the worst reserved for all our high schools.

Sadly, that November 30 attendance report is less than easy to access (go ahead: try and find it from the OSSE home page or from this newish website dedicated to attendance).

But now that OSSE has determined in its latest report on Ballou that attendance rates for all publicly funded DC high schools have been skewing in one direction at least in the last 3 years, such that most graduates have many documented absences, there is only one conclusion to make:

For years running at most, if not all, of DC’s publicly funded schools, educators have been faced with pressures unimaginable to most of us: educating students for whom absences are frequent, extended, and educationally devastating and yet whose passing is tied to the educators’ own, and their schools’, success.

In other words, it’s not just Ballou–it’s everywhere.

And no one even knows–or apparently cares to know–how bad it really is in the schools that educate almost half our kids.

NOW can we have that independent and full inquiry, mayor, deputy mayor for education, OSSE, council?

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