Save DC’s (Truly) Independent Education Collaborative!

[Ed. Note: The following is by Ruth Wattenberg, Ward 3 state board of education representative, on a pending vote (as early as this coming Tuesday November 27) on city council legislation (B22-0776) to establish a research collaborative for education data in DC. In the wake of multiple education scandals involving data, the legislation provides for an independent group to be formed under the auspices of the DC auditor to advise about education policies in DC and conduct research with our education data. Since its introduction, however, the legislation has been changed such that the collaborative would not have a broad oversight committee including teachers, parents, and community members, but mainly oversight by mayoral appointees and the people they oversee. This would allow our education data to remain in firm control of the executive–one of the problems that led to the legislation in the first place. If you agree that this is not a good situation, please sign a citywide letter to our city council saying so–and read on for more information about why this is so important for the future of our publicly funded schools and what you can do before the council votes (either next week or the first week of December).]

By Ruth Wattenberg

Last spring, DC Councilmembers Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Robert White (At-large), Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Elissa Silverman (At-large), Charles Allen (Ward 6), Vincent Gray (Ward 7), and Phil Mendelson (Chair) introduced legislation to establish an independent education research collaborative in DC.

The legislation’s purpose is to bring to DC high-quality, independent research aimed at improving our schools. “Independent” means the research will be shaped and overseen by a broad group of DC education stakeholders–school system leaders, parents, staff, advocates, residents, and researchers–not just by school system leadership. For example, topics might include why teachers and principals felt such pressure to pass and graduate unready students or the reasons behind the city’s high teacher turnover rate. Such an independent research entity exists in most big cities–but not in DC.

Under the legislation, the new collaborative will be housed at the Office of the DC Auditor, which–despite its name–is not a narrow auditing office. It is the DC government office that is tasked with undertaking non-partisan, independent research on a wide variety of issues, much as the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service conduct independent research for the federal government.

The city council was solidly behind the legislative idea, overwhelmingly voting last June to provide the collaborative with advance funding so that it could start its planning work this fall, even before the legislation passed.

The good news is that the legislation has been moving forward.

The bad news is that the newest draft, reported out from the council’s education committee, has been amended in at least two ways that badly undermine the purpose of the collaborative. Members of the education committee have already raised concerns with aspects of the bill. They and other council members need to hear your views.

One set of amendments does away with the broad-based steering committee that is fundamental to the bill and replaces it with a steering committee in which the city’s four school system leaders, all named by the mayor (or by a mayoral appointee, in the case of the charter board’s executive director) make up an automatic majority, thus nullifying the committee’s independence and assuring that it will instead advance the agenda of the school system leadership. Other changes will prematurely spin off the fledgling collaborative to a private, unaccountable home before it has had time to develop the status and culture it needs to successfully stand on its own.

These amendments strike at the heart of what the legislation intends. The result will be more of the same: research that is narrowly conceived, non-transparent, often framed to find desirable results–and non-credible. The intended goal of the original legislation was something else altogether.

ruthchart

Credit Ruth Wattenberg 2018 [Apologies for the typo in the image: in the Cheh original bill, there is only 1 rep., not 11, from the council of school officers.]

This amended version of the original bill is now being considered by Council Chairman Mendelson’s office, and a revised version is likely to be presented to and discussed by the committee of the whole (COW) soon. I urge you to email DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, other members of the council, and the COW’s deputy director, Christina Setlow, with your concerns. (If you are so moved, please copy me as well at ruth4schools@yahoo.com.)

Here’s the email list:

pmendelson@dccouncil.us
jevans@dccouncil.us
vgray@dccouncil.us
callen@dccouncil.us
kmcduffie@dccouncil.us
abonds@dccouncil.us
dgrosso@dccouncil.us
twhite@dccouncil.us
bnadeau@dccouncil.us
mcheh@dccouncil.us
btodd@dccouncil.us
rwhite@dccouncil.us
esilverman@dccouncil.us
csetlow@dccouncil.us

I urge you to send your emails as soon as possible, so that your concerns can be taken into account. You can also tweet your concerns, using the hashtag #DCResearchCollaborative.

Why it’s important for education research to be framed and undertaken independently of those whose programs are being review

DC’s education agencies already collect data and conduct research. Sometimes the research and data is made public; sometimes not. The questions deemed worthy of research are determined by the agencies themselves. How the results are interpreted–and whether and how they are acted on–is determined by the agency itself. There is a place for such data and research, and agencies can already pursue such research.

But, such research is not “independent”–and it is not sufficient. When research and data are not subjected to outside scrutiny–or when research funding is contingent on the funds and good will of the agency being researched–they can be framed or cherry-picked in ways that push a certain viewpoint or avoid investigating problems that could produce undesirable results. Despite the best of intentions, internally generated research and data–absent outside input, review and pushback–ends up affirming what the sponsors already assume and fails to identify key problems.

The acknowledged model for excellent, independent school and district-focused education research is the Chicago Consortium on School Reform (CCSR), founded by Anthony Bryk, one of the country’s most well-regarded education researchers. The CCSR has been credited in a number of publications with helping the Chicago Public Schools to greatly improve the quality of education its students get.

Why the steering committee must be broad

One key element of the CCSR, since its inception, is its broad-based steering committee, which includes the leaders of the public school agencies, teacher and administrator unions, and a range of community organizations. On a panel at the American Education Research Association, Bryk discussed the need for independent research.

He noted that institutions have biases–and that “researchers have biases, too.” He emphasized the breadth of CCSR’s steering committee, noting that from the beginning that they put on the committee “the people who were absolutely sure a reform would succeed and those who were certain it would fail.”

According to Bryk, this approach is a key piece of what helped the consortium to take up a broad range of questions, ask them in ways that all sides felt were fair and full, and interpret results in ways that weren’t perceived as tendentious. It helped to assure that as specific programs and approaches were evaluated, their implementation and unintended consequences were looked at as well.

One of my favorite examples of CCSR research is very relevant to DC today: A number of years ago, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) adopted a policy that limited the use of student suspensions–a policy which has now been adopted for DC schools.

As required, suspensions at CPS schools were dramatically reduced. Left to its own devices, CPS could have declared victory, claimed credit, and moved on. But, in fact, the victory wasn’t what it seemed. In the most troubled schools, the decreased suspensions were associated with decreased achievement, a decreased sense of safety among students, and increased teacher turnover: suspensions were down, but students weren’t getting the help they needed. Thanks to its relationship with the CCSR and the straightforward independent research it provided, CPS could revise the policy and provide schools with resources to put in place interventions such as restorative justice.

Because CPS was an active partner in the research–and with others had helped to shape it–CPS was able to use the results to improve policy and resources around suspension, which led to improved outcomes.

The need to incubate an independent education research entity

In other cities, it was typically the research partner–usually but not always a university–that initiated the creation of an independent research entity. That partner typically came to the table with a rich set of assets: well-regarded education research expertise; outside funding; existing relationships with school partners; and credibility with the broader stakeholder community.

The DC experience has been different. At least two research organizations have mounted efforts to launch independent research entities, trying to engage the interest of the city’s education leadership and funders. But neither the education agencies (DCPS; deputy mayor for education (DME); the office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE); charters) or funders were interested. The efforts died.

The Cheh bill addresses this reality. It proposes to use public dollars to incubate this effort in the office of the DC auditor, building the infrastructure, relationships, credibility, and research track record that could sustain such an entity and ultimately attract funding support. The incubation period also gives the entity a chance to establish its stature and credibility as an independent entity–collaborative with but separate from–the city’s education institutions. There is concern that if the entity was established through more conventional means, for example, through a simple and quickly unfolding RFP (request for proposals), that a broader, independent research agenda could be overwhelmed by the more insular research interests of the educational institutions.

In fact, this summer, the DME’s office was accused of trying to end-run the Cheh bill and establish a narrower, less independent research partnership; the draft agreement between the city education agencies–led by the DME’s office–and an independent think tank offered little role to community stakeholders and gave city agencies the right to veto research that they didn’t want. This all came to public light at a well-attended council hearing last July, which you can read about here.

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