About That February 26 Hearing On “Learning Loss” . . .

In the wake of a deeply weird hearing on “learning loss” (held on February 10 with invited witnesses), the DC Council will hold another hearing on the same topic—on February 26again with invited witnesses.

In a post on twitter the week after the February 10 hearing, council chair Phil Mendelson noted that he “is incensed at the response DCPS provided regarding a plan for academic recovery. Our most vulnerable students continue to be left behind and the achievement gap is only widening. This [February 10 hearing] on “learning loss” emphasized that the city’s education officials are not sufficiently solution-driven. The council will move forward with a plan informed by parents, teachers, experts, principals, and members of the community.”

So gotta ask:

Will the invited witnesses for February 26 be “parents, teachers, experts, principals, and members of the community”? Or will the witnesses be, as in the February 10 hearing, simply a bunch of ed reform acolytes who are not in the classroom every day (or ever!), some of whom have advised the council before on learning loss and/or have businesses that stand to benefit from taxpayer money (especially WRT “learning loss”), while a sizable fraction also have some ties to KIPP?

Also gotta ask:

Why be “incensed” only at DCPS (to be fair, the chairman was hardly alone), given that there was utterly no plan outlined for charters individually or as a whole, while they educate nearly half of DC’s students and their lack of data is, well, breathtaking?

To wit:

–The deputy mayor for education (DME) answered a council question (see #9 here) on students currently failing, both in charters and DCPS, by noting that the charter board cannot know what charter students are failing because it doesn’t collect student course grades! The only hitch is that someone in DC collects charter student course grades—and it turns out that a DC agency that the DME has oversight of (the office of the state superintendent of education, OSSE) also has that authority! Who knew?

–The DME’s response for council question #4–showing what I calculated to be approximately $247 million of federal aid in the last 12 months given to DC’s publicly funded schools–outlined that $18 million was used by DCPS for “Summer Bridge, technology, including student devices and internet connectivity, and instructional materials” and another $5.8 million was used by DCPS to “support technology/digital divide, mental health, and school safety in DC schools.” Presumably nearly all of the rest went to unnamed charter LEAs, for uses that remain publicly unknown.

(Of course, there was this announcement of DCPS’s recovery plans a mere week later—really, this couldn’t have been announced during the hearing?)

And then there’s the obvious question:

Why is the chair of the council not apparently “incensed” by the factors that are responsible for most, if not all, loss of achievement in the first place, which are DC’s socioeconomic realities and persistent funding inequities (which as council chair he presumably has some oversight of)?

The premise of the February 10 hearing—with its 12 public and 8 government witnesses, all by invitation–was that we have a problem, termed “learning loss,” that exists (mainly? only?) in this pandemic, for which solutions are needed now, in this pandemic.

The idea seemed to be that the witnesses would provide solutions and/or a plan for “learning loss,” which is the concept that students are learning less during covid than they would otherwise be expected to—with the greatest losses occurring among the poorest kids.

To be sure, “learning loss” appears to be an eminently solvable problem: You have a differential in learning in a set time period (as outlined by research done by one of the invited public witnesses–naturally), for which there are seemingly innumerable, yet achievable, solutions (naturally) that the businesses of some of the witnesses depend on (naturally).

The only problem with such neat solutions to a supposedly solvable (and time-limited!) problem is that, as far as I know, none of the invited witnesses has ever lived in a pandemic during which they were expected to educate children directly every day for hours for credit.

In fact, the only folks who are doing that right now—actual living, breathing DC teachers!—were not invited to testify.

And it’s not clear that they will be asked to testify on February 26, either.

While the council chair has begun his announced task of arranging meetings with community and other groups on this subject, that is not quite the same as public hearings that solicit solutions from the people who are actually creating and implementing them every single day directly with students.

Possibly because of this lacuna, witnesses’ proffering of solutions on February 10 felt a bit like the proverbial blind men describing an elephant for the first time. Noting that teachers have been functioning as well as they can and are often overworked, witnesses called for extended time in school, both in the day and year, as well as high-dosage tutoring.

So which is it: teachers are overworked or need to work more? Or better? Or none of those things—because we’ll hire one of the private organizations whose reps were invited to testify and that provide services such as the aforementioned high-dosage tutoring?

Even after getting feedback in private meetings with chosen members of the public, the danger of the February 26 hearing is that it will simply be more theater about proffering solutions to ONE problem, while obscuring, diminishing, and/or ignoring the real and abiding problems behind this lost year of schooling.

And let’s be clear about this: It’s not a lost year because teachers or DCPS or anyone in any education agency anywhere is bad or lacks a plan–despite lamentations of the council otherwise.

It’s a lost year because this is a pandemic whose solution is nowhere near at hand anywhere, exacerbating every bad thing we have ever known and experienced in our schools.

Getting incensed about “learning loss” while not getting “incensed” at the terrible inequities in our schools that hundreds, if not thousands, of teachers, parents, and students have testified about over the last year (and that have literally nothing to do with the pandemic except as it makes them worse) is simply bad governance.

Certainly, it begs the question of when the DC Council will finally take mercy on the rest of us DC taxpayers and admit that it cannot (and should not!) function as a school board–and that mayoral control means little to no public control.

This doesn’t mean that council members should not ask questions and conduct oversight. But as that February 10 hearing showed the DC Council is in a relatively poor position to get at important items and then execute a plan–or force agencies (or the mayor) to do so.

For instance, in response to a council question on digital tech, there was no clear outline of whether all DCPS and charter students have adequate tech and internet access (see question #8 here and the DME’s response). And there was no time or way to get to that during the hearing.

But such lack of information on this subject is simply unbelievable a year into distance learning!

Ironically, the one body that HAS pushed this forward and gotten answers has been—wait for it—run by unpaid parent volunteers who have even managed to get legislation introduced on the subject.

(Not coincidentally, these parent volunteers were not invited to the last several hearings on DCPS.)

Sadly, the inability of the council to function as an effective school board makes for a whole lot of nonsense sometimes—such as the 7-minute nonresponse by deputy DCPS chancellor Melissa Kim to a question from Ward 4 council member Janeese Lewis George on how DCPS teachers are supported and a written plan for that.

Starting at about 3:52:05 in the hearing video, Kim talked until 3:59:04 about a teacher survey showing satisfaction; extrapolated that to teacher training; noted that fewer teachers say they are planning to leave than in previous years; and mentioned a survey of parents showing their satisfaction before Lewis George’s time was, literally, up.

(Translated: there is no plan for teacher support in DCPS—which subsequent communication seems to verify.)

But with council member after council member bemoaning the lack of a “plan” to address “learning loss” (which eventually became transmuted into pleas for a “plan” for DCPS to do something for the summer—isn’t it fun how DCPS educates all DC kids even when it doesn’t?), frustrated at large council member Elissa Silverman at 4:06:30 asked the head of Friendship, Patricia Brantley, what she would do if she had $1 billion (!).

Bravely, Brantley noted that she would expand asymptomatic covid testing, because being in person is no good if you have to shut down repeatedly. Then she noted that she would double the numbers of students in summer and Saturday schools; have more than one teacher per class; get more space for social distancing for 4 days/week of school; and provide more digital devices and internet for all students.

Finally, she noted the importance of one-to-one device ratios and stable internet, as the students always on line are often “ahead” of their peers—and then called for citywide provision of both internet and devices to all DC kids. 

Good stuff!

But with that municipal treasure at her command, Brantley may want to first address the preexisting conditions that are the root cause of “learning loss” at any moment: lack of housing, lack of food, inequitable funding of our schools, inappropriate use of targeted funds for those most in need, and year after year of budget cuts at the DCPS schools educating the greatest share of our poorest students (including now!).

Now that would be a plan.

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