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D.C. Transparency Watch: Education Data To Get New Attention By Independent Research Unit

dcogcadmin | May 29, 2018

UPDATE 7-30-18: In a six-hour hearing the proposed new data and research hub for D.C. schools was explored in a joint session  chaired by Phil Mendelson, Council Chairman and Chair of the Committee of the Whole, and David Grosso, Chair of the Committee on Education. The deputy mayor for education, chief state school superintendent and charter school board chair testified in favor of the general idea of research as a tool for improvement but raised many questions about the bill. Especially they disfavored the location of the first two years of the project in the DC Auditor’s Office as likely to “politicize” the data.

Many public witnesses, on the other hand, urged the bill be passed as written to assure independence of the resuting data and findings.

Council Member Mary Cheh, chief author of the bill, revealed an alternate plan for an education research effort apparently under negotiation between the District and the Urban Instutute and to be located entirely within the executive. Government witnesses had downplayed such an effort,  but Cheh suggested the multi-page plan and proposed foundation funding sources hinted it was far along and intended to avoid Council involvement in the venture. For a thorough account of the hearing, see Rachel M. Cohen’s story, “Who Gets Access to Data About D.C. Public Schools? And How Do They Get to Use it?” Washington City Paper, July 26, 2018.

UPDATE 5/29/18: The D.C. budget for 2018-19 passed at “second reading” (final vote) today includes $500,000 for the D.C. Auditor to “incubate an education research consortium pilot.” (Discussed in Council Report on Bill 22-754 at p. 33.)  Heads of D.C. education agencies were said to be opposed, the Council’s Education Committee chairman, David Grosso, had spoken against the idea at a May 16 hearing, and the mayor asked that the funding be removed in her last-minute letter on the budget to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, as the Post’s Fenit Nirappil reported May 24.  Auditor Kathy Patterson said in a statement to the Education Committee that “we stand ready” to build the necessary “collaborative and constructive relationship with school system leaders” that research-practice partnerships elsewhere have shown to be needed.

A new staff in the office of the legislative auditor, guided by a 16-member advisory board, could begin as early as this fall to take stock of the cityís education system, under a bill introduced April 10 by Council Member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and eight cosponsors.

The unit, to be called the D.C. Education Research Collaborative, will do research on its own and under contract with others, and will seek outside grants. An early assignment is to collect every scrap of data on all D.C. schools (DCPS and charter) and assess gaps in collection and management, using comparisons with state-of-the-art data capabilities in other systems nationwide.

The new plan reflects growing dissatisfaction of Council members and the community over inadequate transparency on school topics, highlighted by the graduation scandal earlier this year.  As The Washington Post quoted Cheh, ìWe have been getting bad information ó some of it just false, some of it misleading, some of it incomplete, and we canít get a handle on what to do if we donít know whatís happening.î

With power over schools centered in the office of the mayor and mayoral appointees (at DCPS, charter board, state office and the deputy mayor for education), skeptics have voiced concerns for years that data release has been stage-managed like any other tool of political maneuvering–including downplaying continued problems of low achievement by poor and minority children.

Neutrality of results from the new office, to be lodged within the D.C. Auditor, part of the legislative branch, is thus attractive to some.  Council Member Robert White (D-At large), for example, said in a statement to the Post, ìCreating an independent education research entity will distance education from politics and ensure that the council has the tools it needs to perform oversight over our schools.î

The problem is not new.  The National Research Council study of the District 2007 governance reforms reported millions spent and years of promises of data completeness and accessibility. Yet that study team concluded in 2015 that the state office (largely responsible for citywide data) ìis not functioning effectivelyî with one result that ìthe city does not have a fully operational comprehensive infrastructure for data that meets [the reform] goals or its own needs in its role as a state government, or the needs of residents, researchers, and other users.î The research team called the data issue ìa critical function meriting high priority.î Appendix A in their report pointedly listed information ìprovided and not providedî in response to the researchers’ repeated requests over several years.

The Postís coverage by Perry Stein is here. The proposal is bill B22-0776. It is referred to the Committee on Education (only until September 30) and the Committee of the Whole.