Plans for a D.C. Education Research Collaborative Move Forward, and Politicking Ensues

Originally published in Washington City Paper on November 26, 2018.
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At some point soon, as early as this week, the Council will vote on legislation for an education research collaborative—an independent research body that will conduct studies on the city’s public schools. The idea is to better determine how various educational policies impact schools and student academic performance.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh proposed the research collaborative in April, introducing legislation with eight co-sponsors. In the wake of a series of school scandals over the previous year, many parents, education advocates, and elected officials began voicing doubt in the data produced by the mayoral-controlled school system, and considered the idea of an independent research entity to be a vehicle to help rebuild that trust. The collaborative would have an advisory board of school system officials, parents, community leaders, and teachers to drive the research agenda, and the Council allocated $500,000 in its latest budget to help get it off the ground.

In September, the Education Committee, chaired by At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, revised and approved a new version of the bill—the latest publicly available version—and moved it on to the full Council.

Two months earlier, in July, the public learned that while the Council was working on establishing an education research collaborative, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration was in private talks with the Urban Institute, a national, D.C.-based think tank, to establish its own separate collaborative. At a joint roundtable in September, councilmembers urged the executive branch to pause their separate effort, so as to not undermine the legislative process. (For more information, read City Paper’s “Council Challenges Executive Branch, Urban Institute at Contentious Education Research Collaborative Hearing.”)

At the time, then-interim Deputy Mayor for Education Ahnna Smith would not agree to pause her office’s plans with the Urban Institute, but said she would take the Council’s request “under consideration.”

Beginning in October, Mayor Bowser replaced Smith with Paul Kihn, the new Acting Deputy Mayor of Education, and a former Deputy Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District. In an interview with City Paper, Kihn confirmed that their separate research collaborative is “definitely on hold” as the Council proceeds with its legislation.

“At the last hearing we were raising questions and making them quite uncomfortable,” says Cheh. “I think they heard the message that that was probably a wrong approach.”

The latest version of the legislation out of the Education Committee has sparked some protest and organizing from parents and advocates. In a recent email newsletter, Ward 3 State Board of Education representative Ruth Wattenberg wrote that the bill had been amended in “at least two ways that badly undermine the purpose the Collaborative,” and urged her readers to email and tweet at the Council with their concerns.

Specifically, Wattenberg noted that the latest version of the bill greatly limited the number of “DC education stakeholders” that would be represented on the steering committee, stacking it primarily with mayoral appointees. She also criticized how quickly it would spin out of the D.C. Auditor’s office, to be permanently housed in a “private, unaccountable home.”

Cheh’s original legislation also proposed spinning the research collaborative out of the auditor’s office after an “incubation” period, but some advocates say they worry the latest version would shorten that incubation phase by too much. These proponents think launching the collaborative in the auditor’s office is a way to help ensure its success and long-term independence, but the Council’s Education Committee stated in its Sept. 24 report that it “had reservations and concerns about the ability of the Auditor to be a fair and collaborative partner in conducting research meant to improve practice.”

“My concern is that you want to be able to stand up an operation that can function independently, that can stand up to pressure from wherever that pressure is coming from,” Wattenberg tells City Paper. “And in this city, the educational institutions are very powerful and I worry that you can’t put something really independent like that into place within a year [of incubation in the auditor’s office]. You probably need three years or so.”

City Paper reached out to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who says he has seen Wattenberg’s most recent newsletter and received a few emails from concerned constituents.

Mendelson suggests that concerns about the steering committee being stacked too heavily toward the executive branch will likely be resolved once the public sees the latest version of the bill. “I would say we’ve moved beyond” the Education Committee’s version, he says. “People are upset now that the mayor’s appointees might dominate the steering committee, but I don’t think that’s what the composition will look like. The steering committee will be larger.” He adds that he expects D.C.’s committee to resemble the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s steering committee, which has about two dozen people. (Grosso’s version proposed a committee with 11 members—7 voting, and 4 nonvoting, and Cheh’s version proposed 16 voting members.)

Mendelson says their real challenge moving forward is figuring out how to build the needed trust with the executive branch to make this effort successful. “The executive is very uneasy about housing it in the auditor’s office, and the executive is not going to be cooperative if they’re uncomfortable,” he says.

The idea of designing the research collaborative as an education watchdog, Mendelson adds, is not the direction they’re moving in. “That’s where some people want us to go, but that’s not where we’re going,” he says.

Kihn tells City Paper that one of his primary goals as Deputy Mayor of Education is to “build public confidence,” and notes that “we cannot do that without clear systems of accountability and data systems that have integrity and are trustworthy.” He says he’s far less concerned with education agency heads being comfortable than with the reported information being transparent and accurate. He cites his role in setting up a similar research collaborative in Philadelphia, which launched in 2014.

Kihn emphasizes that he sees it as important to establish the research consortium as “independent of government,” and for that reason, outside of the auditor’s office, which is part of the legislative branch. In late October, D.C Auditor Kathy Patterson released a statement pushing back on concerns that her office was incapable of incubating the independent research collaborative, noting that her office regularly undertakes projects that go beyond data audits.

In early November, Kihn, Grosso, Mendelson, and Hanseul Kang, the State Superintendent of Education, traveled together to Chicago to visit the city’s research consortium. Kihn notes that Chicago’s model—considered one of the best in the country—is funded almost exclusively through philanthropy, with some in-kind contributions from the University of Chicago. He says he very much supports the idea of bringing “actionable insights” and “additional analytic capacity” to the public sector at low-cost or no-cost to taxpayers.

Rita Lewis, a spokesperson for At-Large Councilmember Robert White, says White would want to wait to see the latest version of the bill offered by Mendelson before commenting further. While White did vote to move Grosso’s version out of the Education Committee in September, he raised concerns at the time that there was not enough input from parents, students, and teachers on the steering committee.

Cheh tells City Paper that as the bill moves through the final stages of the legislative process, the “most important” concern will be the makeup of the steering committee. She acknowledges that the role of the auditor has also not yet been “clearly resolved,” and says they’ll be looking at that.

When asked whether the Urban Institute might be chosen to run the education research collaborative, Mendelson said, “there’s a chance, but I don’t want to say that’s probable. I think we’re just at the point where we’re trying to figure out how to gestate this thing.

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