Where D.C. Has Failed on Adult Education, Charter Schools Fill the Void

Published in this week’s Washington City Paper

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In 1985, ninth grader Todd Campbell dropped out D.C.’s Cardozo High School to take care of his sick father. Though he planned to return later for his diploma, life kept getting in the way. Campbell’s first daughter was born when he was just 18, and he needed to find work to support her. After taking up trucking for more than a decade, he eventually started his own garbage collection business in 2001, which he managed for seven years until the recession hit. The price of fuel skyrocketed, and Campbell’s Curbside Disposal was forced into bankruptcy.

Just like his business, his marriage ended, and he struggled to find new work. Most companies preferred younger workers, or quickly screened out adults without a high school diploma. Dejected, Campbell moved back in with his mom and tried to figure out his options.

Now, at 50, Campbell is a student again. He’s enrolled at Academy of Hope, an adult charter school in D.C.

“When I first came, I was kind of nervous and didn’t know what to expect, because I felt like you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” he says. “But everyone here is just so nice and makes you feel like you’re more than just a statistic.”

After just one year at Academy of Hope, Campbell says he now has ambitions of completing a dual-enrollment program with the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and getting his business degree, so that if he does start his own company again, he’ll be better prepared to protect it if the economy goes downhill.

“When I walked out from bankruptcy court, all I had was the clothes on my back and my pickup truck,” Campbell says. “As a person who was thrown into darkness from depression, this school is just a bright light of sunshine for me.”

D.C. has a proud reputation as a “highly educated” city. The city offers universal pre-K to all 3- and 4-year-olds, and D.C. Public Schools—with rising test scores and graduation rates—has been characterized as the “fastest improving urban school district in the country.” D.C. also leads nationally when it comes to educational attainment—55 percent of adult residents have a four-year college degree or higher. 

But those numbers can be misleading. Graduation rates don’t reflect proficiency, and achievement gaps between rich and poor students in the District have widened over the past decade. In short, not everyone has reaped the benefits of D.C.’s education system. U.S. Census data show that nearly 60,000 D.C. adults lack a high school diploma or its equivalent and that 11,000 D.C. adults speak English less than “very well.” Worse, the Washington Literacy Center estimates that 13.4 percent of city residents—some 90,000 adults— are functionally illiterate, unable to read a newspaper, a map, or fill out job applications.

Lacking basic literacy, numeracy, and English-language skills comes at a high cost in a city like D.C. More than three-fifths of all local jobs already require at least a bachelor’s degree. By 2020, economists estimate that more than three-quarters of jobs in the capital will require some form of postsecondary education, more than anywhere else in the country.

Though improving, D.C. Public Schools continue to produce high rates of high school dropouts. The school district reports that 10,000 students ages 16-24 dropped out between 2008 and 2017—a demographic often characterized as “disconnected youth.” As adult opportunities for this population narrow, finding ways to help these thousands of residents across the city has taken on a new sense of urgency.

“D.C. has never really had a comprehensive or strategic approach to delivering adult education and related services to the majority of those who need them,” says Alex Donahue, deputy director for policy and research at the 21st Century School Fund and a former D.C. Public Schools principal. “It needs to do better.”

Adult education has been described as a “step-child issue” in the District for decades. Never a serious focus for city officials, under-resourced community-based organizations shouldered most of the heavy lifting, and the city’s minimal investment always rested precariously on the chopping block, framed as an ultimately unessential budget expenditure.

“I remember first hearing about adult education when I got involved in school issues in the 1980s, because there was a fiscal crisis and the question was how can the school system cut expenses apart from raising class sizes,” recalls Mary Levy, a longtime independent budget analyst for the D.C. schools and a former DCPS parent. “One of the ideas on the table for the board of education was, ‘Well, maybe we should only offer instruction for those of compulsory school age.’”

One of the few adult schools that existed back then was Rosario Adult Education Center, which opened in the early 1970s and was later honored by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model for adult learning. Its longtime leader, Sonia Gutierrez, known as one of the most ardent Latino activists in D.C., wanted to create a school that could help immigrants find community and acclimate to life in the United States.

By 1996, amid immense fiscal stress and rapidly declining student enrollment in DCPS (down 45 percent from 1970 at that point), the school district decided to largely end its adult education offerings. Then-D.C. schools superintendent Franklin Smith justified the closures as necessary because adult education was not mandatory, reasoning that adults could attend classes in other city schools if they really wanted. Carlos Rosario, which enrolled 2,000 students at the time, was one of the adult education centers closed that year.

“There was some talk that maybe UDC could take adult education over, but it couldn’t and it didn’t,” Levy says.

 What remained were three small alternative high schools—known as the STAY schools—but they weren’t providing basic adult education. Instead, they were places for younger dropouts to return for their diplomas. Today alternative DCPS high schools collectively serve 1,700 students, and while there are no formal rules prohibiting older adults from attending, school district officials say they try to make clear that these alternative schools are targeting the 10,000 D.C. dropouts under age 24. For the city’s tens of thousands of older adults in similar circumstances, DCPS had no good options.

Where the school district has relinquished its role, the charter system has stepped in to pick up the slack. There are currently nine adult charter schools operating across the city, and the D.C. Public Charter School Board recently approved a new one to open in the 2018-19 school year.

Carlos Rosario, which DCPS shuttered in 1996, reopened two years later as the nation’s first adult charter. Today it has two campuses—in Columbia Heights and Eckington—and serves 2,500 students annually, most of whom are immigrants and English-language learners. Other schools target different slices of the adult population. Briya, for example, serves 640 students across four campuses, educating both parents (or grandparents) and their children together. Founded originally in 1989 as a family literacy center for immigrant refugees, Briya transitioned into a charter school in 2006. There are some schools, like the Maya Angelou Young Adult Learning Center and the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy, that target the “disconnected youth” demographic. And then there are charters like Academy of Hope, the one Todd Campbell attends, which focus on older adults who lack basic literacy skills.   

It’s unusual for so many adults to attend charter schools. In some places, this isn’t even possible—Florida’s law, for example, says charters can only provide K-12 education. And within many states, community colleges act as the primary adult education service provider. But the District never even had a community college until 2009.

D.C.’s charter school law is uniquely broad. Jim Ford, then the staff director for the D.C Council’s education committee, pushed Congress to include adult charter schools in the 1995 School Reform Act. (It wasn’t a very hard sell since charters are funded through local taxes, not federal dollars.) As a result, the D.C. law allows for charters that provide education below the college level for adults who “lack sufficient mastery of basic educational skills to enable them to function effectively in society,” who have not graduated from high school or have not achieved an equivalent certificate, or who “have limited ability in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding the English language and whose native language is a language other than English.”

Even so, back in 1995 Mary Levy says nobody expected charter schools would one day take on the bulk of adult schooling in D.C. Though it was clear at the time that there was a great need—Levy recalls many packed community meetings organized to discuss adult education —there was also so much ongoing turmoil. With the city’s terrible fiscal crisis, its beleaguered schools, and its surging homicide rate, the thought of where the adult charter sector might go in a decade or two just wasn’t much considered.

Yet given all the difficulties adult learners faced, the charter model ended up being a good match. One key advantage of adult charters is the per-pupil funding guarantee. There is simply far more money available to educate adults through charter schools in D.C. than any other alternative. Base per-pupil funding during the 2014-15 school year in D.C. for adult charters was $8,448 per student, compared to, at most, $800 per adult student at a community-based organization (funded primarily through federal grants). 

“Those [federal] grants are not sufficient. They are woefully inadequate, to be very candid,” says Allison Kokkoros, the CEO at Carlos Rosario.

Academy of Hope, which Church of the Saviour volunteers first formed as a local nonprofit in 1985, transitioned into a charter in 2014, precisely to tap into this more stable, generous funding stream. Lecester Johnson, the school’s executive director since 2006, recalls how difficult it was back then for the school to function, constantly scrambling for money, having to make tough financial tradeoffs all the time. Now, what would have taken Academy of Hope a year to fundraise, it automatically receives from the city as its first quarter budget funding.

“For the first time in my almost 10 years at Academy of Hope, we can buy classroom materials, hire teachers, and provide the wraparound services that our learners need,” Johnson wrote in 2015 in an online forum for adult education practitioners. “Prior to the transition to charter, we were operating on less than $2,000 per student, and we were very dependent upon volunteers to staff our classes.” Switching to the charter model, Johnson said, allowed her school to hire full-time teachers, offer competitive salaries, revise the curriculum and instructional methods, and hire all sorts of additional staff like a special education coordinator, a college and career specialist, and a case manager.

Other factors hastening Academy of Hope’s decision to transition to charter included sharply increasing pressure on all adult education providers to include more college and career preparation into their program models and accommodating imminent changes to the GED. Beginning in 2014, passing the exam to obtain the national high school equivalency credential became significantly more difficult, as it now aligns with the K-12 Common Core standards.

Even before the revamped GED, D.C. was already trailing behind other states when it came to adult education. Adult learners in the District were more likely to leave their programs early compared to students elsewhere, and in 2013 just 64 percent of D.C. candidates passed their GED exams, compared to many states that boasted pass rates well over 80 percent. So some leaders of local community-based organizations, like Lecester Johnson, recognized they needed significantly more funding if they were ever to help their students reach these new, more rigorous standards.

Although things are looking up for D.C.’s adult charters—and many of the students they enroll— there are still some problems ahead. Perhaps the most unexpected threat is coming from within the charter sector itself.

The explicit bargain behind the charter movement is that schools earn more autonomy in exchange for increased accountability. A charter operator can run a school independently of many DCPS rules and regulations if they can demonstrate that their students are meeting certain pre-defined benchmarks, standards, and expectations.

But accountability in adult education isn’t easy to define or measure. Compared to K-12, designing meaningful metrics to evaluate adult learners is an inherently more challenging task, and little research has been invested into doing so. Most studies have examined educational strategies for traditional public school students, the findings of which adult education providers often must awkwardly borrow from.

“Let’s say we’re talking about a 55-year-old woman who worked full-time her whole life, has three grandchildren, but doesn’t have her high school degree,” says Sasha Lotas, the research coordinator at Academy of Hope. “Maybe she’s technically testing on a fifth-grade reading level according to CASAS [a national assessment for adult learners], but she is not a fifth grader.”

While Allison Kokkoros, the head of Carlos Rosario, welcomes the greater accountability demands that come with running a charter—like demonstrating a school’s GED pass rate, whether students in career training ultimately got their certification, and whether students found employment and stayed employed—she acknowledges there are some tensions.

“Showing job placement rates and job retention rates are fine, and one part of the story, but we teach the working poor. They’re working multiple jobs and are still below the poverty line … so [employment] is not really the question,” she says. “We’re happy to report those things for accountability purposes, and we will, but for me, it’s not really capturing the deeper story of what we’re actually trying to do.”

Which touches on another complicating factor for accountability in adult education: Often, the students’ end goals are too practical and pragmatic to be easily captured by a standardized test or statistical measure. Some attendees aren’t trying to go to college, or aren’t even focused on getting a specific job. They’re trying to learn basic skills to help with their daily lives.

“Sometimes their kids have outpaced them in school and they want to be able to help with their homework, and we try really hard to recognize that that’s just as valid as wanting the high school diploma to go back into the workforce,” says Jamie Kamlet Fragale, director of advocacy and communications at Academy of Hope. “Making that case can be a little difficult sometimes.”

D.C.’s charter school movement, at times fixated on boosting its accountability measures as high as possible, has had trouble accepting these realities of adult education.

While each charter school used to negotiate its own accountability goals with the D.C. charter board, the city more recently transitioned to a more unified accountability system so that all local charters could be more easily compared to one another. The charter board developed measures for early childhood education, for K-12, and for adult schools.

Naomi DeVeaux, deputy director of the D.C. charter board, says it was far more difficult to develop accountability measures for adult charters than for K-12 and early childhood because adult schools all target such different populations of students. Still, she describes the framework they ultimately created as “powerful” and adds that the D.C. charter board annually reflects on their measures, making changes to ensure their system remains applicable and appropriate.

But the conflict between accountability-oriented thinking and adult education has persisted, blowing into view this past spring when the D.C. charter board began to consider closing the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy.

The Career Academy opened in 2012 and targets students under age 24—those who have dropped out of high school and those who might have their diplomas but need help getting on track for college or career training. The typical student is significantly disadvantaged, likely having been homeless, formerly incarcerated, living in poverty, or experienced some other form of serious trauma.

This year marked the school’s five-year evaluation, and the charter board announced in January that it was strongly considering revoking the Career Academy’s charter, given the school’s low academic performance and its failure to meet its contractual goals. Board officials said, among other things, that the majority of students who enrolled in the school since 2012 were not on track to earn a GED or receive college or career training. Though the charter board regularly closes schools for low performance, those are mostly K-12 institutions, where plenty of educational alternatives exist. The Career Academy’s staff challenged the board’s conclusions, and months-long fights about data and measuring academic progress ensued.

Before January “there was no indication that we were at risk of closure,” says Lori Kaplan, the president and CEO of the Latin American Youth Center. “We were very caught off guard.” She adds that the charter board had even recently upgraded the Career Academy to a “Tier 2” school, from its former designation as a “Tier 3” one, indicating clear improvement.

Shuttering the Academy, advocates pleaded at charter board hearings during the spring, would further deprive vulnerable D.C. residents of already scarce resources and support. The school receives more than $2 million a year from the city to educate disconnected youth, and closure wouldn’t necessarily redirect those funds to other adult service providers. Instead, a funding stream would simply cease to exist. When a K-12 charter closes, its students transfer to other schools, but if an adult charter closes, students are more likely to abandon their education altogether.

“We [ask] that … the public charter school board take into account the full landscape of options, or lack thereof, [for] our most vulnerable young people,” Maggie Riden, executive director of D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates, testified in April. “In the District of Columbia, with a graduation rate that has yet to top 70 percent, in a city with over 8,000 disconnected youth yet fewer than 3,000 alternative education seats, to remove an opportunity for success and long-term engagement in the workforce and our community is wrong. If for no other reason than these young people have made a very active choice to commit to their education. … I strongly encourage you to [recognize] … we lack capacity to meet an already existing, intense, and extreme need.”

The hours of hearings and testimony between January and May made clear that the charter board was uncomfortable with the idea of evaluating a school by standards other than traditional academic and economic outcomes. The board did not seem prepared to evaluate the charter’s success in filling a practical role as a well-resourced welfare support to a deprived population.

On May 9, at a special board meeting meant to decide the fate of the academy, the charter board ultimately voted to reverse its decision and keep the school open, under a new set of accountability conditions. (The board could still decide to shutter the school next year.) D.C. charter board member Sara Mead remarked near the hearing’s end that while it’s clear there is “tremendous need” for adult education services throughout the city, the academy closure process had illustrated some ways in which meeting that need “does not fit naturally and well” with various aspects of the charter school model. She urged her fellow board members to “think very carefully” about approving similar applications in the future.

Another problem dogging D.C.’s current approach to adult education is the lack of centralization. Rather than develop a comprehensive strategy to ensure that all adult needs are met and that the broader system has the capacity to comply with federal standards, D.C. has little resembling city-wide strategic planning. As a result, adult education suffers from coordination issues, as nonprofits, higher ed institutions, DCPS, welfare agencies, the D.C. Council, and charters all fill overlapping, disjointed roles.

To some extent, coordination troubles reflect broader difficulties with D.C. governance. In addition to the routine battles between the federal government and local city officials, D.C. also lacks some of the basic planning structures that many states have. Leaders of local institutions often make decisions, and in effect, set D.C. policy for themselves. Rather than DCPS and the charter sector agreeing to develop a joint approach to most efficiently serve the city’s 89,000 students, for example, the charter sector—which fiercely defends its legal independence —generally resists such efforts.

“A citywide conversation about how many schools do we need, and how do we get to the right number of schools, as opposed to continuing to allow as many schools to proliferate as possible, is probably a necessary conversation to have at some point,” then-DCPS schools chancellor Kaya Henderson said in 2014, in response to news that a new science-oriented charter would be opening up across the street from a science-oriented DCPS school that teaches the same grades. While the city has since established a task force charged with improving policy coordination between DCPS and charters, leaders say that real progress on these kinds of issues has yet to seriously begin. 

Still, the grassroots constituencies that advocate for adult learners across the city have grown more organized and effective over the past few years. In 2015, the D.C. Adult and Family Literacy Coalition successfully lobbied for city-issued high school diplomas for all individuals who pass the new, more difficult GED, and this year advocates convinced the city council to subsidize the transportation costs for adult learners to get to school. But there remains a general lack of strategic leadership among government officials for how best to meet the needs of adults who lack basic skills and credentials across the city.

As policy experts, government leaders, and community activists keep wrestling with these questions, the few thousand existing adult education seats will, for now, continue to serve as a real lifeline for the city’s most disadvantaged.

In 2014, Jeannette Millimono, then a 21-year-old single mom, was working at Target. She had graduated from high school and even attended some college, but had to drop out when she had her daughter and couldn’t afford to pay the tuition to return. When a co-worker told her about the free medical assistant career pathway the Latin American Youth Center Career Academy offered, she decided to enroll and graduated a year later with her MA certification. Today she owns her own apartment in Maryland, works as a medical assistant, and plans to go back to school again next year to become a certified nursing assistant.

“I feel so fortunate that I was able to go to the Career Academy without a penny, without me having to take out a loan, and I was able to grow so much in such a short time,” says Millimono. “It was really challenging, a lot of work, and I had my daughter to care for, but because of the motivation my teachers gave, I was able to get it done.”

How D.C. Became the Darling of Education Reform

Originally published in The American Prospect on April 19, 2017.
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When it comes to education reform, perhaps no city has inspired more controversy and acclaim over the last decade than Washington, D.C. Even today, uttering the name “Michelle Rhee”—the city’s first schools chancellor appointed in 2007 after a major shakeup in the district—still evokes heated reactions from local residents. Following the dissolution of the local school board and the centralization of education decision-making within the mayor’s office, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty commanded an unusual amount of power to change D.C.’s schools.

Over the past ten years, the policies undergirding the national education reform movement—offering more school choice, weakening teacher union power, and creating new accountability systems (with incentives like pay-for-performance and teacher evaluations based partly on student test scores)—have taken hold in the nation’s capital. Some see these moves as encouraging proof that education reform is working. Proponents point to positive benchmarks: District enrollment is growing; D.C. scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have improved (in some cases at a much faster rate than students in other large urban districts); and teachers who left the district after receiving low marks on D.C.’s new teacher evaluation system were replaced with higher-scoring teachers who boosted student achievement.

Research suggests that D.C. charter schools have made strides in student learning compared with the city’s traditional public schools, and the city’s overall test gains cannot be explained by demographic changes alone. In 2016, Jonathan Chait, a liberal writer for New York magazine (whose wife helped craft some of D.C.’s new policies and now works for a local charter school), declared, “The dramatic improvements registered in places like Washington show the revolutionary possibilities of education reform.”

For others, these gains have been overstated. Critics point to large racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, misleading claims made by the school district’s public relations department, uncritical press coverage, a precipitous decline in black educators, and funding that has been inequitably distributed to some of the city’s most impoverished schools.

“I know that too many of the successes boasted of by schools and by educators like me are little more than polite interpretations of the same data scores,” a D.C. charter teacher wrote recently. “Too much of what I see in my school today is exactly what I saw ten years ago.” After a decade working in D.C. schools, she is calling it quits.

Subsequent D.C. mayors (Vincent Gray, elected in 2011, and Muriel Bowser, elected in 2014) and schools chancellors (Kaya Henderson, appointed in late 2010, and Antwan Wilson, in late 2016) have largely continued to promote the school reforms launched by Fenty and Rhee. Though it’s been more than two months since Wilson took over as D.C.’s new schools chancellor, it is unclear how he will steer the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) between these competing narratives of success and hype. A better understanding of D.C. school reform, which was long heralded by the Obama administration as a national model, matters even more now that Donald Trump’s administration aims to expand school choice policies across the country—likely beginning with the nation’s capital.

 

THOUGH PEOPLE REMAIN starkly divided over education reform in D.C., the one thing both critics and supporters agree on is that the old way of evaluating teachers had to change. Removing bad teachers from the classroom had been too difficult. Mary Levy, a longtime independent budget analyst for the D.C. schools and a former DCPS parent, says it was well-known that some teachers shouldn’t have been there, but they were hard to fire.

“There was peak enrollment in the late 1960s, and after that [the district] just abandoned their gatekeeping test and started hiring anyone who was breathing so long as they had a degree,” Levy says. “My older daughter had one of those teachers, and she was unbelievably bad. So the district had an older workforce to whom no standards had been applied, and when enrollment started going down, and there were big layoffs in the 1980s, every elementary teacher with less than ten years in the system lost their jobs, and the older ones got to stay.”

“The union contract in D.C. was awful,” says Mark Simon, an Economic Policy Institute research associate and a former president of the Montgomery County (Maryland) teachers union. “It was an example of the kind of contract that existed in some school districts where the limitations placed on teachers’ time and the specificity of what administrators had to do [for] an evaluation [to] hold weight was so rigid that more often than not, teachers could not be evaluated out of the school system.” Simon added, “If a principal did not get the right documents filled out the right way on just the right line, then the whole thing was thrown out by an arbitrator.”

An American Prospect review of a 2006 D.C. teacher evaluation handbook corroborates these observations. One byzantine rule stipulated that to terminate an ineffective teacher by the end of the school year, the administrator had to make a decision no later than the first week of January. If the process began with less than 90 days remaining in the school year, “the educator must be granted permission to return to the same site the next school year” as the process continued.

Simon opposes D.C.’s new system, IMPACT, which ranks teachers as highly effective, effective, developing, minimally effective, or ineffective, arguing that it de-professionalizes teachers. He contrasts IMPACT with the system he helped pioneer in the 1990s as union president for Montgomery County, D.C.’s suburban neighbor. Simon wrote in 2012, “The focus of teacher evaluation in Montgomery County is professional growth—the nurturing of good teaching, not the sorting and ranking of the teacher workforce.” He added: “Although an evaluation system must be able to weed out people who never should have entered teaching, that objective only applies to a tiny percentage of the workforce and must not be the system’s main purpose. Good teachers are not found through some magical recruitment pipeline. They are made, over time.”

Simon says that in 2008 he approached Jason Kamras, the D.C. school official charged with developing a new teacher evaluation system, and suggested that the district craft a system similar to Montgomery County’s. “[Kamras] ran it up the food chain, said other people had suggested the same thing, but that the response was that it takes too long, costs too much, we’re not interested, we want to use a rubric to hire and fire,” says Simon.

There had been some innovative teacher evaluation models at the time—Toledo, Ohio, was experimenting with peer review and others were exploring so-called professional learning communities. Even though Simon was critical of IMPACT, he agreed that policymakers had not been focusing much on improving teacher quality through feedback and evaluation.

“I think the reformers are right that people hadn’t been paying enough attention to teacher evaluation, and in a lot of places the systems were pretty pro-forma,” says Jesse Rothstein, a University of California, Berkeley public policy and economics professor. “But there were places that were doing it better, and that typically involved things like mentor[ing] teachers and careful classroom observations.”

One reason D.C.’s education reforms attracted significant attention across the country was their timing: DCPS started using IMPACT to evaluate teachers during the 2009–2010 school year, just as the education reform organization The New Teacher Project (TNTP) released a report recommending that districts develop evaluation systems that rate teachers “based on their effectiveness in promoting student achievement.”

IMPACT and TNTP’s report heavily influenced the Obama administration’s $4 billion Race to the Top program, which rewarded states that created new evaluation systems based on student test scores. (The administration also used No Child Left Behind waivers to incentivize similar policies.) According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, 35 states and Washington D.C. revamped their teacher evaluation processes to include student achievement as a “significant or the most significant factor” from 2009 to 2013.

By January 2010, 40 states had applied for the first round of competitive Race to the Top grants. The first two winners, Tennessee and Delaware, were awarded grants of $500 million and $100 million, respectively. Tennessee’s proposal notably included a teacher evaluation system that looked just like D.C.’s.

Since Tennessee won the first and biggest prize for a proposal modeled on IMPACT, D.C.’s program garnered even more notice. There was little research on its actual effectiveness, but many states nevertheless looked to D.C. as a leader to emulate. “All of these states were in the middle of a financial crisis, where their revenue declined dramatically, and to get this grant money they had to pretty quickly come up with new plans,” says Matt Di Carlo, a senior research fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute. “I certainly think there is a tendency, an understandable tendency, to look around and see what other people are doing who were successful winning funds.”

 

FOR YEARS, THE D.C. public schools have been known as factious battlegrounds for education reformers of all stripes; new plans and policies would be implemented every few years, only to have new leaders and competing agendas ushered in shortly afterward. The day before Rhee was appointed, The Washington Post traced this trajectory, noting: “The history of D.C. school reform is filled with fix-it plans hailed as silver bullets and would-be saviors who are celebrated before being banished. … Isolated gains achieved under one reform theory were tossed aside, lost or forgotten in the next. Some reforms that did have an impact went awry, accelerating inequality, distrust and decline.”

In 1989, a coalition of more than 60 business and community leaders published a report calling for sweeping changes to D.C. education, including closing and rehabilitating schools, lengthening the school day, and drafting new curriculum standards. “There have been countless studies, task forces, and five-year plans for the District’s schools, but few come close to the size and scope of this effort,” the Post reported at the time. The coalition spent six months and $500,000 on the effort, yet like those that came before it, their recommendations bore little fruit.

By 1996, the D.C. Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority issued another report declaring the city’s public schools to be in crisis, and called for urgent changes. By 2004, the Council of the Great City Schools, a national nonprofit, published its own report, noting that D.C. remained one of the lowest-performing urban school districts in the nation. They recommended a series of reforms that had been floated over the past five decades—new accountability systems for student achievement, more standardized curricula and instruction, and incentives to attract high-quality teachers to work in the most challenging schools.

Unlike other places, elected D.C. officials must compete with federal leaders for authority over the city’s public schools. Congress can overturn laws passed by the D.C. City Council, and the District’s two members of Congress cannot vote on legislation. The introduction of an elected school board in 1968 and the passage of the Home Rule Act in 1973 were attempts to increase local political representation, but the school board and council lacked independent taxing authority. It was no small sacrifice for residents when city leaders voted to dissolve the school board in 2007—dismantling one of the city’s only elected bodies. But local officials felt drastic action was needed given DCPS’s poor outcomes.

Rhee’s tenure as chancellor was controversial, both locally and across the country. In addition to pushing forward a new teacher evaluation system, she fired hundreds of teachers, replaced principals, and closed schools. Her brash style of leadership frustrated even those who backed her policy ideas. Following Rhee’s resignation in 2010 after Adrian Fenty lost the Democratic mayoral primary, the new schools chancellor, Kaya Henderson, continued to promote her predecessor’s policies—albeit in a less polarizing way.

MEANWHILE, D.C.’S REFORMS continued to attract glowing praise. In 2013, The Washington Post editorial board concluded that there was “unassailable” evidence that the city’s reforms, based on “high standards, rigorous evaluation of teachers, an investment in pre-kindergarten and school choice” worked. In 2014, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said D.C. was “by every measure the fastest-improving big city school district in the nation.” New America called D.C.’s teacher evaluation “as rigorous and comprehensive as teacher evaluation systems get.”

All the talk of success and failure led Steven Glazerman, a Mathematica Policy Research fellow, to coin a new phrase—“misNAEPery”—which describes how leaders and pundits wrongly attribute the rise and fall in National Assessment of Educational Progress scores to the success or failure of specific education policies. “D.C. [NAEP] scores [rose] faster than other cities—that part is basically true, but if you want to say it’s because of school reform, that’s a harder case to make,” says Glazerman. Alan Ginsburg, a retired 40-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Education, published a report in 2011 that found that D.C. NAEP scores were already steadily improving before Michelle Rhee took over in 2007, and that “the rates of D.C. score gains under Rhee were no better than the rates achieved under [the prior two superintendents].”

Another thorny issue is demographics: Some critics charge that any documented learning gains can be attributed to the increase in white, affluent students who now enroll in DCPS. Yet when controlling for demographics, about two-thirds of the city’s ten-year gains in math persist for fourth-grade and eighth-grade students. However, controlling for demographics does make the ten-year reading gains for eighth graders almost entirely disappear. In late February, Levy, the independent D.C. budget analyst, went before the city council to testify about the district’s low academic performance. She noted that the lowest achieving groups are black males, at-risk students, and special education students. Achievement gaps between white and black or Hispanic students have narrowed somewhat since 2003, but white proficiency rates still run about 65 percentage points above black proficiency rates, and 53 to 61 percentage points above Hispanic rates. Socioeconomic gaps have widened.

“We have an ever-worsening achievement gap in this city, that has been spun into the D.C. miracle,” says Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers Union. “Were a teacher to perform in this manner for their students, they’d have long since lost their jobs.”

Critics have raised other concerns about the way D.C school reform has been cast as an example of “clear progress.” School funding advocates have criticized DCPS for inequitably distributing financial resources to the neediest schools, and last September, the Washington City Paper published a cover story on Kaya Henderson’s failure to deliver on her five-year strategic plan. A new report from the UCLA Civil Rights Project explores the city’s heavily segregated schools.

But if there’s one reform that supporters of D.C.’s school policies point to as evidence of success, it’s IMPACT. In 2013, two education economists published a working paper suggesting that D.C.’s teacher evaluation system induced teachers with low evaluation scores to voluntarily leave DCPS, and improved the performance of teachers who stayed. In 2016, the researchers published another working paper that found DCPS teacher turnover between 2011 and 2013 led to a net positive effect on student test scores—suggesting that turnover is not necessarily bad if low-performing teachers can be replaced with higher-quality ones.

These were encouraging results, but DCPS officials went on to exaggerate the findings. School administrators falsely said the research showed teachers and students improved because of IMPACT, and that IMPACT caused low-performing teachers to leave. The researchers had repeatedly emphasized that their work was not an evaluation of IMPACT, per se.

“DCPS has one of the best publicity operations I have ever seen,” says Levy. “I think, unfortunately, they go beyond spin, and into some areas of half-truths.”

DCPS was not alone in spinning the IMPACT studies. Supporters of VAM, a controversial statistical tool that uses student test scores to come up with estimates of teacher effectiveness, tried to frame the positive IMPACT studies as proof of VAM’s merit. “People looked at the study and concluded it must be the VAM-based firing that did it, and that’s not supported by the evidence,” says Jesse Rothstein, who has raised concerns about using VAM in teacher evaluations.

The real issue with attributing the researchers’ results to IMPACT is that there’s no proof that other new teacher evaluation systems wouldn’t have also worked. Dee and Wyckoff also caution that despite the positive results of their research, IMPACT might not work as a national model, given that D.C. is a particularly attractive location to live in (thus it has an unusually robust labor pool). The high salaries and bonuses DCPS teachers earn would likewise be difficult for many struggling school districts to adopt.

In an interview with The American Prospect, Dee adds that the leadership in D.C. was very strong and thoughtful, and that a system like IMPACT might not thrive under different political conditions. “When I present the IMPACT work, I say, yes, it does seem extremely promising but I worry it won’t be a proof point,” says Dee. “You had certain planets in alignment politically, and capable, entrepreneurial leadership.”

Indeed, one factor that worked in DCPS’s favor was that the 4,000-member Washington Teachers Union was significantly weakened, and unable to successfully fight against using test scores to evaluate teachers. The WTU has been under siege since the Rhee years, and teachers have been working under a contract that expired in 2012.

According to Davis, the union president, DCPS educators still strongly oppose the new evaluation system. “IMPACT does little to seed improvement in practice,” Davis says. “Our professionals don’t believe teaching every year should be a scene out of The Hunger Games, fighting for survival against what could best be considered arbitrary standards.” She adds, “WTU teachers believe that educators should have an evaluation system that focuses on supporting and assisting those who work in the classroom and holds the whole system accountable, not one that obsesses on points, ratings, and consequences solely for teachers.”

David Grosso, a city councilmember and the chairman of the education committee, tells me that while he respects the teachers union, when they “testify or complain or say things are awful, it’s hard to believe” based on his personal conversations with educators. “Nine out of ten teachers I speak to are pretty happy and feel like they’re making a difference,” he says. “The fact of the matter is, if you’re a teacher in the District of Columbia, you have the support that you need and when you are successful, you will get paid a lot of money and be treated with a lot of respect, and that’s just a reality.”

For what it’s worth, schools located in the poorest areas of the city have the smallest percentage of teachers rated “highly effective” under IMPACT. Teacher turnover districtwide also remains very high. Levy, the budget analyst, finds almost half of all newly hired teachers, whether experienced or new to the profession, leave the classroom within two years; and 75 percent leave within five years. There is similar turnover among principals: Levy finds most schools have had two or three principals in the last five years.

ONE REASON IT’S become so easy for advocates to spin the city’s school reforms is that despite DCPS’s claims of being “data-driven,” comprehensive, accessible data actually remains hard to come by. As a result, it is hard for researchers to get a sense of how specific policies are working, and for the public to hold school leaders accountable.

When D.C. passed its 2007 education reform law, one provision required the mayor to produce annual evaluations on new school reforms, such as academic achievement and personnel policies. The law also allowed the mayor to skip the annual reports and produce a five-year independent evaluation by September 2012. Fenty opted for the latter—but his two proposed evaluators, Frederick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and Kenneth Wong of Brown University, had both supported the DC mayoral school-takeover plan. Then-councilmember Vincent Gray objected to Fenty’s picks, arguing that they involved conflicts of interest.

Gray also objected to the mayor’s desire to have the $750,000 evaluation paid for by an entity known as the D.C. Public Education Fund, a private organization launched and run by a former Fenty aide, which solicits private-sector donations to support education reform. Gray believed that the evaluation should be publicly funded. Yet three years later, when Gray himself ran for mayor, his tune on rigorous evaluations changed. “Adrian Fenty refused to carry out the evaluation, and when Gray ran against Fenty, he also lost interest,” says Levy. “Gray’s attitude changed a lot when he became mayor.”

Levy thinks that incentives for oversight worsened after the switch to mayoral control. Before the change, the city council would sketch out the school district’s finances, but the body could not control how those funds were actually spent. This dynamic frustrated councilmembers who were often blamed for the public schools’ struggles, but had few tools to address the problems. This issue led the council to enact tougher oversight measures. “The public would come down and say, ‘You need to give us more money,’ and the city council wanted to justify not coming up with all of it,” Levy explains.

But after the move to mayoral control, DCPS failures were no longer pinned on the city council. “Now the mayor comes up with a budget number for the school system and that’s pretty much it,” says Levy, who thinks the city council is not interested in rocking the boat. “They too have gotten all this good publicity,” Levy says, in regards to the supposed successful turnaround of DCPS.

D.C. finally produced a publicly funded independent evaluation of its school reforms in 2015. The National Research Council, an organization chartered by Congress, conducted the review and found some promising evidence of improvements, but the evaluators identified many persistent disparities, and noted a lack of comprehensive, accessible data. They said they were often unable to obtain important information for their research effort, and recommended the creation of a data warehouse for ongoing, independent studies.

After the NRC issued its report, a group of education advocates and public policy researchers gathered in 2016 to discuss creating an independent think tank to evaluate D.C. education policies. Inspired by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which has access to a broad range of Chicago Public School data, the D.C. group envisioned their think tank serving a similar function as the Congressional Budget Office.

Mathematica’s Glazerman agrees it has been difficult at times to obtain DCPS information to conduct research. “The researchers want to do research, they want access to data, and the people who control the data don’t want to give it up, except under tightly controlled circumstances,” he says. “Researchers need independence and access to data, and they shouldn’t have to worry about whether the agency is going to look good—both in whether they undertake the study, and how they report results from their study.”

He thinks the idea of a publicly funded research organization akin to the CBO is a good one, but that it could be a heavy lift to get off the ground. It would take real leadership, and right now, the mayor and the city council have few incentives to poke holes in the narrative that D.C. school reform has been a tremendous success.

“We met for about six months and put together a proposal,” says Mark Simon, who was involved in the 2016 effort. “Initially we got good, positive encouragement from David Grosso, and he basically promised to put money in the budget, but when we got to the actual budget hearings we were iced out.”

The Prospect asked Grosso why he withdrew his support for the independent research organization. “I hadn’t heard that much about it, but I do support the idea for third-party analysis and review of what we’re doing in DCPS, but I was not convinced that what they were offering at the time was the best approach,” he said. “It seemed like it was a purely academic thing. There was a desire to do something similar to what was done in Chicago and, in the end, I decided I did not want to do that. I thought it would confuse governance in the city more than it would help.”

THIS PAST FEBRUARY, DCPS’s new schools chancellor, Antwan Wilson, took over. Prior to coming to D.C., he spent two years as the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District in California and worked as a public school administrator in Denver. He also participated in a superintendent training academy funded by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which finances education reform efforts. “The candidate [Mayor Bowser] has selected appears by résumé and reputation to have the same kind of forward-thinking passion for excellence that has helped make D.C. schools the fastest-improving urban school district in the country,” The Washington Post editorial board said in November.

Wilson declined the Prospect’s request for an interview through DCPS press secretary Michelle Lerner. Lerner is a former communications manager for several reform-driven organizations, including the Fordham Institute and the advocacy group American Federation for Children, formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. secretary of education.

Looking to the future, Councilmember Grosso says D.C. will need to invest more heavily in wrap-around services for poor students, including basic health care, housing, and resources for coping with trauma. He says that he’s spoken with Antwon Wilson and that the new chancellor “absolutely understands” this.

The bipartisan political forces that shepherded D.C.’s education policies may shift in the coming years, as the election of Trump and the ascendance of the controversial DeVos threaten to fracture some of the Obama-era coalitions. New leadership, both in the district and the mayor’s office, could also portend greater changes for D.C. public education.

Though Glazerman is skeptical that a publicly funded research agency committed to robust, independent evaluations will be created, it is possible that Wilson may be more open to the idea, since his outsider status might shield him from the fallout from any negative findings—at least at the outset. Mary Levy also thinks the independent think tank idea could resurface, citing the new influx of upper-middle-class families who send their children to D.C. public schools.

“They don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” she says. “These are city parents behaving like persistent suburban parents. So in the future, this idea may grow.”

D.C. Charter Teachers Seek to Unionize

Originally published in The American Prospect on February 22, 2017.
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This morning, teachers at Paul Public Charter School, one of the oldest charters in Washington, D.C., publicly announced their intent to unionize—a first for charter schoolteachers in the nation’s capital. As in other cities where charter teachers have formed unions, the Paul educators are forming their own local—the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (DC ACTS)—which will be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. 75 percent of Paul’s teaching staff signed a petition in support of joining DC ACTS, and asked administrators to voluntarily recognize their union.

The Center for Education Reform estimates that 10 percent of charter schools are unionized nationally, up from seven percent in 2012. As more and more charter teachers have launched organizing efforts, the absence of charter unions in Washington, D.C., has been notable—particularly given the city’s high density of charter schools. There are 118 charters—run by 65 nonprofits—within D.C., educating 44 percent of the city’s public school students.

Patricia Sanabria, a high school English and special education teacher at Paul, is excited about unionizing with her colleagues. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Sanabria is a product of D.C. public schools, and spent two years teaching at Ballou High School, a traditional public school in one of the poorest parts of the city, before coming to her charter.

When she first started working at Paul—which educates about 700 students from grades 6-12—Sanabria felt very supported by the staff, which was much smaller than Ballou’s. “It felt more like a family, I felt a lot more at home,” she says. But over the past three years, that feeling has waned, and this year has been especially frustrating.

“When I first got here, the teacher in the classroom next to mine told me that charter schools are ‘teacher factories’, and it’s very true,” Sanabria says. “They keep giving us things to do, and they don’t take into account how much time that adds to our work day. I would say I’m pretty routinely here for 10 hours or more a day, and that’s just not something you see in other professions, and certainly if you do see it, people are compensated for it.”

Sanabria thinks the working conditions negatively impact her school’s special education program, and she hopes a union can help improve it. “Part of that is linked to teacher retention and the hiring of teachers,” she explains. “I think [Paul] is not a very attractive one for special educators, who often have multiple degrees, because we don’t offer competitive salaries. If I had stayed working for DCPS I would be making more than $10,000 a year more than I am now as a fifth-year teacher.”

Two things happened last year which helped precipitate the union effort.

The first is that administrators brought in a consultant at the start of the 2015-16 school year to launch a committee with teachers dedicated to discussing school improvements. After a series of meetings, teachers submitted a list of proposals to their administration, including such recommendations as more transparent staff evaluations, caps on class sizes, and increased time for teacher planning. But the suggestions went nowhere.

“Soft diplomacy has been tried,” says Dave Koenig, a government and history teacher at Paul, and the first person at his charter to reach out to the AFT.

“Nothing really came out of the consultant committee, nothing substantial, no major changes,” adds Katrina Foster, a special education coordinator who has been working at Paul for seven years. “So the union was just kind of the next step, [we] organically moved into starting this movement.”

Paul teachers also grew frustrated at the end of last year when the high school’s popular principal did not have her contract renewed. Educators say they were given no clear explanation for her firing, and the teachers rallied together for the principal’s reinstatement. Their efforts, too,  went nowhere. For teachers like Koenig, that was the last straw.

“In my time here I’ve seen people who are really good, dedicated teachers shown the door because they have personality conflicts with someone above them. I’ve also seen really good people leave on their own because they feel underappreciated or overworked to the point of developing [a] nervous breakdown,” says Koenig. “I don’t want that to continue to happen. I want the staff to be stable and happy, and I think a union is part of how we get there.”

“I don’t think the union is for any one particular thing, but mainly to support staff, to give teachers a voice, and recourse,” says Foster.

Representatives from Paul Public Charter were not available for immediate comment.

Two key factors have inhibited charter organizing in Washington, D.C.

Charter teachers in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans—where successful charter unions have taken root—have had the benefit of receiving help from their state teachers union. When charter teachers have just begun trying to launch a brand new local off the ground, state affiliates have provided them with valuable transitional support and bargaining staff. No such intermediate body exists for the District of Columbia.

The Washington Teachers Union, D.C.’s traditional public school teachers union, has also been particularly embattled in recent years. In 2007, the city hired a controversial schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who was empowered to make decisions largely without school board or city council approval. As charter schools expanded throughout the city, Rhee proceeded to fire hundreds of teachers from traditional public schools, and regularly engaged in high-profile fights with the WTU.

Rhee left in 2010, but the union has since struggled to find its footing and regain power. Its current president, Elizabeth Davis, was elected in 2013, and has spent the majority of her tenure trying to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. Teachers have been working under a contract that expired back in 2012, and haven’t had a base-level salary increase since then.

In an interview with The American Prospect, Davis says she’s always been interested in helping to support charter school organizing, and that her members are interested in it, too. “The first three years of my presidency just ended up being far more than I anticipated,” she says, in reference to the contract negotiations that have commanded the union’s attention and resources.

“But our union is going to support charter teachers organizing in any way we can,” Davis said. “We want teachers, irrespective of what schools they teach in, public or charter, to have a union.”

Paul charter teachers say they’re looking forward to forming DC ACTS, rather than joining the 4,000-member WTU, because it will allow them to build something from the ground up. “I think being in our own local, and such a small unit, is going to allow us the freedom to be creative and innovative in terms of what we negotiate for,” says Koenig.

Paul’s educators plan to organize under the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. Last summer, the NLRB issued a pair of decisions which said that charter school teachers are private employees who fall under the federal labor board’s purview. Even before the NLRB ruling, D.C.’s public employees’ labor board, which covers teachers and other staff in traditional public schools, had excluded charters from its purview.

If Paul Public Charter School administrators do not voluntarily recognize their teachers’ union, and challenge the NLRB’s jurisdiction should the staff then move for an election, the administration would effectively be saying that D.C. charter school teachers should have no formal rights under any labor board—public or private. Union opponents may see an opportunity to overturn the NLRB’s charter rulings in the Trump administration, given that Trump has named Philip Miscimarra as the board’s new acting chairman. Miscimarra was the sole dissenting voice in the 2016 charter school decisions, and argues that charter labor law should be left to state and local regulators.

Across the country, charter administrators and board members have generally fought union efforts, insisting that collective bargaining agreements would inhibit charter school success and flexibility. Gina Mahony, the former vice president for government relations for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, a group that strongly discourages charter unionization, sits on the Paul Public Charter School’s board of trustees.

While Koenig says improving Paul is his top priority, he’s also hopeful that starting DC ACTS could spark broader change within D.C.’s charter school sector.

“This has always been partially political for me,” he says. “Problems we face at Paul are also problems in other charter and public schools. A really disturbing theme in education today is how teachers are treated so poorly, so that the good ones are pushed out, and automatons are brought in who are willing to simply teach skills for standardized tests. I think teachers unions are our only way to fight back against things like that, and unions in general are very important to fight back against a changing economy that crushes working people.”

How to Find a Career With Uncle Sam

Originally published in The Washington Monthly for their September/October 2014 issue
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Juny Canenguez was just beginning her junior year at Virginia’s George Mason University in 2012 when she heard that the Obama administration was offering paid internships in the federal government through a new initiative called the Pathways Programs. Eager for what she calls “real-life experience” and interested in foreign affairs, she went to the State Department’s career website and applied for a Pathways internship. She was accepted, and for the next two years she worked two days a week at State while finishing her degree in business management. One of the highlights of her internship, Canenguez says, was getting to meet foreign and civil service officers, hear about their experiences, and take in their advice. Now out of college, she’s in the process of being converted to a formal federal employee, thanks to her time as an intern. “It was amazing,” says Canenguez. “I’m now being recruited to Civil Service, and my long-term plan will be to join the Foreign Service,” which, if she succeeds, will allow her to be posted as a diplomat overseas.

Working for the government can be a great career choice—maybe not as remunerative as a job on Wall Street, but potentially far more rewarding and socially useful. There are federal jobs available for almost every interest and skill, whether that’s politics, physics, art, or even event planning. And, contrary to popular conception, 84 percent of federal government jobs are outside of the Washington, D.C., area, so you can tailor your employment opportunities around where you most want to live. (Fifty thousand federal government employees work abroad, in more than 140 foreign countries.)

President Obama signed an executive order in 2010 creating the Pathways Programs with the expressed aim of attracting greater numbers of talented and diverse young adults into government work. The Pathways Programs are comprised of three divisions.

The Internship Program, designed for current students, provides paid work opportunities in federal agencies for a limited period of time. Interns can work either on a part-time or full-time basis.

Next there is the Recent Graduates Program, which is open to individuals who have completed, within the previous two years, an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, professional, doctorate, vocational, or technical degree or certificate from a qualifying educational institution. These recent graduates can work in federal agencies while also taking advantage of substantial career training and mentorship opportunities.

Lastly, the Presidential Management Fellows Program is a leadership and career-development program for those with newly minted graduate degrees.

In all three divisions of the Pathways Programs, if you successfully complete the term of service you can receive what is known as “noncompetitive eligibility” when applying for federal jobs. This means that your employer can convert you straight from a Pathways participant into a permanent employee or you can apply for other federal positions without having to go through the standard, and highly competitive, USAJOBS application process.

Channing Martin, a former Pathways intern in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), was hired immediately after her internship ended into a permanent, full-time position at the OPM; she now works as a program and management analyst. “As a high schooler I was always really interested in diversity and inclusion issues,” Channing said, “and when I realized this intern program existed, I was really attracted to that.” Channing spent her yearlong internship on a rotation between different departments within the OPM, having the chance to get her feet wet in a broad range of governmental duties and responsibilities, experimenting with tasks ranging from understanding the role of performance management to supporting efforts to expand equal pay to learning how to write requirements for database systems. Channing did all this while balancing her time as a full-time student; she spent her second year at Carnegie Mellon’s public policy graduate school living in D.C., interning during the day and taking classes by night.

“Interning for the federal government allows you to check out exactly what kind of work they do and decide if it resonates with you,” said Tim McManus, vice president for education and outreach at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that advocates for the reinvigoration of the civil service workforce. “If you go and do an internship at the EPA or the Department of Energy, you’ll be exposed to not just the mission but the way the agency works. Is the culture one that is good for you? Is it fast-paced? Is it too slow? You have the ability to see for yourself.”