DCPS Needs An Independent Investigation Into Grad Standards

Last month, I had the opportunity to hear D.C. Public Schools Superintendent Antwan Wilson speak at Democrats for Education Reform‘s annual conference in Washington. He spoke about how his own education had impacted his life, recounted the progress DCPS has made over the past several years, and made clear that he intended to continue and build upon the reforms of his predecessors.

“Young people need to be prepared for opportunities they will have,” Wilson said. “We do that through excellence, equity, and love.”

I couldn’t agree with him more and that’s why it’s been disappointing to see how Wilson and other DCPS officials have responded to revelations that administrators at Ballou High School handed out diplomas to scores of students who hadn’t met the district’s graduation requirements.

As noted in a previous post, when WAMU reporter Kate McGee first confronted Wilson with evidence that Ballou teachers and administrators had ignored excessive absences and changed students’ grades to make them eligible to graduate, he abruptly ended the interview. Subsequent DCPS statements on the unfolding scandal sought to minimize the issue, as if the unethical conduct at Ballou was no big deal.

But after McGee’s investigation ended up on NPR’s All Things Considered, DCPS could no longer ignore the problem. Over the past two weeks, Supt. Wilson has launched an internal investigation into the allegations and reassigned Ballou’s principal, Yetunde Reeves.

Nevertheless, Wilson continues to downplay the seriousness of the situation. At a day-long meeting of the D.C. City Council on Friday, he acknowledged that Ballou and other high schools in the district had graduated students with chronic absences (for example, half of Ballou’s graduating class last year had missed at least 30 days of school), but he also attempted to make excuses for those involved.

“I believe that our students earned their diplomas by reaching a level of mastery deemed appropriate by our teachers,” Wilson told council members. “I believe that educators did what they needed to do based on the circumstances that they are in.”

No one would deny that educators at Ballou and other DCPS schools face considerable challenges, but that doesn’t mean they can totally disregard district policy and hand out diplomas to students who didn’t earn them. The fact that Wilson would suggest otherwise does not bode well for the district’s future under his leadership.

On Wednesday, the D.C. State Board of Education will consider a resolution calling for an independent investigation of the district’s graduation protocols. Given the district’s reluctance to acknowledge the problem, the board should endorse the measure. A full and unbiased accounting of the extent of the problems uncovered at Ballou are needed so schools won’t be able to manipulate their graduation rates in the future.


Consternation About Teacher Evaluation

Earlier this month, Youngstown City Schools CEO Krish Mohip launched a new teacher evaluation system that made absolutely no sense.

Under the new process, 50% of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on walk-through observations and the other 50% would be based on so-called “shared-attribution measures” – i.e., a district-wide value-added measure of student growth, based on the previous year’s test scores.

In short, a substantial part of each teacher’s evaluation would hinge on the performance of the school system as a whole. As a result, an excellent teacher could see her evaluation dragged down by the lousy test scores of students taught by others on the far side of town.

Understandably, many Youngstown educators weren’t happy about that prospect and a recent survey showed that a majority opposed the use of shared-attribution measures.

On Wednesday, Mohip acknowledged those concerns, announcing that he would “take a pause and reach out to the schools” to get input on the evaluation process. At the same, he continued to defend the shared-attribution approach, explaining that “shared attribution is supposed to encourage collaboration between teachers.”

Education officials in other states and districts have made the same argument to justify the use of similar “collective measures” in their teacher evaluations. The claim is that educators are more inclined to work together to raise student achievement when their evaluations (at least in part) depend on it.

The only problem with this theory-of-action is that it’s complete nonsense. If education leaders want to engender greater teamwork and collaboration among teachers, they can send them on a retreat, have them tackle a ropes course, or plan staff happy hours after school on Fridays. In truth, policymakers push for school- or district-wide performance measures out of a desire to have an objective component in every teacher’s evaluation, even for those in non-tested grades and subjects.

Nevertheless, it’s fundamentally unfair to evaluate a teacher based on the performance of students they don’t teach. Instead of encouraging collaboration, it creates resentment, damages morale, and allows opponents of accountability to claim that evaluations are rigged against teachers


A Disgrace In DCPS

NPR’s Education Team is out with a new investigation from reporter Kate McGee showing that administrators at Washington D.C.’s Ballou High School handed out diplomas to dozens of students who failed to meet the requirements for graduation last year.

Ballou, which has long been one of the city’s most troubled high schools, garnered national attention this spring when district officials announced that 100% of its graduates had been accepted to college. However, as McGee’s investigation reveals, most of those students never should have even graduated.

Internal documents and communications show that teachers were pressured to change failing grades and overlook excessive absences in order to make students eligible to walk across the stage on Graduation Day. As McGee notes in her report:

“Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school…An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.”

Administrators also steered failing students into questionable “credit recovery” classes, in which they were supposedly able to make up months of missed work in the span of a few short weeks.

But perhaps the most outrageous part of the story is the reaction of district officials, who don’t really seem all that concerned about the unethical behavior at Ballou. When McGee asked DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson how Ballou administrators were able to graduate students who either failed or rarely attended classes, he fumbled about for an answer before abruptly ending the interview, claiming a scheduling conflict. Moreover, subsequent statements from DCPS never squarely addressed the fact that Ballou’s leadership used smoke and mirrors (and violated district policies) in order to boost their graduation rate.

As of now, no one has been disciplined at Ballou for these shenanigans. Not only does Ballou’s principal, Yetunde Reeves, still have her job, but she just so happened to launch a new anti-truancy initiative the day before NPR’s piece aired:

What a joke. If Wilson isn’t willing to hold the leadership at Ballou accountable, he’s in the wrong job.