Part Two: Cheating in DCPS

DC Education Reform Ten Years After, 

Part 2: Test Cheats

Richard P Phelps

Ten years ago, I worked as the Director of Assessments for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). For temporal context, I arrived after the first of the infamous test cheating scandals and left just before the incident that spawned a second. Indeed, I filled a new position created to both manage test security and design an expanded testing program. I departed shortly after Vincent Gray, who opposed an expanded testing program, defeated Adrian Fenty in the September 2010 DC mayoral primary. My tenure coincided with Michelle Rhee’s last nine months as Chancellor. 

The recurring test cheating scandals of the Rhee-Henderson years may seem extraordinary but, in fairness, DCPS was more likely than the average US school district to be caught because it received a much higher degree of scrutiny. Given how tests are typically administered in this country, the incidence of cheating is likely far greater than news accounts suggest, for several reasons: 

·      in most cases, those who administer tests—schoolteachers and administrators—have an interest in their results;

·      test security protocols are numerous and complicated yet, nonetheless, the responsibility of non-expert ordinary school personnel, guaranteeing their inconsistent application across schools and over time; 

·      after-the-fact statistical analyses are not legal proof—the odds of a certain amount of wrong-to-right erasures in a single classroom on a paper-and-pencil test being coincidental may be a thousand to one, but one-in-a-thousand is still legally plausible; and

·      after-the-fact investigations based on interviews are time-consuming, scattershot, and uneven. 

Still, there were measures that the Rhee-Henderson administrations could have adopted to substantially reduce the incidence of cheating, but they chose none that might have been effective. Rather, they dug in their heels, insisted that only a few schools had issues, which they thoroughly resolved, and repeatedly denied any systematic problem.  

Cheating scandals

From 2007 to 2009 rumors percolated of an extraordinary level of wrong-to-right erasures on the test answer sheets at many DCPS schools. “Erasure analysis” is one among several “red flag” indicators that testing contractors calculate to monitor cheating. The testing companies take no responsibility for investigating suspected test cheating, however; that is the customer’s, the local or state education agency. 

In her autobiographical account of her time as DCPS Chancellor, Michelle Johnson (nee Rhee), wrote (p. 197)

“For the first time in the history of DCPS, we brought in an outside expert to examine and audit our system. Caveon Test Security – the leading expert in the field at the time – assessed our tests, results, and security measures. Their investigators interviewed teachers, principals, and administrators.

“Caveon found no evidence of systematic cheating. None.”

Caveon, however, had not looked for “systematic” cheating. All they did was interview a few people at several schools where the statistical anomalies were more extraordinary than at others. As none of those individuals would admit to knowingly cheating, Caveon branded all their excuses as “plausible” explanations. That’s it; that is all that Caveon did. But, Caveon’s statement that they found no evidence of “widespread” cheating—despite not having looked for it—would be frequently invoked by DCPS leaders over the next several years.[1]

Incidentally, prior to the revelation of its infamous decades-long, systematic test cheating, the Atlanta Public Schools had similarly retained Caveon Test Security and was, likewise, granted a clean bill of health. Only later did the Georgia state attorney general swoop in and reveal the truth. 

In its defense, Caveon would note that several cheating prevention measures it had recommended to DCPS were never adopted.[2] None of the cheating prevention measures that I recommended were adopted, either.

The single most effective means for reducing in-classroom cheating would have been to rotate teachers on test days so that no teacher administered a test to his or her own students. It would not have been that difficult to randomly assign teachers to different classrooms on test days.

The single most effective means for reducing school administratorcheating would have been to rotate test administrators on test days so that none managed the test materials for their own schools. The visiting test administrators would have been responsible for keeping test materials away from the school until test day, distributing sealed test booklets to the rotated teachers on test day, and for collecting re-sealed test booklets at the end of testing and immediately removing them from the school. 

Instead of implementing these, or a number of other feasible and effective test security measures, DCPS leaders increased the number of test proctors, assigning each of a few dozen or so central office staff a school to monitor. Those proctors could not reasonably manage the volume of oversight required. A single DC test administration could encompass a hundred schools and a thousand classrooms.

Investigations

So, what effort, if any, did DCPS make to counter test cheating? They hired me, but then rejected all my suggestions for increasing security. Also, they established a telephone tip line. Anyone who suspected cheating could report it, even anonymously, and, allegedly, their tip would be investigated. 

Some forms of cheating are best investigated through interviews. Probably the most frequent forms of cheating at DCPS—teachers helping students during test administrations and school administrators looking at test forms prior to administration—leave no statistical residue. Eyewitness testimony is the only type of legal evidence available in such cases, but it is not just inconsistent, it may be socially destructive. 

I remember two investigations best: one occurred in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood with well-educated parents active in school affairs; the other in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Superficially, the cases were similar—an individual teacher was accused of helping his or her own students with answers during test administrations. Making a case against either elementary school teacher required sworn testimony from eyewitnesses, that is, students—eight-to-ten-year olds. 

My investigations, then, consisted of calling children into the principal’s office one-by-one to be questioned about their teacher’s behavior. We couldn’t hide the reason we were asking the questions. And, even though each student agreed not to tell others what had occurred in their visit to the principal’s office, we knew we had only one shot at an uncorrupted jury pool. 

Though the accusations against the two teachers were similar and the cases against them equally strong, the outcomes could not have been more different. In the high-poverty neighborhood, the students seemed suspicious and said little; none would implicate the teacher, whom they all seemed to like. 

In the more prosperous neighborhood, students were more outgoing, freely divulging what they had witnessed. The students had discussed the alleged coaching with their parents who, in turn, urged them to tell investigators what they knew. During his turn in the principal’s office, the accused teacher denied any wrongdoing. I wrote up each interview, then requested that each student read and sign. 

Thankfully, that accused teacher made a deal and left the school system a few weeks later. Had he not, we would have required the presence in court of the eight-to-ten-year olds to testify under oath against their former teacher, who taught multi-grade classes. Had that prosecution not succeeded, the eyewitness students could have been routinely assigned to his classroom the following school year.

My conclusion? Only in certain schools is the successful prosecution of a cheating teacher through eyewitness testimony even possible. But, even where possible, it consumes inordinate amounts of time and, otherwise, comes at a high price, turning young innocents against authority figures they naturally trusted. 

Cheating blueprints

Arguably the most widespread and persistent testing malfeasance in DCPS received little attention from the press. Moreover, it was directly propagated by District leaders, who published test blueprints on the web. Put simply, test “blueprints” are lists of the curricular standards (e.g., “student shall correctly add two-digit numbers”) and the number of test items included in an upcoming test related to each standard. DC had been advance publishing its blueprints for years.

I argued that the way DC did it was unethical. The head of the Division of Data & Accountability, Erin McGoldrick, however, defended the practice, claimed it was common, and cited its existence in the state of California as precedent. The next time she and I met for a conference call with one of DCPS’s test providers, Discover Education, I asked their sales agent how many of their hundreds of other customers advance-published blueprints. His answer: none.

In the state of California, the location of McGoldrick’s only prior professional experience, blueprints were, indeed, published in advance of test administrations. But their tests were longer than DC’s and all standards were tested. Publication of California’s blueprints served more to remind the populace what the standards were in advance of each test administration. Occasionally, a standard considered to be of unusual importance might be assigned a greater number of test items than the average, and the California blueprints signaled that emphasis. 

In Washington, DC, the tests used in judging teacher performance were shorter, covering only some of each year’s standards. So, DC’s blueprints showed everyone well in advance of the test dates exactly which standards would be tested and which would not. For each teacher, this posed an ethical dilemma: should they “narrow the curriculum” by teaching only that content they knew would be tested? Or, should they do the right thing and teach all the standards, as they were legally and ethically bound to, even though it meant spending less time on the to-be-tested content? It’s quite a conundrum when one risks punishment for behaving ethically.

Monthly meetings convened to discuss issues with the districtwide testing program, the DC Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS)—administered to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. All public schools, both DCPS and charters, administered those tests. At one of these regular meetings, two representatives from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) announced plans to repair the broken blueprint process.[3]

The State Office employees argued thoughtfully and reasonably that it was professionally unethical to advance publish DC test blueprints. Moreover, they had surveyed other US jurisdictions in an effort to find others that followed DC’s practice and found none. I was the highest-ranking DCPS employee at the meeting and I expressed my support, congratulating them for doing the right thing. I assumed that their decision was final.

I mentioned the decision to McGoldrick, who expressed surprise and speculation that it might have not been made at the highest level in the organizational hierarchy. Wasting no time, she met with other DCPS senior managers and the proposed change was forthwith shelved. In that, and other ways, the DCPS tail wagged the OSSE dog. 

* * *

It may be too easy to finger ethical deficits for the recalcitrant attitude toward test security of the Rhee-Henderson era ed reformers. The columnist Peter Greene insists that knowledge deficits among self-appointed education reformers also matter: 

“… the reformistan bubble … has been built from Day One without any actual educators inside it. Instead, the bubble is populated by rich people, people who want rich people’s money, people who think they have great ideas about education, and even people who sincerely want to make education better. The bubble does not include people who can turn to an Arne Duncan or a Betsy DeVos or a Bill Gates and say, ‘Based on my years of experience in a classroom, I’d have to say that idea is ridiculous bullshit.’”

“There are a tiny handful of people within the bubble who will occasionally act as bullshit detectors, but they are not enough. The ed reform movement has gathered power and money and set up a parallel education system even as it has managed to capture leadership roles within public education, but the ed reform movement still lacks what it has always lacked–actual teachers and experienced educators who know what the hell they’re talking about.”

In my twenties, I worked for several years in the research department of a state education agency. My primary political lesson from that experience, consistently reinforced subsequently, is that most education bureaucrats tell the public that the system they manage works just fine, no matter what the reality. They can get away with this because they control most of the evidence and can suppress it or spin it to their advantage.

In this proclivity, the DCPS central office leaders of the Rhee-Henderson era proved themselves to be no different than the traditional public-school educators they so casually demonized. 

US school systems are structured to be opaque and, it seems, both educators and testing contractors like it that way. For their part, and contrary to their rhetoric, Rhee, Henderson, and McGoldrick passed on many opportunities to make their system more transparent and accountable.

Education policy will not improve until control of the evidence is ceded to genuinely independent third parties, hired neither by the public education establishment nor by the education reform club.

The author gratefully acknowledges the fact-checking assistance of Erich Martel and Mary Levy.

Access this testimonial in .pdf format

Citation:  Phelps, R. P. (2020, September). Looking Back on DC Education Reform 10 Years After, Part 2: Test Cheats. Nonpartisan Education Review / Testimonials. https://nonpartisaneducation.org/Review/Testimonials/v16n3.htm


[1] A perusal of Caveon’s website clarifies that their mission is to help their clients–state and local education departments–not get caught. Sometimes this means not cheating in the first place; other times it might mean something else. One might argue that, ironically, Caveon could be helping its clients to cheat in more sophisticated ways and cover their tracks better.

[2] Among them: test booklets should be sealed until the students open them and resealed by the students immediately after; and students should be assigned seats on test day and a seating chart submitted to test coordinators (necessary for verifying cluster patterns in student responses that would suggest answer copying).

[3] Yes, for those new to the area, the District of Columbia has an Office of the “State” Superintendent of Education (OSSE). Its domain of relationships includes not just the regular public schools (i.e., DCPS), but also other public schools (i.e., charters) and private schools. Practically, it primarily serves as a conduit for funneling money from a menagerie of federal education-related grant and aid programs

DC Charter Schools that took PPP money

As you know, Congress set up a Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses to use during the COVID shutdown, so that they could continue to pay their workers. Public and Charter schools are still paying their employees, and their funding has not (yet) been cut.

However, the national charter school lobbying group recommended that charter schools should take out these loans anyway, because, uh, they want more good government dollars. And many, many did just that.

How many charter schools in DC took the money, we don’t know, because only those who “borrowed” over $150,000 are listed, plus, the list doesn’t say exactly how much they got, but just a range (eg from $1 million to $2 million).

Will they have to pay it back? That depends on the citizens.

However, here are the charter schools that ‘borrowed’ a large amount of $$ here in Washington, DC.

Thanks to Mercedes Schneider and the Network for Public Education for making this data easily findable.

DC Public Charter Schools that took over $150,000 in PPP ‘loans’minmax
ACADEMY OF HOPE ADULT PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $350,000$1,000,000
ACHIEVEMENT PREPARATORY ACADEMY$1,000,000$2,000,000
APPLETREE EARLY LEARNING PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL$1,000,000$2,000,000
BREAKTHROUGH MONTESSORI PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $150,000$350,000
BRIDGES PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $350,000$1,000,000
CENTER CITY PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOLS $2,000,000$5,000,000
CREATIVE MINDS INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC CHAR $1,000,000$2,000,000
D.C. HEBREW LANGUAGE CHARTER SCHOOL $350,000$1,000,000
DC SCHOLARS PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL INC $1,000,000$2,000,000
 DIGITAL PIONEERS ACADEMY PUBLIC CHARTER $350,000$1,000,000
EAGLE ACADEMY PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $2,000,000$5,000,000
EARLY CHILDHOOD ACADEMY $350,000$1,000,000
ELSIE WHITLOW STOKES COMMUNITY FREEDOM PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $1,000,000$2,000,000
HARMONY DC PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOLS $150,000$350,000
 HOWARD UNIVERSITY PUBLIC CHARTER MIDDLE SCHOOL OF MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE $350,000$1,000,000
INTEGRATED DESIGN AND ELECTRONICS ACADEMY PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $350,000$1,000,000
KINGSMAN ACADEMY PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $350,000$1,000,000
LATIN AMERICAN MONTESSORI BILINGUAL PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $1,000,000$2,000,000
LAYC CAREER ACADEMY $150,000$350,000
 LEE MONTESSORI PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL$350,000$1,000,000
MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE DAY ACADEMY PCS$1,000,000$2,000,000
MAYA ANGELOU PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $1,000,000$2,000,000
MONUMENT ACADEMY PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $350,000$1,000,000
MUNDO VERDE PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $1,000,000$2,000,000
NATIONAL COLLEGIATE PREPARATORY PUBLIC CHARTER HIGH SCHOOL $350,000$1,000,000
 PAUL PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL INC $2,000,000$5,000,000
PERRY STREET PREPARATORY PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $150,000$350,000
RICHARD WRIGHT PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $350,000$1,000,000
ROOTS PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL, INC $150,000$350,000
SEE FOREVER FOUNDATION $350,000$1,000,000
SEED PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL OF WASHINGTON DC $1,000,000$2,000,000
STATEMENS COLLEGE PREPATORY ACADEMY FOR BOYS PCS $150,000$350,000
THE MERIDIAN PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $1,000,000$2,000,000
THE SEED FOUNDATION INC $350,000$1,000,000
THURGOOD MARSHALL ACADEMY $1,000,000$2,000,000
WASHINGTON GLOBAL PUBIC CHARTER SCHOOL $350,000$1,000,000
WASHINGTON LEADERSHIP ACADEMY PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOL $350,000$1,000,000
RANGE TOTALS $24,500,000$57,100,000

“Slaying Goliath” by Diane Ravitch

I wish I could write half as well as, or as much as, Diane Ravitch manages to do, every single day. I also admire her dedication to fighting the billionaires who have been dictating education policy in the USA for quite some time.

If you are reading this post, you are no doubt aware that only ten years ago, Ravitch did a 180-degree turn on major education issues, admitted she had been wrong on a number of points, and became one of the major forces fighting against the disruptive education-privatization agenda of the billionaires.

Since that time, she has been documenting on her blog, several times a day, nearly every day, the utter failures of the extremely wealthy amateurs who have been claiming to ‘reform’ education, but who have instead merely been disrupting it and failing to achieve any of the goals that they confidently predicted would be won, even using their own yard-sticks.

IMG_6217

I found DR’s most recent book (pictured above) to be an excellent history of the past 37 years wherein certain billionaires, and their well-paid acolytes, have claimed that the American public school system is a total failure and needed to be torn down and rebuilt through these steps:

  1. Pretending that American students were at one point the highest-scoring ones on the planet (which has NEVER been true) and that the fact that they currently score at middling levels on international tests like PISA is a cause for national alarm;
  2. Claiming that student family poverty does not cause lower student achievement (however measured), but the reverse: that the schools that have students from poor and non-white populations are the CAUSE of that poverty and low achievement;
  3. Fraudulently assuming that huge fractions of teachers are not only incompetent but actively oppress their students (particularly the poor, the brown, and the black) and need to be fired en masse (as they were in New Orleans, Rhode Island, and Washington, DC);
  4. Micromanaging teachers in various ways, including by forcing all states to adopt a never-tested and largely incomprehensible ‘Common Core’ curriculum and demanding that all teachers follow scripted lessons in lockstep;
  5. ‘Measuring’ the productivity of teachers through arcane and impenetrable ‘Value-Added’ schemes that were devised for dairy cows;
  6. Mass firings of certified teachers, particularly African-American ones (see #2) and replacing them either with untrained, mostly-white newbies from Teach for America or with computers;
  7. Requiring public and charter schools (but not vouchers) to spend ever-larger fractions of their classroom time on test prep instead of real learning;
  8. Turning billions of public funds over to wealthy amateurs (and con artists) with no educational experience to set up charter schools and voucher schools with no real accountability — the very worst ones being the online charter schools.

One great aspect of this book is that Ravitch points out how

  1. All of those claims and ‘solutions’ have failed (for example, a study in Texas showed charter schools had no impact on test scores and a negative impact on earnings (p. 82);
  2. Teachers, parents, students, and ordinary community members have had a good deal of success in fighting back.

I will conclude with a number of quotes from the book in random colors.

“How many more billions will be required to lift charter school enrollment to 10 percent? [It’s now about 5 percent] And why is it worth the investment, given that charter schools, unless they cherry-pick their students, are no more successful than public schools are and often far worse? Why should the federal government spend nearly half a billion dollars on charter schools that may never open when there are so many desperately underfunded public schools?” (p. 276-277)

“Any movement controlled by billionaires is guaranteed […] to preserve the status quo while offering nothing more than the illusion of change.” (p. 281)

“There is no “Reform movement.” The Disrupters never tried to reform public schools. They wanted to disrupt and privatize the public schools that Americans have relied on for generations. They wanted to put public school funding in private hands. They wanted to short-circuit democracy. They wanted to cripple, not improve, the public schools. They wanted to replace a public service with a free market.” (p. 277)

“Our current education policy is madness. It is madness to destroy public education in pursuit of zany libertarian goals. It is madness to use public funds to put young children into religious schools where they will learn religious doctrine instead of science. It is madness to hand public money over to unaccountable entrepreneurs who want to open a school but refuse to be held to high ethical standards or to be held accountable for its finances and its performance. It is madness to ignore nepotism, self-dealing, and conflicts of interest. We sacrifice our future as a nation if we continue on this path of de-professionalizing our schools and turning them over to businessmen, corporate chains, grifters, and well-meaning amateurs. We sacrifice our children and our grandchildren if we continue to allow them to be guinea pigs in experiments whose negative results are clear.” (p. 281)

Ravitch proposes a number of things that billionaires could do that would be more helpful than what they are currently doing. She suggests [I’m quoting but shortening her list, found on page 280] that the billionaires could …

  • pay their share of taxes to support well-resourced public schools.
  • open health clinics to serve needy communities and make sure that all families and children have regular medical checkups.
  • underwrite programs to ensure that all pregnant women have medical care and that all children have nutritious meals each day.
  • subsidize after-school programs where children get exercise, play, dramatics, and tutoring.
  • rebuild the dramatics programs and performance spaces in every school.
  • lobby their state legislatures to fund schools fairly, to reduce class sizes, and to enable every school to have the teachers, teaching assistants, social services, librarians, nurses, counselors, books, and supplies it needs.
  • create mental health clinics and treatment centers for those addicted to drugs.
  • underwrite programs based on “the Kalamazoo Promise.”
  • They could emulate the innovative public school that basketball star leBron James subsidized in Akron, Ohio.

She also quotes Paymon Rouhanifard, who was a “prominent member of the Disruption establishment [who] denounced standardized testing when he stepped down as superintendent of the Camden, New Jersey, public schools […]. He had served as a high-level official on Joel Klein’s team in New York City […] Upon his arrival of the impoverished Camden district [….] he developed school report cards to rank every school mainly by test scores. But before he left, he abolished the school report cards.” She quotes him directly: “[…] most everybody in this room wouldn’t tolerate what I described for their own children’s school. Mostly affluent, mostly white schools shy away from heavy testing, and as a result, they are literally receiving an extra month of instruction […] The basic rule, what we would want for our own children, should apply to all kids.” (p.271)

“Disrupters have used standardized testing to identify and take over or close schools with low scores, but they disregard standardized testing when it reveals the failure of charters and vouchers. Disrupters no longer claim that charter schools and inexperienced recruits from Teach for America will miraculously raise test scores. After three decades of trying, they have not been successful.

“Nothing that the Disrupters have championed has succeeded unless one counts as ‘success’ closing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of community public schools in low-income neighborhoods. Ths Disrupters have succeeded in demoralizing teachers and reducing the number of people entering the teaching profession. They have enriched entrepreneurs who have opened charter schools or developed shoddy new products and services to sell to schools. They have enhanced the bottom line of large testing corporations. Their fling with the Common Core cost states billions of dollars to implement but had no effect on national or international test scores and outraged many parents, child advocates, lovers of literature, and teachers. “

Fortunately, the resistance to this has been having a fair amount of success, including the massive teacher strikes in state after state. As Ravitch writes (p. 266):

“The teachers taught the nation a lesson.

“But more than that, they taught themselves a lesson. They united, they demanded to be heard, and they got respect. That was something that the Disrupters had denied them for almost twenty years. Teachers learned that in unity there is strength.”

 

 

The Right Moment …

(A guest blog by Peter MacPherson on the need to revert to democratic local control of schools in Washington, DC.)

By Peter MacPherson

The right moment.

A crucial sense of timing has long been viewed as the key to successful human endeavors. Advertising keeps reminding us that it’s crucial to have the erectile-dysfunction drug Cialis on hand when the right moment strikes, otherwise the opportunity for a joyful session of lovemaking will be lost. Sometimes the right moment, at least in retrospect and in real circumstances, can be of almost incalculable importance, where the very course of history is recognized to have been altered by timing. In early June of 1944 American General Dwight Eisenhower, with the help of his fellow centurions, was desperately trying to determine when they could unleash the largest invasion force in history on the shores of France to begin the final chapter of the Second World War in Europe. Before the invasion, Eisenhower and his colleagues had been bedeviled by bad weather, and 156,000 allied troops were onboard ships in ports along the British coast waiting to be dispatched to a battle that many participants on both sides viewed as an impending struggle of almost biblical proportions.

Group Captain James Stagg, a British RAF officer who led a team that monitored the weather for Eisenhower, determined that a brief window would open for a few hours on June 6, 1944 that would allow the allied invasion force to leave port and put ashore on the beaches of Normandy in France. Upon receiving this vital information Eisenhower recognized that the quintessential right moment had arrived.

The outcome of acting in that moment could not be clearer.

The voters of the District of Columbia are entering a period that seems very much like the right moment, the zone of opportunity, to produce a badly needed change for which the city will benefit enormously over the long term. With the announcement by At-Large Councilman David Grosso that he does not intend to seek re-election and that charter school board executive director Scott Pearson is leaving his post in May, the right moment to drop the curtain on mayoral control of the schools has presented itself. For it to be the right moment, though, it has to be recognized as such.

Here, in my view, is why the way in which the stars have aligned has produced this crucial moment for the city.

Grosso is now a deeply unpopular District politician. He’s been chairman of the council’s education committee for four years and because of a prickly, dismissive personality and a seeming view that the role of the panel he oversees should be a limited one, oversight of public education has been wanting. Over the past four years the District of Columbia Public Schools has been beset by scandal. Among them are heavily inflated graduation rates, the untimely departure of and reasons for former chancellor Antwan Wilson leaving DCPS and thin to non-existent oversight of critical aspects of DCPS’ operations.

Scott Pearson has been a deeply problematic actor in the ongoing drama of public education in the city. Though nominally a public employee, Pearson advocates for public charter schools as if he were heading a trade group. He’s pushed back vigorously against even modest efforts to open the charter sector to additional scrutiny by both the council and outside groups. In recent testimony before the council on member Charles Allen’s proposed legislation that would have opened charter schools to the provisions of the District’s Freedom of Information law, Pearson expressed his adamant opposition to the bill.

And the future and health of DCPS has never seemed to be in his portfolio of concerns. Pearson has actively sought to allow the untrammeled growth in the number of charter schools in the city. During his seven-year tenure as the charter board’s executive director, the number of charter schools in the city has grown from 98 to 123. They now enroll 43,000 students. He has pressed the city to transfer closed DCPS buildings for use by charters, thus inhibiting their use as swing space during modernizations or to reopened as DCPS campuses. Essentially, on Pearson’s watch, a parallel school system has been established in the city. And until his planned departure of the charter school board in May, he will continue to press for the unabated expansion of the sector in the city.

In 2007, at the beginning of the mayoral-control era, DCPS had an enrollment of around 50,000 students, with the charters educating around 22,000. During this 12-year period DCPS has bled away a staggering level of enrollment to charters. If mayoral control was supposed to secure the future of DCPS, which was broadly represented to mean high-quality education for all District children, then the great education reform experiment has failed. DCPS has good schools, as it always has. But their location is as disparate as ever. Between stagnant enrollment and virtually non-existent test score growth, then the experiment has failed. The city not only has a failed governance model, it has also wasted an immense amount of municipal treasure pursing this model. In the surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia that have comparable numbers of students to the District, they spend around half of what the city does [per student] and have higher performing systems. With over 22,000 vacant seats, the District is maintaining a staggering amount of excess capacity.

With the impending departures of Grosso and Pearson, the question that District stakeholders need to ask themselves is whether meaningful change will happen once they’re off the stage. If mayoral control remains in place the answer is easy to discern. For those not wearing their glasses and cannot see the writing in the sky, the answer is no.

Part of the reason that one should have no expectations of changes that will lead to school improvement is implicit in the design of mayoral control. Though the mayor has statutory responsibility for DCPS, the executive is also responsible for generating a budget that funds the charters. The mayor appoints the members of the charter school board. The mayor ultimately decides the fate of excess District school buildings. And, through the deputy mayor for education, has a strong planning role as well.

Then there’s the realpolitik aspect of the way the city government run. The mayor is beneficiary of significant campaign contributions from outside charter supporters and operators. It’s inevitable that the mayor would play both sides and that is certainly what Muriel Bowser has done.

The city council, during 12 years of mayoral control, has mostly shown great squeamishness about exercising its oversight role of the schools. Having watched and given testimony before the council, I have yet to see a major sea change in DCPS policy that resulted from that testimony. The impact of public testimony has chiefly been felt in area of school modernizations, which have often required aggressive advocacy on the part of school communities to bring equity what has been a brutally unequal process.

Going forward what we’re likely to see is a real struggle to find a council member willing to enthusiastically take on the role of education committee chairman. One frequently hears from council and their representatives that the council is not the school board, that by design oversight is supposed to be more modest. But when the council voted to eliminate the elected school board, they became de facto the school board. The public has demanded a court of last resort in education matters when they don’t like the way things are going. Virtually any education committee hearing that will accept public testimony finds itself hearing from a large number of witnesses. The public clearly wants to participate in school governance and wants its voice heard.

The obvious ambivalence of current council members to take on the education committee chairman role, and the track record the council has relative to education oversight, mean that the city is in the midst of a right moment moment.

In a city short on representative democratic institutions, the city council and mayor made a grave error in eliminating the school [board] in 2007. The experiment upon which they allowed the city to embark has proven to be one of poor quality. And the council is not telegraphing a willing desire to improve its performance relative to education oversight. District children need oversight of their school from adults who are committed to their success, who want DCPS and existing charter schools to thrive. The mayor keeps DCPS on life-support. It’s never permitted to be strong or aggressive enough to really compete in an education marketplace.

And charter students are poorly served in the existing governance structures. The city provides a significant facilities fee per student to charters. Yet that money is not required to be used for that purpose, and frequently is not. If students and parents have an issue with a charter, their route of appeal ends at the front door of the school. And once the search begins for a new charter school board executive director, the selection process will not involve the public in any meaningful way. Remember that the charter school board is appointed by the mayor, which then functions autonomously. The charter board will decide on its next executive director.

Ideally the council would vote to reestablish the elected school board. It would also vote to make the State Superintendent of Education a creature of the State Board of Education, the District’s only body related to education that is directly elected by voters. And they would also construct a more robust regulatory structure for charter schools so that parents, students and teachers have a real voice. But if the council will not act than the voters must. If a ballot initiative is required, then concerned citizens must pursue it vigorously.

This is the right moment.

 

Teachers Quitting In DC

Valerie Jablow points out that there is an enormous problem with DC public and charter teachers being so harassed that they quit: around 70% of them quit by their 5th year of employment. (She adds that this is probably not a bug, but a feature of the DC teacher evaluation program.) I am reprinting her entire column, but you should subscribe to it yourself.

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Let’s Be Clear: DC Teacher Retention Isn’t Just A Problem. It’s A Crisis.

by Valerie Jablow

This Wednesday evening, October 23, at 5:30 pm, the DC state board of education (SBOE), DC’s only elected body with a direct (if relatively powerless) voice on our schools, will take public testimony on teacher retention in DC’s publicly funded schools. (See more information here.)

While public voice is sorely needed in every conversation about our public schools, in this case it’s a bit akin to choosing wallpaper for a burning building.

But that’s hardly SBOE’s fault.

In the wake of years of testimony about horrific treatment of DC teachers, SBOE last year commissioned a study by DC schools expert Mary Levy, which showed terrible attrition of teachers at our publicly funded schools, dwarfing attrition rates nationally.

An update to that 2018 study was just made available by SBOE and will be discussed at the meeting this week.

The update shows that while DCPS teacher and principal attrition rates have dropped slightly recently, they remain very high, with 70% of teachers leaving entirely by the 5-year mark (p. 32). Retention rates for DC’s charter schools are similar to those at DCPS–with the caveat that not only are they self-reported, but they are also not as complete and likely contain errors.

Perhaps the most stunning data point is that more than half of DCPS teachers leaving after 6 years are highly rated (p. 24). This suggests that the exodus of teachers from DC’s publicly funded schools is not merely a matter of weeding out poor performers (as DCPS’s response after p. 70 of this report suggests). Rather, it gives data credence to the terrifying possibility that good teachers are being relentlessly harassed until they give up and leave.

Sadly, that conclusion is the only one that makes sense to me, given that most of my kids’ teachers in my 14 years as a DCPS parent have left their schools–with only a few retiring after many years of service. Most of my kids’ teachers were both competent and caring. Perhaps not coincidentally, they almost always also lacked basic supplies that they ended up buying with their own money; were pressured to teach to tests that would be the basis of their and their principals’ evaluations; and feared reprisal for saying any of that.

(I’m hardly alone in that observation–read some teacher testimony for the SBOE meeting here, including that of a special education teacher, who notes that overwork with caseloads; lack of supplies; and increased class sizes for kids with disabilities are recurring factors at her school that directly lead to teacher burnout.)

In other words, high teacher attrition in DC’s publicly funded schools isn’t a bug but a feature.

Now the real question is why is SBOE apparently the only school leadership body undertaking this work in this manner?

To be fair, DC’s office of the state superintendent of education (OSSE) recently commissioned a report, which showed even higher rates of attrition in DC’s publicly funded schools.

Yet, despite a situation that resembles a full-blown crisis of longstanding proportions, OSSE’s report was weirdly anodyne.

For instance, only 50 of 68 LEAs participated and then, even after citing horrific retention rates, OSSE’s report noted (boldface mine) that “some evidence suggests that DC teacher retention rates may be slightly lower than other cities across the country.”

The report went on to note that “a study of 16 large urban districts found that 81 percent of teachers remained at their schools after one year, compared to 70 percent in DC. National figures suggest that about 84 percent of public school teachers remained at the same school between 2011-12 and the 2012-13 school year.”

Gotta ask:

Is anyone at OSSE at all given pause by the fact that their own citation shows that DC’s teachers are leaving at annual rates more than 10% higher than in comparable urban areas? Or that DC’s 70% annual retention figure above means that a third of DC’s teachers are leaving every year?

Or how about the fact that OSSE’s collaborator on this study, TNTP (founded by former DCPS chancellor Michelle Rhee), has long been the beneficiary of DCPS contracts on teacher performance and training–as well as one of the cheerleaders for rating schools and teachers with test scores, while a former staffer for TNTP recently co-authored a report on DC teacher retention that happily concluded that high teacher turnover can actually increase test scores?

(Yeah–but only for students with teachers receiving the lowest ratings. Yay for us! Oh, and no worries about those kids with those low-rated teachers! Despite the fact that both recent OSSE and SBOE retention reports show that at risk kids in DC are much more likely to have less effective and less experienced teachers who stay for shorter terms, if churning teachers makes for good test scores, perhaps we shouldn’t worry about the collateral damage of taking away the little stability that these kids might otherwise have in their lives. Outcomes, baby, outcomes!)

In fact, OSSE’s recent report on teacher retention appears to be an outgrowth of its recent collaboration with TNTP, the stated goal of which is to “help LEAs develop effective strategies to attract, develop, and retain great teachers to serve their students through robust analysis of staffing data from across the District.”

Of course, that “robust analysis” is only with “LEAs who opt to participate”–which is a charming way to say that whatever OSSE and TNTP have together done on this subject is all, well, voluntary.

Which is kind of like seeing the burning building that is DC teacher retention and not worrying whether everyone has evacuated because choices!

(Or freedom? Hard sometimes to suss out right-wing talking points.)

Indeed, the charter board’s response to the latest SBOE report echoed this (see response after p. 70), noting that “each school pursues its own approach, including its own human capital strategies. In this context, there is no universal “right” rate of attrition, just as there is no universal rate that is too high or too low. The right attrition rate for each school will depend on that school’s approach, their needs and their situation in any given year.”

Despite such official unconcern with the recurring devastation of human capital in our schools, the SBOE is now undertaking to get the council to legislate standardized reporting for teacher attrition, given that we don’t have any standards.

Think about this for a second:

SBOE is asking the council, another elected body with only indirect oversight of schools, to enact legislation to force OSSE to ensure all schools report teacher attrition and retention in a standardized way because we have an emergency here already and no one is telling OSSE to do this. Come to think of it, given the subject matter and its emergency status, you would THINK all this is already OSSE’s obligation (you know, because of  that whole mayoral control thingy).

And yet, right now, there is literally only one person in DC who is doing any fulsome reporting of this emergency–and she doesn’t work for OSSE, despite being twice hired by SBOE to report an emergency situation that city education leaders outside SBOE seem to regard as, well, the price of doing business.

So, to recap:

–Horrific teacher retention in all publicly funded schools in DC;
–No standardized and/or mandated reporting of teacher retention in all DC publicly funded schools;
–Teacher harassment and blame for student and school success;
–No official connection of that to poor teacher retention in DC;
–At risk kids bearing the brunt of teacher mobility, including less experienced and effective teachers;
–DC education leaders begging to differ with all of that; and
–A dis-empowered SBOE trying to get both the council and OSSE to actually fix all of that while the mayor is . . . .

Uh, where IS the mayor, anyway?

Yeah.

Folks who really, really hate public education …

Curmudgucation (aka retired Pennsylvania schoolteacher Peter Greene) hits the nail smack-dab on the head in just about every column he writes, so it behooves you to subscribe to his blog feed.

Today he shows how there are folks (like Betsy Devos, the Koch brother(s), and Bill Barr) who really, really hate the very idea of public education, and of government in general, and want to destroy both. I am reprinting the entire thing this time. But, again, you should read him daily, instead of reading my pitiful contributions.

Scorched Earth Education Policy (Charters, Watch Your Flank)

Posted: 16 Oct 2019 01:45 PM PDT

This is you should ignore the old admonition to not read the comments.

I converse with plenty of folks that I disagree with, both in the ed policy world and outside of it, and those conversations are largely civil, which sometimes distracts me from the fact that there are people out there who hate, hate, hate public education (“government schools”) and the teachers who work there  (“union thugs”).

I meet them, some days, on Twitter. On Facebook, there are groups that sprung up in the days of “Let’s all get together and fight Common Core” that are now dominated by folks who rail daily against teachers and unions and public schools and how we should just burn it all down until there’s nothing left but homeschooling and church schools (Christian ones, of course).

Of course, these days, you don’t have to dig so deep to find these virulently anti-public-ed folks. Here’s the Attorney General of the Freakin’ United States of America, declaring that our country is under assault in an “organized destruction” of the foundational values of our society (by which he means the Judeo-Christian ones). And “ground zero” of the assault is US public schools. Attorney General Barr, the head law enforcement official of the United States of America has called out public schools as everything just short of “enemies of the people.”

Meanwhile, the author of a new book about the Koch political empire tells us that what the Kochs want from public education is simple– they want it to go away. Talking to Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider at the Have You Heard podcast, Christopher Leonard summed it up like this:

Here’s the actual political philosophy. Government is bad. Public education must be destroyed for the good of all American citizens in this view.

So the ultimate goal is to dismantle the public education system entirely and replace it with a privately run education system, which the operatives in this group believe in a sincere way is better for everybody. Now, whether you agree with that or not as the big question, but we cannot have any doubt, there’s going to be a lot of glossy marketing materials about opportunity, innovation, efficiency. At its core though the network seeks to dismantle the public education system because they see it as destructive. So that is what’s the actual aim of this group. And don’t let them tell you anything different.

Barr’s opinion is not exactly unique in the current administration where the State Department front page featured a speech from Secretary Pompeo about Christian leadership. And it’s no secret that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is long focused on “kingdom gains.” The government-run school system needs to be broken up, and a privatized system, built mostly of church-run schools, should be put in its place.

These are not fringe positions. There are plenty of people out there who agree with the Kochs or the theocrats or both, cognitive dissonance be damned.

With that in mind, I wonder if some reformsters aren’t making the same mistake that Common Core supporters made.

Common Core fans like Jeb Bush thought they just had to worry about those damned liberals and lefties. They were shocked and surprised by the uproar on the right (an uproar so huge that progressive core opponents occasionally had to jump up and down and holler “Us too!”) that they never quite recovered; they couldn’t quite shift to their right flank fast enough.

Charter proponents have likewise focused on their left flank. They carefully cultivated alliances with card-carrying Democrats, ginned up DFER, and even now, keep trying to sell the idea that Real Democrats like charters. They are insistent that charters be called “public” charters because, doggonit, they are, too, public schools.

I’m wondering if they might not live to regret that. I wonder if they’re not concentrating on the wrong flank.

The scorched earth crowd is not interested in tweaking public education. Folks like DeVos see charters as a nice stepping stone to the true goal, but no more. This, incidentally, is not really news. Charter fans stepped up to oppose DeVos’s nomination, and charter fans are about the only group that DeVos attempted to make nice with when she took the office. But that truce seems unlikely to last.

The scorched earth crowd represents an alliance much like that which birthed the Tea Party– religious conservatives and libertarian-ish money righties. While that’s a hard alliance to hold together, on the matter of public schools, they’re in agreement (even if it doesn’t entirely make sense)– public schools need to go. People are attached to them, so it’s not possible to attack them head on. Some patience and rhetorical flourish is necessary. DeVos’s “Education Freedom” proposal is a fine example– it’s about vouchers, not charters, and she’s been quite clear that it’s money that can be spent many ways, not just in a “school.”

I don’t find it at all difficult to imagine a future in which the scorched earth folks work to take down charter schools right along with the public system (the one that charters insist they’re part of). If I were a scorched earth person, my plan would be first to split the funding stream into several streams (public this way, vouchers over there) and then just slowly pinch off the public stream. The techniques that we’ve already seen work just fine– starve the schools, create a measure to show that they’re failing, use their failure as justification for starving them further.

Charters, meanwhile, have been flipping through a stack of index cards looking for a justification that will work. They don’t get superior academic results. They don’t close the achievement gap. They don’t create competition that makes everyone improve. These days they’ve settled on the argument that choice is the right thing to do in and of itself, but that argument serves vouchers far better than charters, which scorched earth folks can paint as just an appendage of those same damned gummint schools (hell, some of those charter teachers have even unionized).

And Espinoza v. Montana is on the Supreme Court docket, a case that would shatter the wall between church and state in education. Why send a kid to a charter when you can go straight to a church school. That would become one more charter problem– why would voucher fans stick with voucher lite when they can get the real thing?

Ultimately, scorched earth ed policy would involve choking the revenue stream for everybody, because one of the things they hate about public education is those damned taxes. In one version of the scorched earth education future, there are just tax credits– wealthy patrons support their educational vendor of choice instead of paying taxes, and everyone else just scrapes by. As traditional tax revenue is choked off, charters get caught in the same vice as public school, with too little money to serve underserved communities. That’s okay with the DeVos’s and Kochs and other folks who, at heart, disagree with the notion of elevating the Lessers. Society works better when everyone accepts their proper place (that either God or economics have called them to) and all these socialist attempts to help people rise above their station are both expensive and against natural law. If some people end up getting little or no real education in this system, well, that’s just too bad– they shouldn’t have chosen to be poor and powerless.

I’ve called charters the daylight savings time of ed reform, like trying to reposition on too-small blanket on a too-large bed, arguing about who gets covered instead of shopping for a bigger blanket. But the scorched earth folks approach is “I’ll buy a blanket for my kids and you buy one for yours. We’ll just use our personal resources and you use yours and we’ll just keep that thieving, interfering gummint out of it. Good luck, and enjoy your freedom!”

Charter schools would end up on the wrong side of all of this if they fail to watch their right flanks. And all of the US suffers if the scorched earth education crowd manages any level of what they call success. But do not underestimate them; they are out there, and they are pissed.

Chavez Charter Chain Teachers, Newly Unionized, Decry School Closing

Last night I attended a hearing at the ‘Public’ Charter School Board on 14th St NW here in Washington DC to support the teachers at Chavez Prep Middle School, which the un-elected chain’s board has decided to close.

Mark Simon wrote on Facebook,

“Chavez teachers did an amazing job last night! PCSB members asked some good questions of trustees, but avoided the Obvious role of Ten Square, which was simultaneously advising on contract negotiations and bank loan negotiations. Getting no concessions from the bank conveniently busts the union. Coincidence? Victory Ten Square. So why is the PCSB pushing Ten Square on schools anyway? Could preventing charter unionization from spreading be a bigger agenda than keeping one successful school open?”

I wrote:

I was there too, but didn’t stay until the very end- my back hurt from standing so much. (in the overflow space out in the hall) It’s definitely not a coincidence that they closed those particular schools; it’s clearly union-busting, just like McDonald’s or Walmart closing the few of their stores that unionized.
I didn’t hear anybody mention that, though they may have done so after I left.
BTW about 8-9 years ago I attempted to mentor a young math teacher at Chavez Parkside (Anacostia) through the Math for America [which is pretty much the diametric opposite of ‘Teach for Awhile’ in policy and training]. I was appalled at how poorly run the program was for both the students and the teachers.
So while on the one hand, I am pleased that all these young teachers united and joined the WTU and organized to fight back over their administration’s malfeasance, on the other hand I think as an institution, the Chavez chain leadership is morally and educationally bankrupt and SHOULD be closed down and revert to the actual public schools of washington DC.
IMG_3166
I could also have written:
These are not the stereotypical veteran, burned out, lazy teachers trying to shirk their responsibilities. These are passionate young people, mostly in their 20s or early 30s, who have a real desire to help young people, especially the poorest, those of color, and the most oppressed. They pointed out how their management seems able to spend millions on consultants who meet only with administrators, not teachers, not students, and not parents, yet the chain’s board claims that money problems forced them to close  two of their schools.
Yeah, right.

How To Make a Fortune in Education: Become A Charter School CEO!

I’ll point you to two sources on this hot tip: Washington City Paper and Curmudgucation, which can point you to other sources as well.

In general, the heads of charter schools – who receive lots of tax dollars but who don’t have to let the public know how they are using those funds, not even through FOIA requests – make a LOT of money, much more than a mere principal or superintendent, even though they are in charge of WAY fewer students or staff.

Charter school teachers? They often don’t earn even as much as their public-school colleagues.

I’m cutting and pasting the WCP article, and also suggest you read Peter Greene’s post at Curmudgucation.

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D.C. Charter Administrators Have Some of the Highest School Salaries in Town; Their Teachers, Some of the Lowest

The head of Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School made $541,000 in 2017.

RACHEL M. COHEN
 JAN 30, 2019 6 AM
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Cover Rosario 596671c68f993Carlos Rosario International Public Charter SchoolDARROW MONTGOMERYLiz Koenig has been working in D.C. charter schools for seven years, and at the same charter for the last five. She used to be a lawyer. “My first-year salary as a teaching assistant was less than my year-end bonus as an attorney, which blew my mind,” she recalls.

When Koenig took her current teaching job, she didn’t know anything about her charter’s salary schedule, other than what she had been offered to start. In the middle of her third year, she asked HR if she could review her school’s pay scale, because she was trying to figure out how her salary might increase if she obtained additional teaching credentials.

“I’ve always been interested in getting a master’s in dual-language teaching for ELL [English language learner] students, or a master’s in curriculum and instruction of literacy, but I’m a mother of two kids, and before I take that leap, I wanted to understand what I could expect to earn at my school if I did get those credentials,” she says. “I can’t take on any more debt. I still have debt from law school I’m paying off.”

But Koenig was denied that information, as are most charter teachers in D.C. “There are 120 schools but you can’t just call them up and learn their salary schedules,” she says. “It puts us in a position where we can’t make informed choices about where we work. Charter schools are free markets for all the parents and kids, but screw those teachers.”

Koenig says if she leaves her school, she’ll probably head to DC Public Schools, “where at least I’ll have the transparency.” Even without getting extra credentials, Koenig estimates she could be earning about $15,000 more right now in DCPS.

D.C. is nationally noted for its above-average teaching salaries—the minimum starting rate for a full-time DCPS educator is $56,313, and the average DCPS teacher earned over $76,400 in the 2016-17 school year. But publicly available information about D.C. charter school salaries is surprisingly scant. And unlike DCPS, charter schools are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.

This past fall, the State Board of Education released a report on teacher retention in D.C. schools, prepared by Mary Levy, an independent budget analyst. As part of her research, Levy combed through the annual reports published by each individual charter school organization, where, in addition to publishing information about teacher attrition, most schools also report their minimum, maximum, and average teacher salary. The DC Public Charter School Board requests charters report this information, but does not require it, and so some charters, like DC Prep and Washington Global, decline to provide the salary data.

Still, using what information she could find, Levy estimated the average D.C. charter school teacher salary in the 2016-17 school year amounted to $60,499.

Yet she has reason to question the precision of these self-reported figures. When Levy was compiling data for her SBOE report, she found that most of the charter schools that reported attrition of over 50 percent in fact had far less. “What that says is there’s an assumption that nobody would look at these annual reports, and whoever filled it out apparently confused the words ‘attrition’ with ‘retention,’” she says. “It makes a big difference if anyone actually uses the data. Then the people who are submitting the information tend to be more careful.”

Tomeika Bowden, the spokesperson for the DC Public Charter School Board, confirmed that her organization does not collect any additional information on charter teacher pay.

City Paper asked the State Board of Education if it had ever tried to learn the salaries of D.C. charter school teachers. “The SBOE has not requested that information because it does not fall within the purview of the Board’s work,” answered John-Paul Hayworth, the board’s Executive Director. When pressed on how that squares with the SBOE’s focus on teacher retention, Hayworth said the State Board generally avoids making recommendations on hiring practices, including contract length, performance assessments, and salaries. While the board might recommend that schools report the overall expenditure on teachers in a school, Hayworth added, it “wouldn’t request individual-level information.”

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Though charter teachers earn much less than their DCPS counterparts, administrative pay in the charter sector has been rising at a fast clip, according to public records.

According to salary information posted each year on the DC Public Charter School Board’s website, between 2016 and 2018, staff working at the DC Public Charter School Board received raises averaging 12 percent annually. And in 2017, according to nonprofit tax filings, the average annual salary for the top leader at each D.C. charter was $146,000. Only three charter heads earned less than $100,000, and eight earned more than $200,000.

Summary statistics aside, the sector is replete with examples of steep salaries and quick raises. Allison Kokkoros, the head of Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School and the highest-paid charter official in D.C., received a 24 percent salary increase between 2015 and 2016, from $248,000 to $307,000. Then, in 2017, she received another 76 percent increase, bumping her compensation to $541,000. Patricia Brantley, head of Friendship Public Charter School, received a 33 percent raise between 2016 and 2017, increasing her pay from $231,000 to $308,000.

Outside of school heads, other high-ranking charter administrators also claimed significant salaries. In 2017, KIPP DC had four administrators making approximately $200,000 annually, and its president earned $257,000. The chair of Friendship, Donald Hense, earned over $355,000 annually between 2015 and 2017, and its CFO earned between $171,000 and $197,000 in each of those years. DC Prep’s Chief Academic Officer earned $203,000 in 2015, and $223,000 one year later. The board chair of AppleTree Early Learning earned over $231,000 annually each year since 2015, reaching $245,000 in 2017. 990 tax forms list another 110 charter administrators earning between $100,000 and $200,000 annually, although this list is likely not comprehensive, as schools are only required to disclose their top five highest-paid employees. 2018 figures are not yet available.

In one remarkable instance, Sonia Gutierrez, the founder and former CEO of Carlos Rosario, who now sits on the school’s board, earned $1,890,000 between 2015 and 2017. Board chair Patricia Sosa, when contacted about this large sum, says much of that had been awarded as deferred compensation from Gutierrez’s time working between July 2010 and December 2015. However, according to tax records, she was also paid an average of $326,000 annually during that period.

Research conducted on other cities has shown that administrative spending tends to be higher in charter sectors than in traditional public school districts. Still, administrative spending has also been a concern in DCPS, and it was one of the major points Washington Teacher’ Union leaders brought up during their last round of contract negotiations. And in Denver, Colorado, public school teachers are currently threatening to go on strike over wages, with teachers calling attention to Denver’s above-average spending on school administration.

For their part, charter school executives defend their current salaries as standard for the sector and necessary to retain top-tier personnel. But there may be a risk that within-sector salary comparisons result in administrator paychecks rising in sync with each other, rather than reflecting an underlying demand for staff.

***

Ironically, as charter administrators claim they need high salaries to compete for executive leadership, teachers complain that the opacity of their salaries makes bargaining for higher pay near impossible.

Last week, Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy—a network of four charter schools in D.C.—announced it will be unilaterally closing its Chavez Prep Middle School next year, and merging its two high schools. The network says this new closure and merger are due to lower-than-expected student enrollment, i.e. a revenue shortfall.

Chavez Prep is the city’s sole unionized charter school, and Christian Herr, a sixth grade science teacher at the school, says the lack of a clear salary schedule was one of the main reasons he and his colleagues were motivated to form a union. “When we were organizing our union, we learned things were just all over the place in terms of who got paid what, and there wasn’t a clear progression,” he says. “Your salary basically depended on how much a principal liked you, or what you were willing to ask for, or demand. The people with the same amount of experience and degrees got paid differently.”

The Chavez Prep union has been negotiating its first contract since the summer of 2017, and establishing a more transparent salary schedule has been one of their top priorities. What will happen to the union next year is not yet clear, and teachers say they plan to launch a full investigation into the reasons behind the closing of Chavez Prep.

Emily Silberstein, the CEO of the Cesar Chavez network, tells City Paper that her organization “has a long history of implementing a teacher pay scale that includes educational degrees and years of experience as factors in pay. Each year, the pay scale is reviewed as part of the network’s budgeting process. When updating the Chavez pay scale, we consider the network budget, pay in the D.C. charter sector, and the DCPS teacher pay scale.”

Silberstein says their updated pay scale is shared annually with teachers, and she defends her network’s compensation rates as competitive with other D.C. charter schools—citing a recent study by EdFuel, a nonprofit that helps schools recruit and retain teachers.

City Paper reached out to EdFuel to review the aforementioned compensation study, but Kelly Gleischman, a managing partner, said the study is not publicly available, as it’s currently shielded under a non-disclosure agreement. She says it was published March 1, 2018, and is under an NDA for eighteen months after that.

DCPS gets about $16,000 per pupil from the city’s operating budget, and charters receive a little less than $15,000—though charters also shoulder some additional costs like retirement and building maintenance. Silberstein says she understands why teachers would choose to teach in DCPS if pay was a top consideration. “For highly effective teachers, DC Public Schools is one of the highest-paying school districts in the country,” she says. “I admire DCPS for that and wish D.C. charter schools received the same kind of public and philanthropic support to make such salaries possible.”

“Speaking personally,” says Herr, “if I were at DCPS I would get paid $14,000 more than I do now, and my wife, who has worked at Chavez Prep as long as I have and has two master’s degrees, she’d get paid $19-to-$20,000 a year more.”

Post-publication, Carlos Rosario contacted City Paper to clarify that Allison Kokkoros’ 2017 pay, as reported in tax filings, included deferred compensation from previous years. Per their request, we have updated the headline of this story to specify that Kokkoros “made $541,000 in 2017” rather than having “earned $541,000 in 2017,” as was previously stated. We have updated the story to reflect that $541,000 was her compensation that year, not her salary.

Resignations from DC Schools Task Force

I am reprinting a letter of resignation from two members of the task force that was supposed to analyze problems with DC’s regular public schools and charter schools. (Disclosure: I have met one of the writers several times)

Mary Levy and Caryn Ernst Resign from Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force

Mary Levy and Caryn Ernst Resign from Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force

November 10, 2018
To: The Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force

c/o Paul Kihn, Acting Deputy Mayor for Education

From: Mary Levy and Caryn Ernst

We write to submit our resignations from the Cross-Sector Collaboration Task Force and to state why we have declined to endorse the report just released.

We do this because the report and recommendations fail to deal with the most important elements of the Task Force’s basic mission: to formulate a clear vision to guide the relationship between the traditional and charter education sectors; to significantly reduce student mobility, particularly mid-year mobility; and to create a meaningful framework for opening, closing and siting schools that reflects a sensible vision for public education in the District of Columbia.

There are big underlying issues: Will the City provide an excellent matter-of-right DCPS path from PK through high school in every community in a system that is accountable to them and their elected officials, providing families with shelter from the “chance” of the lottery and the need to traverse the city? To do so would require making that an explicit goal and implementing policies to achieve it. Will the City close more DCPS schools or have charter schools take them over? Does the City recognize the different obligations and challenges of DCPS matter-of-right schools and charter (and other DCPS schools) and the implications of those differences? The report and recommendations, at best, leave these issues open and yet addressing them lay at the heart of the Task Force mandate.
We and others have raised all these concerns during Task Force meetings, in a November letter we sent to the DME, the co-chairs and members of the Task Force, and in comments on the draft. Parents and community members at the public engagement sessions also spoke to these issues

Our voice is not represented in the tone or the recommendations, nor in a minority report. We believe that charter schools are not a substitute for excellent by-right DCPS schools in every neighborhood. Policymakers’ talking to each other does not constitute a framework for opening, closing and siting schools. We fear that the only steps on student mobility facilitate rather than reduce it.

We understand that this task is difficult and that efforts were made, but at bottom, after two and a half years of effort, the key finding of the Task Force seems to be that no real consensus could be reached on a vision or on ways to meaningfully address the key challenges the Task Force was created to address. The report suggests that we are generally on the right track and therefore conveys a sense that the absence of a vision and a framework for where we want to go is not a serious problem. We do not share either view and as such, the report does not reflect our views in letter or spirit. We cannot therefore endorse it.
CSCTF Report final.pdf

A Thorough Analysis of DC’s PARCC Scores

Valerie Jablow of EducationDC has a lengthy and thorough column, guest-written by one Betsy Wolf, with way more analysis of the recently-released PARCC scores for DC’s charter schools and regular public schools than I could ever accomplish.

The conclusions that I draw are that:

(1) There is a huge amount of variation in PARCC test scores and proportions of ‘at risk’ students from school to school, both in the regular public schools and the charters;

(2) The public schools have slightly higher scores than the charter schools;

(3) There is a very strong and negative correlation between the proportion of ‘at risk’ students and the proportion of students scoring at the highest levels on this test;

(4) There is a much greater concentration of ‘at risk’ students in the regular public schools than in the charter schools;

(5) No, we have not overcome socio-economic segregation, and

(6) No, the charter schools do not have a secret method for achieving success for every kid, no matter what.

Here is the link: https://educationdc.net/2018/08/27/how-did-dcs-parcc-scores-grow/

I reproduce here a couple of Ms Wolf’s graphs, showing that close correlation between income and PARCC scores in both the charter and regular public sectors. The horizontal axis is the percentage of the student population at the school that is ‘at risk’ (a composite measure including the fraction of families being on food stamps, welfare, incarcerated, free and/or reduced lunch, etc), and the vertical axis is the percentage of students scoring either a 4 or a 5 on the PARCC (that is, the highest levels). Both are for mathematics; the first one is for regular DC public schools, and the second is for the charter sector.

atrisk-dcps - Rebecca Wolf

and

atrisk-charters - Betsy Wolf

(Both of these graphs are copyright 2018 by Betsy Wolf, and if you click on them you can see enlarged versions.)

The first one shows that Janney, Ross, SWS, Key, and Mann elementary schools all have zero percent of their students classified as ‘at risk’, and have some the highest percentages (about 80%) in the entire city of their students scoring 4 or 5 on the math portion of the PARCC in all of DC.

Conversely, Luke Moore, Washington Metropolitan, and Roosevelt STAY — all alternative high schools — have nearly 100% of their students ‘at risk’ and have zero percent of their students scoring 4s or 5s on the PARCC. There are roughly 30 regular DC public schools that have over 75% of their students ‘at risk’. That’s a lot of kids. So the segregation by socio-economic status in the regular public schools is rather extreme. (Luke Moore happens to be about 6 blocks from my house; I’m not sure how often the students there actually attend class on a regular basis, based on how often, and when, I see students come and go.)

By comparison, there are only about six charter schools with over 75% of their students ‘at risk’. The negative correlation between the fraction of ‘at risk’ students and the fraction that ‘passes’ the PARCC with a 4 or a 5 is very strong in both the charter schools and the regular public schools, but more so in the latter (the first graph).

In the charter sector, there are many fewer schools with greater than 60% of their students scoring 4s or 5s (that is, above the fourth gray horizontal line, counting from the bottom). Also, there are fewer charter than public schools with less than 25% of their students at risk (that is, to the left of the second gray vertical line, counting from the left).

Interestingly, there are a number of somewhat anomalous charter schools that don’t seem to fit the stereotypes: Lee Montessori, Shining Stars and Roots have NO students ‘at risk’, but fairly low fractions of their students scoring high on the math PARCC, and we have four of the KIPP Schools (Spring, Lead, Promise, and Heights) which have middling concentrations of ‘at risk’ students but relatively high scores on the PARCC. (Shining Stars happens to be less than a block from my house, and I see apparently prosperous, professional families, many European-American, dropping off and picking up their kids every morning and every afternoon.)

Why these anomalies? That bears some further investigation, but my colleagues who have taught at various KIPP schools have told me me that the KIPP system is quite effective at weeding out non-compliant students.

Bottom line: DOES THE CHARTER SECTOR HAVE A SECRET SAUCE FOR GETTING EVERY STUDENT, NO MATTER WHAT, TO EXCEL?

Answer: NO.

 

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