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Will the real education candidate please stand up?

Several weeks ago, we asked the major candidates for the April 26th at-large DC Council special election to answer a set of eight questions about a councilmember's role in specific education policy issues.

Photo by Mr. T in DC on Flickr.

We received answers from four of the candidates: Alan Page, Vincent Orange, Bryan Weaver, and Sekou Biddle. We reviewed the responses to see how well the candidates understood and articulated key education issues, and if their ideas went beyond the slogans and platitudes voters are used to hearing.

Bryan Weaver had some of the most specific and realistic ideas for improving education, especially for disadvantaged students and on funding disparities between DCPS schools and charters. Alan Page also impressed, with the best response about teacher evaluations. Vincent Orange demonstrated some chops in responses to several questions.

The biggest surprise was that the candidate with the longest resume in the education field—Sekou Biddle—had the least specific responses to our education survey. Maybe he's been more specific on the campaign trail.

There is no easy way to summarize the results or say who "won," and my analysis is very subjective, so feel free to read the verbatim responses from verbatim responses and form your own judgment.

Educational opportunity for disadvantaged students

Interestingly, the one question that drew new policy ideas yielded the same policy idea from three of the candidates. When we asked about how we can create more equal educational opportunity for the city's most disadvantaged students, Weaver, Page, and Orange all advocated some form of additional pay for teaching in the poorest neighborhoods.

Weaver's very specific proposal called for up to a $16,000 bonus for a voluntary move and a three-year commitment to teach in the city's lowest-performing schools. Page offered many more specific ideas, but some of them were hard to follow, like paying teachers (doubling the incentives?) if they are effective (based on student input) and teach in a low-performing school. Others included pursuing a balanced plan of facilities modernization rather than favoring selected sites.

Biddle suggested that wide distribution of school performance data was a way to fuel the city's already active system of public school choice to equalize opportunity—the only candidate to take this angle.

But ideas like these were typically sandwiched between platitudes that gave little clue as to the policies we might see him advocate for as a member of the Council. (In fairness, he has already started introducing legislation, such as a bill to make transportation free for low-income families). This may be the strategy of a frontrunner, but it left us to focus on other candidates who provided meatier responses.

Teacher evaluations

Statehood Green candidate Alan Page gave the best response to a question about the the DCPS system of teacher evaluation known as IMPACT. For starters, he accurately described how it currently works, expressing support for it as a good start, suggesting that it could be improved to capture critical thinking, and saying he would hold stakeholder hearings. This would probably fall under micro-management according to Biddle's response, but might help citizens get a better understanding of this fundamental tool for making education policy in the District.

Most candidates did not get specific enough to demonstrate a full understanding of this or other key education policies like management of federal grants like Race to the Top and the lesser known State Longitudinal Education Data system (SLED).

Orange and Bryan Weaver recognized the failure of DC to execute on its SLED grant but nobody offered solutions. Weaver came the closest, asking for transparency in education performance data as well as the issue of surplus properties, advocating for a public database of the city inventory with agency contact information and other data.

Role of the State Board of Education

Vincent Orange had good answers about the role of the State Board of Education (SBOE) and about the disposition of public buildings that once housed under-enrolled DCPS schools. He acknowledged the reduced role of the SBOE, but recognized its value as an elected board that could bring constituent concerns on education to the policy arena. (Though this might be more accurate if so many of its members didn't consider the Board as merely a stepping stone to the Council.)

On buildings, he echoed a concern that other candidates raised for community input and that some raised for revenue generation, but noted that if we don't let charter schools occupy the schools, as they are promised by law, then (non-profit) charter schools will take some other property off the tax rolls.

Charters versus DCPS

We asked a somewhat leading question about whether candidates thought that charter and DCPS schools received fair budget allocations. Charter advocates have long complained that they are not treated fairly relative to the traditional district.

Orange wins bravery points for pushing back on this idea and suggesting that charters in DC are better off relative to their traditional school peers than in other states. He also called for weighted school formula funding and extra funding for magnet programs but did not explain why.

Biddle noted astutely that timeliness of the funds is a critical issue for charter schools. But Weaver really nailed the issue, focusing on facilities allocations and the fact that DC government has exposed itself to a lawsuit over this issue by not taking the issue of facilities funding equity seriously enough.


As readers will remember, Stephen is no fan of the DC Opportunity Scholarship Program, aka DC vouchers, so he naturally gave points to Weaver and Page for opposing it, while Biddle and Orange said they're for it. Voters who support the program might view this one differently.

Weaver just thinks the dollar amounts are too low to get poor kids into truly elite schools, and added that the voucher program shouldn't subsidize schools to discriminate against gays and lesbians. Biddle defended the program but also referenced a need for funded organizations to comply with the DC Human Rights Act. Orange hinted at the real reason we might want to support the program: the bribe that Congress offered, by including in the program equal funding bonuses for DCPS and DC charters if the program was enacted.

Chancellor selection

We asked some questions that flopped. One was about the selection of a permanent DCPS chancellor. The candidates who responded promptly to our questionnaire (Page and Orange) gave earnest answers and then Mayor Gray announced his selection, prompting the later-responding candidates to say they support Kaya Henderson. Not much to be learned there.

We need more city leaders who are knowledgeable about education and this survey shows is that the choice is not obvious. However, taken together, the candidates' responses can add a new layer to voters' understanding of where the candidates stand, how knowledgeable they are, and what they might do in the education arena if elected.

Steven Glazerman is an economist who studies education policy and specializes in teacher labor markets. He has lived in the DC area off and on since 1987 and settled in the U Street neighborhood in 2001. He is a Senior Fellow at Mathematica Policy Research, but any of his views expressed here are his own and do not represent Mathematica. 
Laura Gutmann has over a decade of experience working with schools in DC, New York City, and North Carolina as a teacher, nonprofit executive, consultant, and researcher. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Education. 


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I understand Mara, Weaver and Biddle have formal connections with and to the city's (some would rightfully argue perpetually failing) educational industrial complex in the form of the now nearly powerless SBOE, PTA, and education focused CBOs. However, Josh Lopez is a product of DCPS through and through and most closely in touch with what really goes on in the classrooms, hallways and bathrooms of the city's schools. Although, he didn't send a response I do want to give him a shout out as a former classmate of mine at MAPCS.

by Uptown2DaSoufside on Apr 20, 2011 1:46 pm • linkreport

Is merit pay really an incentive? As a teacher, from a family of teachers who have taught/teach in DC, merit pay doesn't really entice us. I'll teach because I want to teach and what will get me to teach in inner city schools is an amazing staff with an awesome principal and colleagues who will lead and inspire and encourage me as a teacher, "lighten" the job so to speak, and make it worth all the agony. Not the promise of a bigger salary, though it couldn't hurt. School/admin culture in DC is sub par in a lot of ways--maybe because it is over taxed and stressed, but I think a lot of it has to do with not knowing how to lead or inspire.

Also, can DCPS get better math curriculum, and start tracking gifted kids(seriously, DCPS kids will always be mediocre if the top can't be challenged and the top can't be challenged because they are stuck in classrooms with kids two grade levels behind them).

Seriously, to revamp DC schools you need to start with an admin who have vision and management skills who can inspire a staff and teachers. Not enough is being done to scrutinize principals and support staff who also set the tone for the culture of education in schools. You would not believe the people I have had to work/who my mom has had to work with it. There are not enough professionals in DC's school systems. And impact is not going to do anything about them... but principals who know what they are doing who can support and grow teachers, I think so.

by Sarah on Apr 20, 2011 2:20 pm • linkreport

Schools are extraordinarily important - but what exactly is the DC Council's role in schools?

I'm honestly asking - we have the Council, the Mayor, the State Board of Ed, OSSE, and a bunch of other bodies, too. I don't know that I've ever seen an org chart for the whole mess.

by Alex B. on Apr 20, 2011 2:27 pm • linkreport

I see two major problems with attracting good teachers to the dysfunctional schools in DC:

1) Fear that they will be graded on the same bar as better schools, but with less motivated students. --Easy enough to use standardized testing to account for this variation.

2) Lack of US Supreme Court, Political Support and Community support for the discipline required to run a functioning classroom. --Very difficult to deal with.

I just think there aren't enough teachers with excellent academic preparation that also have the skills to control all types of disruptive behavior. We don't have an effective mechanism to control student behavior if the parents aren't on board. The parent threatens to sue, the leadership caves, and the classroom becomes ineffective.

We need a "disruptive student's" school for kids that can't pull themselves together enough to sit in class. There has to be a consequence that removes bad kids, but doesn't toss them out on the street.

by eb on Apr 20, 2011 2:43 pm • linkreport

@Alex B. (in a whisper) I don't think anybody really knows.

(regular voice) I think the Council's primary role is budgetary whereas other orgs/institutions have oversight on issues like curriculum. Example, when it comes to closing under-enrolled schools which are proposed by auditors within OSSE (I believe?) the Council members here it from their constituents. It is a cluster-Huck Finn. As I understand the SBOE is powerless. It only exist as a platform for running for Ciy Council with the ultimate ceiling of elected leadership being the Executive Office of the Mayor.

by CityofMagnificentIntentionsW/PatheticLeadership on Apr 20, 2011 2:51 pm • linkreport


In this hyper/ultra/extreme politically correct city you can't speak truth to power that these schools are out of control because the students are. You never hear pols talk about "classroom managment" instead they talk about teacher evals. This puts teachers on defense footing. It's sickening and will not change anytime soon.

by CityofMagnificentIntentionsW/PatheticLeadership on Apr 20, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

There has to be a consequence that removes bad kids, but doesn't toss them out on the street. Yes.

In addition to what Sarah said about good admin and support staff I think a mandate of low student-to-teacher ratio in the classrooms in the least performing schools would attract teachers. Teachers can so much more done with each student in a classroom of 15 vs. 25 students.

by Tina on Apr 20, 2011 2:58 pm • linkreport

In this hyper/ultra/extreme politically correct city you can't speak truth to power that these schools are out of control because the students are

You dance with them whut brung you, you fight with the army you have, and you teach the children enrolled in your school district.

Anyway, if you wanted to really be politically incorrect, you might argue that the real solution isn't class size, classroom management, or anything else. It's to shield children from the effects of poverty. Poor malnourished kids from abusive homes, or who who don't have homes are going to be shitty students. You solve that by making them middle-class kids.

But since we don't have any political will for that in America yet, arguably the next best thing is to mitigate the effects of poverty by deconcentrating it.

by oboe on Apr 20, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport

but teachers can only have small impacts on those problems. Teachers can teach even students from those backgrounds when the conditions are right. there is empirical evidence that class sizes >15 is the threshold with a student population like the one you described. The best proven antidote to poverty is education.

by Tina on Apr 20, 2011 3:15 pm • linkreport

The best proven antidote to poverty is education.

Not sure how you measure this, though. We already have universal education in DC, right? Maybe "effective education", but that seems circular.

by oboe on Apr 20, 2011 3:33 pm • linkreport

@Oboe, The real solution isn't class size, classroom management, or anything else. It's to shield children from the effects of poverty. Poor malnourished kids from abusive homes, or who who don't have homes are going to be shitty students. You solve that by making them middle-class kids.
Arguably the next best thing is to mitigate the effects of poverty by deconcentrating it.

In theory, I agree with what you say although the realities are so much different. While poverty is definately an issue to address, in places like DC, I would guess that poverty isn't the reason these kids are a bunch of bad asses. Poverty isn't why (as they move from Sponge Bomb to being cool) many of them don't just underperform in their studies but stop going to school altogether. I see too many in my own neighborhood who aren't "poverty stricken"..who choose to be high on mj while headed to school. Poverty isn't responsible for them standing outside Tenley's metro acting like a pack of rabid dogs.

That's not poverty. Yet, it is the individual choices that these kids make. And THESE are the same kids whom (once they in a class) people like Obama and Rhee think only need a good teacher to instruct them.

Although ignored during the recent elections, there is a reason why seasoned "quality" educators are more concentrated in schools WOTR and I doubt it's because they're just lazy or not dedicated.

by HogWash on Apr 20, 2011 3:38 pm • linkreport

oh c'mon. You know I'm talking about "effective education", not just passing through to a HS diplom while reading at a 3rd grade level(i.e.). Thats not education. If it were we have a problem, would we?

Kids can get breakfast lunch and dinner at school. What they can't always get is a classroom size that allows the teacher to manage it and thus give meaningful individual attention.

As far as measuring poverty by education - there are plethora stats out there. the one that is in my mind is the unemployment rate for people with graduate degrees vs. bachelors vs. HS vs. no HS.

by Tina on Apr 20, 2011 3:41 pm • linkreport

^ "if it were we wouldn't have a problem, would we?"

by Tina on Apr 20, 2011 3:45 pm • linkreport

You solve that by making them middle-class kids.

Like they've done in PG County? Oh, wait, their schools are shitty too.

by Marian Berry on Apr 20, 2011 5:14 pm • linkreport

You solve that by making them middle-class kids.

No. Educators can't change the SES of the families/parents of their students. We provide decent educations to the children of poverty so they can have a chance to grow out of poverty as adults - so their kids have a better chance of not also being children of poverty.

by Tina on Apr 20, 2011 5:25 pm • linkreport

The questions really don't address how we get passed the "gimmick of the year" approach to schools, what candidates should/do know about schools, and what they are empowered to do. There's nothing inherently good about charters and overall, they do no better than regular public schools. WaPo had a puff piece on one charter where the principal conceded that "we're learning". A better school would be based on proven methods of instruction and appropriate curriculum, a question that the charter-besotted reporter was too dumb apparently to ask.

Unions exist, in part, because evaluation can often bean exercise in brown nosing. If it's tied to short-term gains on tests, esp. in chronically troubled neighborhoods and beyond the early elementary grades, you'll get test rigging.

I'd rather that they find a competent chancellor--someone who isn't going to do gimmicks, someone who knows how to use testing constructively, has ideas for equitable performance evaluation, etc. and give them the rest of Gray's term to show results.

by Rich on Apr 20, 2011 5:40 pm • linkreport

There is not a lot that can be done at the council level. The elephant in the room is that kids learn from teachers they love, who engage them, and who care about them. All the council can do is atract those teachers to DC, and more importantly keep them in DC.

At the miniumum they need to match the pay on Fairfax and Montgomery County, if not be better. Class sizes do not have to be small, capped at around 26 would work. Also some system does need to be in place to remove those underperformaing teachers.

These three things are hard to do, but its all they really can do.

by Matt R on Apr 20, 2011 5:57 pm • linkreport

@Matt R - the evidence shows that class sizes of 15 (or less) make the the biggest difference. For instance there is little difference (non-significant) between classes of 22 and 27 but huge significant differnces between 20 and 15. This is an expensive proposition to hire enough teachers to create smaller classes.

by Tina on Apr 20, 2011 6:27 pm • linkreport


I agree, but that would double the number of teachers in any school system. Even if they could afford that there are not enough teachers out there to fill that many spots.

I bet however if you looked at actual class sizes in DC they are in the 30's at the high school level. I teach in Montgomery county and with the current budget I have taught classes of 34. I just threw out 26 because I think it would be a manageable number for a school system budget.

by Matt R on Apr 20, 2011 8:16 pm • linkreport

Yes, I was calling for a double incentive, essentially meaning that on a pay scale, you would see: (1) highly performing teachers in the lowest performing schools paid the most (2) highly performing teachers in higher performing schools paid the second most (3) teachers in need of development in the middle, and so on, down the scale.

I would also like to extend this incentive pay scale across the District government, so that the District employees who are most effective at providing public service and minimizing waste receive incentive bonuses, government workers struggling with these concepts would receive professional development to help them improve, and minimally effective government employees who show little sign of improvement post-professional development training would be terminated. Citizen input and unplanned observation visits would be a part of this process (including the use of "mystery citizens", who would be analogous to mystery shoppers, who would seek service from employees under the guise of ordinary citizens to gauge public service effectiveness of employees).

I think we could radically change the culture of government service in the District utilizing this method.

by Alan Page on Apr 20, 2011 9:57 pm • linkreport

oh c'mon. You know I'm talking about "effective education", not just passing through to a HS diplom while reading at a 3rd grade level(i.e.). Thats not education. If it were we have a problem, would we?

Absolutely, but...aren't we embroiled in a national debate over what "effective education" actually is? My point was you can't say "effective education is the surest way out of poverty" then define "effective education" as "that which succeeds at lifting students out of poverty (i.e. a bachelor's degree)". That was my only point about the circularity.

From my (limited) understanding, class size is a major factor as you say, but new research is showing that some teachers are much, much more effective at teaching children than others--more so than even class size. We just don't know how to effectively quantify that.

Educators can't change the SES of the families/parents of their students. We provide decent educations to the children of poverty so they can have a chance to grow out of poverty as adults - so their kids have a better chance of not also being children of poverty...

No, educators can't do this alone. Obviously it's a failure of the larger American culture. The crippling long-term effects of poverty on mental and physical health are only now being understood, and it's something that, until now, we've basically treated as a moral issue. If there was widespread lead-poisoning that caused these same kinds of effects (i.e. lowered IQ, poor impulse control, behavioral disorders) on a sub-population of children every year, we'd do something to eliminate the toxin, not just ask our teachers to adjust their teaching style. But we don't, so teachers in poor urban school districts get stuck holding the bag.

by oboe on Apr 21, 2011 11:18 am • linkreport

Alan, WOW! That sounds a potential disaster waiting to happen or at least like a expanded version of the Obama's administrations attempt to solicit input from federal workers on how to cut waste.

If DC gov't employees system is like the federal government's, they (DC) should already be under a performance review structure that works pretty much like you suggest here. The only thing different I could understand you advocate for is that the terminations be more proactive.

Also having citizens "mystery shop" gov't workers is a nonstarter - at least for me. Sure, there should be quality control methods and even surveys in place. However, allowing Alan Page (the citizen) to determine, in any way, the outcome of David Alpert's (DC gov't worker) performance review sets a dangerous precendent.

It will be nothing dissimilar to the efforts of those who seek to stop NPR from receiving federal dollars. In this case, the enterprise is not run solely on federal/taxpayer dollars. Yet, they receive a portion of their funding from the feds.

I think you are advocating for what will be a very slippery slope.

by HogWash on Apr 21, 2011 11:25 am • linkreport

I think Oboe nailed the issue here. It's socio-economic issue, not an education issue. I honestly don't think that just putting "better" teachers into some of these schools is going to make much of a difference. Poor children from abusive homes or homes with parents always working, are going to have a tendency to act out, do poorly in school and not understand the value of education.

I'm not sure how much The District can do about this, as it is an American issue, not a DC issue. Oboe is correct that deconcentrating poverty is one way to solve this issue. Not all impoverished homes are bad homes to raise children, but even the impoverished homes with caring parents get dragged down by the abusive homes around them.

Many poor children don't know what a middle class life is like. They have never really seen the fruits of taking education seriously. They are surrounded by other poor people, who are typically poorly educated and unskilled. They don't know what it looks like to be educated and skilled and how those two things can lead to a good middle class life.

There are plenty of studies on this; it's important to decentralize poverty. Montgomery County does a decent job of this through their moderately priced dwelling unit program that puts a certain amount of poorer individuals in with middle class individuals.

Unfortunately, either Montgomery County has gotten lazy or the wealthy parts of the county are starting to push back, because there has been a concentration of these units in downtown Silver Spring. There are a few buildings that are completely comprised of these units, defeating the logic behind the program. The idea isn't just to put poorer individuals in the same area as middle class individuals, but rather to have them live in the same building and interact with middle class residents.

by Patrick Thornton on Apr 21, 2011 11:33 am • linkreport

FYI, China has already implemented this "mystery shopping" proposal. When you go through immigration at the airport, there is a button you press to rate the performance of your immigration officer. The US could definitely use something like this..

by Phil on Apr 21, 2011 11:33 am • linkreport

@oboe, ok I see your point.

by Tina on Apr 21, 2011 11:36 am • linkreport

For me, working as hard as I am to win the Ward 4 SBOE seat this Tuesday, your focus on "the real education candidates" as extending only to those in the current Council At-Large race and not to those seeking the SBOE seats in wards 4 and 8 highlights some very troubling contradictions.

As a longtime editor, writer, consultant, and publisher in the field of education, I have worked side-by-side for nearly 30 years with national and local education researchers, policy makers, teacher educators, and practitioners, so much so that I dispute your description of DC current SBOE as a "powerless" entity. I have seen too many instances in which I—serving in a supportive role as a knowledgeable and objective participant (and sometimes coauthor) in the production of research, policy, accreditation, and standard mandates—have had a significant impact on the final form of those mandates. I have also seen firsthand where advisors such as I, working closely and collegially with policy makers and other stakeholders, have had substantial corrective and reflective influence when otherwise crass politics would hold sway.

I think it all has to do with the level of engagement at which an advisor chooses to participate and with that advisor’s degree of experience and sensitivity to multiple voices, both of which I think I bring at greater levels than my competitors to this Ward 4 SBOE race. I guess that’s why Muriel Bowser, Ward 4’s Council representative, encouraged and supports my SBOE candidacy. With her political savvy and keen attunement to constituent needs, and my breadth of input to and knowledge of educational matters, Ward 4 stands to inherit a powerful education team: One that can successfully challenge, mitigate, and negotiate complex school issues for the betterment of all DC citizens. One that will focus on the real issues and achieve real victories for Ward 4 students and parents, working in tandem to advance DC public education for ALL.

It also has to do, I guess, with one's degree of investment in in public education and DC’s public schools in particular. I have three grandkids currently attending DCPS schools in Ward 4. So yes, the future of DCPS is, for me, also very "personal." And I have lived and worked as an activist, bringing improvement and consensus to my Ward 4 community of Brightwood for over a decade of my 38 years here in DC. Oh yeah, it's personal, alright!

But no, I don’t see the current Board as “powerless” and no, I don’t believe the Council holds all the cards insofar as DCPS issues are concerned. But working in concert with informed, experienced School Board members, I believe a Councilperson can do much, much good. It will take teamwork, SBOE members working together with the OSSE, the Chancellor, the Council, the Mayor, teachers, parents, students, and others. But don’t write the Board members—one of whom I hope to become next Tuesday—out of the DC school reform equation so fast! And don’t forget to vote also for SBOE representative in wards 4 and 8 on April 26th!

by D. Kamili Anderson on Apr 21, 2011 7:58 pm • linkreport

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