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More coordination between DCPS and charters? Not if it threatens charter autonomy, says DC's top charter official.

How much coordination should there be between DCPS and the charter sector? Probably more than there is now, says the Public Charter School Board's executive director, but not so much that we return to the era of centralized planning.

Photo of Scott Pearson from DC PCSB.

The DC education scene has no shortage of anomalies. Expensively modernized DCPS buildings that are half empty sit near vastly oversubscribed charter schools that are scrambling for space. Parents who labor to improve their neighborhood schools sometimes feel their efforts are undermined by an exodus to higher-performing charters. With the approval of 3 new charters and the expansion of two others this week, those challenges could get more pronounced.

The Deputy Mayor for Education, Abigail Smith, recently said that the time has come for joint planning between the traditional and charter public school sectors. But Scott Pearson, executive director of the Public Charter School Board (PCSB), says that while his agency supports cross-sector collaboration on a school-by-school basis, more systemic coordination could jeopardize the autonomy that is essential to charters' success.

Some have suggested that the PCSB should refrain from authorizing charters in locations that might hinder DCPS's efforts to revive struggling schools or create new ones. One commentator recently pointed out that parents in Ward 4 are urging DCPS to reopen the former McFarland Middle School, but that the PCSB was about to consider applications for two charter middle schools "that might compete directly with a reopened McFarland."

In the end, the PCSB approved only one of those schools, Washington Global, at its meeting Monday night. And it's far from clear that school will locate in Ward 4. Like most charter applicants, the founding group has yet to identify a building for the school, and the application says it will be in Ward 4, 5, 7, or 8.

But Pearson dismissed the idea that the PCSB should take into account something like the McFarland plan when it considers charter applications.

"We wouldn't have had a charter anywhere in the city if we'd done that," he said in an interview. "And I think the charter sector is one of the most beneficial things that has happened for education in DC."

Exodus after 4th grade

Parents also complain that students leave some DCPS schools in droves after 4th grade to attend charter middle schools, many of which begin at 5th grade instead of the usual 6th. They have urged the PCSB to require middle schools to begin a year later. But Pearson said that, while he had sympathy for those parents, "the charters will give valid reasons for why they have to start at 5th."

Those reasons include the argument that adolescence is beginning earlier than it used to, and "they need to start at 5th to run an efficient middle school," Pearson said. He asked rhetorically, "Are we going to make a unilateral, centralized decision because we don't like the impact it has on some other schools?"

More generally, some say that the growth of the charter sector has drained students from DCPS and made it harder for the school system to improve. But to that argument, Pearson responded: "Why can't DCPS build a school as attractive and competitive as the charters?"

Pearson added that DCPS is "getting better." And he pointed out that the student population in DC is growing overall by about 3000 students a year, "so it's not a shrinking pie we need to be fighting over."

Indeed, some DCPS schools, particularly in Ward 3, are overflowing with students. When asked whether the PCSB saw that as a reason to encourage charters to locate in that ward, which currently has no charters, Pearson said he did not.

"I'd like to see charter schools in every ward," he said, "but we do not coordinate opening a charter around special needs [DCPS] can't fill."

Collaboration in specific cases

But Pearson said the PCSB has been supportive of cross-sector collaboration in specific instances, citing the plan for a high-achieving charter, Achievement Prep, to take over a struggling DCPS school that would otherwise have been closed. And recently the PCSB coordinated with DCPS to have a struggling charter, Hospitality High, become part of a DCPS school.

At Monday's meeting, Pearson also announced that the PCSB will arrange meetings for the 3 newly approved charter applicants with the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME). And in the interview, he said that the PCSB will probably add a planning position to its staff next year.

Both of these moves are designed in part to promote the flow of information between the charter sector and DCPS. But neither would result in the kind of coordinated overall planning that some are urging. And in both instances, one important objective is to help new charters identify available buildings, always a major challenge in DC.

The new PCSB planning official would also focus on trends in supply and demand, but in the charter sector alone rather than in DC public schools overall. To some extent the PCSB is engaging in that inquiry already, by looking at the length of waiting lists and other indicators.

At Monday's meeting, the charter school with the longest waiting list after the first round of the school lottery, Two Rivers, applied to expand to a second campus, increasing its total enrollment from 750 to 1,700, which was about the size of its waiting list this year. Pearson said that the PCSB encouraged that application.

But, he added, long waiting lists aren't the only indicators of need. High-performing charters that serve a largely low-income population usually have shorter waiting lists than more diverse schools that offer dual-language or other programs that appeal to middle-class families. Some even have vacancies. But the PCSB also encourages those schools to expand.

At Monday's meeting, one of those schools, Thurgood Marshall Academy, also put in a request for a second campus, again at the urging of the PCSB. And previously, the PCSB approved an increase in KIPP DC's enrollment from 3700 to 5900 by 2018-19.

Consequences of charter expansion

Viewed in one light, those increases are good news for the DC families who will benefit from them. But the consequences for DCPS schools, and the possibly shrinking number of students who will remain in them, could be negative.

While it's true that the DC school population as a whole is increasing, it's not clear to what extent that will continue. And by Pearson's own estimation two-thirds of the increase has gone to charters. In DC, dollars follow pupils, so if DCPS schools lose students they lose funding as well.

Nor is it clear that an expansion in the charter sector will give parents all that they want. Yes, parents want high-quality schools, and the PCSB is focused on filling that demand.

But, as the surveys done in connection with the review of school boundaries show, parents across the District also want predictability. And, especially at the elementary level, they want a school that is nearby. As it's currently constituted, the charter sector doesn't provide those things.

Pearson's aversion to centralized planning is understandable. It didn't work well for the old pre-charter DCPS, and the current DCPS is still sometimes hamstrung by the unwieldiness of its bureaucracy. But a lack of coordinated planning could leave us with shiny new DCPS buildings that are devoid of students, or families who live next door to good schools they can't get into.

We need to find a way to bring rationality to the public school sector as a whole, without clipping the wings of high-flying charters or preventing DCPS schools from getting off the ground.


With more data, parents can make better decisions about changes in education policy

Most government decisions are imposed from above, with ordinary citizens having only limited knowledge of the data that went into them. The current reassessment of DC's school boundaries and feeder patterns is different. But how can we ensure that all families are engaged in the process?

Center City boundary review working group on April 5. Photo by the author.

Government efforts to involve citizens in major changes seem to follow a predictable formula: big announcements, surveys, working groups, decisions, and more big announcements at the end, with the media reporting here and there on bits of information that are leaked or made public.

As a parent of children in the DC public schools, I have participated in more of these efforts than I can count. I'm always happy to share my opinions and experiences, but are they helpful if I don't know the whole context? Doesn't it make more sense to educate parents about how existing policies are actually playing out before asking what they think?

It's exciting to see various DC education agencies beginning to release more information that helps to do just that. We've gotten data from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the Public Charter School Board (PCSB), glimpses of data from DC Public Schools (DCPS), and most recently, the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Education (DME). These agencies are making data public not just for the sake of transparency, but to enlist the public's help in getting work done.

The most visible recent example is the boundary review process headed by the DME. It started with the usual formulaic elements: an advisory committee, surveys, working groups, and promises of engagement.

But now the DME has begun to infuse its conversation with the broader education community with more information and data.

A more meaningful discussion

That's important because the data enables parents and education stakeholders to contribute to the process in a more meaningful way. We can now react to policy questions based not just on our own or our neighbors' experiences, but also on how they play out at the ward and District-wide level. We can begin to understand the impact of proposed changes on all students, not just those who attend our schools or live in our neighborhoods.

The information packets that the DME distributed at working group meetings earlier this month contain a ton of rich data, including demographic projections and scenarios at the school, school cluster, and ward levels. It's clear that the DME's team and the advisory committee are carefully weighing not just today's situations, but also what our city will look like in 2017, based on projected numbers of children in different age groups.

Because the information has been published in a spreadsheet format, anyone with basic Excel skills can compare data across schools and wards. An enthusiastic Greater Greater Education reader recently weighed in on the DME's policy examples by citing this data.

Of course, access to data does not mean much for folks who are not equipped to work with it. This is where the media and other intermediaries come in. After the committee released proposed changes in elementary school attendance zones, the Washington Post was able to build dynamic maps using the proposed new boundaries.

The DME has also released an analysis of the actual flow of students in and out of various DC schools, at the elementary, middle and high school levels.


And because OSSE released the same data in February, Code for DC civic hacker Chris Given was able to create a dynamic view of actual feeder and destination patterns for each DCPS and DC charter school.


Given has also created an app called Our DC Schools that allows you to enter your address, see how the proposed boundary changes could affect you, and give feedback.

New Problems

But exciting as these data-related developments are, they also come with their own new problems. As I looked around at the participants in the Center City Working Group on April 5, I couldn't help but notice that the crowd was full of the usual suspects. I saw many parents and advocates who are engaged and data-savvy, or at least connected with data-savvy networks.

More working group meetings will take place this evening and Saturday. The DME has also set up a website where parents and other community members can participate in the conversation online.

But what about families who are not able to attend the discussions and working groups, or who may not even be aware of this effort? Will access to additional data help them? Not if they cannot reach the data or access support networks to help make sense of the data.

I don't have any ready-made solutions to this problem. But I imagine that we could reach many, if not all, of these families if DC's various education agencies worked together. Parent-driven community networks and perhaps the public library system and the Department of Parks and Recreation could also get involved.

The boundary review, and all efforts of this nature, should not be something that happens to us, but something that happens with us. How will you help?

A version of this post appeared on the author's blog, Middle Child in DC.


Curious about how the proposed boundary changes will affect you? Check out this new app.

Do you know how the proposed changes in school boundaries and feeder patterns will affect your family? Thanks to Code for DC and DC agencies' willingness to provide data, there's now an app for that.

Image from Our DC Schools app by Chris Given.

After 6 months of analysis, discussion, and concern about proposed changes in the way students are assigned to DC schools, the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) has released 3 possible scenarios. The DME's team has also released a lot of background data, creating the opportunity for an informed conversation between the government and the public.

But it can be hard for ordinary citizens to wade through all the data and make sense of it. To make that easier, one tech-savvy DC resident has come up with an app that shows how each individual proposal would play out for every DC family.

The app, called Our DC Schools, allows you to enter your address and see how the proposals would affect your education options. Chris Given, a member of the volunteer civic hacking group called Code for DC, created the app, which is being released today.

"I attended a public working group meeting at Dunbar High School," said Given, "And while I was impressed by the dedication of DME and DCPS staff, I was just bowled over by the scale of the challenge of getting meaningful feedback from everyone these policies affect. I wanted to create an on-ramp to engaging with a really complex issue."

The app also enables you to rate and comment on each proposal and provides links to relevant background information, resources, and additional data-driven tools created by Code for DC and others. Given was able to create the app because the DME's office has embraced the open data movement, publishing on its website the information it used to create the proposals.

"It feels like we're at a real tipping point for open education data here in DC." Given said. "This app might have been impossible to create just 12 months ago."

In addition to data provided by the DME, the app incorporates contributions from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, DCPS, the Washington Post, and the 21st Century School Fund. You can access most of the data itself through the Open Data DC website, a project of Code for DC.

Code for DC hopes to use the app to solicit feedback not only from parents and teachers but also from DC residents in general, since all citizens have a stake in improving the District's schools. They're urging those who use the app to share it with others in their networks.

The organization will funnel all feedback collected through the app to the Student Assignment Advisory Committee and also make it public, with safeguards in place to protect privacy.


How can education data help you?

Is there data about education in DC that you'd like to have? Let us know before this weekend's hackathon, when data enthusiasts and experts will gather to analyze it.

Image courtesy of Code for DC

Almost a year ago, Greater Greater Education kicked off with a post about how open data can help families with confusing school choices. Since then, several DC education agencies have released data in formats that are easy to reuse and analyze, providing opportunities for parents and advocates to support schools based on facts. But there are still a lot of gaps in the information that families and advocates need.

On the side of progress, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) now publishes data that feeds school profiles and report cards school profiles and report cards on the Learn DC website.

The DC Public Charter School Board has published the data behind the school equity reports. And the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) has begun to publish some of the data being analyzed as part of the school boundary review process.

As a result we have a better view into student commutes at the neighborhood and school levels, and we can compare student enrollment at the school level at various points throughout the school year. Families and stakeholders can weigh in on the future of school boundaries and feeder patterns from an informed perspective. (Maybe it's not surprising, but did you know that 8 out of the 10 schools with the highest in-boundary participation rates in DC are in Ward 3? A quick sort of the DME's data will show this).

While these are certainly steps in the right direction, there's still a lot of unreleased information that would create opportunities for meaningful collaboration between government and citizens. The ongoing review of school boundaries and feeder patterns is a perfect example of a situation where more data would help.

The DME has created a transparent process meant to engage parents and stakeholders, but it's difficult to provide meaningful input without first understanding the effects of current policies on enrollment and school choice. For example, we know that DCPS loses children at 5th grade to charters, but how many? Where are they going? Are there patterns? Can identifying these patterns help us make recommendations?

This weekend, over 400 people will attend Open Data Day in DC, an annual citizen-organized event where programmers, data experts, and regular people come together to hack away at problems using technology. The event in DC is one of many taking place around the world. Several of those in attendance in DC will be parents like me, hoping to enlist the help of experts in understanding trends in data relating to school boundaries and feeder patterns.

Last year's Open Data Day was marked by OSSE's release of 12 datasets, kicking off a partnership between OSSE and education stakeholders. We're hoping OSSE will continue to grow this partnership by releasing additional data.

If there's education-related data you'd like access to, please tell us what it is and how you plan to use it.


The Deputy Mayor for Education explains her role

We asked Abigail Smith, the Deputy Mayor for Education, to tell us about her job. Here's her guest post.

Photo from Abigail Smith.

I often hear the following question: With a Chancellor, a Public Charter School Board, and a State Superintendent of Education, what does the Deputy Mayor for Education do? There are lots of cooks in DC's education kitchen, and it can be hard to sort out who does what.

Basically, I advise the mayor on education policy and coordinate activities among a variety of agencies that have a role in educating students in the District. But let's start with what those other key players do.

The Chancellor, Kaya Henderson, serves as the chief executive of DCPS and is responsible for operating a public school system that serves 46,000 of our city's students. Since 2007, the Chancellor has reported to the Mayor rather than to a school board.

Scott Pearson serves as the Executive Director of the Public Charter School Board (PCSB), whose members are appointed by the Mayor. The PCSB authorizes new charter schools, reviews and monitors existing public charter schools, and holds them accountable for delivering results. Our public charter schools serve 34,000 students in the District.

And while the District of Columbia is, of course (and unjustly!), not technically a state, the federal Department of Education views us as a state for the purposes of federal funding, compliance, and accountability. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), led by Emily Durso, oversees these typical state functions for both District and public charter schools.

Clear enough. So where does that leave the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME)? I serve several functions that intersect but do not overlap with the ones described above.

  • Chief policy advisor to the Mayor on issues of education from early childhood through post-secondary and adult education. It is my job to help the Mayor ensure a policy environment that supports the goals of equity, access, and quality across the public education landscape: DCPS and charter, early childhood, K-12, and adult education. For example, we are currently examining how to revise the funding formula for schools and the way payments are made to DCPS and public charter schools, to better support student needs.
  • Oversight and support for all education-related agencies in the district (DCPS, OSSE, and PCSB, along with the University of the District of Columbia and its Community College, and DC Public Libraries). These agencies have varying governance structures and levels of independence. It is my role to identify and support opportunities for collaboration across this landscape, to ensure the Mayor is aware of the progress and priorities of each agency, and to hold agencies accountable for their strategic use of government resources.
  • Interagency coordination. While much of the work of education happens within schools and their dedicated agencies, there are many issues that benefit from—or even require—reaching across the government into non-education agencies. From crossing guards, to mental health workers, to support for truancy prevention and intervention, our partner agencies across the government play a critical role in the success of our schools.

    My office ensures that these outside supports are in place and coordinated effectively across government clusters. I co-chair the city's Truancy Taskforce, and I work closely with the Deputy Mayors of Health and Human Services, Public Safety, and Planning and Economic Development on a range of issues to ensure that we are maximizing District resources in support of our education priorities. This includes leading the re-use process for vacant DCPS buildings that are candidates to house charter schools and working closely with the Department of General Services.

  • Convening and coordinating hub for projects that involve multiple players in the education space, particularly across the DCPS and charter sectors. With each education entity focused on its particular interests, it is helpful to have a convening party that can manage projects across these entities to leverage our full range of public education assets and resources. For example, my office is currently overseeing a "Graduation Pathways" study, which will help DCPS, public charter schools, and community-based organizations better plan for programs to address the particular needs of our youth population that is struggling to graduate.

    Similarly, I chair the executive team of representatives from DCPS and charter schools overseeing the design and development of a common application and lottery system across both sectors, which will simplify the way families access schools. As one more example, the Office of the DME will take the lead on the process of updating school boundaries and feeder patterns. It is critical that our public school sectors—DCPS and charter—work together for the best interests of all students and families, not in isolation or zero-sum competition. It is my responsibility to create the space and incentives to make this happen.

As the Mayor laid out in a recent speech on education, this Administration is focused on scaling up existing pockets of excellence to serve more students; strengthening existing schools and programs; and simplifying the way families access all aspects of our education system. As DME, I help the Mayor ensure that we have a citywide approach for public education that coordinates strategies across our full range of educational entities and aligns government resources towards the common goal of high-quality educational programs and great outcomes for every student, in every neighborhood in the District.


Challenges lie ahead for a strong education team

This week the Gray transition team announced its picks for Deputy Mayor for Education, De'Shawn Wright, and State Superintendent of Education, Hosanna Mahaley.

Photo by tbridge on Flickr.

These selections round out the District's education policy team, along with Kaya Henderson, whom Gray plans to keep as Interim Chancellor for at least the short term. These picks show that the incoming mayor is serious about education reform.

The three of them make an amazing team with strong resumes and great promise. Both Wright and Mahaley have worked closely with mayors on education reform (with Cory Booker in Newark and Richard M. Daley in Chicago, respectively). They both have experience channeling private philanthropy to urban education.

But it won't be an easy road for any of these appointees.

Henderson will face the twin tests of working within the new Mayor's collaborative style and advancing a reform agenda with a more confrontational union president, Nathan Saunders. With a contract already ratified, she should have some breathing room on the major union issues, but budget pressure will force hard choices over the coming year.

The Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) position is one that remains to be defined under a new administration. We've questioned the purpose of a DME when you already have strong leaders in the state and local education agencies appointed by and serving at the pleasure of the Mayor, but there are two ways in which a DME in the Gray Administration can be effective.

One is substantive, to advance the Mayor's early childhood and post-secondary education plans. The other is procedural, to keep both the Chancellor and the State Superintendent on message with the Mayor's priorities and prevent political trainwrecks like the one we saw this past year.

The DME can also make urbanists happy by helping the Mayor harmonize public school facilities policies so that all kids in the city can walk or have short commutes to modern, high quality public schools.

Specifically, Wright could help ensure that critical decisions about DCPS school closures, charter school construction, and school facilities modernization all serve the common good, not just serve DCPS at the expense of charters or serve business interests at the expense of families.

School density should follow neighborhood density and magnet programs should be centrally located near transit nodes. Making this happen will require coordination among several city agencies.

State Superintendent is a critical position for the future of DC's education landscape. The person in this role has to manage the District's $75 million Race to the Top grant, win and manage new federal grants, build out the city's education data infrastructure, administer school feeding programs, and write regulations on critical matters such as curriculum, standardized testing, and teacher certification that affect both DPCS and the public charter schools.

Hosanna Mahaley is an inspired pick because she brings fundraising experience and strong substantive background in education. She has been building a long resume, having earned a teaching certificate in California, an executive MBA at Northwestern, and served on the boards of the National Association of Charter School Authorizors, of which DC's Public Charter School Board is a key member, and Education Sector, a respected education policy think tank.

Her most important role has been at the Chicago Public Schools, a system about nine times the size of DCPS, where she oversaw an effort by the city school district to build out 100 new schools with various charter or charter-like governance arrangements. This suits her well for the District, which also must seek ways to improve both the traditional and charter public school sectors simultaneously.

There are several things Mahaley can do to be successful. First, while private fundraising is important, securing federal money is paramount for a state superintendent. It doesn't hurt that her former boss is now the U.S. Secretary of Education, but OSSE will have to be on top of its game if DC will continue to win funds that are awarded competitively instead of by formula.

Second, there needs to be a keen focus on data infrastructure. In 2007, DC won a $5.7 million federal grant to develop a data warehouse, but with the grant about to end in 2011, there hasn't been much public evidence of progress. The state superintendent's office selected a vendor and then canceled the contract in midstream, and a replacement has still not been selected.

So far, DCPS has led the way in using education data to measure teacher performance, but OSSE could provide leadership needed to accelerate the progress of performance measurement for charter schools and DCPS schools on equally rigorous terms. Having spent the last year and a half at Wireless Generation, a firm that provides consulting and software services to school districts, Mahaley should be prepared for this challenge.

Third, the charter sector and traditional public schools need a referee who can ensure that both sectors get the tools they need to compete fairly, succeed, cooperate and learn from each other.

Let's hope that the new education policy team works well together and carries out the Mayor-elect's promises for education reform. The leadership team represents a promising start.

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