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SBOE Testimony Before the Committee on Education

Monday, July 8, 2013
Testimony of Mark Jones, Vice President, DC State Board of Education

Before the Council of the District of Columbia

Good morning, Chairman Catania and honorable members of the Council of the District of Columbia. My name is Mark Jones and I am the Vice President and Ward 5 representative to the DC State Board of Education. I am joined by Monica Warren-Jones, our Ward 6 representative and Jesse B Rauch, Executive Director to the Board. President Laura Slover regrets that she cannot be here today, as she is out of town on vacation with her family. She looks forward to meeting with you upon her return.

The State Board of Education supports the work of this Committee and values its commitment to improving education for all students. On behalf of the Board, I wish to thank you for the opportunity to testify about the bills before you. These bills offer an opportunity to begin a discussion about the next steps in improving public education in the District. In our view, the enactment of the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007 (PERAA) was a strong beginning to a reform effort that has established a strong foundation. Now is a good time to build on that foundation to further improve the District of Columbia’s system of schools.

The State Board is an elected body responsible for setting state-level education policy that establishes goals for students and for schools to help ensure that all students are prepared to succeed in college and careers. We believe in the equitable access of all students to high quality education and strive in our work to set high expectations for all students. It is important to note that the State Board is no longer the old school board that made decisions on the day-to-day operations of the schools. This is an important point that undergirds all of our testimony today. We are not interested in expanding our role dramatically; however, we are interested in acquiring the authority to do our jobs effectively on behalf of students in the District of Columbia.

Beyond the Board’s own authority, which I will return to later, generally speaking, the Board urges the Committee to be thoughtful about the distinction between state-level authority and local-level authority. The Board supports the role state education agencies (SEAs) play in leading change to improve student learning. As with other states, the District’s state education agency (SEA) – the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) – in partnership with the State Board – is responsible for determining outcomes for students though the establishment of state level policies and the measuring of progress towards those goals. How to achieve those goals is the responsibility of each “local education agency” – which includes DCPS and public charter schools. The Board encourages the Committee to recognize the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) as the state-level authority responsible for implementing a system of standards, regular assessments and reporting of progress and gaps. The OSSE must also do the important work of holding schools accountable, recognizing success and providing support or consequences for schools with low performance.

The purpose of this testimony is to share comments and suggestions on the bills before the Committee pertaining to state-level issues or citywide issues.

•    Unified Public Education Lottery Act of 2013

It is a state-level concern to ensure that all students have access to quality seats in the District of Columbia. Therefore, the Board supports the creation of a unified lottery to improve the process by which parents and students find a quality, well-fitted school option. The good news is that the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) and the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) are currently working together to establish such a joint lottery system. We understand that they have requested additional time to work on this system prior to the Council taking action, to allow the system to be developed with input from as many LEAs as possible. We support this approach, as a system that has the buy-in of its internal constituents holds much promise. That said, we urge the Committee to put a time limit of one year on this work to ensure it gains traction and gets established in advance of the lottery for the 2015-2016 school year.

Separately, the Board recommends that the Committee clarify the role of the State Board in the Unified Public Education Lottery Act of 2013. As it is written, the bill mandates that both OSSE and the SBOE provide outreach programs to inform parents about educational programs and opportunities. The Board suggests a slight revision to the bill that encourages a collaborative approach to outreach, recognizing the connection between both state-level agencies and to reduce the possibility for redundancy. In addition, the Board also recommends modifying the provision that OSSE provides training Parent Education Resource Centers (PERC) staff on the unified lottery and school enrollment process. The Board suggests that it read that OSSE shall “make available training for PERC staff on the unified lottery and school enrollment process” which the Board can then execute. If PERCs are to be established and are to be independent, this is an important nuance. Finally, the legislation indicates that OSSE would receive educational programming materials from each school participating in the lottery. The Board – specifically the Office of the Student Advocate, should it be established – should be listed as a recipient of this material as well to streamline the process and avoid duplication of efforts.
•    Focused Student Achievement Act of 2013
The State Board is committed to the success of every student – which may require extra support for some students during the school year as well as through intensive summer study. Assessments are one component of a robust and aligned educational system as they can identify students strengths and weaknesses as well as identify schools or programs that either are knocking it out of the park or those that are not providing students an excellent education. We appreciate the Committee’s concern about “over-testing” students and agree that there must be an appropriate balance between the time spent on testing and the time spent on instruction. But the fact of the matter is that excellent teachers are assessing their students all the time in both informal and sometimes formal ways – this is part of their role as instructional leaders. We see this as a classroom teacher’s prerogative – and best left to the school or LEA. The role of the OSSE is to determine what summative assessments all students should be required to take as part of the statewide accountability system. Pre-determining the amount of time spent on assessing students – on other classroom tests, formative, benchmark, and diagnostic assessments – would infringe on LEA decision-making and be inappropriate for the OSSE to do. Furthermore it could be counterproductive as it might limit schools use of formative assessments that can help pinpoint student weaknesses so teachers can target support.

Shifting to another topic, the Board is in support of the proposal to use the results of high school end-of year/end-of-grade assessments (aligned to standards) as a portion of student grades – and we agree with the proposal that the OSSE establish the portion (although we recommend that it not exceed 25-30 percent). The first step, however, would be to for OSSE to establish end-of-course or end-of-year assessments that would be the same across all schools and would help establish common standards in terms of the quality and rigor of the courses across high schools. Results on those assessments could then be used as a portion of student grades. Without common assessments across schools, establishing assessments as a portion of students’ grade is somewhat of a moot point – and could create different expectations across schools. Lastly, on this topic, we agree that an assessment should not be the sole determinant of whether a student passes to the next grade level.

In regards to promotional criteria, the Board is not in support of annual promotional criteria in grades 3-through-8, but rather prefers promotional criteria in key grades. This approach seems to be more consistent with the way students learn which is not “one size fits all,” as well as the national movement to think of schooling as a trajectory towards mastery rather than a lock step grade-by-grade seat time endeavor. We acknowledge that we still have a long way to go to establish a competency-based system, but the Board will take the first step in this direction by enacting graduation requirements that reward competency rather than seat time. Locking schools into a grade-by-grade paradigm would actually retard growth towards a competency-based system.

•    Individual School Accountability Act of 2013

We appreciate the goal of the Individual School Accountability Act to increase accountability of schools across the District. However, the District of Columbia applied for and received in June 2012 a waiver to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that established an accountability system with tiers of schools and rewards and sanctions for schools. It includes the development, implementation, and monitoring of a comprehensive accountability system for all public schools in the District of Columbia, including the District of Columbia Public Schools and public charter schools.

The ESEA waiver, while perhaps not perfect, was led by the OSSE and developed with input from stakeholders and approved by the State Board. With that in mind, the Board cautions the Committee to not create redundancy – and not to require us to re-do work already done and done well. All that said, we agree with the Committee that the accountability function belongs squarely with OSSE, as does reporting regularly about school effectiveness.

•    Parent and Student Empowerment Act of 2013

This act attempts to locate the following perceived shortcomings in our system within the State Board of Education: 1. A clearinghouse with consistent and transparent information about all schools (e.g., a scorecard); 2. a “go to” place for assistance navigating the education system; and 3. a central location for conflict resolution and issue tracking.

All of these functions are consistent with the Board’s role as representatives of and advocates for the public voice in education. Therefore, we are in support of this bill, with the following caveats: 1. It will be important to understand the role of the Ombudsman and Office of the Student Advocate vis-à-vis the role of DCPS’s Critical Response Team and the Public Charter School Board itself. Both DCPS and PCSB have important roles to play with resolving conflicts and actively supporting parents – and we want to be sure we are creating new entities that support the functions already in place and have “value add.”

Importantly, we would need time to explore the operational, staffing and budget requirements of setting up an additional Office of the Student Advocate, on top of the Ombudsman.

•    Public Education Governance Improvement Act of 2013

Finally, I wish to share the Board’s thoughts on the Public Education Governance Improvement Act of 2013.

The impetus for the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007 (PERAA) was to separate local and state functions. When OSSE, the District’s state education agency or SEA, was established, all state functions were transferred from DCPS to OSSE, the SEA. This was an important first step. But OSSE is not yet an independent agency in that the Superintendent reports to the Mayor, as does the Chancellor of DCPS. Essentially, the Mayor has direct authority over DCPS, an LEA, as well as OSSE, the SEA. This creates a system without sufficient checks and balances. Furthermore, it is inconsistent with the practices of other states, where these functions are almost always separate. This could create a system in which there are internal unavoidable conflicts of interest, and the Committee should remedy this by looking into alternatives, such as changing the process by which the State Superintendent is hired and how agenda setting and oversight of OSSE occurs.

As we said earlier, this Board is not seeking to return to the days of the “old school board,” in which multiple agendas ruled and lines of authority were unclear. That said, we do think that broadening the circle of individuals who provide oversight/feedback/analysis of the Superintendent’s job would ensure greater checks and balances. We would be in support of having the Board – which works hand-in-hand with the Superintendent and with OSSE – provide input into the annual review of the OSSE and the Superintendent, based on transparent and co-constructed metrics. We are not in favor of creating competing agendas or complicating the education governance system, so these metrics would need to be agreed to by all parties and reported on with care.

In the meantime, we think the establishment a four-year tenure of the Superintendent concurrent with that of the Mayor is not a step in the right direction as it seems to unduly politicize the position.

The most important thing for the Board is not to have a greatly expanded role but to have actual autonomy and authority within its relatively narrow set of responsibilities. As it stands, the Board continues to have concern with the language concerning the Board’s ability to initiate its own actions (page 3, line 10). The specific concern is that currently the State Board may only consider policy action on issues brought before it by OSSE. Currently, the Board does not have the authority to move any policy action forward without OSSE. In fact, in order to consider the graduation requirements that the Board has spent nearly 18 months working on, the Board must submit a recommendation to OSSE and then have OSSE bring it before the Board for approval. The Board urges the Council to allow us to initiate policy development and vote on policy without the policy being formally submitted by OSSE. Without such authority, the Board, and consequently, the public’s voice in education, will continue to lack autonomy and be marginalized in the process of making policy.

Meanwhile, the Board urges the Committee to work with the Board on updating the language in the Board’s policy approval authority. When PERAA was enacted, the entire nation was in the process of implementing No Child Left Behind. Twelve years later, NCLB has been modified and in many ways, been made increasingly less relevant through Race to the Top and the Federal Department of Education’s ESEA Flexibility Waiver process. Thus, the Board would like to work with the Committee to update the Board’s responsibilities to reflect the intent of the law. For example, PERAA lists approval of “adequate yearly progress,” “accountability workbook” and “highly qualified teachers,” as Board responsibilities. However, these terms are now outdated and should be edited. The Board should have a stronger and clearer role in approving statewide accountability definitions and measures, and growth targets within the accountability framework. The vocabulary of PERAA is outdated and needs to be changed to reflect the Board’s responsibility for setting performance measurement goals and broad statewide policy objectives. For example, it should be clear that the Board has a role in setting performance levels and other issues pertaining to accountability, which is in the board’s purview.  

Finally, while a State of Education report seems like an important document, the proposal should be modified to state that the State Board, perhaps in collaboration with OSSE (and not PCSB), will draft this report, using data from all LEAs and remain silent as to how and by whom that data is transmitted.

•    Closing

To close, I want to congratulate the Committee for its extensive work to date and to thank you for allowing the community to engage in this discussion. The work ahead is so important to the success of our students.

I want to close by reiterating the distinction between state-level authority and local-level authority. The Board encourages the Committee to recognize the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the State Board of Education as having the state-level authority for instituting a strong state system of recognition, accountability, and support that responds to operational and outcome data.
This concludes my testimony. Thank you for your time. The Board looks forward to further conversations with you on these issues.