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CONTROL BOARD REPORTS ON THE FAILURE OF DC'S PUBLIC SCHOOLS
(Summarized from November, 1996 Reports)

One of the earliest targets of the new Control Board was an extensive review of the DC Public Schools (DCPS). The results were published in November of 1996 and led directly to the creation of a new "Emergency Transitional Education Board of Trustees". Anyone prone to challenging the wisdom of this move should read the complete version of these reports. The summary below has been prepared by NARPAC, Inc. and may well not accurately reflect all aspects of those reports.

The opening statement of the base report pulls few punches:

" The deplorable record of the District's public schools by every important educational and management measure has left one of the city's most important public responsibilities in a state of crisis, creating an emergency which can no longer be ignored or excused. DCPS is failing in its mission to education the children of the District of Columbia. In virtually every area, and for every grade level, the system has failed to provide our children with a quality education and safe environment in which to learn."

The Control Board concludes that the current system has failed to provide a safe, effective learning environment or a competitive education integral to the future of DC and its residents. It asserts that the public schools' crisis did not occur overnight, nor will it be fixed quickly. It also notes that other school systems in major urban areas have grappled with challenges such as socio-economic factors, resource constraints, and decaying infrastructures but have moved faster and more decisively to resolve them.

At the heart of most of the problems in the school system is lack of leadership from the District's elected Board of Education and the Superintendent of Schools. With persistent educational and managerial problems year after year, the public school leadership has abdicated its responsibilities to the city and to its children. In short the leadership is dysfunctional, and, as a result: educational outcomes are well below the national norm;, serious inequities persist across the city's wards; lack of planning undermines learning by leaving students without teachers, classrooms, or learning materials; unsafe environments range from bursting boilers, leaking roofs, and crumbling bathrooms to frequent access by unauthorized individuals; and unacceptable services including inadequate food.

By law, the Board of Education and Superintendent are responsible and accountable for the performance of the public schools. However, the authority for overseeing DCPS has been delegated throughout the system, so that identifying who is responsible for the mismanagement is often difficult, and ultimately, no one is held accountable. Radical changes are therefore necessary to implement a new organizational structure that holds its leadership accountable for educational quality, academic achievement, financial and personnel management, and procurement. Such changes have only begun in earnest in November of 1997.

Failure of Public Education

Education outcomes are weak and inconsistent. The erosion appears to have accelerated over the past five years, especially for thousands of children in the poorest wards:

Since 1991, test scores on Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) show a net decline in both reading and math skills. Math scores declined an average of 6% for grades 6, 8, and 11, while reading scores declined 13.5% in grade 6, and remain below national norms in Grades 8 and 11. These scores also suggest that the longer students stay in the DCPS, the less likely they are to succeed educationally.

While test scores for the 33,000 students in wards 1, 3, 4, and 5 have remained the same or slightly improved, scores for the 40,000 students in wards 2, 6, 7, and 8 have declined significantly, leaving thousands of children not being taught the fundamental skills necessary to succeed after leaving school. Furthermore, the 5300 students in the more privileged Ward 3 test in the 90th percentile, while the rest of the city is below the 60th percentile--and dropping.

Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) can be skewed because the population is "self-selecting", but DC ranks 20% below the national average in verbal skills, and 22% below in math skills--even when the exceptional students of Ward 3 are included.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, the performance of DC students also declined. Fourth grade reading progress declined 6 points between 1992 and 1994. Seventy-eight percent of DC fourth graders, performing below the basic reading level were unable to demonstrate that they understood the overall meaning of passages they read, nor could they relate the text to their own experiences.

Of the 39 states that reported proficiency scores to the National Center for Education Statistics, DCPS had the lowest score (180) of any state, 17% below the national average of 216, and the only one to fall below 200.

Based on the "Stanford 9 Achievement Tests" in the Spring of 1997, DC students are well below national norms in both reading and math. At the low end, DC students below a basic level in reading include 31% in the 8th Grade, 53% in both 10th and eleventh Grades, compared to national ratings of 22%, 26%, and 36% respectively. At the high end, only 2-3% reach advanced levels in reading, compared to 7-4% nationally. Similarly in math, DC students are 55% below basic levels in 6th Grade; 72% by 8th Grade; and 89% by 10th Grade, compared to national ratings of 43%, 42%, and 61% respectively. At the "proficient" level, DC again lags behind significantly, 12% v 19% in the 6th Grade; 7% v 20% in 8th Grade, and 2% v 10% in 10th Grade.

NARPAC, Inc. feels it should be noted, however, that comparing urban statistics for DC with national statistics elsewhere, ignores the poorer performance of most depressed, urban school systems. For instance, although DC students are 22% behind the national average in CTBS testing, they are right on the average of nine urban peer districts. Similarly, DC students are 21% lower than the national average in SAT scores, while Montgomery and Fairfax Counties are 9% above. But DC students are only 6% behind six representative peer districts. In fact, the surest way to fix the DC school system may be to eliminate the pockets of severe poverty in DC which put 75% of DC public school students on food stamps.

    In a similar vein, students and teachers are subjected to levels of violence that are twice the national average, according to the National Education Goals Panel. From the student's standpoint, DCPS responses are compared to national--not peer--averages for public high school students: (DC v National)
  • Carried a weapon on school property in the last 30 days: 16% v 12%;
  • Threatened or injured with a weapon in the past 12 months: 11% v 8%;
  • Avoided school in the last 30 days because they felt unsafe: 11% v 6%;
  • In a fight on school property during the last 12 month: 18% v 16%. From the vantage point of the teachers, there are also stark differences between national averages and those for the DCPS. Below are shown the percentage of public school teachers who consider each of the listed issues as serious problems affecting their schools (DC v National--not peer--Averages):
  • Lack of parent involvement: 50% v 28%
  • Students unprepared to learn: 40% v 29%
  • Tardiness: 32% v 11%
  • Disrespect for teachers: 31% v 19%
  • Student Absenteeism: 31% v 14%
  • Student Apathy: 29% v 24%
  • Verbal Abuse of teachers: 19% v 11%
  • Interference from violent student behavior: 64% v 49%
  • Teachers threatened, injured, or attacked in past year: 26% v 14%

Of considerable interest, and on a more comparable basis, substantially fewer students are suspended in DCPS than in other urban school systems around the country, despite its systemic problems with crime, violent behavior, and discipline. The National Urban Educational Goals Indicators Report for 1992-1993 shows that DCPS suspends only 24 students per thousand, compared to a peer district average of 123 students per thousand--five times higher. Some systems, including Cleveland, Milwaukee and New Orleans, suspend 8 times as many.

Graduation rates from DCPS high schools also remains poor: between 1989 and 1995, 40% of high school students dropped out or left for other reasons. In 1995 only 53% of those who had entered DC high schools at the 9th grade remained to graduate four years later.

School System Mismanagement

Although school management have argues that more dollars are needed to support DC's schools, it remains to be determined whether or not additional operational funding is needed in light of the assessment of per capita spending. DC is unusual because such a large share of school expenses falls on inner city residents, but total spending per student has continued to rise over the past decade--primarily because of the drop-off in students.

Average per-pupil expenditures for 1994-1995 for DCPS was $7655, based on a student population of 80,450, but would rise to $8797 if the student body were only 70,000. NARPAC, Inc. believes that it is virtually impossible for student enrollment to have stayed essentially constant from 1990 to 1995, when claims are made that 10% of the city's population vacated the District during that time. Nevertheless, the Control Board per-student costs compare with a national average of $6084, a "peer district" average of $7072 (but which varies from $5697 for Baltimore to $9807 for Newark), and a neighboring suburbs average of $6552.

In any event, the Control Board concludes that there has been inadequate oversight by management and the School Board, resulting in:

Serious Personnel Problems

There are unusually large numbers of teachers and educational staff who have no direct interaction with students. DCPS spends 50% more on non-instructional functions (administration and overhead) than do Montgomery and Fairfax Counties.

This also reflects directly in the ratio of teachers per administrator. In the DCPS, there are only 16 teachers per administrator. Among five peer districts, the average is better than 2.5 times better, though the statistics are biased by a huge ratio of 91 teachers per administrator in the Chicago Public School System. Still the average ratio is 30:1 for Baltimore, Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans.

Even though personnel costs amount to more than 80% of DCPS costs, its personnel operations are in disarray in every aspect: total FTE positions cannot be identified; administrative controls are lacking; there is incomplete planning; and the impact of personnel on the educational mission is not understood;

It is impossible to determine the location and number of personnel on a timely basis. There are numerous indications of educational personnel not working in the schools despite a personnel database that indicates otherwise.

Although DCPS officials claim that they have reduced the number of personnel over the past several years, payroll does not support this assertion; In May of 1996, there were at least 1200 personnel above the Board's recommended ceiling. In October, 1996, the Superintendent was quoted as having stated that he did not know how many employees work for the system;

DCPS has circumvented personnel ceilings by hiring hundreds of employees through staffing agencies, personal service contracts, or purchase orders. These include food workers, nurses, and bus drivers. It has also employed hundreds of unauthorized personnel. Hundreds are paid without required personnel control numbers, and thousands do not have the required unified personnel payroll system numbers.

In addition, staff position listings are filled with errors such as including staffing needs for four schools that had been closed. Payroll reviews indicate that employees are not in their assigned locations--principals still get time sheets for employees who had left years before, or had never worked there. Hundreds of personnel file folders cannot be found, and hundreds, if not thousands, of personnel files are incomplete or replete with errors. According to the DC Auditor, in one case a teacher who had been retired for over 10 years was still getting regular paychecks.

Teacher qualifications are not updated regularly, resulting in substantial back payment adjustments;

DCPS' Certification Office and Personnel Office have poorly coordinated functions with respect to teacher certification: In a separate Control Board survey of 300 classes, 32% did not have required certifications: 13% were missing; 15% were expired; and 4% were apparently ineligible for certification.

Serious Facilities Problems

Buildings are in disrepair and underutilized. Facilities funding has been ineffectively targeted. Fire code violations are abundant, resulting in enormous disruptions to students at all school levels. This problem has gotten even worse since this Control Board report was published a year ago.

Aging buildings seriously hamper the District's learning environment. A 1995 study estimated that $1.2 billion would be needed to upgrade all schools to current standards, while a newer study from GSA has increased that estimate to $2 billion. NARPAC, Inc. notes, however, that the school facilities vastly exceed any foreseeable requirements, as does the Control Board (below).

Capital funds have historically been poorly managed though by any objective measure, they have been far less than needed. DCPS has received $130 million since 1985, but has not yet spent all the money made available. In FY96 DCPS lost $3 million for facilities maintenance because it failed to spend the funds on time.

The District may have too many schools, according to the Control Board, (and certainly does, according to NARPAC, Inc.). Many observers see a link between DCPS' problems of dilapidated facilities and its problem of excess capacity. The Rivlin Commission and the Committee on Public Education (COPE) have proposed closing unneeded schools and using proceeds from the sale or lease of these properties to fund capital improvements., and allowing the schools to concentrate future capital and operating costs on a smaller number of schools.

Lack of facilities planning has resulted in largely underutilized schools. In fact, DCPS has nearly two million more square feet of school space in 1996 than in 1970 when school enrollment was 150,000 students (almost twice the current number). In 1996, data from a Superintendent's Task Force indicates that DCPS elementary schools are at 74% of capacity; middle and junior high schools are at 57% of capacity, and high schools are at 50% or less. In fact, 23 schools are at 50% capacity or below (some as low as 25%), have more than their share of fire code violations, and need $349 million in overdue upgrades.

While the overall utilization rate for DCPS is 68%, there is a wide variation among wards, from a maximum of 101% for Ward 3, and below 60% in Wards 7 and 8. (Obviously, these occupation rates also vary with estimates of school enrollment).

There remains no overall facilities plan, nor a mechanism for prioritizing needed repairs, despite repeated study recommendations to develop such basic management tools.

Serious Budget and Finance Problems

DC budgets are unrealistic, and controls over expenditures are inadequate. The systems are flawed and error-prone in many respects, and make it impossible to hold managers accountable for budget ceilings, or even prioritizing educational needs. For instance:

Budgets have been put together with little planning, oversight or forethought--and with little or no correlation to prior year experience. The largest continuing unrealistic budget item is for personnel, which is annually underbudgeted by millions of dollars.

Hundreds of funds are reprogrammed annually as a result of these unrealistic budgets, and in some cases, significant amounts of funds are moved without the required reprogramming procedures, and without the knowledge of those expecting to use them (frequently the school principals). In large measure, the focus on short-term exigencies precludes even rudimentary budget planning.

In September, 1996, the DCPS's appointed Chief Financial Officer testified to the Control Board that:

"The current financial condition and financial management of the District of Columbia Public Schools is in disarray. The budget process is lacking fundamental attributes of sound financial management and budgetary principles. There is little planning that sets a road map for the preparation, formulation and implementation of the budget."

Serious Procurement/Contracting Problems

Large numbers of dollars misspent on questionable contracts. Like other DCPS management areas, the procurement office exhibits clear indications of mismanagement. Contracts have been entered into with unqualified vendors that have not provided adequate service in the past. Other contracts have been executed without required competition. The existence of poor quality contract files is not an abnormality, but the standard for the system. Inadequate procurement planning forces DCPS to issue large numbers of unnecessary "emergency" contracts making it difficult if not impossible to ensure the delivery of quality goods or services at low rates, or even that required services will be delivered without interruption. Finally, there are no performance measures within the procurement office to measure its efficiency--or its competence.

These practices have resulted in substantial overpayment for some services, and payment for other services that have been substandard. Examples of questionable and costly contracting practices can be found throughout DCPS operations from food services and facilities maintenance to special education school services and basic textbook procurement.

Serious Problems in Planning, Information and Documentation

The failure to adequately plan is considered by the Control Board to be the most significant trend running through DCPS management problems. In the educational area, there may be overall plans, but no one is held accountable for their implementation. This has had real-world costs to DCPS when the federal Department of Education rejects DC plans, or the National Science Foundation revokes substantial grants.

Furthermore, there are few strategic plans in the management area concerning any of the major functional areas, such as personnel, maintenance, transportation, procurement, etc. Not the least of these deficiencies involves the perennial failure to have schools and classrooms ready for the new school year. In the eyes of the Control Board, not having textbooks, supplies, and equipment necessary for the educational process to begin is inexcusable. For the Board of Education and the Superintendent to allow this situation to even arise, let alone persist, is unpardonable.

Poor planning has also resulted from a lack of reliable data on which to base policy and management decisions. The Board identifies three types of problems. First, data may exist, but be very difficult to obtain, and unavailable for, say, tracking actual spending in various functional areas.

Second, data sometimes exist but are conflicting and thus lacks credibility. One of the most serious of these problems is the lack of credible information on the total number of DCPS students. Estimates vary from 72,000 from 81,000. The 1990 federal census, now seven years old, estimated that 72,800 students attended District schools, while the DCPS Student Information Management System (SIMS) had almost 81,000 records. GAO has subsequently estimated that the SIMS may contain 5000 obsolete or duplicative records! Compared to the five neighboring suburban counties, the statistical discrepancy for DCPS is eight times as large, which seems inexcusable.

Despite significant declines in the population of the District over the last five years (as well as a 15% increase in private school attendance--to 15,000), DCPS still reports that there are approximately 80,000 students in the system. Demographers and other experts have questioned the accuracy of these counts--which have an obvious impact on assessing staffing, facilities, supplies, and textbook needs, as well as budgetary priorities and other DCPS functions. There are appear to be few incentives to underestimate the student load!

Finally, in some instances, data do not exist, because it was never collected, nor recorded. Lack of detailed historical data makes it difficult for researchers, analysts, or planners to establish criteria for future needs or gage performance improvements.

Serious Problems in Accountability

Ultimate authority, control, and accountability for education rests with the DC Board of Education. This is clear from Section 495 of the Home Rule Charter, and Title 31 of the DC Code. According o the School Board president in September, 1996, "the responsibilities of the Board of Education are to conduct oversight and set policy. We are not the managers of the day-to-day operations of the school system." That responsibility lies with the Superintendent of Schools, DCPS' educational leader and chief executive officer. Both the Board and the Superintendent have failed to carry out their responsibilities.

To carry out its oversight functions, the Board created four committees for facilities, education, special programs and compliance, and budget and management. Although the Board has delegated certain functions to the Superintendent, it has retained its oversight roles. However, it has become apparent that its oversight processes contribute to ineffectiveness and lack of accountability, and are incapable of preventing the system from disintegrating even further.

In fact, the Board has retained limited oversight of the procurement process, of facilities maintenance, and in personnel and financial management, having chosen to delegate key functions to the Superintendent in each case. The Board essentially "passed the buck" to the Superintendent. Board members have testified that they were aware of critical failures but did little to fix them or to hold the Superintendent accountable for fixing them.

With such complete delegation of functions to the Superintendent, the annual performance evaluation becomes a critical document for holding the Superintendent accountable for results. The Board evaluates the Superintendent annually on eleven criteria varying from relations with the Board (#1) to facilities management (#5) and professional and personal development of the Superintendent himself. Only one of the eleven criteria currently has any quantifiable performance measures that provide a measure of objectivity--student achievement--and it is listed last.

A complicated arithmetic grading system has been developed by the Board, and in the latest evaluation, only seven members participated. Board members have given the Superintendent an "excellen" rating for student test scores in each of the past five years, even though they have declined each year. In fact, the Superintendent received above average ratings from six or more board members, and received a bonus each year for his performance.

Examination of the Board's voting patterns has indicated that the board has not been able to collaborate in many areas, and has become deeply divided. Its many 6-5 votes indicate serious philosophical splits on such basic educational issues as school closings, privatized services and management, curriculum and instruction reform, teacher certification, etc. In several recent meetings with the Control Board, the School Board spent the majority of time discussing their salaries, health benefits, and parking spaces. It has become clear to the Control Board that the School Board's oversight and policy-making process was weak and ineffective, as was its oversight of the Superintendent.

Finally, to add insult to injury, the DCPS spends significantly more on its School Board and Superintendent's Office than do either neighboring or peer districts. The District spent $1,426,000 on its eleven school board members in FY95, while Fairfax County spent $276,000 and Montgomery County, $631,000--both with much larger total student populations. The average for five peer districts is $720,000, varying from a low of $142,000 in Cleveland to a high of $1,225,000 in Chicago (with 400,000 students).

At considerably larger expense, the DCPS spends $5,976,000 on its Office of the Superintendent--more than four times the average for Fairfax and Montgomery Counties ($1,429,000), and three times the average for five peer districts ($2,286,000).

Foundations for the Future

The Control Board concluded that the DCPS is broken and in crisis, and that DC's children lag in every measure used to evaluate educational performance. Although they acknowledge several factors beyond the school system's control--the high poverty rate, the number of single parent families, the number of students arriving at school unprepared to learn, as well as the growing demand for scarce resources to fund technology, court orders, and other initiatives--the Control Board asserted that one critical factor still under DCPS control was the quality of education provided.

The Control Board further concluded that simple changes of Superintendent or School Board members could not change the educational outcomes, and that, in fact, they need to "reinvent the school system, inject new talent and leadership, demand better management, expect more from those in the educational process and make it clear that they will not tolerate anything less than excellence for DC's children." The Control Board has been granted the power to issue any orders they believe necessary to fulfill their mission--to fundamentally restructure the administration of the educational system in order to give children the education they deserve. They have concluded that changes of this magnitude cannot be expected to come from inside DCPS because the system is simply too entrenched in the way things have always been done. Hence, they have sought a catalyst that can break the mold of the past, make major changes, and get the momentum moving in a positive direction.

To this end, the Control Board took the bold step of setting aside the current management structure, and temporarily putting in a new structure that will direct resources to the District's children. That new structure consists of the DC Emergency Transitional Educational Board of Trustees made up of experienced leaders with the ability to instill a vision and lead a large organization in that direction. A Chief Executive Officer (now General Becton) will work with a core management team to repair DCPS and restore credibility to its performance. The role of the Control Board, meanwhile, will be to empower this new organization to be successful.

A year later, it is still too early to tell whether these ambitious objectives can be achieved, and whether other extraneous interventions can be kept at bay. Much of the first year was spent on such things as trying to count the students (still not done), trying to get a proper listing of the DCPS' 10,000 employees (done), and sizing the problem of the physical plant, which is clearly oversized, and in bade need of repair. According the General Becton, the DCPS' Chief Executive Officer, "This administration inherited a $2 billion infrastructure problem. On average, our buildings are 65 years old. Routine maintenance of these buildings was neglected for decades".

But more important, it has taken the new team almost a year to find, hire, and install a new Academic Officer. One is finally in place, and she has has recently promulgated a final "Year One Academic Plan" with sweeping reforms to 1)improve student achievement; 2) ensure quality school staff; 3) increase accountability throughout the school system; and 4) promote school restructuring, decentralization, and parental choice. These will include establishment of high standards, and attention to professional development, and a review of the "special education" population. In the long run, if these changes can be implemented, they will be far more important than the fixing of leaky roofs.

Settling the Lawsuit: Getting the Courts out of the Classroom--and the Students Back In

Elsewhere, NARPAC, Inc. reports on the current difficulties of having "four different school boards" pulling in different directions. The recent settling of the incredible dispute between the Courts, Parents' Organizations, and the DCPS Chief Executive Officer should put an end to the frivolous closing of schools for repairs normally carried out nationwide without interrupting educational processes. This could essentially remove two of the four competing "virtual school boards" that have been contributing to making the DCPS a national laughingstock.

But some damage to the students can't be easily repaired .The closing of DC's schools for relatively routine repairs was the product of an overzealous parents' group fed up with years of unkept promises, and an overzealous DC Judge who exercised virtually no judgment. In addition to the enormous disruptions to a school system which is marginally functional at best, some irreparable damage was done to students who were in fact trying to make the grade. A recent OpEd piece in the Washington Post from the principal of the shut-down Bell Multicultural School in Columbia Heights details the unintended consequences of amateur interference in the education process:

o Fifteen teenage mothers missed all 12 days of school because there were no day care centers at the alternate sites (!).

o Seniors had left their college (and scholarship) applications, already being worked on, in their lockers or their counselor's office, and could not retrieve them due to the fire marshal's regulations. Special requests to get into the school to pick up books, materials and student property were denied.

o One senior honor-roll student taking Advanced Placement courses will be the first in her family to attend college--if she can get the necessary scholarships and financial aid. Said she: "I missed a lot of scholarship deadlines when we were out of our building. A lot of students throughout the nation got to apply for these (scholarships) and I didn't--because of the decisions (others) made about our school".

o Underclassmen also felt the closing's effects, according to the principal. The PSAT test, scheduled for Tuesday, Oct 14th, had to be postponed to the following Saturday. Only two-thirds of the students showed up, since many have to work on Saturdays. Opportunities to prepare the students had been lost, since the software was (locked) in the school building.

Educating "Adults"

It seems unfortunately clear that for many years, DC's public education system has been producing essentially "dysfunctional" adults who are having extreme difficulty in living "normal" lives in their communities after leaving school. Hence the city seems to have additional obligations to provide adult education to those now unable to make their way. Children are becoming premature parents, with virtually no training in how to take care of their offspring, and the parents of those teenage parents don't seem to know how to advise their children. Furthermore, a disgraceful number of young male products of the DC school system have become law breakers, and many of these are virtually illiterate. There is an obvious need to try to educate these young inmates in the hopes of keeping them from becoming regular repeat offenders. There seems to be no American equivalent of the European concept of "Apprentice Villages" in which offenders are provided with at least rudimentary skills and trades by which to change the future course of their lives. Any systematic solution to improving conditions for the disadvantaged in the District--or elsewhere-- will surely have to include a very dedicated program of adult education.

The long-term consequencese of high drop-out rates often seems to be overlooked. While acknowledging that the DC student dropout rate of 8.14% in 95-96 is far too high, General Becton (in a recent letter to speaker Gingrich) notes that other urban school districts across the nation have similar problems. The dropout rate for Atlanta was 14%, Baltimore City, 14%, and Newark, 8.4%.

The insidious impact of growing drop-out rates and rising illiteracy amongst those who do stay to "graduate" is its cumulative effect on the character of a community . According to NARPAC, Inc. analysis, using assumptions appropriate for the DC case, this declining school system could well have produced by the year 2000 a total local population of 100,000 drop-outs and/or functionally illiterate "graduates" since 1970.


This item was archived in September, 2002

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