Investigating Ballou Means Investigating Ourselves

Cross-posted from EducationDC

[Ed Note: On Friday, December 15, the education committee of the city council held TWO related hearings on graduation rate accountability, arising from reporting that students at DCPS’s Ballou high school graduated without earning appropriate credit. Below, DC education activist Peter MacPherson puts the official investigation of what happened at Ballou into historical and civic perspective.]

It’s a big deal in a democracy when two branches of a government decide a third just isn’t working well, needs to depart this mortal coil, and then administers the coup de grace. That’s what happened in 2007 when former Mayor Adrian Fenty and every member of the city council—save one—decided to dispatch the elected Board of Education from this realm. It was a decision made by a small number of actors, with the support of elite institutions like the Washington Post and with no meaningful opportunity for District residents to express whether they wanted one of the city’s few vestiges of democratic life to disappear.

The elected Board of Education has now been gone for a decade. Those who eliminated it made the argument that putting the final authority for DCPS under the aegis of a single person, namely the mayor, would be the antidote for what was commonly described as a failing school system. It’s been a popular narrative in our country: that uninhibited executive power is what’s needed to fix the badly broken. Fire the non-performing and eliminate the bickering and the need to build consensus on an elected board. Develop a bold plan for improvement and then implement it without the barriers that an elected board represents.

After a decade of mayoral control, few would say that the city’s schools are actually fixed. Huge improvements have been made in renovating or reconstructing school buildings. But the benefits of the school modernization program have not been experienced equally, with improvements closely tied to race and class. The achievement gap between white and non-white students remains as jarring as ever.

Nonetheless, there is a persistent narrative that our schools have dramatically improved, that DCPS is “the fastest improving urban school district in the United States,” as the mayor and her lieutenants frequently note. These kinds of statistics are often cited by the editorial page of the Washington Post.

Besides scores on standardized tests, significant improvements in high school graduation rates are also mentioned as evidence of improvement. The latter, if the numbers are to be believed, is a success that DCPS Chancellor Antwan Wilson wishes to build on: In the next 5 years, he wants 85% to graduate from high school within four years and 90% within four to five years.

But it’s difficult to judge that goal, because the current state of achievement in our schools is actually unknown.

For instance, reporting by WAMU and NPR has raised considerable doubt about the actual graduation rate at Ballou in Ward 8. The school had reported an improvement in its graduation rate from 50% in 2012 to 67% in 2017. And the school also reported that all of its 2017 graduating class had been accepted to college. However, the WAMU/NPR reporting makes clear that those numbers are illusory. Evidence of excessive absenteeism on the part of students as well as the massaging of grades indicate that many were allowed to graduate when they in fact were not eligible to do so.

Our mayor and chancellor desperately want this scandal to be isolated to a single school. And if only Ballou is investigated, that’s where it will remain. As it now stands, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education plans to only investigate Ballou.

This is exactly why education reform in the District of Columbia is failing.

Those running education in the District are deeply invested in the reform model adopted a decade ago. Eliminating the elected school board and embracing a high-stakes testing paradigm were supposed to transform our schools. Those brought in to run the schools were sold as pedagogic alchemists who possessed the secret formula.

That narrative is paramount: The political and media class are not invested in all students succeeding academically. Essentially, they care about the perception that students are learning and achieving in our schools. When scandals appear, like the one involving cheating on standardized tests that USA Today uncovered (and even more since then), scenarios have been constructed to give the appearance that what was reported was limited to a few isolated examples. Unlike in Atlanta, where a similar scandal had taken place and a fulsome investigation conducted, much more limited inquiries were conducted in DC. In Atlanta, school system officials went to jail for their role in the cheating scandal.

No such sunlight was brought to bear on events here in DC. Cheating took place that was engineered by adults. And no one in DC went to jail.

District stakeholders have every reason to be skeptical of how city students are faring in our schools. The problem is that the civic bodies in DC that ensure accountability–the mayor, city council, OSSE, the media, the charter board–are so heavily invested in a particular narrative that they have largely forsaken their actual roles.

Before 2007, we had relatively poor oversight, and many schools and educational situations that were demonstrably bad. After the elimination of the democratically elected school board, all that has happened is a continuous storyof improvement. Actual and honest assessment has been abandoned. In fact, challenging the current educational orthodoxy seems as perilous as criticizing Joseph Stalin in Russia in the 1930s. Critics are forced from the system or characterized as dead-enders clinging to a sclerotic old order.

Common sense says we should be skeptical about what our city’s educational agencies are telling us about the progress of our students. The PARCC—and the DC-CAS that it replaced–have consistently shown that many District high school students have low scores on these tests. These test results, where some high schools have single digit percentages of students scoring proficient in both reading and math, should make everyone skeptical that 72.4% on average (the current graduation rate for the city) were able to credibly graduate.

We do not need an investigation just of Ballou. We need a comprehensive investigation of high school graduation rates at every high school.

And, as council member Robert White has asked, this investigation needs to be done by an entity that has no direct connection with the District government. The findings should be released independently and not filtered by the mayor, chancellor, charter board, or the state superintendent for education, all of whom have a stake in ensuring a positive narrative emerges no matter how egregious the treatment of students actually is.

During the past decade, those with direct responsibility for education in the city have placed the credit or blame for levels of student achievement on teachers and principals. The current education orthodoxy, which has been relentlessly defended for the past 10 years by city politicians, the media, and the business community with little questioning, has to be abandoned in favor of a far more rigorous assessment of what our students actually need. Their success or failure is not just a function of the schools or programming or personnel. It’s also very much about the context in which many DC children live their lives. Poverty matters. Food insecurity matters. Domestic violence matters. If we can start having reliable information about how students are actually faring in schools, we can start having honest conversations about how to help kids get the education they need.

But doing so requires the grownups–the actual adults in the rooms where these decisions are made every day–to start being honest. It’s hard to imagine anything more pernicious than a willingness to misrepresent what is happening to children in school.

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Lobbying on Behalf of District Children and Youth

https-cdn.evbuc.comimages308723252063897423991originalBeyond voting or joining a well publicized march or rally, many citizens are unsure how to become politically engaged.  One of the most effective ways to have an impact on public policy is to tell your local representatives what you want.  Lobbying is not just for professionals paid by corporate interest groups.  In fact, government and the institutions they regulate are far more fair, just and equitable when regular citizens like you and me show up at their office and insist that they listen to what we have to say.

With that in mind, the DC Alliance for Youth Advocates (DCAYA) will meet with Councilmembers and staff to advocate for a more youth-friendly District budget for FY2018 at the Wilson Building on Thursday, May 11.  According to the DCAYA, the District’s proposed FY2018 budget leaves significant funding gaps for a number of key programs that could better address the needs of  children and youth.

Council markup on the mayor’s proposed budget is scheduled for May 16-18, so May 11 is a critical time to reach out to members and remind them of the importance of our budget asks for DC’s youth, which include:

  • Transportation: $2 million to extend transportation subsidies to adult and alternative learners through the School Transit Subsidy Program
  • Youth Homelessness: Up to $3.3 million more to fully fund the Year One objectives of the Comprehensive Plan to End Youth Homelessness
  • Expanded Learning: An additional $5.1 million to fund the new Office of Out-of-School Time Grants and Youth Outcomes and better meet the need for quality youth development programming
  • Youth Workforce Development: A comprehensive implementation plan for coordinating and funding youth workforce development initiatives to build on the progress of DC’s WIOA State Plan
  • Per-Pupil Funding: A 3.5% increase in per-pupil funding in the FY18 budget to bring DCPS closer to an adequate standard for education funding next school year
  • Proposed Tax Cuts: Ensure revenue is available to fund these and other critical priorities by delaying the $40 million in estate tax and business tax cuts slated for 2018

For more information, contact Jamie Kamlet Fragale, Director of Advocacy and Communications for Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School, or CLICK HERE.


See Ya, Kaya: ‘Legacy of Progress’?

Cross-Post from The Fight Back
written by Pete Tucker

This is the first in a three-part series on Kaya Henderson’s time atop DCPS.

After six years as head of D.C. Public Schools, Kaya Henderson is calling it quits Friday.

According to the Washington Post, her biggest booster, Henderson is leaving behind a “legacy of progress.”

Not everyone agrees.


Kaya Henderson and Michelle Rhee. Photo: Washington Post

Before ascending to chancellor, Henderson served three years as top deputy to her close friend, Michelle Rhee, known for mass teacher firings and school closings.

Henderson has continued in Rhee’s footsteps, albeit with less bombast.

Throughout the Rhee and Henderson years, the Post has played the role of lead-cheerleader (even collaborating on coverage). Now the Post wants the good times to continue.

Instead of conducting a search for the next chancellor, the Post’s Jay Mathews says D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser should just ask Henderson to name her replacement since “she knows better than anybody what the job is.”

But after nearly a decade atop DCPS, some don’t give the Rhee/Henderson team such high marks.


Improving test scores has been central to Henderson and Rhee’s claims of turning DCPS around.

But when retired DCPS teacher Erich Martel dug into the data, he found the gains were largely due to D.C.’s rapid gentrification, which has pushed lower-income African American students out, while ushering in wealthier whites, who score higher on tests.

Associated Press reporter Ben Nuckols similarly noted, “The gains in test scores have… coincided with the city becoming wealthier and the white population increasing.”

“Literally, I just got to just let this out,” Henderson has said in response to such critiques, “Haters are going to hate.”

Cheating Scandal

Within a year of Rhee’s 2007 DCPS takeover, test scores started climbing, dramatically at some schools.

While the Post was busy touting the results, out-of-town news organizations questioned them. A 2011 USA Today investigation found a higher than average wrong-to-right erasure rate the prior three years at “more than half of D.C. schools.”

Erasure rate refers to the number of changed answers on a test and can be used to identify possible cheating.

“A high erasure rate alone is not evidence of impropriety,” Henderson said in response.

But some of the erasure rates were very, very high. At Noyes Education Campus, for example, USA Today found,

The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance.

After USA Today’s exposé, scores at Noyes dropped, according to data posted at Guy Brandenburg’s education blog.

“Real students may be fidgety and jumpy, but their scores on yearly high-stakes tests… do NOT jump around like this,” wrote Brandenburg, a retired DCPS teacher.

“Look at those scores,” wrote historian and education scholar Diane Ravitch, who served as assistant secretary of education under George H. W. Bush. “First the soar up, then they plummet down. Nothing suspicious there, right?”

Not for D.C. Inspector General Charles Willoughby, who found no evidence of widespread cheating, despite only investigating one school, Noyes. The U.S. Education Department Inspector General, in a “tandem” investigation, came to a similar conclusion.

Meanwhile, DCPS failed to conduct its own investigation, even after an internal memo called for one, as PBS’s John Merrow reported at his blog.

“There have been no meaningful investigations of the evidence of widespread cheating,” civil rights attorney and D.C. budget expert Mary Levy wrote in response to the inspectors general’s findings.

“Among the top 10 DCPS erasure schools… scores plummeted at all but one by 2010,” noted Levy. “The bottom dropped out by chance at all those schools?”


Public schools in Atlanta experienced similar testing irregularities around the same time DCPS did. In Atlanta, however, superintendent Beverly Hall was unable to thwart an investigation.

“There’s one key difference between Atlanta and Washington,” wrote PBS’s Merrow, “the role played by the local newspapers.”

Unlike the Post, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution kept a spotlight on the issue.

The result? Dr. Hall and 34 educators were charged with racketeering.

The co-leader of Atlanta’s independent investigation, former DeKalb County District Attorney Robert Wilson, also followed the situation in D.C., concluding, “the big difference is that nobody in D.C. wanted to know the truth.”

‘Legacy of Progress’

As Henderson prepares to step down Friday, she does so amidst a wave of positive press, led by the Post.

“For a decade… Henderson has worked to turn around one of the nation’s most troubled school systems,” the Post reported Tuesday, pointing to “better test scores” under her watch.

The role that gentrification and cheating have played in achieving these “better test scores” is left unsaid.

Next up: See Ya, Kaya: Shortchanging At-risk Students

The DC State Board of Education Requests Input on the Every Student Succeeds Act and More!

June Citizen Reader Header

Citizen Reader PicBelow is the June edition of the Citizen Reader.  Scroll down to find article on the following topics: 

Calling All Citizens:  The SBOE Seeks Your Thought on the ESSA
DOEE conducting free blood lead screenings in response to recent elevated levels of lead in the water of some schools
District Law and Lead in Children
June 14 Primary Election Councilmember Candidate’s Views on Education
Calling all citizens: the SBOE seeks your thoughts on the ESSA
State Trends in Student Data Privacy Bills
After School in Japanese!
Schedule of SBOE/ESSA meetings
Schedule of Committee on Education Hearings
…and there’s more to come in this busy month of June, 2016


Calling All Citizens:  The SBOE Seeks Your Thought on the ESSA

Like their counterparts across the country, DC’s State Board of Education and State Superintendent of Education are in the process of leading the city in the transition from the No Child Left Behind Act to the new federal education law that replaced it in December 2015–the Every Student Succeeds Act.

As a part of that process, the Board has set up a page on its website just for ESSA and on that page there is a survey in three languages: English, Spanish and Amharic. The public is encouraged to email the Board with any thoughts that don’t fit on the survey. There is also a schedule of meetings the Board is holding across the city to provide an overview of the new law and its requirements and to hear the public’s views and thoughts. The meetings are Ward based but they are not limited to residents of the particular Ward—anyone is free to attend the meeting in any ward.

The Board’s ESSA page also has a video-recording of its March 16 meeting where three very knowledgeable people with long experience in public education, policy and law presented their understandings of the new law and there is a document called “What YOU Need to Know About ESSA” in a power point format that shows some of the contrast between NCLB and ESSA and many of the requirements and other factors to be considered as DC works out its own plan for what its public education system should be accountable for and how it will do that. See next page for more resources and last page for schedule of the meetings.


DOEE Conducting Free Blood Lead Screenings in Response to Recent Elevated Levels of Lead in the Water of Some Schools

This is the schedule on the Department of Energy and Environment website:
• Saturday, June 11 from 10 am to 4 pm at Michigan Park, 1731 Bunker Hill Rd. NE
• Friday, June 17 from 12 to 6 pm at the King Greenleaf Recreation Center, 201 N St. SW
• Saturday, June 25 from 11 am to 3 pm at the Raymond Recreation Center, 3725 10th St. NW • Saturday, August 6 from 9 am to 4 pm at the Columbia Heights Recreation Center, 1480 Girard St. NW
Screenings also took place on June 1 and on June 4. For more information, see or call 202-535-2600, TTY711.

Additional Information about ESSA:

● All the information mentioned on the previous page can be found at The Board’s email address is 202-741-0888 ● There is more at And the following:

● US Department of Education, explains it all and has a link to the law itself.
● National Conference of State Legislatures provides a summary at, type ESSA summary into search box.
● American Federation of Teachers has plain English explanations in a series of Fact Sheets and much more at succeeds-act

ESSA rule making has been moving along quickly.  The US Department of Education’s committee to write the rules needed to implement the new federal law, Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, held its first three day session in late March. On April 1, the Department issued a press release, Education Department Releases Proposals for Consideration by ESSA Negotiated Rules Making Committee. The proposals concern two elements of the law: Assessments and the mandate to Supplement, Not Supplant. The press release summarizes the proposals and provides links to the full versions.


District Law and Lead in Children

One of the DC Department of Energy and the Environment’s responsibilities is ensuring that DC laws about lead and other toxic substances are known and adhered to. You’ll find everything about the subject at

A law, “Childhood Lead Screening Amendment Act of 2006” that became effective on March 14, 2007 requires that all children living in DC be screened for lead by the age of 6.

The schedule by which the screenings are supposed to take place is:
+ Between the ages of 6 months and 14 months, and again
+ Between the ages of 22 months and 26 months
+ If a child who lives in the District has not been screened at these ages, they must be screened at least once before they are 6 years old.
+ District law also requires that all children must be screened before entering day care, pre-school or kindergarten.”

So, children born in DC since 2007 should already have had two screenings by the time they are two years and 2 months old as part of their well-baby check- ups. Parents or guardians with questions should contact their child’s doctor.

Continue reading The DC State Board of Education Requests Input on the Every Student Succeeds Act and More!