My Remarks to the DC Council's Committee on Education

Over a lifetime as a researcher, and a public school parent, I firmly believe in the importance of education research and vigorously support building partnership capacity to provide credible, useful, analytical evidence to support education policy making. My testimony to the DC Council's Committee on Education, at their March 19, 2018 hearing on The Future of School Reform in DC, speaks to these goals and aspirations.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning. I’m a resident of the District of Columbia, have lived in Ward 3 since 1986, and my children are proud alumni of the DC public education system. I have had the honor of serving as Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University since 2010, after 24 years in various roles at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the National Academy of Sciences. I am the immediate past president of the National Academy of Education. In 2008 I led the team that was called upon to design an evaluation system for DC public education, following the passage of PERAA. In 2011, at GW, we established the DC Education Consortium for Research and Evaluation (EdCORE), which provided substantial analytical support to the ongoing evaluation work underway at the Academy. As you know, the Academy’s project culminated in its major capstone volume, issued in 2015.

Our hope with EdCORE was to create in DC a capacity for sustained, credible, useful, analytical evidence to support education policy making. Already by then several other cities, most notably Chicago, had moved in this direction and we were energized by the strong public and private support for a similar initiative in our city. My colleagues and I, from GW as well as from our EdCORE partner organizations – several of whom are with me this morning -- have substantial experience in DC, and we have been enriched by our work in many other places, including Loudon County (VA), Tennessee, New York, Baltimore, and elsewhere.

This morning I am not here to make a pitch for EdCORE, but rather wish to focus my remarks on the more general question regarding the potential for some type of research partnership to support reform, improvement, and evaluation activities in DC. EdCORE is one model that could provide independent credible data and research, but it is not the only one. We believe it is important that as we revisit the ideas for a viable partnership we consider a set of guiding principles for useful, timely, and trustworthy engagement between researchers and the many dedicated professionals working on policy and practice in our complex DC school system.

I used the word “trustworthy” because we believe that a fundamental challenge facing DC public education now, in the light of recent events that I won’t belabor here, is restoring trust on the part of our diverse communities – parents, kids, families, teachers, administrators, business leaders, the media – in the information generated and disseminated on the condition of teaching, learning, and human development in our schools. Like all of you, we are dismayed by the evidence of erroneous and misleading graduation statistics, as highlighted in media reports and confirmed in a recent audit.

And we worry that this is just one example of an even deeper deficiency, namely the absence of credible information without which our residents cannot feel confident in our schools. With erosion of trust comes incentives for our families to seek options outside the system and outside the city, and because we do not want to stand by as our public education system crumbles, it is time now to support a new system designed for transparency, rigor, and objective information to solve our toughest education problems.

Here’s what I know from my engagement with DC schools and my 35+ years working at the intersections of research and policy. First, providing reliable data in a transparent way, shielded as much as possible from ideological or political or commercial influence, is an important ingredient in the recipe to reinforce or rebuild citizens’ trust in the workings of their government. Second, the provision of such data can, at the same time, be invaluable to policy makers and District officials seeking solutions to the most complex problems.

This dual role for good data – accountability to the citizens and guidance to decision makers – should be a foundational principle for meeting our current challenges in DC. Getting the right data – and getting the data right – is not a sufficient condition for school improvement, but we believe it is a necessary condition. To put it simply, trust is built by being consistently straightforward and transparent about actions and outcomes; trustworthy data is key to making effective policy; and trustworthiness of data (and interpretations of those data) is conditional not only on its technical quality but on mechanisms designed to ensure its independence and objectivity.

As I have noted, the idea of “research partnerships” has taken root in many cities and school systems around the US. Chicago is often mentioned as the grand-daddy of these efforts, but variations on the theme are in place in New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore, New Orleans and Philadelphia. From work that has been supported by a number of philanthropies as well as the federal government, we have reliable evidence about how these partnerships can provide valid, useable, and independent evidence, and how they can be an important piece of the puzzle that contributes to school reform through “supporting the search for solutions.”

DC has some of the finest research resources right in its front yard. A collaborative partnership with local researchers, especially those with knowledge and experience that derives from their work in DC and elsewhere, can create the conditions needed to provide reliable data and build public trust in reports of progress or setbacks. We believe that designing and implementing such a system necessarily entails some risk and uncertainty – who really knows what the “optimal” arrangement might be? – but we also believe there is greater risk and potential cost to not moving forward, especially now when certain issues (such as graduation statistics) are so much on our minds.

We should therefore respond to the legitimate demands of our community for evidence that we are working to fix the graduate data problem, and that we are doing so with a broader aim of ensuring a steady flow of credible and useful information relevant to many other current and future challenges of the system. A careful and objective inquiry into the matter of graduation statistics, including problems of credit recovery and related issues, would provide useful evidence on key “indicators” of the system’s performance while also providing a fresh example of whether and how to build a sustainable “research-practitioner partnership.”

The good news, at a time of deep challenges and widespread anxiety, is that several DC researchers, including but certainly not limited to those associated with EdCORE, have been laying the groundwork for a research partnership of this sort, have the kinds of analytical skills relevant to addressing the problems, and, perhaps most important, have the passion for helping our great city.

At risk of some repetition, let me again underscore some key elements of an effective partnership. For it to be “real,” it must be a genuine collaboration of leaders, researchers, and community members working toward the aim of improved education for our children. A research partnership should be forward looking – what can data and evidence show us about reasonable options – more than being focused on dissecting and chronicling only what went wrong. Of course, monitoring compliance is a linchpin of democratic governance, but we believe that is better handled by other organizations and people than by those whose expertise lies more in the techniques and methods of policy analysis. In short, we believe that a viable research partnership would not be yet another oversight mechanism but instead would be a partner with education leaders in investigating problems of practice, developing action plans and investigating results.

With that as the basic concept, we offer here a short set of principles that could guide our next phase of partnership, culled from our study of and involvement with many different entities striving to guide educational improvement:

1. The data provided is “clean,” by which we mean it is understood as being independent of any particular influence and as unbiased as possible;
2. The “research partner” plays a key role in validating the integrity of data presented to the general public;
3. The partnership conducts research and analysis for topics that are co-determined and co- developed with educators, administrators, and stakeholders, i.e., partnership members jointly determine what research and evaluation would be most valuable, what data are relevant and available, and how to do the work so that results are timely and useful;
4. The partnership presents and discusses findings as they emerge over the course of a study, i.e., it provides information as research progresses and not just in final reports;
5. The partnership adheres to a “no-surprises” policy, i.e., reports are reviewed before public release so that District leaders have the opportunity to respond and react and have time to prepare for the public’s response;
6. The partnership is guided by a board with representatives from multiple stakeholder groups –such as the Mayor’s office, the DC Council, parents, the State Board, OSSE, DCPS, the Public School Charter Board, the teachers’ union, principals’ organizations, and others; and
7. The partnership does not necessarily recommend “solutions” to problems, but instead emphasizes what the analysis suggests about the likely effects of potential courses of action.

These seven principles are not exhaustive. But we believe they provide a foundation on which to build a trusted mechanism for analyzing problems of practice, developing action plans and investigating results.

Before I close, I’d like to reiterate a point I made earlier. In addressing this sort of challenge there is always the temptation, especially among my friends in the academic world, to postpone action until we’re certain we have done the exhaustive review and analysis of all possibilities and have found the optimal way to proceed that guarantees success. I believe we don’t have that luxury, but nor am I suggesting that we should “just do something – anything…” Rather, I believe we have the capacity and will to respond now to what might be called the current data emergency, move quickly and sensibly toward providing our citizens the reassurance they deserve that our City’s leaders are working toward the future, to rely on our substantial technical and experiential knowledge, and to use the present need as a test-bed for a longer term and sustainable process.

There are three activities that we would put forth as priorities for us to get started on now:

1. Develop an indicator system, such as a dashboard, in partnership with District and community leaders, to develop graduation and post-secondary enrollment measures that report reliably on the health of our schools and our progress;
2. Provide independently-validated data on student graduation and achievement; and
3. Continue refining an evaluation framework to assess the implementation of new processes and activities put in place to address low achievement and graduation.

As enthusiastic as I am for this proposal, and as optimistic as I am about our future as a great city committed to its wonderful children, I know that a research partnership is just one piece of the puzzle. But it’s an important piece, and I want to reiterate our commitment at GW to work with you to find it. We approach this task with eyes wide open: given all that we ask from our schools and the challenges we ask them to overcome, it is neither realistic nor fair to expect them to go it alone. Some say it takes a village, but in our case it takes a whole city.

The research community is ready to commit, and we have the experience and willingness to do it well. We are ready to join you in the quest for an effective, efficient, sustainable, and productive system that connects researchers whose passion for our great city is matched by their extraordinary skills with independent, objective, and credible analysis of complex data.

--Dr. Michael Feuer, Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University