Testimony of Rachel Metz on Education Oversight

March 9, 2021
Person Testifying: Rachel Metz
Title: Research and Data Manager , DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Office of the State Superintendent of Education, District of Columbia Public Schools, and the DC Public Charter School Board
Type of Hearing: Performance Oversight Hearing

Good morning, Chairman Mendelson and members of the DC Council. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Council today as it reviews the Fiscal Year 2021 performance of OSSE, DCPS, and the DC Public Charter School Board. My name is Rachel Metz and I’m the  Research and Data Manager of DC Action.

DC Action uses research, data, and a racial equity lens to break down barriers that stand in the way of all kids reaching their full potential. Our collaborative advocacy initiatives bring the power of young people and all residents to raise their voices to create change. We are also the home of DC KIDS COUNT, an online resource that tracks key indicators of child and youth well-being.

Chairman Mendelson, we want to thank the DC Council for your attention to the educational needs of young people as the public health emergency continues and hopefully draws to a close. In talking with service providers and advocates over the past several months, a number of important questions have come up that, if answered effectively, could provide critical data to inform plans moving forward. Many of these questions overlap with what you and other councilmembers asked at last month’s roundtable. Unfortunately, education officials have not transparently shared those responses with families, people serving children or youth, or other stakeholders who did not attend that event. We strongly recommend more transparent communication with the public, and we encourage the Council to ensure that agency staff are accounting for the answers to all the questions below as they move forward. Specifically:

  1. We know that as of October 2020 public schools had over 1300 fewer students – including over 700 fewer English learners – enrolled than at the same time last year, and that since enrollment had been projected to increase this school year, the actual decline is larger, likely with bigger drop-offs for DCPS than for charter schools. What percentage of children of compulsory school age are enrolled in school this year, and how does that differ from prior school years? What about early education? In late September public schools reported more than 2,300 fewer prekindergarten and kindergarten students than projected. What percentage of preschool-aged children are enrolled now? How have schools and districts reached out to these families?
  2. Beyond the educational impact of the pandemic, young people have been dealing with all kinds of loss. We should equip children and youth (as well as the educators who support them) with the social-emotional supports they need to cope with the trauma of the past year. As we discuss strategies to help students accelerate their academic progress, we should also provide resources for school based mental health, out-of-school-time programs, and other ways of fostering students’ broader development.
  3. Distance learning and modified in-person schedules have led teachers to experiment with new teaching strategies. How is OSSE supporting LEAs and schools in learning what has worked well about instruction during the pandemic? How are LEAs and schools supporting their teachers in learning about and practicing forms of instruction that may be new to them?
  4. For DCPS and the charter LEAs for which we have uniform assessment results, it’s clear that students have been learning this year, but not as much as in most years with even bigger disparities between students as in most years. Students categorized as “at risk” and those experiencing homelessness have fallen further behind in language arts, and across groups students are struggling in math. If district and school leaders are leaning towards high dosage tutoring as a key strategy for making up for the lost “months” of learning, how will they ensure that the students most in need of support get priority for the limited number of slots expected to be available?
  5. For students enrolled in online learning, what has attendance looked like overall? For students experiencing homelessness, students with disabilities, English learners, students in foster care, high school students older than their grade-level peers,  and students facing multiple hurdles to their education? How have OSSE, DCPS, and the DC Public Charter School Board helped schools respond in a way that is trauma-informed and not criminalizing when students don’t sign on? How have they supported schools with a high percentage of students in one of these categories?
  6. We’re particularly concerned with children who should have transitioned from one grade span – and therefore likely from one LEA – to another. For example, a student who completed elementary school at a charter LEA before the pandemic might have enrolled in a DCPS middle school. What percentage of these students enrolled in the next level for the current school year? How has OSSE supported LEAs in coordinating to ensure these students do not fall through the cracks?

We’re living in an unprecedented time, and there are no easy solutions. But we need data to better understand what a truly equitable recovery should look like. That includes feedback about potential plans from stakeholders including families – particularly families of students in historically underserved groups, public school educators, and providers who support students during out-of-school-time. While education officials have held weekly meetings to share announcements, so far this year they have had a bad track record of including stakeholders in the decision making process, perhaps most glaringly in the first attempt to re-open DCPS schools in person and in the decision to re-purpose DCPS 21st Century Community Learning funds. We hope that answering the questions above will provide a starting point for conversations with stakeholders about how best to move forward.