District of Columbia Public Schools:

While Early Reform Efforts Tackle Critical Management Issues, a District-Wide Strategic Education Plan Would Help Guide Long-Term Efforts

GAO-08-549T: Published: Mar 14, 2008. Publicly Released: Mar 14, 2008.

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Cornelia M. Ashby
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In response to long-standing problems with student academic performance, the condition of school facilities, and the overall management of the D.C. public school system, the D.C. Council approved the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007 (Reform Act). The Reform Act made major changes to the operations and governance of the D.C. public school system, including giving the Mayor authority over public schools, including curricula, personnel, and school facilities. While other large urban school districts have transferred governance of schools to their mayors, D.C. is unique because it functions as both local and state offices for many education responsibilities. GAO's testimony focuses on (1) the status of the District's efforts to reform its public school system, and (2) what the District has done to establish accountability for these efforts. To address these issues GAO reviewed documents, interviewed District education officials and interviewed principals from nine D.C. public schools.

The early efforts to improve D.C. public schools have focused largely on broad management reforms and other activities that lay the foundation for long-term improvements to the D.C. public school system. The broad management reforms included the transfer of many functions from D.C. public schools (DCPS) into the new office of the state superintendent, which could allow for more effective oversight of the District's education programs. Prior to the Reform Act, there was no clear separation of funding, reporting, and staffing between local and state functions. A new facilities office was also created to improve the conditions of DCPS school facilities. Moving state-level education and facilities functions out of DCPS is intended to give the head of DCPS, called the Chancellor, more time to focus on issues that directly affect student achievement. The management reforms also included specific human capital initiatives such as new DCPS central office personnel rules and new systems for evaluating central office and state-level employee performance. In addition, both the State Superintendent and the Chancellor are working to improve their data systems to better track and monitor the performance of students, teachers, and schools. DCPS also completed its school consolidation plan that identified over 20 schools for closure over the next several years. In addition, the school facilities office is working to address the backlog of repairs. The director of the facilities office told us that he found that school heating and plumbing systems were inoperable, roofs leaked, and floors needed replacing. In addition, he said many schools were in violation of District fire codes. To address the backlog and ongoing facilities needs, the new office undertook several repair programs this summer and early fall. The D.C. Mayor and education officials have introduced a performance-based process designed to establish accountability for their school reform efforts. This process includes weekly meetings to track progress and accomplishments across education offices. In addition, the Mayor's office required agencies to develop and follow annual performance plans. D.C. Department of Education officials told us that they review the individual performance plans of District education offices, such as DCPS and the state superintendent's office, to ensure they are aligned and not working at cross-purposes. However, the department has yet to develop a long-term districtwide education strategy that could integrate the work of these offices, even though it included the development of such a strategy in its 2007-2008 performance plan. While developing a strategic plan takes time, it is useful for entities undergoing a major transformation, such as the D.C. public school system. A strategic plan helps organizations look across the goals of multiple offices and identify if they are aligned and connected or working at cross-purposes. Without a plan that sets priorities over time, implementation goals, and timelines, it may be difficult to measure progress over time and determine if the District is truly achieving success. In addition, given that leadership changes, a strategic plan would provide a road map for future District leaders by explaining the steps taken, or not taken, and why.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The D.C. Department of Education, more commonly referred to as the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME), is in the process of developing a long-term districtwide education strategic plan to coordinate the work of the District's education agencies and other stakeholders. Throughout 2010, DME, with input from multiple stakeholders, developed the Education and Youth Development Plan, which includes a clearly articulated vision statement for children and youth from birth to 24 years of age; districtwide goals and operational priorities; an assessment of needs; and an operational framework that provides for shared accountability, community involvement, and coordination. The Education and Youth Development Plan identified areas of alignment between the existing strategic plans across the various D.C. government agencies, identified gaps where additional policy or regulation would be helpful, and made appropriate recommendations to the Mayor. DME completed work on the Education and Youth Development plan in December 2010, just as D.C. was transitioning from Mayor Fenty's administration to Mayor Gray's. Under Mayor Gray's administration, DME built on the Education and Youth Development Plan to create Raise DC, a cross-sector collaborative partnership that focuses on aligning districtwide efforts to improve outcomes for young people from birth to age 24, much like Fenty's plan. Launched in Spring 2012, Raise DC includes a mission statement, long-term districtwide goals, and outcome measures to gauge progress toward those goals. Raise DC involves D.C. education agencies (including DME, DCPS, Office of the State Superintendent for Education, and the Public Charter School Board), non-education agencies (including the Child and Family Services Administration and Department of Human Services), community partners, (including United Way and the Casey Foundation) and corporate entities (including Capital One and PNC Bank). These stakeholders serve on Raise DC's Leadership Council, the Executive Team (a subset of the Leadership Council) and five Change Networks (Early Childhood, K-12, Disconnected Youth), Postsecondary, and Youth Employment), as appropriate. In Fall 2012, DME will publish a baseline Raise DC report card showing performance on outcome measures related to each districtwide goal.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the long-term success of the District's transformation of its public school system, the Mayor should direct the D.C. Department of Education to develop a long-term districtwide education strategic plan. The strategic plan should include certain key elements including a mission or vision statement, long-term goals and priorities, and approaches and time frames for assessing progress and achieving goals. It may also include a description of the relationship between the long-term strategic and annual performance goals. In addition, the strategic plan should describe how coordination is to occur among the District's education offices.

    Agency Affected: District of Columbia: Executive Office of the Mayor


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