District of Columbia Public Schools:

Important Steps Taken to Continue Reform Efforts, But Enhanced Planning Could Improve Implementation and Sustainability

GAO-09-619: Published: Jun 26, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 23, 2009.

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In response to long-standing problems with student achievement and the management of the District of Columbia (D.C. or the District) public school system, the D.C. Council approved the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007. This act made major changes to the governance of the D.C. public school system, giving the Mayor authority over public schools. This report follows a GAO testimony in March 2008 and focuses on the primary reform approaches the District has taken. This report examines the steps the District took to: (1) address student academic achievement; (2) strengthen the quality of teachers and principals; (3) develop long-term plans and involve stakeholders; and (4) improve accountability and performance of the D.C. public schools (DCPS) and the state superintendent's central offices. GAO reviewed documentation on District initiatives, and interviewed District education officials as well as representatives from the teachers' union, community organizations, and research institutions. GAO also conducted visits to four urban school districts with mayoral governance.

Early efforts to improve student achievement at DCPS have focused on improving student performance, closing underutilized and reorganizing underperforming schools, and creating and enhancing data systems. During the first 2 years of its reform efforts, DCPS implemented many initiatives to improve overall student performance, such as classroom-based initiatives to improve basic skills of students. In addition, under the No Child Left Behind Act, DCPS restructured 22 schools before the fall of 2008, after the schools failed to meet academic targets for 6 consecutive years. Finally, DCPS and the state superintendent's office are developing new ways to monitor student achievement and school performance. Specifically, a longitudinal database is being developed that is intended to allow DCPS and other key users to access a broad array of data, including student test scores. DCPS is modifying its approach to many of these initiatives such as focusing on effective teaching as opposed to implementing disparate programs. DCPS has focused on improving the quality of its workforce by replacing teachers and principals and by providing professional development, but it has encountered challenges in effectively implementing these changes. After the 2007-2008 school year, about one-fifth of the teachers and one-third of the principals resigned, retired, or were terminated from DCPS. However, because DCPS did not have an effective way to evaluate teacher performance, officials are uncertain if the new staff improved the quality of its workforce. DCPS is currently working on a new teacher evaluation system. In addition, DCPS introduced professional development initiatives for teachers and principals. For example, it began placing teacher coaches at schools to support teachers at their work sites. However, late decisions to hire these teacher coaches led to inconsistent implementation of this initiative during the 2008-2009 school year. The state superintendent's office and DCPS each developed their 5-year strategic plans and involved stakeholders in developing these plans. The state superintendent plan and the DCPS draft strategic plan each contain many elements of effective plans, such as aligning short-term objectives to long-term goals. DCPS has recently increased its efforts to involve stakeholders in various initiatives; however, it has not always involved stakeholders in key decisions and initiatives. DCPS and the state superintendent's office have taken steps to improve accountability and performance. For example, both offices have started implementation of new individual employee performance management systems. However, while DCPS has taken some additional steps to improve accountability, it has not yet linked its employee expectations and performance evaluations to organizational goals to improve central office operations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When this report was issued in 2009, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) generally agreed with the substance of this recommendation, noting that the Mayor had made constant evaluation and stakeholder input central components of ensuring accountability under the governance structure. From June 2009 to September 2012, regarding stakeholder involvement, DCPS solicited input from multiple stakeholders, including students, parents, employees, community members, and business owners regarding their hopes and dreams for DCPS. The purpose of this effort was to inform the development of DCPS' updated 5-year strategic plan, which was published in April 2012. In addition, DCPS published its first-ever Budget Guide, which shared with the public how DCPS allocates resources to schools and the central office, and continues to submit annual performance plans to the D.C. City Administrator, outlining key initiatives and performance indicators. None of these documents showed that the planning processes included mechanisms to evaluate DCPS' internal capacity for undertaking the initiatives laid out in its various plans. However, in June 2013, DCPS informed GAO that their planning processes do include mechanisms to evaluate the agency's internal capacity for undertaking the initiatives laid out in its various plans. According to DCPS: "Each [DCPS] division develops an annual operating plan that describes their strategies and initiatives that will enable them to reach their internal goals. This document is developed in concert with the annual division spend plans whereby we ensure that the division budgets the resources necessary to implement their operating plans with fidelity." DCPS' updated Budget Guide for 2014 includes outlines of each DCPS division's work, as well as a high level view of their spend plans, and is publicly available on its web site.

    Recommendation: To help ensure the transparency, success, and sustainability of the District's transformation of its public school system, the Mayor should direct DCPS to establish planning processes that include mechanisms to evaluate its internal capacity and communicate information to stakeholders and, when appropriate, incorporate their views.

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

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: When this report was issued in 2009, DCPS generally agreed with the substance of this recommendation, noting that the Mayor had made constant evaluation and alignment of evaluations with objectives central components of ensuring accountability under the governance structure. Since that time, DCPS established the Central Office Effectiveness Division (COE) in 2012 to better align individual performance evaluations to the agency's overall goals. COE is responsible for developing and implementing a new central office evaluation system. As of June 2013, however, DCPS reported that COE has not developed or implemented a new performance evaluation system. They have conducted a lot of planning to determine individual offices' accountability for the Chancellor's five-year strategy to bolster student achievement based on feedback from a variety of stakeholders in the community. A lengthened timeline was developed to revamp the individual performance evaluation system in the DCPS Central Office, which is tied to the strategic planning process. DCPS expects to phase in this work over the next year. They also noted that other accountability methods, such as School Stat and individual office stats, provide additional avenues to evaluate the effectiveness of individual team members in pursuing educational reform and supporting schools.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the new individual performance management system and ensure greater accountability of central office employees in their role supporting schools, the Mayor should direct DCPS to link individual performance evaluations to the agency's overall goals.

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


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