District of Columbia Public Schools:

Implementation and Sustainability of Reform Efforts Could Benefit From Enhanced Planning

GAO-09-902T: Published: Jul 23, 2009. Publicly Released: Jul 23, 2009.

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Cornelia M. Ashby
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This testimony presents information on the District of Columbia's (D.C. or the District) progress in reforming its public school system. The District's school system has had long-standing problems with student academic performance, the condition of school facilities, and its overall management. The District's public schools have fallen well behind the District's own targets for demonstrating adequate yearly progress toward meeting the congressionally mandated goal of having 100 percent of students proficient in math, reading, and science by 2014, as outlined in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA). In addition, the U. S. Department of Education (Education) designated the District as a high-risk grantee in April 2006 because of its poor management of federal grants. Of the nearly $762 million the District spends on D. C. public schools (DCPS), 16 percent comes from federal sources. In an effort to address the school system's long-standing problems, the Council of the District of Columbia (D.C. Council) approved the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007 (Reform Act), which made major changes to the operations and governance of the school district. The Reform Act gave the Mayor broad authority over the District's public school system, including curricula, operations, budget, personnel, and school facilities. In doing so, the District joined a growing number of cities to adopt mayoral governance of public school systems in an effort to expedite major reforms. The Reform Act transferred the day-to-day management of the public schools from the Board of Education to the Mayor and placed DCPS under the Mayor's office as a cabinet-level agency. It also moved the state functions into a new state superintendent's office, established a separate facilities office, and created the D.C. Department of Education headed by the Deputy Mayor for Education. Because of the broad changes in governance, Congress asked GAO to evaluate the District's reform efforts. In our report, we addressed the following questions: (1) What steps has the District taken to address student academic achievement? (2) What actions has the District taken to strengthen the quality of teachers and principals? (3) To what extent have the District's education offices developed and implemented long-term plans and how has DCPS used stakeholder input in key initiatives? (4) What steps have DCPS and the state superintendent's office taken to improve their accountability and performance?

DCPS's early efforts to improve student achievement focused on implementing initiatives to improve student performance, including implementing a new staffing model; restructuring underperforming schools; and creating and enhancing data systems. During the first 2 years of its reform efforts, DCPS implemented several classroom-based initiatives to improve students' basic skills in core subjects. For example, to improve students' basic skills and standardized test scores in reading and math, DCPS introduced targeted interventions for students struggling in these subjects and provided additional instruction and practice to improve students' responses to open-ended questions, including test questions. DCPS is also attempting to improve the quality of its teacher and principal workforce by hiring new teachers and principals and by providing professional development, but it has encountered challenges in effectively implementing these changes. DCPS focused on a workforce replacement strategy to strengthen teacher and principal quality. 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. DCPS terminated about 350 teachers and an additional 400 teachers accepted financial incentives offered by DCPS to resign or retire in the spring of 2008. In addition, DCPS did not renew the contracts of 42 principals. To replace the teachers and principals who left the system, DCPS launched a nationwide recruitment effort for the 2008-2009 school year and hired 566 teachers and 46 principals for the 2008-2009 school year. The state superintendent's office and DCPS each developed 5-year strategic plans and involved stakeholders in developing these plans. DCPS released the draft of its 5-year strategic plan in late October 2008. In contrast to the state-level plan which includes the public charter schools, the DCPS plan is specific to prekindergarten through grade 12 education in its 128 schools. DCPS 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 also have taken steps to improve accountability and performance of their offices. While DCPS has taken steps to improve accountability and link its individual performance management system to organizational goals, it has not yet linked its employee expectations and performance evaluations to organizational goals. DCPS has taken steps to improve accountability and performance of its central office. To improve accountability for central office departments, DCPS developed departmental scorecards to identify and assess performance expectations for each department. The state superintendent's office also implemented a new performance management system, effective October 2008, to hold its employees accountable and improve the office's performance. The office is converting to a single electronic management system to track and evaluate employee performance by December 2009.

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