borrowed from Fanpop.com
Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz in “I Love Lucy,” photo borrowed from Fanpop.com
On the old “I Love Lucy” series, if Lucy Ricardo wanted to avoid a fight with Ricky about an extravagant new dress, she would buy the item but hide it in the back of the closet for months before wearing it. That way, she could dodge objections to the price or the appropriateness of the purchase, with “oh, this old thing, I’ve had it for months!” The District of Columbia seems to be facing a similar situation with regard to the IFF study of its public schools.

Initial Purchase and Response

In 2011, DC’s Deputy Mayor for Education commissioned IFF, Chicago-based nonprofit lending and real estate consultants, to study DC’s schools and make recommendations.The resultant report, released in January 2012, was immediately criticized from many quarters. “In the final analysis, there is no valid evidence to justify the outcomes of IFF’s rankings and recommendations,” said one reviewer. (M. Siegel, Review of the Illinois Facility Fund’s Analysis of School Location and Performance in Washington, D.C.)

“The report’s data and analysis are so deeply flawed that its (rather non-specific) recommendations should not be taken seriously,” said another.

Matthew Di Carlo, senior research fellow at the non-profit Albert Shanker Institute, elaborated: “Cross-sectional proficiency rates…are terrible measures of performance, both in any given year and over time…Even a more rigorous analysis would have been suspect using these data.”

The Walton Family Foundation, who funded the study, stood alone in praising it.

In response, then-Deputy Mayor De’Shawn Wright said release of the IFF study was only the first step in a process that would include a “thorough conversation with the community” before any decisions were made. This announcement was followed by months of silence, despite repeated calls for engagement from the community, including the Education Town Hall.

To the Back of the Closet

Last July the DME organized a series of Community Conversations on Quality Schools but designed them to omit discussion of the IFF study. Citizens knew the thing was in the back of the closet, though, and so attempted the Ricky Ricardo role, anyway. Public Agenda, hired to run the meetings, summarized the result:

In every ward where a conversation was held there was strong pushback (“repudiation” and “rejection” were the terms used) on the IFF study – its methods, its implications and recommendations. At the root of much of the dispute is a) a distrust of its motivations and funding source, b) lack of community voice in its data methods, c) terminology that is degrading to community members, d) unclear contextualization of its recommendations, e) inadequate explanation and defense of its data use.

The summary continues:
“The results of these conversations must be relayed back to participants and the broader community; the ways in which the information has been used and acted upon should be made explicit; and there should be a real effort to respond to open questions….where the community voice is lacking is in the decision‐making and actions that come out of all the dialogue.”

The DME has yet to share Public Agenda’s summary with participants as promised and has yet to issue the promised follow-up report or engage with the community about the original study or possible implementation. There has been no mention of the IFF study on the DME’s website since February of 2012. In this way, the IFF study was kept just out of sight for over a year.

Reappearance of “This Old Thing”

But Council Member Catania, who chairs the Education Committee, has begun referencing the IFF report in hearings and other settings as a source of data to inform decision making. Far from playing Ricky Ricardo’s scrutinizing role, Catania refuses to consider expert critiques of the study methods, to explore bias, or to ask why community engagement has yet to occur:

For the record, the IFF did not visit DC schools or neighborhoods, did not review curricula or other school factors; it just divided schools into quartiles based on DC-CAS scores, declaring the top quartile “Tier 1” schools worthy of expansion and recommending closure or charter-ization of the bottom quartile. One reviewer called the tier assignments “essentially arbitrary” (see Siegel above).

The IFF actively trumpets its creation of 32,000 charter school seats in recent years, while noting no parallel impact in traditional public schools. IFF recommends using public school properties as incentives for luring charter operators to DC, but it cannot cite one example of a successful charter turnaround in cities where it has made the same recommendations. (See IFF report, p.43 , Siegel, p.3)

In July, the DME said it would use Community Conversation “suggestions to inform a list of recommendations to DCPS, the Public Charter School Board, and charter LEAs as to how they can increase the number of quality seats in high-need neighborhood clusters. This report will be released in Fall of 2012.” At the DME’s recent performance oversight hearing, Catania dismissed the failure to complete any of this as so much water under last year’s bridge. He moved, instead, to asking how the agency was implementing IFF recommendations.

“We have some data,” Catania said to interim DME Jennifer Leonard. “Let’s use it.”

In short, the official attitude to the IFF study in seems to be: “This old thing? We’ve had it for months.” But the 2012 promise of a “thorough conversation” on the IFF study, and what, if anything, the District should do in response, is still a year overdue.

–Virginia Spatz, reporting for The Education Town Hall on We Act Radio

More on the February 28 show

Full recording of the Education Town Hall, February 28, 2013

Note:

Public Agenda, the nonprofit hired to arrange, conduct, and report on the Community Conversations very recently made the summaries publicly available on their website. The DME did not tell anyone this, however. At press time, even organizers of the ward-level meetings had no knowledge that these materials were available. At no time during the Community Conversations were citizens told they would have to seek the materials directly from Public Agenda, and the DME called the December release of these materials to The Education Town Hall “erroneous.”
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Photo of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on “I Love Lucy” borrowed from Fanpop.com