Education researchers take on reform

A group of researchers from GW’s graduate education school will soon know if sweeping reforms taking place across the District’s public school system are working.

This spring, the team will investigate teacher and classroom quality in a school district that typically ranks among the nation’s worst. Researchers will seek answers to questions regarding student access to high-quality facilities, the equability of funds assigned to schools and student safety.

“This could be truly transformative, not just in the sense of… providing something to the city, which everybody tells us is long overdue,” Graduate School of Education and Human Development Dean Michael Feuer said, “but it could be transformative in the sense of how to organize policy research [to improve] a place like an urban school district.”

GSEHD’s evaluation is mandated under the city’s 2007 education reform bill, which requires an independent look as to whether schools are advancing.

The reforms were led by then chancellor of schools Michelle Rhee – the lightning rod leader who closed campuses, instituted standardized tests and forced the resignations of hundreds of teachers.

GSEHD’s role in the D.C. Education Consortium on Research and Evaluation will help expand the school’s research reputation, said Feuer, who is leading the college’s team, along with four other professors. The group also includes educational policy partners from across the District, like RAND Corporation and American Institutes for Research.

“For GW, this is an opportunity to have a role in the city which would be very, very special,” he said. “What we’re doing is capitalizing on our advantages as a research institute to actually build a bridge between research practice, and to contribute something to the city.”

Mayor Vincent Gray, who became mayor in 2011, ousted Rhee but kept the reforms intact.

Since then, the District has seen improvements. Forty-six percent of students earned proficient scores in math this year – a huge jump from the 28 percent of students who were up to par in 2007.

But David Pickens, executive director of the advocacy group D.C. School Reform Now, said evaluations like D.C. Ed-CORE are needed to provide a comprehensive look at the law.

“We need to be looking at this objectively, and be looking at the results,” he said, adding that emotion and advocacy wars are usually tied in with people’s opinions on the reform. “The adult role in this is really to help the best and the brightest.”

The consortium is currently evaluating a reform that brought special education students studying at private schools on the city’s bill back into public schools. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers are also conducting a study on the effectiveness of science, technology, engineering and math courses – regarded as gateways into the job market for students who excel at them.

Other school districts like those in Chicago and Baltimore have also leaned on consortia partnered with universities to evaluate their school systems.

Brenda Turnbull, co-founder of Policy Studies Associates, one of the organizations involved in the consortium, said that D.C. Ed-CORE could be a model because the District’s school system garners national attention.

“Things that are done in D.C. around school governance normally do get a lot of visibility and influence on the national scene, so bringing together good information about strengths and weaknesses of the reforms is going to be [very] important,” she said.

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