Education Forward DC’s CEO Bisi Oyedele delivered the following testimony to the Council of the District of Columbia’s Committee of the Whole at a hearing on academic assessments and how to best support DC students academically and non-academically.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman and members of the Council of the District of Columbia. Thank you for the opportunity to speak before you today. My name is Bisi Oyedele and, in addition to being a resident of Ward 4 and the parent of two public school students in the District, I am the Chief Executive Officer of Education Forward DC.
Education Forward DC envisions a DC where students starting furthest from opportunity can chart their own path and thrive. We accelerate the work of visionary education leaders to foster a city of high-quality, equitable public schools for every DC student and family. We provide grants across the city, offer advisory support to our grantees, and coordinate work across sectors, schools, and organizations to deliver excellent educational experiences for students. We believe DC can continue its progress and become a national model as the first city to guarantee every student access to great education by focusing on pandemic recovery, growing high-quality public-school options, addressing racial inequities, recruiting and retaining excellent leaders, and fostering equity-centered change. Over the next five years, we aim to double the proportion of schools providing students with the learning experiences they need to thrive.
Thank you again for this opportunity to share Education Forward DC’s thoughts on recent academic assessments and the impact of the pandemic on DC students’ achievement. Overall, what we saw on PARC and NAEP were not surprising. They mirror the underlying issues schools across DC experienced before the pandemic and the struggle to equitably support students furthest from opportunity. As we work toward a strong recovery, DC must prioritize supporting these students’ academic and non-academic needs through expanded access to high-quality educational experiences.
Prior to the pandemic, DC was making strong progress in better serving students and preparing them to achieve. Data from both PARCC and NAEP indicated that DC students across grades and demographic groups were closing the gaps with their national and urban district peers. However, at the same time, not every student was benefiting equitably from this progress. Despite overall improvement in student outcomes, only a third of public school students were getting the support they need to be on track for future success. Unsurprisingly, these gaps in outcomes are experienced most by the students who start out furthest from opportunity, such as those considered “at-risk” for academic failure, students with disabilities, and students who are English language learners; these learners are disproportionately students of color who face pervasive, systemic racism.
I also want to applaud the district government—both the Mayor and the Council—for the continued commitment and prioritization it has placed on education over the last few decades. We have seen sustained, historic investments in per-student funding and school facilities year after year and a dedication to accountability that has led to better outcomes for our students. Continuing to provide the resources our leaders and educators need to meet the needs of our students and ensuring that they are closing persistent gaps is essential to a strong recovery and a better school experience for all students.
There is no doubt that the pandemic upended the lives of our students, families, and educators. The switch to virtual learning was difficult. The conditions as we returned to for in-person learning were ever-changing. As the system rightfully worked to keep our students, families, and communities safe from COVID, we also knew that this not best way for students to learn, to say nothing of the social, emotional, and financial stressors that everyone experienced.
This year’s PARCC and NAEP scores provided us the first look at the academic impact of the pandemic, it came as no surprise that significantly fewer DC students were on track for college and career. Less than 15 percent of low-income fourth graders in DC were proficient in reading on NAEP, which led to the gap between DC low-income students and their national peers nearly doubling compared to 2019.
Ed Forward DC appreciates the tireless efforts of school leaders, teachers, students, and families across the city in navigating the difficulties of the past two and a half years. Without their resilience and persistence, DC may have been faced with even more challenging results to address through the recovery. However, the results before us highlight that the urgency to build a DC school system that prepares every student to thrive in life is greater than ever.
I must note however that though we look to PARCC and NAEP as indicators of DC’s progress, we cannot allow them to be viewed as the final word on how our students are doing or, more importantly, how DC is fulfilling its mission to provide every child with an education that prepares them for a thriving future. PARCC and NAEP are lagging indicators, with this year’s results telling us how students were doing at the time of the assessments. More recent data paints a promising picture of recovery and there are signs that students, now back in classrooms, are making gains in growth and achievement. EmpowerK12’s latest Unfinished Learning brief found that students growth rates in key grades and subjects had returned to pre-pandemic levels this past spring. Additionally, student wellbeing index scores also significantly improved. But, again, our students furthest from opportunity experienced slower growth. Students designated as at-risk are an average of 15-18 instructional months behind, while students who are not at-risk are about 4-5 months behind pre-pandemic national averages.
These assessments establish a baseline for the DC schools recovery Ed Forward DC is planning to support over the next few years. The results highlight significant gaps between where we are today and our aspiration that every student in DC is prepared to achieve economic success, power, and autonomy in their lives. In particular, the results confirm the need for us to remain focused on those students who are furthest from opportunity.
Through our recent Better Than Before event series focused on pandemic recovery, we have released a DC Education Recovery dashboard in collaboration with EmpowerK12. In addition to PARCC, the dashboard provides an at-a-glance look at the metrics we’re focused on to best understand how our students are doing—including growth percentile, chronic absenteeism and graduation rate—and to ascertain the health of our education system, from enrollment, per student investment, and teacher and leader retention. We plan to update and release this quarterly and hope that it provides a useful tool for the Council and others dedicated to our education system.
School recovery has already begun and we must ensure that the focus is on the students who have been most impacted and who have historically not fully enjoyed the progress DC has made over the decades—students designated at-risk, students with disabilities, English language learners, and students of color.
Literacy, as this roundtable is also focused, is a critical part to give students the foundations they need for success. We applaud the recent work from DC Public Schools on the science of reading to utilize data to inform reading instruction. We believe expanding investments in these supports across both sectors and exploring if there are additional resources that can serve the same function in math will go a long way in helping to better support students and improving academic outcomes.
Success will not always come through better academic offerings. Through our Better Than Before series, we have heard directly from students and school leaders about the myriad of challenges that prevent students from coming to school on time and prepared to learn. In June, students raised concerns about safety in their neighborhoods and in their schools, increased workloads, longer commutes, and teachers and peers experiencing emotional and behavioral challenges. At our October event, school leaders expressed concerns about the academic data but pointed to supporting our students’ non-academic needs, such as making them feel loved and supported in school and meeting their basic needs like food, will result in greater academic achievement and set them up for future success.
There are already outstanding examples of schools serving our students furthest from opportunity students that can help guide the way. EmpowerK12 recently designated 14 public schools from both sectors as “Bold Performance Schools” for supporting these students to reach academic success. These schools had PARCC proficiency rates that were an average of 9.1 percentage points better than schools with similar student demographics, and their 2022 PARCC 4+ proficiency rates were 2.6 percentage points better than the pre-pandemic average for the same schools.
There is certainly not a one-size fits all solution. The diverse range of needs our students have requires a wide range of solutions, expanded high-quality options for every student and family to find the best educational experience, and accountability for schools that are not meeting those needs.
Thank you again for this opportunity to share Education Forward DC’s thoughts on this important issue. The progress we made in the decades before the pandemic shows that a commitment and focus on education can result in better outcomes for our students. The work is even harder now but never more important.