DC won’t have new credit recovery regulations in place for upcoming school year

Work to continue on citywide rules for 2019-20, with DCPS planning a policy update before then and charter schools implementing a new policy adopted July 1

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New reforms won’t be ready in time for the coming school year to fix problems reported in DC Public Schools programs that allow alternative course credits for graduation.

Though DC education officials agree that new citywide policies are necessary for oversight of “credit recovery programs,” the State Board of Education (SBOE) voted down an emergency proposal last month, citing concerns with the haste of the draft regulations.

DC Public Schools held a “Rainbow Graduation” today that included students who needed extra credits to graduate. Interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander tweeted words of praise and encouragement Thursday along with this photo of a prior graduation ceremony. (Photo courtesy of DC Public Schools)

Officials at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) now plan to continue working with the state board to develop new regulations by the 2019-20 school year. As education leaders prepare policies for future years, DC Public Schools held a “Rainbow Graduation” ceremony today at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium for students who needed extra credits to “get to the finish line” and took advantage of “additional supports” offered over the summer, in the words of interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander.

Back in January, an external audit uncovered widespread misuse in DC Public Schools of credit recovery programs, which offer alternative strategies for educating students who have failed traditional classroom courses. Though such programs — which can include after-school or summer classes, held online or in-person — are praised for keeping students on track to graduate, they can prompt concerns at times over quality of learning.

The January report by the Alvarez & Marsal firm found that most DC high schools were violating school system regulations in their credit recovery programs by awarding credits that did not fulfill the mandatory 120-seat-hour requirement and by failing to enforce attendance requirements, among other problems.

In the aftermath of that investigation, the state board called for OSSE to draft updated policies to provide more uniform oversight of credit recovery for both DC public schools and charter schools.

But OSSE’s desire to fast-track the new rules by the start of the 2018-19 school year required emergency procedures, which meant that the state board could either reject or approve the draft regulations in their entirety, with no chance to amend them.

When the board opened up the proposal to public feedback in June, testimony from community members and education officials focused mainly on concern over whether the credit recovery courses matched in rigor and content what a student would experience in a traditional classroom.

“We should not be giving substandard work to the students who struggle,” said Laura Fuchs, an education advocate and teacher in Ward 5. “Instead, we should be giving more intense investment and time to those students and figure out why they are failing their classes and address those problems.”

However, when Ruth Wattenberg, SBOE representative from Ward 3, asked how to ensure that a credit recovery class would match the standards of the underlying course, Fuchs pushed back against suggestions that anyone other than teachers should have control over course content or materials.

“We don’t need to standardize everything, but we need to hire teachers to do their job,” Fuchs said.

Matthew Liberati, a Ward 6 community member, similarly addressed concern over students’ mastery of content. He advocated for tests at the end of credit recovery courses requiring a 70 percent passing grade.

At that hearing SBOE members also focused on quality of instruction in their questions to representatives of DC Public Schools and the DC Public Charter School Board.

On the charter school side, senior school performance adviser Rashida Young shared that the charter school board had approved new policies for credit recovery in the spring. The new rules took effect July 1.

Sarah Navarro, deputy chief of graduation excellence at DC Public Schools, said the school system was working to revise “an outdated policy” on credit recovery. “That’s why we’re excited that the timing is dovetailing with OSSE’s regulations,” she said.

However, Navarro confirmed that DCPS would finalize its new policy regardless of the passage of OSSE’s regulations.

The state board’s July 18 meeting was the last chance for the state board to pass those regulations before school starts up in the fall.

Laura Wilson Phelan, the Ward 1 representative on the board, said she appreciated OSSE’s work “to put forth something that represents the best interest of the agencies responsible for education,” but questioned whether the draft rules “represent the best interest of our students.”

“Our system is not working for our students, and it is our responsibility to think differently,” Phelan said. “I oppose these regulations because they don’t do enough to address the problems that we know exist.”

SBOE vice president and Ward 2 representative Jack Jacobson proposed an amendment that effectively rejected the emergency regulations, with support from Ward 4 member Lannette Woodruff and Ward 6’s Joe Weedon. The amendment cited the short timeline and concerns over course quality and existing rules for course alternatives.

“We need to change policy in order to change outcomes,” said Weedon. “I don’t see this as raising the bar and changing those practices, and that’s what I hope to work on over the coming months and coming weeks as we get this right.”

The board reiterated some of these points in a July 20 blog post explaining the vote. Members stressed that credit recovery should comprise a “last resort,” with the necessary support provided to students as soon as they fall behind in class — not after they have failed a class.

“On the fundamentals, we agree with OSSE that credit recovery needs clear guidelines and rules, but not without a larger discussion about how the education system is serving individual students,” the board wrote. “Working together, as a community, we must ensure that the state agencies are supporting caregivers, teachers, and school leaders to provide students with the help they need to prosper by reducing barriers and ensuring equity of access and opportunity.”

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