Straight talk from the D.C. Auditor

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Multitasking at the Office of the D.C. Auditor

Conducting audits AND improving the use of research evidence in decision making

Published October 25, 2018

I would like to state unequivocally that the Office of the D.C. Auditor can walk and chew gum at the same time.

I am compelled to make this statement by the drip-drip-drip of concerns from individuals in the District’s public education firmament that an “audit” function and a “research” function should not ever–ever, ever–be housed in the same location.

To be sure, there are reasonable arguments against having an education research-practice partnership (RPP) housed with the Office of the D.C. Auditor. Most successful education RPPs in other cities are housed within universities. The vision of sponsors of RPP legislation at the Council is to have the District’s research entity incubate with ODCA but then be spun off to what would presumably be a university or think tank that would take on the partnership role. ODCA is a practical temporary option given the absence of an RPP having emerged independent of legislation and public funding.

My point though is less about what the research-practice partnership should be, and where, but, rather, the breadth of the work that the Office of the D.C. Auditor has taken on in recent years. Yes, we do audits. There are a few we are statutorily required to do—on school modernization, for instance—and a short list of other legislative initiatives that seemed to call for an initial or an occasional audit.

We do a great deal more.

When the Council needed to keep a commitment to produce a long-term evaluation of D.C. public education under mayoral control, the Council assigned that responsibility to ODCA. The office contracted with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), whose National Research Council (NRC) produced a final “summative” report, An Evaluation of the Public Schools in the District of Columbia: Reform in a Changing Landscape in 2015. No one that I am aware of expressed concern at the time that the NAS/NRC work would be somehow compromised by being managed by the Office of the D.C. Auditor.

In the 2017 budget cycle, the Council provided $500,000 to ODCA for a study of enrollment projections in public education. We issued an RFP, and released the final enrollment report late last month, written and discussed at the Wilson Building by representatives of the three consulting firms who did the work.

Earlier this year the State Board of Education asked ODCA to follow up on the audit of high school graduation issues conducted by Alvarez & Marsal for the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. We sought to be responsive to the State Board’s request, and have produced a total of four reports to provide wide-ranging sets of data for policymakers:

  • A transcribed roundtable discussion among past education officials and researchers on governance and other issues.
  • A survey of D.C. parents on what they look for in a school and their view of the current lottery system.
  • A survey of DCPS principals–with a 43% response rate–on the kinds of  stress reflected in the Alvarez & Marsal audit which essentially corroborates that pressure to promote remains an issue within DCPS.
  • A research report on proposed “personalized learning plans” conducted by George Washington University’s EdCORE, due for release later this month.

None of these was, strictly speaking, an audit. Three of the four were produced on contract by independent consultants.  In the same period of time we published more traditional work products:

When I was sworn in as Auditor nearly four years ago it was with the explicit understanding that I would broaden the kind of work that we do. Much as the General Accounting Office became the Government Accountability Office, the Council’s Committee of the Whole directed that ODCA provide policymakers with a wider range of research and evaluations to help strengthen the legislature’s own work.

And we have done that.

My plea to everyone engaged in the important debate over creating a District education research-practice partnership: keep your eye on the goal embraced by other RPPs in other communities. That goal, according to the grandmother of RPPs, in Chicago: “conducting research that identifies what matters for student success and school improvement.” That includes, according to the National Network for Education Research-Practice Partnerships, “improving the use of research evidence in decision making.”

The point of an RPP is not research for its own sake.

It is to promote learning; to improve practice.

To have a real and accountable feedback loop for continuous improvement.

And to have a real and lasting partnership with schools and school leadership.

My staff and I will do everything we can to further that goal.

And, in the meantime, I have two questions. First, for the grantee who eventually becomes the District’s education research practice partner,  are you prepared to undertake the research requested by the city’s public education stakeholders including parents?

And, for the D.C. Public Schools and public charter schools: are you prepared to act on the research evidence to improve schools and learning?

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