Last year, the District launched an internal investigation after WAMU 88.5 broke a story about students graduating Ballou High School despite missing classes. The scandal later revealed similar practices at schools across the city. Now, the D.C. Inspector General’s report cites the numbers, including that more than half of the students who graduated from Ballou missed more than 30 classes, the threshold set for automatically failing the class. We speak with WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle about the report, and what recommendations going forward.

Produced by Ingalisa Schrobsdorff



  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast a play about the sniper attacks that terrorized our region back in 2002. But first a year and a half ago WAMU broke the story of a graduation and absenteeism scandal at Ballou High School and as it turns out other schools across the District. The District launched investigations into the issue. Now the Inspector General's report is out and joining us to discuss it is Martin Austermuhle. He's a Reporter with WAMU 88.5. Martin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:35

    MARTIN AUSTERMUHLEThanks for having me.

  • 12:00:35

    NNAMDIMartin, what did this report find actually happened at Ballou High School?

  • 12:00:39

    AUSTERMUHLESo just the quick rundown of the history. It was in late 2017 that my former colleague, Kate McGee, broke the story about Ballou. Now Ballou had been in the news before that, because I think it was at the end of 2016 or maybe 2017, 100 percent of the graduating seniors had been accepted to college, which was a big deal. But she started looking into some of the data around graduation rates and kind of like following up on some leads. And what she ended up finding, which basically became the heart of the story, was that there was a lot of kids that graduated from Ballou despite not having met the basic graduation requirements, one of which was attending school.

  • 12:01:12

    AUSTERMUHLEYou know, she found cases of dozens of students, who had missed 10, 20, 30 days of school, which under DCPS regulations at the time would have made them ineligible to actually graduate. So that kicked off. I mean, there was all sorts of a scandal, because D.C. had as part of its five year strategic plan for the schools the goal of increasing graduation rates. But basically this called into question whether you could believe the numbers. So the city started doing a lot of internal audits and analysis.

  • 12:01:37

    AUSTERMUHLEOne of which was asking the Inspector General to look into Ballou and what happened. And so his report came out just last week. Fifty pages kind of analyzing all the records of all the students, who graduated, the 178 students from the class of 2017. And the basic rundown, he backed up what the reporting originally was, which said there was a lot of students who graduated despite being absent. They didn't fulfill their community service requirements. Teachers and administrators were unaware of the rules governing attendance and, you know, when you're supposed to mark someone as absent and how many absences would force them to fail.

  • 12:02:11

    AUSTERMUHLEBasically everything that could have gone wrong kind of went wrong. And the Inspector General most damningly says that DCPS was more focused on the graduation rate than it was on actually making sure kids were ready to graduate.

  • 12:02:23

    NNAMDIBut, of course, Ballou wasn't the only high school.

  • 12:02:24


  • 12:02:25

    NNAMDIRemind us. There was also an audit by the State Superintendent of Education Office known as OSSE. What did that study find?

  • 12:02:32

    AUSTERMUHLESo, yeah. After this came out the -- you know, to the city's credit it was a big enough scandal that they started asking anybody who could investigate to investigate. And OSSE, which does oversee both charter and public schools looked at all the city's public schools, the high schools. And found that across the board about a third of students at all the high schools from that graduating class of 2017 had probably graduated without meeting the requirements. I mean, it could have been absences. It could have been grades. It could have been community service hours, but regardless one third of all students of that year probably shouldn't have graduated.

  • 12:03:02

    NNAMDIThat's pretty stunning. One third of D.C. public school graduates did not meet basic attendance or grading requirements. And there were a variety of issues. It wasn't just absenteeism, was it?

  • 12:03:13

    AUSTERMUHLENo. Exactly. Another thing that had come out that had been -- we'd heard rumors of. And, you know, Kate didn't delve into it in her reporting, but the issue of community service. DCPS has long had a requirement that all students complete 100 hours of community service. And I think along the way different reporters had rumors that, you know, community service hours aren't tracked properly. No one really knows -- you can't really define what community service means.

  • 12:03:38

    AUSTERMUHLESo basically a lot of students could be graduating without meeting this requirement. Whether or not you agree with the requirement the point is they may not be meeting it. And the Inspector General's report backs that up. It says that there was just no real accounting for who was doing their community service hours, if the hours that they were saying they did would have qualified as community service. And that was at schools across the board.

  • 12:03:59

    NNAMDIAnd it bears repeating, as I said early Ballou is not the only high school and D.C. was not the only school system caught up in this. There was similar issues in Prince George's County public schools. Isn't that right?

  • 12:04:10

    AUSTERMUHLEYeah, exactly. And I believe actually the Post reported somewhat recently that I think there was similar situation in Montgomery County. That there was graduates of a certain high school that in theory shouldn't have graduated. Now there was kind of different circumstances there. They were saying that teachers were giving students, who had other circumstances. They're like working a side job to sustain the family. They were helping them along and, you know, didn't want to kind of punish someone for having those circumstances.

  • 12:04:33

    AUSTERMUHLEAnd some of that happened in Ballou too. There was kids, who Kate had interviewed and that we heard of after the fact that said, listen, you know, going to school is important. Not being absent is important. Meeting the requirements is, of course, important. But if you're a teenage kid and you're helping, you know, the family out by making ends meet or helping your brother and sister get to school it can really impact the student's ability to be in school on time or stay there for classes and that sort of stuff. So this can get complicated pretty quickly.

  • 12:05:00

    NNAMDIA tweet from Laura Fuchs, who says, Overall I think that this report is an excellent look at the ground level of how systemic city wide competition and internal systems in DCPS created a culture of passing students and punishing those who tried to stand in the way of the outcomes machine. The Inspector General's report notes that the emphasis was on graduation rates as you said earlier. Where did that pressure come from in the first place, because our tweeter says, you know, internal systems created a culture of passing students.

  • 12:05:34

    AUSTERMUHLEYeah, I mean, I think it came from the top. Again, there was this five year strategic plan that was laid out I think in 2012 or so and it should have run through 2017 if I'm not mistaken. And the goal was to increase the graduation rate to, I believe 75 percent or so. And there was -- because again that's a basic marker of success in theory of how well your school is doing. Are you graduating kids? Are they going to college? Are they getting jobs? So there was a lot of pressure on that front and I think it probably filtered down through the administration.

  • 12:05:59

    AUSTERMUHLEAnd the one thing that's interesting about the Inspector General's report is that he really says that if there was pressure -- the kind of other side of it was that teachers and administrators weren't even being given an understanding of what the rules are in terms absences. So like if you have a kid that's absent 15 times, what does that mean? If they're absent 10 times, how do you record those absences? If they don't have their community service hours, what does that mean? You know there was a lot going on. And the report also mentions that there was a certain number kids, I think, 35 kids apparently at Ballou who had accrued five or more unexcused absences.

  • 12:06:32

    AUSTERMUHLEAnd according to DCPS policies there should have been some sort of intervention to say, what going on, how can we help you? And those interventions never happened. So there was -- just, again, there was rules, but they weren't communicated properly. So even though there was pressure at the top, it was also funneled down into confusion at the ground level. So people either didn't know what they were doing or felt that they had to do something, and this is what ended up happening.

  • 12:06:53

    NNAMDIAnd they found that a lot of students, who had more than 30 unexcused absences were also passed. So five is a relatively small number in this case. The other thing that the Inspector General points out is that some Ballou class of 2017 graduates may be left unprepared for success in college, career, and life. So it's one thing to say -- to boast to say that, oh, they all graduated and they all have been accepted to college. But another question entirely is whether if this is what occurred they were prepared.

  • 12:07:25

    AUSTERMUHLEYeah, and we've had former reporters here. We had Kavitha Cardoza who reported on education before Kate McGee did. She did great reporting on this idea that once a kid gets out of DCPS or a charter school graduates from high school in theory ready for college and career, what does it actually mean for how they do in college or they do at their career. And she found some great examples of kids coming out of D.C. schools graduating, which is good. But then struggling in college, because they weren't prepared. So absolutely, and the one thing I will mention that the -- you know, DCPS hasn't fought this.

  • 12:07:57

    AUSTERMUHLEThey responded to the Inspector General's report, but their response was literally -- they said, every one of the Inspector General's recommendations," and there's 25 of them, DCPS said, we're either implementing it or they've been implemented. And the Chancellor of the school system, Lewis Ferebee, also sent the letter the day after I believe the report came out. And basically says, you know, to quote, he says, "We have been and continue to be committed to making the changes needed to ensure that every student is prepared for college, career, and life. And to supporting our students and families throughout the process."

  • 12:08:25

    AUSTERMUHLESo there's a recognition that there was a problem. At this point there's enough internal criticism and analysis to prove the problem existed. And DCPS at this point doesn't seem to be running away from it.

  • 12:08:35

    NNAMDIOn here to Angela in southeast Washington. Angela, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:41

    ANGELAHi, Kojo, and hello to your guest. I'm a longtime resident in Ward 7. I definitely don't think that this is an isolated issue in southeast or in D.C. It's a national crisis. I have a lot of friends who word in education as well as social services like myself. And we know that it's very prevalent. And whenever we have dollars connected to performance, I think we have to think of the message that we're sending to educators, policy makers, as well as to the students. And so I don't think that this is an isolated incident as you all stated a little earlier. It's a national crisis. It happened in Alabama. It's happened in the L.A. Unified School District. This has been going on for a long time. I just think that some people are paying more attention, but I don't want it to be over polarized in some of our more economically disenfranchised communities. It's not just at Ballou.

  • 12:09:39

    NNAMDIYou make an excellent point. It was not just at Ballou and it's not just in the D.C. school system. We talked about examples in both Prince George's and Montgomery counties. And, Martin, our caller says this a problem nationwide.

  • 12:09:49

    AUSTERMUHLENo, absolutely. And I think one of the biggest criticisms of this education reform movement that been around for a decade plus is that in focusing on, you know, graduation which is important. But in focusing on getting teachers to get kids to graduate that there are some perverse incentives here. That if your pay is tied to like your kids graduating and a certain graduation rate, you may at some point cut corners to make that happen. And administrators may help you along the way, because they also don't see they pay cut or their jobs threatened. So, yeah, I mean, it's complicated and it's certainly not just a D.C. thing.

  • 12:10:21

    NNAMDIHere now is Mona in Chevy Chase. Mona, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:10:25

    MONAHi. Yes, hi, Kojo. How are you?

  • 12:10:27

    NNAMDII'm well.

  • 12:10:28

    MONAA few weeks ago my daughter took me to a demonstration that the teacher's union started. And there was a leaflet given and it shows the disparity at the cuts to two different schools. Wilson, for example, is 9,000 some. Ballou is 1.3 million cuts. And I don't think people should be blaming the victim. This is disgusting. This is racism at its core for poor people. And, you know, there's bigger issues in this. The kids, of course, they're not going to want to go to school. What's going to happen if somebody is getting all this money at Wilson and Ballou is getting cuts, who's going to want to go to school? They know it's not going to help them.

  • 12:11:09

    NNAMDIWell, Martin knows this that there is per pupil formula for expenditure in high schools. And Ballou has been losing students at a fairly rapid rate, but there are those and I'm sure Mona would agree with them, who feel that even if you're operating on a per pupil expenditure basis, you have to look at what the problems are in different parts of the city and at different schools. And so allowing Ballou's budget to be cut, because it's going to have less pupils is not going to give Ballou students the opportunities that they need to catch up with schools in other more affluent parts of the city.

  • 12:11:47

    AUSTERMUHLEYeah. And this was a big debate now in the budget that the Council just passed a couple of weeks ago. This issue that Ballou and Anacostia High School were both seeing pretty significant funding cuts, because of the fact that money is tied to the amount of students that they have in the building at any one time. But the flip side argument being a lot of kids that go to those schools are facing challenges that kids in other parts of the city aren't. So you shouldn't cut money. You should double down and give more money to make sure they have support services. You know, the teacher training development, all that sort of stuff to make sure that kids can succeed.

  • 12:12:16

    NNAMDIAWPS news tweets, why does anything matter besides whether each student is learning? Isn't ensuring the schools are providing effective learning resources the main goal? Well I guess they're a lot of people who would agree with that. And the new Chancellor Lewis Ferebee says that he's going to address this issue. You just pointed that out. But the report makes a number of recommendations to address these, 25 to be exact. DCPS says it already has or is implementing those changes. What's being done and how can the need for transparency to show stats and improvement be addressed?

  • 12:12:57

    AUSTERMUHLEI mean, again, you say obviously like in the case of Ballou, the initial story broke because a reporter was digging around the numbers and got the data and made sense of it all. And then talked to people and they confirmed it. So, obviously, I think putting data out there being transparent about your numbers is extremely important. But, you know, there's always a note of caution there that data can be corrupt. It can be distorted. It can be used to tell a story that's not true.

  • 12:13:21

    AUSTERMUHLESo it requires oversight on multiple levels. Obviously the D.C. Council has to have oversight. There's a State Board of Education that can play a role. There's, you know, obviously the media has an important role to play. Parents, of course, have a huge role to play. So at every level there has to be a degree of caution and oversight and skepticism, because, again, you know, we all want to hear the good stories and the good news. But Ballou is a good example of where there was great news about all these kids going to college and then suddenly it was like, well, should these kids have graduated?

  • 12:13:49

    NNAMDIWe'll have to see what happens during the course of the school year. Martin Austermuhle is a Reporter with WAMU 88.5. Martin, always a pleasure.

  • 12:13:55

    AUSTERMUHLEThanks for having me again.

  • 12:13:56

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back, a play about the sniper attacks that terrorized our region back in 2002. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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