Photo by Genesis Center on Flickr.

The Public Charter School Board’s recent adoption of a plan for evaluating charter preschools triggered an outcry from parents and education activists. But the Board’s plan for evaluating adult education charters has gotten much less attention, even though some schools have raised objections.

Beginning this year, the PCSB will start assessing adult ed charter schools partly on the basis of whether their students go on to find jobs or enter some kind of postsecondary program. The PCSB says it’s just holding schools accountable to their stated goals. But some schools say collecting the data will be a difficult task.

DC is the only place in the country where charter schools extend beyond the K-12 spectrum to include both early childhood and adult education. For the past several years the PCSB has used a Performance Management Framework (PMF) to sort K-12 schools into three tiers based on test scores, attendance, and other measures. But until now, preschools and adult ed schools have been subject to a more flexible system of evaluation: they’ve set their own goals in conjunction with the PCSB, and then supplied the Board with verifiable data about whether the goals had been met.

But the PCSB feels it has a responsibility to ensure that public dollars spent on early childhood and adult education are expended as wisely as dollars that go to K-12 schools. And last month it approved a more structured framework for holding these less traditional schools accountable as well.

In assessing both preschools and adult ed schools, the PCSB is trying something no charter authorizer has done before, since no other charter authorizers oversee schools of this kind. And its efforts can create controversy. When the Board proposed to evaluate preschools based partly on standardized tests of reading and math skills, the proposal drew an unprecedented number of public comments and a good deal of media coverage.

Disconnected youth

The proposed framework for adult ed schools has, by contrast, been largely under the radar. Most of these schools serve a population often referred to as “disconnected youth,” or sometimes “opportunity youth”—young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor in the workforce.

Lately, increased attention has been focused on this group. While it’s true that President Obama has highlighted the importance of preschool in ensuring future success, he’s also launched an initiative to help this older cohort finish their education and find jobs.

According to one estimate, across the country 6.7 million young adults are disconnected from school and work. The figure for the District has been put at 9,000.

Of the 8 schools affected by the PCSB’s new adult ed PMF, 3 filed public comments raising various objections to the plan before it took effect. Two of those schools cited the PCSB’s requirement that they collect information about employment and education outcomes for any student who has spent at least 12 instructional hours in their program and who says her goal is to get a job. The schools are required to track students for 9 months after they’ve left.

Although the PCSB won’t be putting the schools into tiers this year, eventually the data on outcomes will be factored into each school’s rating. And the ratings have consequences: a school that falls into the bottom tier for three years is at risk of having its charter revoked.

The tracking requirement is “both burdensome and unrealistic with an adult education population that tends to be transient,” according to a public comment on the PMF by the director of instruction at Maya Angelou PCS Young Adult Learning Center.

"We have trouble keeping track of our students even when they’re enrolled,” says Julie Meyer, executive director of The Next Step PCS, who also filed public comments objecting to the requirement.

While the PCSB has offered to partner with data-collecting agencies to ease the burden on schools, Meyer said that some of that data collection relies on students’ Social Security numbers. Her school, which has a large population of immigrant students, doesn’t collect that information and doesn’t feel it’s their role to do so.

Federal requirement is similar

The PCSB responds that what they’re asking these schools to do is no different from what the federal government requires to qualify for federal funds. Two of the 8 charters receive grants from the US Department of Labor and are already collecting this data. Those schools, Briya and LAYC Youthbuild, have apparently not found the effort overly burdensome.

Meyer says those two schools are more oriented towards vocational education, a claim that is disputed by the PCSB. She also says that if adult ed charters are required to collect employment and education data for former students, traditional high schools should be subject to the same requirement.

But high schools do have to track whether their students go on to college, even if those students have left long before graduation, says Naomi DeVeaux, deputy director of the PCSB. And she says that’s no more onerous than keeping track of employment.

DeVeaux acknowledges that the new requirement will place demands on these schools. They may have to hire additional staff to gather phone numbers and addresses and to keep in touch with students after they leave the school. But, she says, data collection systems have improved in recent years. And the bottom line is that each of these schools says in its mission statement that it strives to help its students go on to further education or a job.

It’s understandable that the PCSB wants to hold schools to their stated objectives. But it would be a shame if some schools that are achieving good results end up being classified as failing because they don’t have the resources to keep track of a largely transient student population.

One thing that all seem to agree on is this: we’re fortunate even to be having this debate. In most places, public adult education, like public preschool, hasn’t yet advanced to this point.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.