“You Can’t Even Know Half of the Truth”

I have been suffering from DPS and “reform” fatigue, hence my recent silence. But several things have occurred that have catapulted me back to my computer: multiple emails from Superintendent Tom Boasberg touting DPS’ success; newspaper stories telling the truth about public education; conversations with real “boots on the ground” DPS educators and parents; and former DPS superintendent, current U.S. Senator Michael Bennet’s somewhat over the top introduction of his childhood friend and current DPS superintendent Tom Boasberg’s appearance at a No Child Left Behind re-authorization panel where the Senator reiterated the DPS success myth. When Senator Bennet finished, committee chair Lamar Alexander (R-TN) said, “I think that boils down to ‘he [Boasberg] cleaned up after you left.’” To which Senator Bennet responded, “You can’t even know half of the truth.”

The email onslaught from superintendent Boasberg seems endless. The January 22 “My DPS” email (it has always bothered me why it is “MY” not “OUR”) touted how happy DPS employees are, followed by two seemingly contradictory emails addressing District concerns around high teacher and principal turnover and retention, which in turn prompted Chalkbeat Colorado to write about the “crisis level” in teacher turnover in DPS.  If DPS teachers are so happy, why are they leaving in such numbers that DPS now has a crisis? And why in mid-year are there already 18 principal turnovers for the next school year?

Then on Wednesday February 4, Mr. Boasberg had the chutzpah to write about how DPS students are spending too much time on tests and test prep. Really? Does the superintendent think his email recipients don’t know who is responsible and who should be held accountable for this testing madness? Does he think no one will connect the dots?

Denver Public Schools has been a poster child for education “reform” these past ten years, long enough to have meaningful data to analyze, so let’s take a “deeper dive” as the “reformers” like to say into what Superintendent Michael Bennet started and Superintendent Tom Boasberg has accelerated in Denver, Colorado.

What is “half of the truth” to which Senator Bennet was referring?


Casualties of Reform

Before we look at the list of casualties, we need to examine what is probably the number one issue facing public education over time, that being EQUITY or the lack thereof. “Reformers” have stated repeatedly reducing the inequities in public education is a top priority. Pre-reformers have stated the same, post-reformers will say the same. The truth is public education has been haunted by the ghost of inequity for more years than one would like to admit. But the real tragedy of this current “reform” has not been its failure to find a solution for inequity. No, the real tragedy of “reform” as practiced by DPS and other “reform” laboratories is that its policies have actually made the inequities greater. What follows are some of the losses Denver Public Schools has experienced and why these are contributing to a growing inequity in public education:

  • Truth – has been sacrificed for an imaginary universe created by a grade A public relations/public information office (often enhanced by outside public relations consultants), costing over half a million dollars per year.  In this imaginary world “reform” is working and student success palpable.
  • Integration – This one is particularly egregious. Out of 154 schools on the most recent School Performance Framework, 65% have student bodies over 70% minority (100 schools), 43.5% (67 schools) have student bodies OVER 90% minority. Contrast that with 17 schools, or 11%, with student bodies LESS than 30% minority. This is a long way of saying 76% (65% + 11%) of Denver’s schools are “demographically homogenous” to use the New York Times phraseology.  My term would be “segregated”. The New York Times editorial goes on to say Hartford, Connecticut has addressed this challenge of re-segregation by introducing a “vibrant system of magnet schools to improve opportunities for inner-city children and draw suburban families back…”  
  • Pension funding and increasing debt – When the DPS Retirement System merged into the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) in 2009 it was funded at 88%. Today PERA DPS division is funded at 82%, and the Unfunded Actuarial Accrued Liability (UAAL) is continuing to grow thanks to legislation allowing DPS to continue to defund its pension plan though a complicated credit scheme: SB 09-24-51-401 and 24-51-412 (2)). In April 2008 DPS borrowed $750 million to retire a 1997 pension debt of $300 million and and an unfunded liability of $400 million.  It did so through a risky variable rate swap deal (think Detroit, MI bankruptcy and Birmingham, AL sewer project). That 2008 $700 million pension-related debt has sky-rocketed to $1.6 billion and has already cost Denver taxpayers an extra $200 million in termination fees alone, resulting in a current debt of $950 million.  And because of the legislation cited above the UAAL shortfall has been allowed to grow from $400 million in 2008 to $709 million today resulting in the $1.6 BILLION owed by taxpayers today ($950 million + $709 million).  What is being used for collateral for this all of this debt?  Thirty-five (35) DPS school buildings including architectural icons like East, West, North, South which could potentially be lost should  DPS be unable to make the principal payments on this debt.
  • Local control and funding of Board of Education Electionsreplaced by nationally funded, high cost elections. The last two DPS Board of Education elections saw spending of between $250,000 to $300,000 per candidate with money from the likes of Texans John and Laura Arnold, Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children as well as contributions ranging from $3000 to $10,000 per candidate from Denver businessmen Phil Anschutz, Pat Hamill, Bruce Benson, Sam Gary and Dan Ritchie.
  • Achievement gap – “Reformers” consistently talk about the need to reduce/eliminate this gap, the difference in achievement between children living in poverty and those not.  Yet this gap in Denver is INCREASING every year. (See pages 46-48). Reading GAP UP 7 percentage points in 10 years to 36%, GAP UP 20 percentage points in math to 34%, GAP UP 9 percentage points in writing to 36%.
  • Student Learning, love of learning, lifetime learning – replaced by high stakes testing and test prep producing a narrowing of curricula of crisis proportions. See how meager the ten year gains have been.
  • Diagnostic student evaluations – have been replaced by high stakes testing. See FAIR TEST and Diane Ravitch for much more on this enormous controversy.
  • Student privacy – compromised by businesses harvesting student information keystroke by keystroke. Much more at studentprivacymatters.org and Diane Ravitch
  • Discipline – replaced by an almost incomprehensible discipline ladder from DPS administration, encouraging schools NOT to suspend or expel students so the “numbers” look as if the District is making progress in stopping the so-called school house to jail house track. Unsafe situations for students and teachers are increasing, and bullying is at an all time high.
  • Professional educators – replaced by alternatively licensed “teachers.” Few of us would use alternatively trained professionals for needed services, yet “reformers” somehow think it is just fine for our greatest assets – our kids – to spend their education time with alternatively trained teachers. Someone please give me a rational, not political, justification for this. One of the most highly touted alternative paths to teaching, Teach for America, is being challenged for its model, so much so the New York Times wrote a front page story about this organization and its practices on Friday, February 5, 2015.
  • Protected – yes union – workers – replaced by “at-will” workers at charter schools and innovation schools. Almost all new DPS schools fall into the at-will employment category – 53 charters and over 20 so-called innovation schools. One-third of all DPS schools are now staffed by “at-will” employees.
  • Morale – teachers are leaving, retiring early, in such great numbers there are classrooms that have several substitutes per week or even worse, no teacher in the classroom because the District is unable to find substitute teachers. Chalkbeat Colorado wrote this article describing the crisis.  A “reform” policy and goal of having “highly qualified teachers in every classroom” is in fact having the opposite effect because the reality is many “highly qualified teachers” are leaving in droves.  This hypocrisy cannot be overlooked and must be taken seriously.
  • Art – replaced by test prep for Reading, Math, and Writing
  • Music – see Art
  • Social Studies – see Art
  • Science – see Art
  • Physical Education – see Art
  • School as a community center and a stable force in students’ lives – replaced by chaos and churn exemplified by “reform” policies of Choice, Innovation Schools, teacher and principal turnover (only 10% of DPS traditional schools have had the same school leader for 5 years, half of all teachers in DPS leave the district within three years). And even though “reformers” would like you to believe charters are public schools, the school District does not keep track of charter school churn and much other important data. To get that information one must call each charter management organization, a project for another day.
  • Schools report cards – replaced by something called the School Performance Framework, an accountability model heavily weighted on growth over proficiency. Neither system gives an accurate picture; the former was much easier to understand. Until we have the honest conversation about poverty and the ability not only to speak English but to take a high stakes test in English, much of this is hogwash. Rating schools does, however, allow for students and schools to be labeled failures resulting in school closures and more chaos.
  • Neighborhood Schools and Magnet Schools – replaced by 53 charter schools from fewer than 5 in 2005.  Before “reform” took hold in Denver, the District had many vibrant magnet school options with discussions about increasing these options.  As charters have multiplied, magnets have dwindled.  Charters and magnets have a difficult time co-existing, and in Denver charters have won.

And finally there are the DPS Core Values, emblazoned on every piece of email, hanging on banners throughout the administration building and schools everywhere. If you have been following education “reform,” these have to make you chuckle, if not outright LOL (laugh out loud).  Missing from these core values?   Education and learning.  They don’t seem to be a core value of Denver Public Schools.

  • Students First – hard for business model to work when it values commodities and the bottom line over human beings.
  • Equity – see bullets above, http://www.kaplanforkids.wordpress.com.
  • Collaboration – replaced by a business model steeped in winners and losers.
  • Integrity – see Truth above.
  • Accountability – for all but the actual decision makers. The superintendent has never made his stated, measurable goals, yet he still gets a bonus.  Meanwhile, teachers are losing their jobs for far fewer and less long-lasting shortfalls.
  • Fun – ask your child’s teacher if s(he) is having any fun. Better yet, ask a kid.

So what is the truth, Senator Bennet, that we the taxpayers of Denver can’t know the half of? Is it the total mismatch of public education with the business model resulting in not just student and teacher failure, but “reform” failure? (Important to note that the highly sought after Broad Prize for urban education suspended its Prize this year because there were no districts which were moving the needle fast enough to warrant recognition. Is it possible Eli Broad is realizing “the problems are deeper than he imagined,” Diane Ravitch wrote.) Is it the loss of pension funds resulting in a doubling of taxpayers’ debt you and Superintendent Boasberg engineered? Is it the casualties of the “reform” you started in Denver?  As those paying for these follies, financially as well as educationally, we deserve to know not just half of the truth but rather we deserve to know all of the truth.