On Saturday, February 27, 2016 I was asked to tell the story of Denver and “education reform” in Denver Public Schools to the Boston Teachers Union. Here is what I said.
My name is Jeannie Kaplan. I had the honor of serving on the Denver Public Schools board of education for 8 years. My terms coincided with the most transformative and destructive years in public education in recent memory. Thank you for inviting me to tell you about education reform in Denver. Thank you for spending part of your weekend to learn about Denver. Thank you for teaching!
Denver is a great place to call home with its 300 days of sunshine, the Rocky Mountains, very nice people, and of course, the 50th Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos. One thing that is not so great in Denver is its public education system, as currently comprised. Denver Public Schools is practicing education “reform” on steroids.
I have been advised to find some positives about what is happening in Denver. Here is the best I can do but as most things reform nothing is as it would appear to be. All need further explanation. I will explain some and provide you with a handout with further resources. Two potential positives: Enrollment zones, longer school days. And Denver has recorded one positive academic result to date: an increased graduation rate. Since 2010 when a new calculation system was put in place, the graduation rate has gone up 13% in five years. Not bad. 2.6% per year. However, not the 3.5% goal the board of education set in 2009 and certainly not an increase big enough to reach the new goal of 90% by 2020 set by the current board.
Public education in Denver despite what you may have heard or read about in the press is a system in chaos. It is a system run by a cabal. It is a system where politics, pardon the expression, trumps good policy and the truth. But let us be very clear: the top reform goal is to undermine teachers’ unions and the education profession.
I am going to highlight some of what Denverites have witnessed in the past 10 years in public education. I will cover a lot of territory quickly but can’t cover everything. If you want more information, please ask me questions. If any of what I am about to describe sounds familiar to you in Boston or Massachusetts, sound the alarm and organize the troops
Words to worry about:
Charters, particularly the strict regimented, “no-excuses” kind
High Stakes Testing
Longer school days
Longer school year
At Will Employees
Eliminating the achievement gap
Teacher evaluations based on high stake testing
And my all time favorite, human capital. Boston Public Schools already has an office of human capital so my sense is you are on the way to being reformed.
These elements of reform are the building blocks of an overarching national education reform policy based on a common business practice referred to as a portfolio strategy. What are the most common features of portfolio strategies? Keeping winners, dropping losers which in turn produces constant churn and chaos. This strategy in education reform greatly is helped along the way by legislation which ultimately results in the unfettered expansion of charter schools, the use of high stakes testing to evaluate teachers and schools, the demise of neighborhood schools through choice and resource starvation, destroying of teachers’ unions by whatever means necessary, fear and bullying of workers, all of which have resulted in a reduction in actual learning.
A portfolio strategy may be a great business strategy. I can tell you from experience it is an awful educational strategy. Students and teachers and parents and communities are neither commodities to be bought and sold nor should they ever be characterized as winners and losers.
My real message today is this: when you hear any of the above reform words. SOUND THE ALARM: Parents, Teachers, Students, and Communities (PTSC) unite and fight. Organizing, uniting and fighting this “reform” at the outset is the only way to stop this failing model from infiltrating your state and your city. PTSC UNITE AND FIGHT!
Once education reformers get a foothold in your system, they become like dogs with a bone. They don’t ever let go, and they continue to fight to undermine the cornerstone of our democracy, public education, through privatization and corporatization Give them an inch and they take the world. Our only hope is to be brave and work as a coalition. We can’t match their money; we can and must overmatch their commitment.
How did we in Denver land where we are today?
Please keep this in mind. Education reform has two components: 1) implementation of portfolio strategy based reforms and 2) academic results from this implementation. Denver Public Schools is celebrated because of its very high implementation of education reform. DPS is repeatedly criticized for its results.
The dictionary defines a Cabal as a group of plotters, a secret plot, a clique Education Reform across the nation is being run by a cabal. This “education Reform” cabal is made up of some combination of the school board, the mayor, the governor, civic leaders and real estate developers, both Democrats and Republicans. (This is very important to note. Ed Reform is bi-partisan. (It is a shame it has taken a full front attack on public education to bring the R’s and D’s together.), national venture philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family Foundation to name the big three, national non-profits like Dem for Ed Reform, Jonah Edelman’s Stand for Children, Michelle Rhee’s Students First and all the lobbying and lobbyists money can buy. This cabal extends all the way up to the Secretary of Education and the President of the United States. Add to this powerful group local citizen’s oversight committees and local foundations and you have most members of the cabal.
In Denver the cabal ties are more than just casual connections: then superintendent Michael Bennet, went to private school with his successor current superintendent Tom Boasberg who is on an unprecedented 6 month leave of absence, who grew up next door to Stand for Children founder Jonah Edelman. One of the first Board members of Stand was someone named Margaret Boasberg, sister of Tom Boasberg. The former chief of staff to Boasberg is now head of Colorado DFER, the head of the citizens oversight group worked for the political arm of DFER . And former Board members and former politicians are parlaying from their years of public service into various profitable ventures. These are definitely powerful people who have a lot of money. Oh, and by the way, it is always easier to be part of the in crowd (remember middle school?) than it is to actually research issues for yourself and come to your own critically thought through decisions. So “reformers” have gathered support from civic leaders, many of whom have superficial knowledge about public education but who trust and don’t really verify.
Many members of the cabal are products of a very different school system, a private one that prizes small classes, enriched curricula, up to date facilities. They had parents who exercised choice sending them out of the neighborhoods to private schools. I am convinced that is part of the reason CHOICE is desirable and non-controversial to them. That’s what they did. That’s what they are comfortable with. That is why the repeated cry to fix neighborhood schools, not close them, keeps falling on deaf ears. To them closing neighborhood schools is a totally objective decision and one that can be made without emotional ties. Most of the cabal’s children attend schools where reforms are not practiced. So public education in the United States today embodies decisions being made for those children by folks who do not subject their own children to the portfolio strategy that has become education reform.
In Denver the cabal is made of representatives from all of the above-named entities. We don’t have a mayoral appointed board but you don’t need one when the cabal finds and funds people to run like a former lieutenant governor who just happens to be the head of a non-profit that trains principals for non-union schools, two former city council presidents one of whom is the state director for former superintendent, now Senator Michael Bennet, the other of whom has just been appointed to head Denver’s city parks and recreation department, a bond lawyer whose firm has garnered $3.5 million from the district over the last 10 year selling many kinds of bonds., including pension swaps. The remaining three also have political ties to some part of the cabal. (Since I wrote this last week, one of the three has resigned from the board. This decision will result in his district once again being denied a genuine open seat election, for his replacement, carefully chosen by the board, will then run as an incumbent. )
According to a January 2015 study conducted by the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) the Denver Public School District has become a national exemplar of education reform because of the implementation component of education reform. CRPE gets much of its funding from Bill Gates. DPS is the third highest ranked urban district in implementing the various aspects of “reform:” Choice, autonomy, funding, talent, support, accountability, and engagement. The only two Districts ranked higher are the RSD in New Orleans, and the Tennessee Achievement School District, neither of which should be emulated in any way. And then comes Denver Public Schools at number 3. By the way the study had no data for Boston in 2015. It is very clear that all three of these districts are being recognized for implementing the 37 designated elements of reform rather than for the educational outcomes. The business world likes to say inputs must lead to good outcomes. This is where education reform and the business model part ways. Education Reformers are afraid of the truth and the real data. They talk continually about making decisions based on data and “evidence based research,” yet we have seen over and over when the data does not support their agenda, they Ignore, Spin, Manipulate it. DATAISM.
Let’s fast forward to the same institution’s fall 2015 report where the second component of the portfolio strategy – results – are analyzed and see how Denver Public Schools did. On two very important “reform” data points, decreasing the achievement gap and improving graduation rates, CRPE ranked Denver Public Schools dead last among the 37 urban districts ranked for decreasing the gap. Gaps in reading and math were 38% and 30% respectively; the national average for the other 36 districts was 14%. As for improving graduation rates, Boston ranked 7th out of 50 urban districts at 75%, Denver ranked 45th of 50 at 65%. The national average was 75%. The Network for Public Education published a national report card “to inform the public about each state’s commitment to public education and to see what state” is doing to provide opportunity for its public school students.” Massachusetts ranked 7th; Colorado ranked 37th. One question you in Boston should be asking is why would your school system want to institute a system that produces worse outcomes for students?
A Brief History of Denver’s March to Education Reform
Race to the Top (RTTT) – July 2009 $4.35 billion was dangled before states who were willing to conform to the national view of “education reform.” In order to be eligible for this money states had to pass legislation that contained no limit on the number of charter schools and teacher evaluations based on test scores. Colorado passed such legislation. The infamous SB-191 has the highest percent of a teacher’s evaluation based on test scores – 50%. In the past two weeks the Colorado State House and State Senate have each failed to amend the bill. This is due in part to an unholy alliance formed between the conservative Koch brothers’ funded and founded Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and Colorado Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Therefore, teachers in Colorado will continue to suffer from this most punitive evaluation legislation supported by a bi-partisan group of legislators.
Yet, even with all the pandering to the federal regulations, COLORADO NEVER WON a RTTT state grant.
Also in 2009 the first outside money appeared in board of education campaigns. Stand for Children came to Denver with the goal of making the board “more reform oriented”… In spite of their $30,000 expenditure per candidate – which at the time was unheard of – our side, the non privatizing side, won the election. The board was 4-3 parents students, teachers, community. But reformers are smart and powerful and within hours, of the election they found the weak link and made him promises, some of which are still unknown, if he would change his viewpoint and become the fourth “reform” vote. And the rest is history. Each following election more and more reform money both from in the city and from out of city appeared in School Board races. The results were 2011. 4-3 “reform.” 2013 6-1 “reform.” 2015 7-0 “reform” With upwards of $250,000 per candidate pouring in for a NON-PAYING school board position.
Then there is the press – or in Denver’s case lack thereof. The Denver Post is part of the cabal; Chalkbeat Colorado, the on line education paper is funded by reform organizations.
How have Denver’s EDUCATION REFORMERS been so successful in implementing all of these reforms?
Through politics. Corporatization and privatization have had free reign in Denver.
What does “education reform” look like in Denver?
CHARTERS – Denver has seen an unfettered growth of charter schools 71 and counting. Yet no excuses charters are nowhere to be found in middle class neighborhoods.
CHOICE – while receiving national awards for its one application system, only 27% of Denver’s families have chosen to take part in Choice. Choice increases inequity. Choice is for families who can transport the students to school. The Choice process is raising concerns about the real randomness of student assignments as well as creating a belief that choice is being used to populate unwanted schools.
ENROLLMENT ZONES – a good idea in theory to increase integration. There are ways enrollments zones could benefit all students, but as currently practiced they are increasing inequity.
CO-LOCATIONS – just another term for Gates small school initiatvies. In Denver they have been very controversial every time they are introduced .
AT WILL EMPLOYEES – This is a very important reform item. How do we get rid of those awful, awful teachers? All charters and almost all innovation schools are staffed by at will employees.
OUTSOURCING PROFESSIONAL SERVICES – DPS has contracts with alternative licensing of everything from teachers to principals to superintendents. Teaching programs like TFA, as well as alternative principal programs such as Relay “Graduate School of Education” and Denver’s own Catapult headed by a current DPS Board member, the Broad “Academy of Superintendents,” and Boston’s own Blueprint Schools Network populate the district. What do these services have in common? Non-professional educators telling professionals how to do their jobs.
LONGER SCHOOL DAYS – Teachers are mandated to work longer hours. In previous iterations of longer school days, services and extra curricular activities, not test prep, were offered by a multitude of different agencies. Good idea, bad implementation.
RESEGREGATION OF SCHOOLS -Three-quarters of DPS schools are what the New York Times has termed “demographically homogenous.”
- 65% of DPS schools have student bodies with over 70% students of color
- 11% of DPS schools have students bodies with less than 30% students of color
- 65% + 11% = 76%
ACADEMIC RESULTS OF DENVER’S REFORMS
The oft-repeated academic Goals of Reform are: Eliminate the achievement gap, increase graduation rate, provide an excellent teacher in every classroom, great schools in every neighborhood, college and career ready students. So what are the results in Denver under “reform”? After all, shouldn’t this be the real test of any policy? And if the results are not as good as we had hoped, wouldn’t you think the designers would make course corrections? Not so in education reform. The reformers just double down on the failures and increase pressure on the teachers in the classroom.
In Denver the achievement gaps have increased across the board in reading, writing and math, between white/Asian students and Hispanics/Black students as noted by the CRPE study and DPS own department of assessment and research.
Denver’s graduation rate is 65%. The state of Colorado stands at 77%. It bears repeating that Denver ranked 45th out of 50 urban districts studied by CRPE.
DPS answer to great schools in every neighborhood is to close schools, fire staff and replace them with at-will employees and non-professional educators.. With over 70 charters up and or in the pipeline and over 36 non-union innovation schools close to half of Denver’s schools are non-union.
Teacher turnover in Denver is at 22% per year, higher than any other metro district. Principal turnover stands at 30% per year.
College and Career Readiness: ACT scores dropped slightly this year to 18.3. A score of 21 usually indicates a student is college ready. A score of 26 is needed to get into University of Colorado in Boulder.
As for Common Core State Standards and how DPS students performed in the new the PARCC tests.
Language arts scores varied from proficiencies of 31% in 10th grade to 36% in 7th grade, overall the District scored 33% State: 40%
In Math scores varied from 24% in 4th grade to 30% in 3rd grade, 25% overall met or exceeded expectations State 29%
Here’s one piece of good news . Under the last state initiated tests in 2014 TCAPs, DPS had proficiencies of 54% , 47% and 44% in reading math and writing, respectively, while the state stood at 69%, 56%, and 54% . At least under PARRC, the double digit gaps between DPS and the state were reduced to single digits. Too bad the scores across the board were so pathetic. But that’s part of the plan.
Probably the saddest thing I have witnessed is the lack of willingness, mostly from those in power and those with the money, to allow for real collaboration to occur. And how quickly this education debate became an ideological fight.
I am going to stop here. I have not discussed all of the “reforms” going on in Denver: turnaround schools, a draconian school evaluation metric called the School Performance Framework, the charter compact, technology over usage and blended learning, to name a few. Education reform has divided our country, and educationally it has produced larger gaps, a narrower curriculum, winners and losers, non-professionals in the classroom. The winners tend to be politicians and consultants who are making careers and money from the failing “education reform.” The real losers are our students and teachers. You educators should be celebrated as the heroes of today’s society. I honestly cannot understand why and how teachers have become such scapegoats.
You in Boston still have an opportunity to work together – parents, teachers, students, communities – to stop the destruction of public education that has become education reform. Your students, your communities deserve better. They deserve an education that will prepare them for life, an education that will allow them to develop a love of learning, an education that is more than just preparing and taking test. Remember, the decision makers aren’t subjecting their children to this punitive system. Neither should the rest of us.