Confession 1: I have discovered that sitting and writing about public education in Denver is depressing. I am a very positive person who is generally very happy. Publications about “Education Reform” and its made up success make me grumpy, discouraged, and depressed.
Confession 2: Over the weekend I saw an education post titled, “Disturb the Sound of Silence.” The words struck a chord. If we allow the DPS narrative to repeat itself with no reality check, our silence gives tacit approval to that narrative. Those five words have pushed me back to the computer.
Confession 3: This is a long post and repetitive in parts. “Education reformers” cite the same pathetic data over and over and over to try to show success. Because they are many and have several telling their version of public education in Denver and I am one, I must repeat the reality we in Denver are observing and living.
“Education Next is a scholarly journal committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform, published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School,” according to its self-description. Imagine my surprise when I read this “scholarly” article in the Education Next Summer 2016 edition, that contained no primary documents, no footnotes or links to data or sources, and read much like a propaganda piece or even worse a campaign literature publication. The subject of this “scholarly” article? Success in Denver Public Schools due to “education reform,” especially choice and charters. (And since this was published at the beginning of April, a shortened version has appeared in U.S. News and World Report, where Mr. Osborne is identified as a “contributer.”)
In my speech to Boston teachers I described in some detail the national “education reform” cabal. I somehow overlooked including university programs and think tanks whose mission is to research and conclude education reform is working. But even with this push to make “education reform” look successful, the truth often wins out. See the fall 2015 report from the Gates funded Center on Reinventing Public Education headquartered at the University of Washington. Data notwithstanding, David Osborne has written – with no documentation – yet another article which attempts to prop up Denver Public Schools failing “education reform” experiment. However, Osborne’s tale differs slightly for a couple of reasons: 1) he spends more time on several previously downplayed historic events; and 2) his research is often sloppy and undocumented. Otherwise, his article resembles other national attempts to define DPS as a “successful reform district.” He omits data that “reformers” contend is important to the cause; and, as with many “reform” articles, he has received much of his information by conversing with only one side of the historic battle in Denver. I will provide his missing data when possible.
Mr. Osborne’s article is entitled: Denver Expands Choice and Charters: Elected school board employs portfolio strategy to lift achievement.
PART I – Background and History
Let’s do a quick refresher course before we delve into this faux success story.
The main goals of “education reform” are:
- Expanding charter schools, which as the state of Washington has determined are not common (public) schools;
- Improving graduation rates. The most recent DPS strategic plan, Denver Plan 2020, calls for graduation rates for African American and Latino students of 89% by 2020, 90% for students who start in DPS in ninth grade;
- Reducing or eliminating the achievement gap, that is, the gap between children living in poverty and those not. Another goal of Denver Plan 2020.
- Eliminating the union protected workers in the public school system which can be exacerbated by closing “failing” schools and replacing them with either charter schools or innovation schools both of which are for the most part non-union;
- Evaluating teachers based on test scores with all the concomitant issues around high stakes testing.
Reformers try to reach these results through something called a portfolio strategy, a business model used by Wall Street that simply put is predicated on constant churn. As Osborne writes, a portfolio strategy works “to replicate successful schools and replace failing ones.” The problem with such a strategy is students and teachers and parents and communities are neither commodities to be bought and sold nor should they be characterized as winners and losers. Denver has seen up close and personal how the chaos and churn this model brings.
Portfolio Strategies in education reform consist of two elements: 1) implementation of “reform elements”, and 2) academic results from this implementation. After all, Denver Public Schools is an education institution first and foremost. Shouldn’t it be judged by how it is educating its students? Evidently “education reformers” don’t think so.
Nationally, DPS is continually recognized for #1 – implementing these “reforms.” At the same time Denver gets low marks for #2 – the academic results – which is why it is curious Mr. Osborne has chosen “lifting achievement” as part of his subtitle. Even Denver’s cheerleading citizen oversight group, A+ Colorado (formerly A+ Denver) in a recently released report, says
“Let’s be clear: There has been progress in DPS, particularly in comparison to other Colorado districts. But some student learning outcomes are stalled, or improving far too slowly for the district to be successful. (My emphasis). We cannot emphasize that point strongly enough.”
Back to this latest marketing piece. Osborne begins his article with an observation often overlooked when talking about Denver but a very important one: Denver is unlike many portfolio strategy school districts because it still has an elected school board, not a mayor appointed one. Osborne describes this phenomenon this way: “Reformers won in part because they had more money and better-known candidates, and in part because their approach has yielded results: “ His first two premises are certainly true: upwards of $250,000 per race have poured into Denver Public Schools Board of Education races to “win” the 7 seats. And the candidates “reformers” who are “better-known” include a former lieutenant governor, two former City Council presidents, a lawyer and active Democrat who has done bond work for the District for the past ten years, garnering over $3.5 million for his legal work from DPS, a grant writer for an “education reform” non-profit world in Denver, and a person with strong ties to the local political cabal. The seventh seat was just recently filled when another well known community member resigned for family reasons. What Osborne fails to recognize – or at least fails to write about – is the fact that today’s board members are pretty much people the current and previous “reform” friendly mayors could have and may have easily chosen. In other words, “reformers” in Denver have been able to accomplish the equivalent of a mayoral-appointed Board of Education without the drama of actually taking away voting rights from citizens. If the Denver model is replicated in other cities, voters should be aware of this sleight of hand.
Where Osborne really falls short is when he talks about results. Like all ”reformers,” he is somewhat delusional when he cites academic success. Like all “reformers” he compares DPS growth figures with the state, and growth can be a misleading reference as pointed out by “reformers” and neighborhood school activists alike. Comparing DPS with the state is the DPS way but this can be a specious game. The state is not where it needs to be. Denver Public Schools needs to be comparing itself to entities with much higher proficiency numbers, standards and expectations.
Perhaps the most troubling part of Osborne’s piece is his very careless research. For his scholarly piece, he has chosen to provide no documentation or references. He cites incorrect charter school numbers as well as incorrect graduation rates.
“…in 2006-07 less than 39 percent graduated on time. By 2014-15”…65 percent graduated on time, including 72 percent of those who entered DPS high schools and stayed for four years.” Graduation rates are fundamental data points for “education reform,” so this erroneous statistic is very important to the “reform” storyline. A simple web check would have told him this information was not true. And such carelessness on easy to confirm data makes one wonder how much else is inaccurate in his article.
The method for determining Colorado graduation rates changed in 2010 and the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) clearly states pre-2010 figures are irrelevant. Mr. Osborne should have checked. From its website:
The four-year on-time graduation rate for the Class of 2015 was 77.3 percent. The four-year formula, adopted in 2009-10, defines “on time” as only those students who graduate from high school four years after transitioning from eighth grade.
It is important to note that this new formula yields a rate that cannot be compared directly with data prior to 2009-10. With the old system, students who took longer than four years to graduate were factored into the formula calculating a graduation rate. Under this four-year “on-time” formula, a student is assigned an unchanging anticipated year of graduation (AYG) when they transition from eighth grade.
The anticipated year of graduation is assigned by adding four years to the year that a student transitions from eighth grade. In other words, the formula anticipates that a student transitioning from eighth grade at the end of the 2011 school year and, subsequently, entering ninth grade in fall 2011 will graduate with the Class of 2015. For more information on the change in calculation rate, please see the link below.
It is a fact that from 2010 to 2015, DPS graduation rates increased from 51.8% to 65%. That is an average gain of 2.64% per year, almost 1% below the stated goal of 3.5% set by the strategic plans of 2006 and 2009. And this Education Next conclusion touting Denver’s graduation gains is in stark contrast to the conclusion reached last fall by the Center on Reinventing Public Education Report which ranked Denver Public Schools 45th out of 50 urban districts for improving graduation rates. Data without context can be pretty meaningless.
Further, the stated graduation goal in the third version of the strategic plan Denver Plan 2020 changes the component for measuring graduation rate. Instead of measuring all students which is what national as well as state and local studies do, the current Denver Plan states:
By 2020, the four-year graduation rate for students who start with DPS in ninth grade [my emphasis] will increase to 90%.
This is a very different paradigm from one that measures ALL students. Aren’t public schools charged with educating ALL students? Shouldn’t the goal be to graduate ALL students? Isn’t this changing the rules in the middle of the game so real results are more difficult to find? But while the graduation rate for “students who start with DPS in ninth grade” stands at 72% in 2015, DPS would have to show an increase of 3.6% every year to reach the stated 90% goal. To date that has never been accomplished no matter what cohort one uses. And the stated goal of the Denver Plan 2020 for African American students and Latino students? 89%. Their current graduation is 64%. To reach the 89% these students would have to show an increase of 5% per year, a daunting task to be sure.
Osborne goes on to praise DPS for increasing test scores over ten years from 33 to 48%, “far faster than the state average.” Like DPS in general, Osborne cites DPS statistics v. State statistics to show improvement. Again, the state is hardly the high bar DPS should be comparing itself to. The state is not showing great gains, but what he fails to point out is that ten years ago the state started at 68% and while the gains have been less than stellar and reaching 71%, this still leaves DPS over 20% points behind.
Over the 10 years of so-called “reform” reading has improved 1.4% per year, math 1.8%, and writing 1.4%. At this rate of “improvement” it will take Denver Public Schools’ students 20 years to reach 90% proficiency in reading, 24 years in math, and 33 years in writing. Osborne spends some time analyzing the new PARRC standardized tests for 2015 report Denver Public Schools versus state results, but the bottom line for test results shows Denver’s students with proficiencies of 33% in language arts, 25% in math. The state weighs in with 40% in language arts, 29% in math. Both he and I take note of the narrowing of the District/State gap. He described it this way:
In 2015, Colorado switched to the PARCC tests, so comparisons to previous years are no longer possible. But Denver schools appear to have adjusted far better to the more demanding, Common Core‒aligned PARCC tests than schools in the rest of the state. Perhaps focusing on testing at the expense of educating children pays off!
In February I described it this way:
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 awful.
PART II – Winning the Political Battle
Osborne also spends more time on the political history of Denver’s “reform” board, but once again he is sloppy with his research. (My last post goes into great detail about how “reformer’s” changed the election outcome.) He starts his analysis factually when he states, the union “backed a slate of board candidates that fall  and won a majority of open seats….But the union had been a bit careless in vetting Nate Easley…” who “surprised everyone by embracing reform and – being the swing vote – he was elected board president.” His timeline description of Easley’s transformation is not factual. Here is where reaching out to the other side in Denver would have given him a more accurate picture of the history. Nate Easley ran on a platform of Building and Keeping Strong Neighborhood Schools, Making Schools the Cornerstone of Excellence in Every Neighborhood, Empowering Parents, Students, and Educators at every school, Supporting and Rewarding Dedicated Teachers and Administrators. Nate Easley embraced reform but only AFTER he was promised things, the board presidency among them. He is currently the executive director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation, and who knows if that position wasn’t offered to sweeten the deal? When Easley resigned his Board position three years later, he cited a “conflict of interest” with his new position. The truth is if there were a conflict as Director of DSF, there was also a conflict when he was Assistant E.D. and was on the Board of Education. But Osborne is absolutely correct when he says “ the board majority was reversed, triggering a bitter divide that lasted for four years.” And why shouldn’t it have triggered a divide? Democracy was subverted. The wishes of the voters subverted. Reformers even back then stopped at nothing to push this failing experiment. Easley survived a recall attempt but Osborne’s timeline for the event is once again skewed. Community members started talking recall several months after Easley’s election because they felt betrayed by his consistent “reform” votes when he was elected to do exactly opposite of what he was doing. He was not who they elected.
This event has never received its proper due in the history of “education reform” in Denver. This one vote changed the course of public education for the foreseeable future. The people voted for one thing; “reformers” changed the election outcome.
Mr. Osborne also tells the story of Superintendent Bennet’s political maneuvering to gather support for his “reform” moves. As someone who was on the Board at the time, I can neither confirm nor deny these moves.
2009 was also key in Denver school board elections because it was the first time outside money appeared in Board of Election campaigns. Stand for Children came 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, as Osborne notes, won the election. Each following election more and more reform money both from in city and out of city appeared to win seats. In addition to Stand, Democrats for Education Reform, Students First, and wealthy local businessmen, both Democrats and Republicans, have all put enormous amounts of money and human capital to be sure the Denver version of a unanimous board was achieved. Much of the money while identified by independent expenditure committee, remains hidden as to who is making the individual contributions. In 2011 the people were able to hold on to a “mighty minority” of three: 4-3. In 2013 the minority dwindled to one: 6-1. In 2015 the Board was unanimously “reform.” 7-0. Not many serious questions from this rubber stamp board. So for the article to say the majority has expanded because “the district’s strategies produced results” is not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Money buys elections, even for non-paying school board positions. And the truth in American politics in general seems to be something in the past.
Mr. Osborne spends much of the article regurgitating “reform” talking points: the greatness of charters particularly Denver’s locally grown charter networks, DSST and Strive, how choice has given more student so-called high performing options. Data tell a somewhat different story.
Over the past few years STRIVE has suffered serious declines in proficiencies. STRIVE CEO Chris Gibbons explained these losses this way: “expanding the network too quickly, high teacher turnover, alignment to the new state standards (Colorado Academic Standards).” To its credit STRIVE does not cull its student population and provides supports to retain its students.
But with the introduction of PARCC last year, STRIVE students scores were basically the same as traditional schools – and depending on the location of the school and the numbers of FRL and ELL students.
As for DSST. DSST students score very well on standardized tests. DSST students who start at DSST in the ninth grade do not all make it to graduation. In seven years at the flagship DSST, Stapleton, 972 students started as freshmen. Four years later 549 graduated. Graduation rate? 56.5%. The Green Valley Ranch DSST had a slightly higher rate for its only graduating class to date: 145 started, 86 graduated. Rate = 59.3%. And if you bother to read the latest DSST graduation celebratory email entitled, Celebrating 100% College 9 Years in a Row.” Hmmm. Isn’t it amazing how not one student in nine years has failed to be accepted to college? Try to find the actual number of graduates in the press release. And 100% is a bit misleading. It is 100% of a little less than the original 60% entering freshmen. Where the missing 40+% go and why they leave is a tale yet to be told.
As for families participating in CHOICE, according to Chalkbeat’s analysis only 27% of DPS families participated.
If there is any doubt “education reformers” are in close contact with each other, note this irony: Osborne’s piece published on April 7 included the following information: “Soon DPS will take the next step, creating an Innovation Zone with an independent, nonprofit board, which will negotiate a performance contract with the district. Beginning with four innovation schools but able to expand, the zone could for the first time give district schools the autonomy charters enjoy.” The Denver Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously on April 28, for just such a proposal. How DID he know? Who will be raking it in from this newest non-profit? Why without any data or proof, is this already being characterized as a good thing?
With the exception of the political history of “reform” there is little new in this article. Osborne does raise the red flag of an ever growing achievement gap.
He also correctly cites the increase in the number of students taking Advanced Placement classes and enrolling in college classes at local institutions of higher learning. His most frightening and possibly most correct observations appear at the end when he concludes:
“Boasberg is on a six-month sabbatical, but when he returns in the summer of 2016, he is likely to enjoy support from a majority of the board for quite a few years. The opposition is weak and disorganized, and all the momentum is on the side of the reformers. If anything, some on the board are frustrated that Boasberg is not moving faster.
It is hard to see what might derail the portfolio strategy, even if the bureaucracy continues to slow it down. Denver has proven, for a decade now, that charter schools offer a more effective model of urban education. It is about to launch an Innovation Zone, which—if done properly—will give some district schools the autonomy and accountability that make charters so effective.
Within a decade, the district could reach a tipping point, where a majority of public school families choose charters or innovation schools. When that happens, the reforms will be difficult to undo. And Denver will be well on the road to proving that an elected board can transform a 20th-century system organized on the principles of bureaucracy into a 21st-century system built to deliver continuous improvement.”
Denver has become a national leader for its implementation of “education reform.” This has been relatively easy to accomplish with the help of the national media who continuously bolster the “education reform” agenda of chaos and churn. “Education reformers” in Denver have all the elements in place to continue to push a failing education model. Be afraid, Denver. Be very afraid.