M.O.T.S.* “Reform” Systems GROW, Educational Outcomes SLOW

*More of the Same

The train to educational excellence is literally inching its way through Denver, Colorado.  As another report focusing on Denver becomes public, let us look at where “education reform” in Denver Public Schools stands today.

Education Reform Systems Installation Check in Denver Public Schools – March 2017

  • Portfolio Management.  Check.
  • Unlimited charters.  Check.
  • Choice. Check.
  • Non-union work force in new schools.  Check.
  • High stakes testing used to determine school closures, teacher firings, school rankings.  Check.
  • Common Core State Standards.  Check.
  • Enrollment zones to replace neighborhood schools.  Check.
  • Political connections in place. Check.
  • Alternative teaching licensing (TFA). Check.
  • Alternative leadership licensing (RELAY here and here). Check.
  • Longer school year, longer school day. Check.
  • Academic progress measured by growth, not proficiency. Check.
  • “People,  time, technology, and money.” (ERS, p. 2) Check.

These “reform” systems are all in place in Denver Public Schools and seem to working well, at least according to the authors of four national studies touting DPS’ “reforms”.  But if you read beyond the headlines, dig a little deeper into the meat of the reports, analyze the part that deals with the real mission of a public education system – educating all children – you will find a different story.

Educational Outcomes Check in Denver Public Schools

  • Achievement gap. Stalled or growing.
  • Proficiencies in reading and math.  Stalled or declining depending on which standardized test one uses – CMAS or TCAPs.
  • Graduation rates. Stalled in comparison with other urban districts.
  • Choice. In spite of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ shout out to DPS for its Choice Policy, the reality is very different. The latest round of Choice has had disappointing participation numbers, especially from lower income and non-English speaking families. High quality options are still not available in high needs areas.  Transportation is a big deterrent.
  • Segregation.  Growing.
  • Teacher and principal turnover.  Large and growing.
  • Testing, testing, testing.  Growing in importance.
  • Class Offerings – physical education, music, arts, recess. Reduced.
  • Equity in distribution of resources.  Stalled.

In a never ending attempt to showcase “education reform” success in Denver, a fourth national study was released in mid-March once again touting “reform ” success in Denver Public Schools.  Once again this is a tale of two universes.

The latest  report comes to light just as March Madness is full upon us, and as the college hoops teams apply their version of a full court press, so too are “education reformers”  vis-a-vis Denver Public Schools. (See here and here).  No question about it, the stakes of the “ed reformers” are much higher than those of a basketball tournament (although fans of Gonzaga, South Carolina, Oregon and North Carolina might beg to differ!). The pressure is intense for both.

This most recent study was conducted by the Boston-based consulting group, Education Resource Strategies (ERS). It celebrates DPS’ success in systems organizing “resources,  people, time, technology and money so that every school succeeds for every student.” (p.2)  The previous three Denver success stories focused on 1) the implementation of the portfolio strategy – the quintessential business model “reformers” are still trying desperately to adapt to public education – and was published by The University of Washington’s Gates funded Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE); 2) the political landscape necessary (EducationNext) for “reform” to take hold.  This article also tells the story of how Denver Public Schools has been able to parlay this landscape into a situation that force places charters and choice on many unassuming residents;  and 3) the implementation of the “reformer” favorite, Choice, published in the Brookings Institutions’ annual report on Education Choice and Competition Index where Brookings ranked DPS #1 for Choice even though the District had a very low participation rate (25%) especially among poorer and non-English speaking families. The CHOICE non-participants are mostly families who have had their pleas for great neighborhood schools fall on deaf ears as “reformers” have twisted that message into “great schools in every neighborhood.” These are the families who continue to choose their walk-to neighborhood school.

As with the past studies, analyses of the ERS study appeared in “reformer”-friendly publications like Chalkbeat, and  NonProfit Quarterly, and of course, DPS wrote about it in its weekly newsletter.

Holding true to history, this report like the three before it deal with two parallel universes and measurements of success:  Implementation of national “reform” ideals and educational outcomes. Throughout the report DPS gets high marks for things like having “systems in place” and  “being strategic,” but as with the other reports ERS is also critical of DPS for not using its resources and practices to produce the outcomes necessary to truly move the needle on student achievement.

Using the DPS spotlight rating system, one would have to conclude DPS has earned a second to the highest GREEN rating (MEETS EXPECTATIONS) for implementation of national “reform” ideals, while at the same time concluding DPS warrants a RED rating (DOES NOT MEET EXPECTATIONS) for educational outcomes.

DPS Reading TCAPs
A reading increase of 9% over a ten year span (0.9%/year) is described as the “Current pace of progress feels too slow and growing achievement gaps are concerning.”

The report goes on to note the ten year changes in the achievement gap this way:

“And while system-wide efforts have raised performance for all, significant achievement gaps remain.”  (p.9)

In the ten years of “reform” the achievement gap in reading between Free and Reduced Lunch (FRL) and non FRL students has has decreased one percentage point – from 39 points to 38 points. This translates into a gain of 1.5% per year and a rate at which is would take three generations of students to close. In the CRPE report cited above Denver Public Schools was last of the districts studied in reducing this gap. But hey, DPS will have more data to tell the world what should be happening, in the classrooms, in the school buildings, with school leaders, with classroom leaders, to fill … an 85 page, color PowerPoint. Ah, if only people were widgets and public education a business and all participants would comply and act in the same fashion. Even Superintendent Tom Boasberg could find only three bullet points to brag about in the weekly OUR DPS newsletter. (On a positive note, please see that the title of the DPS weekly epistle has changed from MY DPS to OUR DPS. Finally.)

“As the report highlights, here’s what we’ve accomplished together:

  • Of the nearly 300 school districts in the United States serving at least 25,000 students, DPS has had the second-highest academic growth in the nation.
  • This rapid growth means that DPS students on average were a full grade ahead of where DPS students were four years previously.
  • DPS is showing more strategic alignment in prioritizing its push to drive student-achievement gains than any other urban district analyzed by ERS.”

Here comes that scurrilous metric GROWTH again.  Even “reformers” in Denver have asked the District to de-emphasize its reliance on growth. Students need to have grade level skills; students’ proficiencies are the important number. But the District is reluctant to highlight proficiencies since they continue to lag, even after implementation after implementation of “education reforms.”

Boasberg ends his letter with this admission:

“As the report also notes, we have much more work to do. Large gaps to erase. Barriers to move aside.”

In addition to trying to reconcile the two parallel universes of DPS’ “education reform” – implementation and outcomes which are at odds with one another –  the ERS report presents a third challenge: Reading and deciphering these 85 pages even with the pretty colors and graphics.  The writing and research is often sloppy and confusing.

  • This report uses way too many platitudes and offers few specific solutions: “better options for students” (like what?), general agreement (from whom?), “could generate” (but doesn’t)
  • This report needs more keys to explain some of its charts and graphs (p. 24, 69)
  • This report too often uses percentages without providing the overall number in the group being analyzed, i.e., 10% of ????
  • This report needs serious proofreading: p. 4 “engagement” should be “engagements”; p. 16 “that” should be “than”; p.33 “you” should be “your”; p. 80 another “you” should be “your”.

You get the picture. Spell check won’t cut it.   Again, using DPS’ own Stoplight evaluative system this report deserves a RED: DOES NOT MEET EXPECTATIONS for writing and research.   How much did this eight-year study cost? And was all of the cost absorbed solely from grants or was there taxpayer money involved as well?

Every day we witness more assaults on our public institutions. Just yesterday (March 27, 2017) the White House  announced son-in-law Jared Kushner is going to head up a new team called The White House Office of Innovation,  “charged with ‘fixing’ the federal government using business strategies” (Washington Post) (like “education reform” has been doing for ten years).  One can only shudder at this attack as well as the results of the business model in education.  Connect the dots… The current occupant of the White house who thinks business will fix it all and whose budget has slashed funding for public education in general while directing more money to charter schools ($168 million) and choice ($250 million) to… Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos a fierce advocate for Choice, who has given money to Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) for choice and charter school expansion to… DFER itself which while criticizing the president’s “bigoted and offensive rhetoric” still issued the following statement upon DeVos’ confirmation,

“DFER congratulates Betsy DeVos on her appointment as Secretary of Education, and we applaud Mrs. DeVos’s commitment to growing the number of high-quality public charter schools.”

to… other advocacy”reform” groups like Stand for Children, A+ Colorado, and others, all of which contribute heavily to political campaigns in Colorado to ensure the elections of “education reformers”, Colorado Democrats and Republicans alike to the state legislature and to the DPS school board to ensure the continued privatization of public education here.

As Aurora Colorado Superintendent Rico Munn stated last week when A+ Colorado released its latest report on Aurora Public Schools,

“Organizations such as A+ [my add DFER, Stand, “reformers”in general] demand that school districts see the world through their lens and follow their particular directives,” Munn said in a statement. “Their focus on ‘facts’ is a thinly-veiled effort to secure funding, promote their agenda and expand their brand on the backs of Aurora [my add – urban students nationally] students.”

How can we change the direction and of this very slow-moving train?   A majority of Denver School Board seats (four) are up in November 2017.  You can make the difference.