DPS still failing at-risk students: A Study in Ambiguity

Shocking! One of the first drivers of “education reform” in Denver has seen the light.   That is how most people viewed former DPS Board President Theresa Pena’s front page op-ed piece in the Sunday Denver Post Perspective section entitled, DPS still failing at-risk students. Ms. Pena severely chastises Denver Public Schools for failing to properly address the sluggish pace of academic progress ten years of “reform” has brought to Denver’s at-risk student population. A pioneer of “education reform” in Denver has admitted its failure. My first reaction, too, was WOW! I couldn’t wait to post this on my FaceBook page.

My euphoria was short-lived, however. Upon further examination and after re-reading it several times, I have come to a different conclusion: while Ms. Pena expresses her clear disappointment with the lack of urgency the District has shown regarding educational outcomes for at-risk students her own conclusions appear to be ambiguous.  Here are some things she fails to address:

  • What next steps should be taken to jump start theses sluggish outcomes ;
  • Is the current portfolio management reform strategy the right method to get better results ;
  • Does Denver Public Schools have the right leadership in place to lead a genuine education revolution?

Given what is transpiring in the “education reform” world of late, I fear she is not calling for a change of direction from the District, but rather she is yet another “reformer” propping up this failing status quo. I fear she would like to see the District implementing more falling reforms at a much faster clip. Go figure. I have tried to get clarification from her but have been unable to reach her. She has not to returned phone calls or emails. I have also contacted others who I thought might know what she is thinking, particularly regarding next steps. No one I talked with could answer that question.

Ms. Pena bases most of her assessment of the current state of DPS on a 2007 Rocky Mountain News article, entitled: A Vision for a 21st Century School District (In what is certainly another WOW! moment, after several hours of combing through file folder after file folder, I was able to locate a printout of the article. If you have ever seen my office, you will recognize how miraculous this is.   Boxes and binders of CSAP, TCAP data, PCOP refinancing powerpoints, Strategic Regional Analyses, SPF information.   Neither I nor my assistants could find a copy on line).

So why is this “manifesto” resurfacing now?

Could it be that national and local “reformers” are questioning DPS’ commitment to “education reform” as other public education activists continue to question whether or not there should even be such a commitment?

Let’s go back to 2007 when this manifesto was written. Barack Obama had not been elected President; Arne Duncan was not Secretary of Education; Race to the Top, teacher evaluations based on high stakes testing were not in the education vernacular; Denver school board races were funded locally; the Broad Institute had just started training business and military people to become urban superintendents. While I don’t remember the specific details, I am pretty sure members of the Board were all very committed to working collaboratively to improve educational outcomes for all students.

With 20-20 hindsight I am stunned that then Superintendent Michael Bennet was able to corral the entire board to sign this manifesto, for this six-page document clearly lays out what has happened in Denver Public Schools in the last decade. I can only speak for myself, but I did not anticipate that   “Choice: and “Innovation,” “school closures” and “competition,”  “great principals” and “excellent teaching” and “greater control at the school level” would result in such chaos for Denver Public Schools.

And while I may agree with Ms. Pena when she says,

“Ten years later, we need to ask ourselves whether DPS has placed the proper focus on meaningful student achievement, or whether it has focused too much energy on governance models (charter, innovation, traditional)? We need to ask, 10 years later, who, if anyone, is better off as a result of the reforms put in place by the school board on which we served. Students? Teachers? Principals? Communities?

I’d argue, unfortunately, that the correct answer is none of the above.”

I do not agree that “we failed on all counts .” (my emphasis).  Even as the 21st century vision began to unfold, several board members confronted the very real possibility that this plan was not the right one for Denver’s students. Over our years of service, we continuously questioned the strategies that were producing such meager academic improvements, and we wondered at what educational price these so-called “reforms” were being instituted. We also did our best to fight for the communities who were displeased with the “reforms” being imposed upon them.

However, what I find most troubling and unsettling about Ms. Pena’s op-ed are her concluding words:

“Board members, we need you to follow through on the promises from the long-ago Rocky article and “abandon the status quo for a shimmering future.”

I stand ready to support you in pushing the dramatic changes necessary to improve outcomes for all Denver students. I hope you will exhibit the leadership and courage to lead the education revolution Denver needs to truly become the national vanguard for reform in public education.”

The promises of the 11 year old article established the blueprint for the past ten years and its failures which, according to Ms. Pena, are abhorrent. So, what are the dramatic changes necessary to make Denver the national vanguard – and here are the most troubling words – for reform in public education. If not More of the Same only on steroids, then what does she want?

The good news is this:  if former Board President Pena does think “reform” has failed and she is seeking an alternative strategy, a big thank you to her for calling out these failures.  If, on the other hand, she thinks tweaking the current path and pushing for speedier implementation is the answer, we should all be worried.

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