By Van Schoales
It’s been over a year since I opined about Denver Public Schools’ strategic direction What Will Tom Do? and I thought it would be a good time to reflect. In particular, the recent elections are the perfect time to step back and think through the next stage of the work in Denver. I congratulate all Board members on either their re-election, election or campaigns – civic leaders stepping up to make our education system better is what A+ is all about. Regardless of where you stand on the particular issues, we need far more Denver registered voters engaged, understanding the state of our schools and voting.
Denver Public Schools has made remarkable progress over the last decade. The district has moved from one of the worst in Colorado back in 2005 to being right in the middle of the state’s 178 school districts. Forty percent of Denver’s elementary students met grade level expectations last year, nearly the same as literacy levels across the state where 43% of students met expectations. The city has doubled the number of Latino graduates. All groups of students by income and ethnicity have improved with white non-low income students making the largest improvement over time.
This last year, Denver made a dramatic jump in achievement with a 4.7 percentage point improvement in elementary literacy as measured by CMAS from 2016 to 2017 (and up 7.7 points since 2015), one of largest one-year improvements in the last decade. Indeed many schools across the district saw increases in performance. District turnaround efforts are showing some serious promise, and stellar charter schools like Denver School of Science and Technology and UPrep continue to improve student performance. Long story short, we’re seeing strong improvement in schools of all governance types. Due to all of these factors, Denver has become a national darling in the education reform community. We recently hosted David Osborne, whose new book “Reinventing America’s Schools” holds our community up as an exemplar while challenging us to go forward in bolder ways.
The question before our community is whether we are willing to go forward in bolder ways. Can Superintendent Boasberg, his senior leadership team and the new board can continue to accelerate achievement? Will Denver become more of a hedgehog and will it stop doing stuff that doesn’t matter? As with any organization, for DPS to move from good to great will require a different set of conditions and strategies than it relied upon to move from poor to good. Can the district manage the turn of politics this most recent election suggests and build new coalitions for change?
Conditions are always shifting. Most of us remember days of massive political divisions on the board. The shift from a divided board to one with 7-0 agreement on most issues should be a stark reminder of how things can pivot quickly. We may again be at another time of shifting politics, with implications for how the district manages and prioritizes.
If conditions are shifting, are they shifting in the right or wrong direction?
DPS Board: Will we achieve the promise of the Denver Plan 2020?
This past Denver School Board election was the most contentious ever waged in Denver with the amounts of money, vitriol, and falsehoods. Unfortunately, it has mirrored recent races in Los Angeles. It is unclear whether the election nastiness will spillover to DPS board alignment and priorities over the next two years.
A major question is whether the new Denver School Board will refocus the district’s 2020 strategic plan and revise strategy, set new goals to monitor (given many of the 2020 goals seem out of reach) or if the board will continue with the same set of objectives and strategies. The Denver 2020 Plan was an audacious attempt to set goals to inspire our community collectively, and it has become a national model. Our community deserves a serious conversation about how we will either meet or revisit those goals.
The Future of the SPF: Hazy or Clear?
Denver’s School Performance Framework (SPF) has been the central driver for school and district improvement. It has been a credible and useful tool for families and the district in orientating the quality of Denver’s schools. The SPF ratings have provided every Denver family a way to understand school quality while signaling to district management what’s working. Even further, the SPF has found its way into DPS decision-making across a spectrum of activities.
While the tool has not been perfect, (no tool is) it has provided a powerful map for what to focus upon at the district and school level. The most recent 2017 SPF has, however, become complicated and misleading. Schools with low growth (below the average) and single digit reading proficiency should not be called good schools. The SPF must be seen as credible, understandable and useful by educators, parents and the community. We need a community and district conversation about how we revive the SPF’s fundamental purpose.
District Operations: Is the District School Rowing or Steering?
The future of public education is schools and districts separating the steering (vision setting, operations, and regulation) and the rowing (managing schools directly). DPS has tried to find a middle path – both steering and rowing. Consequently, the district has struggled with how to manage most of the district’s schools while setting clear guardrails for other governance types to enter the system. This undisciplined approach has led to many headaches for folks both inside and outside DPS.
While over the last decade more resources and autonomy have shifted to schools (vis-a-vis student-based budgeting, more flexible budgets, and opt-in services) but that may have slowed or stopped. Charter schools are increasingly expressing their frustrations with district edicts while innovation schools seem to be wanting more charter-like autonomy by joining innovation networks. The district’s organizational chart used to be divided between district-managed schools and those managed by the portfolio office. Now all schools sit under the deputy superintendent who acts as the chief school operator. In this new political environment, can DPS continue to hold the center while both steering and rowing or will pressures force the district to choose a side?
Talent Engine: Growing or Stalled?
Improving schools or districts requires remarkably talented teachers, principals, and central office leaders. Denver has moved from one of the least attractive places to work to one of the most popular for many of the best and brightest, not just locally but nationally. The question is whether something has recently slowed or stopped this critical improvement in DPS talent.
DPS is constantly under fire (and rightly so) for failing to increase the diversity of its teacher and leader pipeline, despite their efforts to do so. Some of the best talent in DPS began to leave when Tom Boasberg consolidated the portfolio school office under the traditional system shortly before he left for a sabbatical December 2015. Now, most of the senior cabinet members are new, and the district is on the fourth Chief of Staff in two years. Just in the last few months, several senior staff has left for jobs in charter networks or education non-profits.
There is no question that working in an urban district is a grind, but DPS must be able to retain talent and slow the turnover if there is to be more improvement. Recently, outside groups asked about how the implementation of an innovative program to train new district principals by training them under high performing charters was going. The groups were shocked to learn this critical innovation had stopped. It’s hard to be a “hedgehog” when systems and people are changing, and organizational charts are moving targets. Can DPS regain it’s footing, retain top talent, and build not only a diverse but inclusive organization?
Quality Schools: New schools or Improve Existing Schools?
For the past decade, new schools have been the driver for student achievement in Denver. Charters have led the pack, but lately, new innovation or turnaround schools have contributed significantly to achievement. While the district has improved some of the turnaround efforts with the addition of a Year Zero planning process for some of the lowest-performing schools, the record of improving existing schools is mixed. Charters have had the most success, and there are countless examples of innovation or district schools replicating practices and cultures from these schools to improve their schools. For example, DSST has set the bar for the district’s high school performance, especially for low-income students. We need more high-quality options with an eye on diverse programs.
With the lowering of the performance bar of the SPF, there is likely to be no call for new schools by the district for the first time in years. And with the lack of school district facilities for new schools, it is unlikely there will be new schools placements. And, in a complicated policy trap the district has set for itself, the new School Performance Compact timeline ensures the district will likely not move forward with any Year Zero turnaround work. This means that even if the district learns its own lessons of how to improve schools, the timeline they’ve set for restart/closure (two years red or orange) ensures the district operator will be unlikely to make changes that might require two years to implement. It also could make schools so risk-averse that few leaders are willing to try new things or make big changes. Sure, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but there are many schools with middling performance where students could greatly benefit from new approaches. Can the district build new and innovative high-quality options while also removing its own traps to improve their schools?
Family Demand and Society Needs: Test Scores Only or Test Scores Plus?
We know that families want a school that supports their student academically and that provides a variety of other experiences that put them on the path to becoming a life-long learner. Reading is critical but insufficient. Some of the schools that are most in-demand in Denver offer arts, expeditionary and project-based learning, Montessori, or dual-language programs. We know that the most of the best schools worldwide whether public or private treat students as learners as individuals and support them to learn important habits, skills, and knowledge while fueling their passions for learning. Schools that view students like widgets will not impart the knowledge necessary for students to be successful in today’s world, even if those students are successful on some tests. All families whether rich or low-income, deserve the right to choose not only high performing academic schools but the school program that best meets their child’s needs and passions. Different children learn in different ways at different times.
Denver lacks a vision for what schools will serve what parts of the city and what students. Quality arts, Montessori, and project-based learning need to work and be accessible to low-income families. Can Denver build or develop these diverse options that we know we need?
After this election, we must all be able to shake hands and begin the conversations needed to move forward.
The reality is that Denver is at crossroads and must decide if it is going to continue going up the peak or stay where it is. No other urban district has been on such a long-term improvement trajectory with the exceptions of D.C. or New Orleans.
Denver should take stock, reflect on what has worked and adjust for a strategic direction that will allow the district to reach the district’s own 2020 goals. Denver has done exciting work thus far and so much more is needed so that it can move from good to great.