These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.


Spinning Our Wheels: Are District Efforts the Key?

By Van Schoales

Source: Durango Herald

Colorado has been a leader on state education policy but we have little to show in terms of achievement improvement in spite of two decades of bipartisan support.

More than 75% of Colorado’s jobs by 2020 will require some sort of post-secondary degree yet fewer than 23% of Colorado’s high school students are currently persisting through college with any degree. And we appear to be doing just as poorly when it comes to preparing students for other skilled jobs that do not require college degrees.  

Policymakers, advocates and community leaders need to ask: what is happening?

Did we focus on the wrong legislative policies?  Did our state legislature design the right set of support along with carrots and sticks to improve public education? Is there a limit to what can be done at the state level in Colorado? And what should we do to improve achievement over the next decade?

The Centennial state has some of the “best” school choice, charter and teacher effectiveness laws along with a strong set of rigorous standards and assessments (though some need to be fixed).  

We passed a law in 2008 that calls for a “new seamless system of public education standards, expectations and assessments – from preschool through postsecondary education – designed and aligned to prepare high school students to enter postsecondary education, or technical or trade schools, or the workforce without the need for further remediation.” 

Source: NAEP

In spite of what seems like a fairly good state policy environment, the overall state achievement scores as measured by NAEP illustrate that Colorado scores are flat and in some cases falling.  The Colorado 8th grade reading NAEP scale scores for students qualifying for free lunch in 2003 were 248 and those same students at 8th grade in 2015 had a score of 251 which is basically no change.    

Colorado has many great state education policies yet none of them seem to be improving achievement, what is going on? There are a number of factors that make improvement particularly challenging for Colorado.  

  1. Local school district control. State policy can enable change but the action is in school districts.  Districts control money, people, programs, schools and high school graduation requirements.  While districts must abide by state policy, most of the power rests with districts to determine how best to meet these state requirements or guidelines.  
  2. Lack of school district improvement strategies combined with changes in district leadership. Few school districts have a set of clearly articulated strategies with measurable goals for how to improve achievement. And to make matters worse, most districts switch out their leaders every three or four years. 
  3. Education funding and limited state capacity. Our education funding like many western states has been stuck at levels below most of the nation. The recession impacted Colorado school funding given revenue collection limits under TABOR. In inflation adjusted dollars, Colorado is still spending less per pupil than the state did before the recession. While some districts have been impacted more than others given their ability to raise local mill levies, it is clear that Colorado has few resources and very little capacity to intervene in the state’s lowest performing school districts. Most of the state efforts in Colorado for improvement have been funded by the federal government or private philanthropy at the district level.   
  4. Colorado imports much of the talent. Colorado ranks #2 in the nation for percentage of population with a Bachelor’s degree but only one in five Colorado students will graduate from college. An increasing number of these degree holders were educated in other states. This has allowed Colorado policymakers and the business community to have few incentives to support or pressure their local CO pre-K-college system to grow their own. Why support your local schools to get better when business is thriving and Colorado has the lowest unemployment rates in the nation?   Colorado can rely upon California, Texas, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states to send their most educated for the best Colorado jobs. 

So what can be done to leverage improvement in Colorado? Are the policies wrong? Are we missing some important state policy? Do we need to raise the standards? Increase access to quality schools? Create more high quality schools? Increase funding? Increase data sharing and access from pre-K-college/career?

We do need to do more to bolster a number of these policies but I doubt much will improve if all of the attention for school improvement is at the state capitol, the state department of education or with our next Governor. The state is limited to what it can do in states like Colorado with a constitution that keeps so much control at the school district level. The state can enable policy and create incentives (much like the federal government can do for states) but has not been successful at enabling school districts to do much to improve achievement.     

The opportunity for the state to improve achievement rests in the leadership in our school districts.  Districts control everything that makes it possible to improve achievement- people, programs, money, schools – and most importantly most of the students. Districts have the ability to mobilize their communities to improve education or dampen interest in public education. We have spent far too much time trying to move achievement through state policy (me included) rather than working with or changing school districts so that they can set policy and practice to improve.   

School districts need both long-term support and pressure to improve. No district can have lasting change without the community building the infrastructure to improve. Ongoing community engagement, thoughtful school board governance, a community ecosystem of support and accountability along with great leadership over several election cycles are the necessary ingredients for the improvement of the district.

We all know of dozens of stories of the bold superintendent or mayor coming in to make change (Alan Bersin, Joel Klein, Arlene Ackerman to name a few) only to be pushed out in one election and have the baby thrown out with the bathwater.  If only these efforts were supported with far broader and deeper relationships with the community, they might have grown roots and continued to have an impact on improving schools.

With Colorado having 186 school districts spread over 104 thousand square miles and limited resources from CDE and the private sector, it makes for a significant challenge to figure out how to move the entire state. The biggest nine school districts have more than half of Colorado’s students (470,000) so it is possible to focus on some of the state’s big school districts and have a large impact on the state’s student achievement. Denver, the largest school district, has seen significant improvement, impacting the state’s overall achievement.  

Most of Colorado districts are very small, 120 Colorado school districts have fewer than 1,000 students. While the smaller districts often will need to have the same reflective eye towards best school and district practice, they will also require a set of solutions unique to the local community’s assets.  Small rural school districts must be held to the same expectations but often require community-specific improvement strategies.  

We believe the highest leverage points for improving state achievement rests with building support to have the state’s largest districts improve. No one might have guessed back in 2001 that Denver Public Schools, notoriously dysfunctional and low-performing, would be one of most improved school districts in Colorado and the nation.    

A ten-part recipe for improving Colorado’s larger school districts includes:

  1. Clear strategic plan. A living plan with clearly defined academic goals tied to a theory of change for reaching goals used by the school board to guide decisions such as Denver’s 2020 Plan.   
  2. Data transparency and reporting. Complete transparency on school performance (including  reporting by student groups within schools) with annual reporting relative to goals to the community. While the state should be a go-to source for school-level data, districts must make this data accessible to communities and have dialogue about student performance both in schools and in the broader community. Additionally, the district and/or community groups need to regularly evaluate progress on district initiatives and report back to the administration and school board, so that educators and school communities can better understand what is, and is not, working for students. 
  3. School and district leadership. Strategies for recruiting, retaining, supporting, and compensating effective school leaders and policies to incentivize leaders to stay at their schools. Districts also need to have district leaders that are effective at creating systems to support schools and not just standardizing systems across schools regardless of their context.
  4. School choice/options. The district supports a range of school options with different education designs and universal enrollment to allow for all families to find schools that best meet their student needs. 
  5. Equity/opportunity focus. The district systems in place allow for money to follow students based upon student backgrounds and learning needs (student-based budgeting), with a focus on all reaching standards through different pathways and regular audits of how different groups of students are being served in different schools and district programs.
  6. Developing performance culture. A district has policies, practice, and culture that celebrate and reward district staff and teachers for supporting student learning.
  7. Strong ecosystem of support and accountability for district progress. There need to be individuals and organizations that know the district well and are supporting/pushing for improvement from inside as well as outside the district. In addition, districts should build a culture and systems for internal evaluation so that districts can better determine what is and is not working in terms of schools and programs. The Progressive Policy Institute recently published a report on the progress of Denver and how the ecosystem of support and accountability made these improvements possible over the last decade 
  8. Support for family & community engagement. Districts should be developing their own community engagement strategies and partnering with outside groups such as Together Colorado or others to ensure that all families are aware of the state of schools in their community, and empowered to advocate for schools that meet their students’ and community needs.  
  9. Exemplary school authorizing that includes charter, innovation, and district managed schools. Districts should have an office that oversees all new schools to ensure that schools are opened with a focus on supports for ensuring quality and that all new schools are overseen using the “best practices” offered by NACSA  The same practices that support quality charter schools, support quality district managed schools.  
  10. School board capacity building. Support board members to obtain training and support for making strategic decisions to drive school performance. 

While these requirements may be insufficient for many school districts to make progress, they are necessary for a school district to make lasting improvements over time. These efforts will need to be led by a broad coalition of local leaders in and outside the district in order for improvement to outlast a particular superintendent or board configuration. Local school district context in terms of history, culture, and politics must be woven into any effort to improve a district. Too often school improvement efforts get attached to particular individuals and are rarely embedded deeply in the community which can doom efforts when these community leaders fall out of favor for one reason or another.   

Colorado must improve academic achievement for the sake of our communities and economy. We have spent far too much time on state education policy with little or no attention to what school districts can and should be doing to improve achievement. The school improvement opportunity in Colorado rests with our school districts. We all need to do more to build understanding and capacity in school districts to create more great schools that better serve all of Colorado’s students. Only with a focus on both effective state education policy and school district practice will Colorado be able to meet the political, social, and economic challenges of this century.