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

Families searching for signal in the noise

October came in with a rush of winter weather and seasonal colors.  With the early onset of winter weather, I always worry that the colors will disappear before I’ve had a chance to really enjoy the leaves. Like the fall leaves disappearing before we’ve had a chance to enjoy them, I also worry that here in Denver that we will miss the opportunity to truly dive into the conversation around school performance.  With the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Superintendent search dominating all discussion and headlines, it sometimes feels like all oxygen in the room has been taken up.

Let’s not let that happen. Here at A+ Colorado, we are taking a real, close and hard look at the 2018 release of the School Performance Framework (SPF) and asking some big questions. In particular I encourage you to read Van’s great blog on the future of the SPF or Lisa’s deep dive into all the different information SPF is telling us this year.  In this piece, I’m going to take a different tack and ask us all to think about SPF through the lens of families and communities.  

It’s been often said that the SPF holds two challenging tensions inside of it: a district management tool and an external communication vehicle for families.  In fact, what’s the value of an SPF if the intended end users do not understand or use it appropriately?

In my work at DPS, I had the opportunity to work on how we could maximize the latter.  One of the major pushes for the Family Empowerment team was how schools could help parents understand the SPF and communicate it to families.  One of the biggest projects every year was supporting all DPS schools in hosting community meetings on their SPF. Each fall for almost a decade all DPS schools were required to host a community meeting on the subject of their SPF ranking.  This effort remains the largest, broadest and most aligned family engagement work in the city every year. It’s purpose is two-fold: ensure principals are held accountable to being public leaders that drive conversations on school improvement and that families are armed with correct information about their school so that they can make informed decisions. These hundreds of community meetings are reinforced by mailing home SPF reports to every parent in DPS.  Compare that to most districts around the country and you’ll find no peer (we will return later to the question of how it still remains insufficient). Wouldn’t it be nice if other large Colorado school districts or CDE did it across the rest of the state?

So why is it important for families to have this information? In a world of near-constant information noise coming at parents and communities, DPS has consistently put a stake in the ground that sending clear and consistent signals about school quality was essential.  Former Superintendent Boasberg and DPS staff have long believed that if families had this information, they could be empowered to make knowledgeable decisions. They believe that this signal can create agency, power and therefore fuel efforts to promote great schools and address challenges in bad ones.  While some critics attack the SPF for being too simple to send this signal (an irony, given how many measures are included), they should take a look at California, where the effort to create nuance within complexity has created major problems.  If families can’t hear the signal within the noise, then information won’t lead to meaningful shifts.  

So clear and consistent signals to families about performance are critical.  In his seminal book on consumer choices, Hirschman proposed that when systems fail consumers, they have three choices: exit, voice or loyalty.  In education, families make these important choices every year.  In our system, if a family is at a school and they are not getting their needs met, they can choose another school – exit (“We can go somewhere else”). Imagine a group of families getting together to use their advocacy to push the school to get better – that’s voice (“We work together to make it better”).  If they see the signal and still remain – that’s loyalty (“I’ll stay no matter what!”).  The signal provided by the SPF creates the opportunity for exit, voice or loyalty.  That’s the heart of the idea in Denver’s system. Information + agency = opportunity. Except when it’s more noise than signal.

Erratic Noise

Therefore it’s concerning that for about 20 schools in DPS, the signal hasn’t been clear at all.  After last year’s inflated SPF results, there are a group of schools who have seen serious bounce in results from year-to-year.  The image below shows group of schools that we should take a look at. On face, it’s not a large problem that a school would move rankings, particularly when student learning actually changed dramatically in a year.  However, the question is whether or not the bounce from year to year is being matched with sufficient understanding and conversation at the school and district level.

Imagine you’re a parent at one of these schools (or maybe you are a parent, and if so, you rock).  In 2016 you went to a meeting at your school and you were told that the school was yellow, orange or red.  This was undoubtedly concerning to you, because this is likely not the education you are hoping for your child. You had this new information and now you could make a choice – exit, voice or loyalty. If you decided to stay, the next year in 2017 you came to the meeting at your school was green. Big improvement and worthy of celebration. But now you attend the meeting this year and your school is back down to yellow or orange.  For a family trying to make decisions about how to be involved and how to support their child, this is a lot of noise. True, much of the problem is a result of the “greening” that happened in 2017 and we see the implications of this over time. The focus needs to be on helping families in these schools hear the signal for the noise.  Principals at these schools should be given extra support and coaching on helping families see either the growth happening or the challenges that are present.

Rejecting the “Us vs Them” Noise

One of the other major challenges in this group of schools, is that six of them are amongst the 20 schools whose rating was demoted to yellow because they did not meet expectations on the SPF’s “Academic Gaps Indicator.” This means these schools would have been green but for gaps at the school with groups of kids.  This means that the school isn’t doing well for all kids.  Whether it’s with race, class or special education – the school is yellow because groups at that school are all not receiving a high quality education.  

For some parents in these schools, this will be the big signal in a positive way. Will it lead them to exit the school because their student is a part of the group not being supported? Will groups of parents band together to use their voice to advocate for additional support, holding the school accountable to serving the group better? This is an important and creative tension that school leaders and DPS central administration will help manage. If done well,  parents will know and then can make empowered choices,

However, the exit, voice or loyalty could play out in a negative way.  In this scenario, parents could leave the school or the district because of the “other” kids at the school.  They could blame these students for the lower ranking. Or they use their voice to challenge the school or the district in ways that exclude these students.  In this scenario, exit or voice with this information could be very problematic. That’s the wrong signal to send. The Academic Gaps Indicator inherently grapples with issues of race, class, power, and privilege. As the community and district navigate these conversations it is critical to name these dynamics, and to keep students — particularly those least well served by the system — at the forefront.

It’s all about public leadership

At the end of the day, it will be up to principals and instructional leaders to ensure that the right signals are sent in either case.  That there is a constructive and productive dialogue at the school about to live up to the core value of equity and the spirit of cooperation in support of all kids.  

The SPF, like any tool or instrument, is necessary but insufficient.  It is clearly insufficient to tell us everything about a school (an unfair expectation of any human instrument) but is necessary for the aligned opening for a conversation and partnership with families and students about school quality. Remember that SPF itself is not the goal. An SPF that creates meaningful agency and empowered choices is the goal.

Beyond our schools listed here, there is another significant group of red and orange schools out there this year where principals and teachers will be having important conversations with families.  There is another group of schools that have dropped precipitously or have been red for a while. Supporting these educators in helping families and students make decisions is critical. The new board push to see the complexity is encouraging but still requires district leadership to make sure they can have the kind of conversation to help the parents sort the noise from the signal.  Recognizing complexity cannot be an excuse to overdo complexity searching for the reality of whether or not a student is being served well at a school.

In his recent piece, Van articulated a major opportunity that we should consider in a way to create broader public leadership on this issue – the creation of a public commission (like the Bond Mill oversight committee or other DPS task forces) that would oversee the way the SPF is administered and developed.  This would allow for co-creation and co-production in the SPF that can create even broader public dialogue about the purpose of the SPF and to ensure community voice.  In this case the signals can flow both ways.  It may have the potential to avoid problems like last year, when community groups were caught flat-footed by an SPF that didn’t hold schools to a high enough bar.

This would be a consequential and important move: away from a School Performance Framework and towards a School Community Framework – a focused and purposeful shift to allow communities to send signals to DPS and for DPS to send clearer signals to families.  Let us hope that our leaders can find time in a beautiful and busy fall for such a serious and important conversation.