Anxiety combined with rising expectations is revolutionary rocket fuel. Amidst their wandering, can different generations of educational leaders come together for what we all know is possible? Or will they fail each other and future generations?
I was recently speaking with a group of national education experts who were asking my opinion about current issues in Denver Public Schools. As someone who knows the district and it’s leadership, I defended their actions and values but honestly felt I was at a loss to justify the School Performance Framework flap or recent self-inflicted wounds.
In that moment, a veteran observer of leaders and reform systems said, “The sad thing is that Denver Public Schools is a victim of their own success.” I was stunned by the clarity of this observation and how it spoke to my latent observations of the political climate in our city.
The success is evident. At a recent A+ Colorado panel on Outliers, Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova discussed the tremendous progress of ELL students. There is no denying that for tens of thousands of students with English language needs in Denver, going back to the world of 2006 is not an option. In DPS schools, multiliteracy is promoted, encouraged, and showing real signs of strengthening in practice. District critics of all stripes usually avoid this data point (for it would suggest to some that district coherence & infrastructure actually can lead to good outcomes and to others that the district is doing great work for some of its most vulnerable kids).
Another positive point is school turnaround, usually the quagmire of districts. While not all have been outstanding success, steady progress shows Denver with the potential to break the cycle of turnaround. With high profile turnarounds operated by charter schools that have shown record gains or modest but steady cultural and academic improvement, the argument that charters can’t serve local communities is ebbing. The district has also showed progress in the turnaround work with their Year 0 turnaround cohort producing real momentum at previously low-performing schools by prioritizing family voice and new academic designs.
These points of progress are joined by charters and district schools sending more kids to college than ever before, an enviable educational advocacy community, and tremendous investments from local and national philanthropy. DPS set an ambitious and highly inspirational Denver Plan 2020 to mobilize the system, including a goal for 80% of 3rd grade reading on grade level. Add on top of that a potential societal-shifting reduction in suspension and expulsions. Expectations for Denver students/schools are a mile high and increasing almost as fast as the population.
Rising expectations are often the stuff of revolutions
District officials lament repeatedly off-record how much more could be possible. Board members share publicly how far they know they are from real achievement. It’s the bittersweetness of increased success – you know you can do more. External partners of the district and former Board members are striking rapidly both publicly and privately against the current district leadership. Why? Because they know how much more must be done and believe it’s possible.
The Denver of 2006 was sadly too content with the failed outcomes for kids of color and low-income communities. The Denver of 2018 is watching exploding growth among white and high income populations (both demographically and academically) while kids of color and low-income communities fall behind or barely narrow gaps. Progress for English language learners is not matched by progress of African-American students. More than a few schools are lighting the way, but as the recent NAEP data shows, we are truly far away from every child succeeding. And, as A+ Colorado has sadly reported, DPS is nearly 30 years away from achieving it’s 2020 goals under current rate of progress . And the questions don’t stop. What’s DPS’ plan for the Montbello community? Will they act on integrating schools? Can they learn their own lessons in turnaround? Are they prioritizing autonomy over all other theories of action? Is DPS able to meet the goals of the Bailey report and the African-American task force? Will the new graduation policy reveal a tower of cards?
A regular observer could be forgiven for seeing avoidance in the district’s delay in answering big questions and frustration amongst the leaders who want more for kids. In 2018, communities in Denver can see clearly what is possible and what they aren’t getting at their school. A decade-long timeline of progress isn’t helpful to families that are in a system failing them now.
Vague notions of a path forward mixed with uneven progress causes anxiety. Anxiety combined with rising expectations is revolutionary rocket fuel.
The people wonder and the system wanders
At a recent event hosted by the Gates Family Foundation and Blue School Partners, an emerging generational divide about these rising expectations and shared perspectives on the path forward displayed themselves publicly amongst education leaders.
An elder group of leaders, including Senator Bennet and current Superintendent Boasberg spent significant amount of time defending past actions and current progress. You could almost hear the revolution brewing around them in the auditorium. A newer generation is asking: “Yes we’ve made progress and we hear you that more must be done. But don’t we need to do things radically differently?” and “How do we give real power to those dispossessed in the system, not just the illusion of power?” And they weren’t alone. They are joined by many who have led the fight for years asking the same questions.
During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama often talked about two generations: Moses and Joshua. In the biblical story of Moses and Joshua, Moses confronted the Pharaoh and led his people to freedom. However, it was the Joshua generation that arrived at the promised land.
We have a Moses generation in Denver. A generation of dedicated activists, teachers, principals, and system leaders who fought to bring both the potential and reality of educational progress to this city. Urgency and student outcomes was their battle cry. They were exceptionally well connected amongst the foundations, civic institutions and prominent businesses of their time. They banded together to push for a brighter future for their kids and others. And in many ways, they’ve begun to see it materialize. They lost some fights, won others and begun many that still remain unresolved. They eventually came to see their mission as an equity mission (even if many of them had different definitions of what that meant). Now many of them are the first to admit that Denver is wandering the desert.
We also have a Joshua generation emerging in Denver. A group of new leaders who imagine using the tools given to us by the Moses generation to create a new kind of change. These leaders are more diverse than Denver has ever seen. They seek a community-driven open system. They lead through engagement and empathy. They consider many “innovations” and “improvements” as lacking a real vision of what exceptional learning looks like in a world that’s rapidly changing. They care deeply about process as well as outcomes. They want to move beyond equity, using innovation and autonomies to construct systems of liberation (with many different ideas about what it will look like). They see a path towards a lasting, enduring change. Yet just as they are coming of age, they feel the previous generation halting their path (i.e. no new Call for Quality Schools). Because of this and other reasons, many of them see the previous generation not as Moses but as Pharaoh. They ought remember there is a lesson in that Pharaoh and Moses were raised together and knew each other as siblings.
And they should remember the enduring change they seek is possible now because of the generations who came before.
As then Senator Obama said in 2007:
I’m here because somebody marched. I’m here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation; but we’ve got to remember, now, that Joshua still had a job to do…
There are still battles that need to be fought; some rivers that need to be crossed. Like Moses, the task was passed on to those who might not have been as deserving, might not have been as courageous, find themselves in front of the risks that their parents and grandparents and great grandparents had taken. That doesn’t mean that they don’t still have a burden to shoulder, that they don’t have some responsibilities.
The previous generation, the Moses generation, pointed the way…
So the question, I guess, that I have today is what’s called of us in this Joshua generation? What do we do in order to fulfill that legacy; to fulfill the obligations and the debt that we owe to those who allowed us to be here today?
I have tremendous admiration and respect for those who have led our city and improved our schools. I can only imagine how hard it is for them to see so much progress and so many gaps at the same time. They’ve literally poured their hearts, souls, and careers into it. I admire all of them across the ideological divides and perspectives. I don’t think their time is up. In fact I think the most critical period of their leadership approaches.
The Path Ahead
We live in very complicated times and in an extremely complicated educational political climate. The center is not holding, this much is clear. It also doesn’t help that we are currently enmeshed in an outrage-fueled, hot-take national culture that punishes all for speaking their mind while simultaneously calling upon us all to speak truth to power. In Denver, the level of external discontent and district disconnect is rapidly approaching crisis levels, even more than defenders of the district would like to admit.
Denver is now a city full of education revolutionaries from different generations who believe they can change the world, yet deeply doubt our current path for multiple reasons. That’s a combustible combination. Now add for kindling a lack of clarity or alignment amongst leaders about the next steps. Strike a match of a fraught political climate calling for change.
This is Denver in the spring of 2018: wandering towards revolution. Amidst their wandering, can two generations come together to build a new shared future?
The revolution will eventually come, whether people want it or not. And when it does it will likely not end up like anything anyone expects; it never does.