By Van Schoales
Tom Boasberg, the superintendent of Denver Public Schools, is about to return to his position after a six-month sabbatical with his family in South America. After seven years as superintendent, he has been one of the longest serving superintendents of an urban school district with an elected school board in our country’s recent memory. During his tenure the district has made steady improvement, even if far it’s from what is needed.
Boasberg’s return comes at an interesting time with the continued growth of charters; the inauguration of a new governance structure, the Luminary Learning Network; a tight facility market; and slowing enrollment growth. He is in a tough spot with a central district staff that seems sometimes at odds when it comes to improvement strategies, having multiple different, and sometimes overlapping, initiatives being implemented with the same authority. Academic progress is mixed: college and career readiness indicators have mostly stalled; ACT scores have been flat for several years; last year’s elementary PARCC scores made a big jump relative to other districts, but there is just one year of data and it has been unclear exactly what the relative score improvement means (this year’s scores will be very telling).
Understanding what Tom must grapple with over the next six months requires understanding where we’ve been.
Denver Public Schools has, for the past fifteen years, steadily increased focus on the implementation of a performance management (or portfolio) strategy. This has meant a gradual shift away from a centralized district management strategy (some may call it a command/control structure), where the district dictates curriculum, interventions, professional development, etc. The district has become more agnostic about governance and educational methods, while becoming more focused on whether students are learning as measured by a variety of assessments.
DPS Improvement Strategy Phases 2002-Present
While many other big districts flip back and forth between improvement strategies as leadership and political powers change (New York City provides a recent quintessential example), Denver has been fortunate to have to have relative stability of leadership on the school board and at the superintendent’s seat. The ecosystem of support and critique from the non-profit and advocacy space has helped enormously to guide the district’s strategy and role.
However, the shift to a performance management strategy has not been made without internal conflict. It was only in May 2014 that the district rewrote its strategic plan to reflect more of a portfolio strategy after the board rejected a draft plan that was more about central management.
Some of the biggest challenges in making the transition from the centralized approach to a performance management approach have been felt by middle management and those that work directly in or with the schools. It has been unclear at times whether the district is meant to provide support for schools at the school’s discretion, or if the district is meant to drive improvement. And so school staffs are pulled between central edicts and their own particular school needs.
The most visible result of this tension between school needs and the district mandates has resulted in the development of the new Luminary Learning Network. The network is a group of innovation schools that have enjoyed many of the same autonomies as charter schools (at least on paper), but decided that they were still too restricted to be able to operate the way they needed to. They formed a new non-profit entity, the Luminary Learning Network, which will have a separate governing board that will report directly to the school board (rather than to the superintendent’s office like before). Schools in this network will have more control over resources and will be better positioned to buy services from DPS or others than in the past.
The district is now at a critical juncture. The DPS board has some very ambitious goals that will require a dramatic acceleration of progress if the district has a chance of meeting 2020 goals. Upon his return, Tom has some big questions to grapple with:
- Primary role of the district: What is the role of the district office? Should it be both a school operator and regulator? What is ideal? How do you ensure those two houses are supported to do their jobs? And who are the right people to support schools under what management model? What’s the right size for a district office? And who should do what? Will there be yet another reorganization with so many senior folks leaving or switching positions?
- Strategy Implementation: Will the district do a better job narrowing in on a few of the existing strategies? Drop those that are not working? Maybe add some new strategies or just double down on what they are already doing? For example, how will the district and board implement their new “school performance compact”, where the lowest 5% of schools will be phased out or closed to be replaced by new schools (which I’m guessing will be a mix of innovation and charters)?
- New governance structures: One of the central questions will be whether Tom continues to have a fairly traditional district managing an ever smaller number of district-run schools while other schools operate under the portfolio model where they can pick and choose what they get from the central office. Will traditional schools become managed more like the charters? Will additional innovation schools choose to join the Luminary Learning Network? How will this impact the funding and operation of the central office?
- Principal training, support, retention, and accountability: What does moving closer to a portfolio approach mean for the principal training/pipeline and teacher leadership (differentiated roles)? How would the approaches be different in a centralized vs. portfolio district?
- Teacher compensation: What should teacher compensation look like in 2017-2020? And what is the relationship between compensation and improving academic outcomes for students?
Can DPS change as an organization so that it can deliver the outcomes set by the Board? What will Tom push for, stop doing, and continue to do so DPS can deliver? The next six months will be telling.