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A Tale of 5 Reform Districts

By Van Schoales

 Colorado’s system of academic standards and assessments started in 1995, making 2015 the 20thanniversary of the standards movement. With the introduction of the Colorado Student Assessment Program (better known as CSAP) came the acknowledgement that Colorado had large pockets of underperforming schools. Districts in Colorado began acting on this information. In particular, five large districts initiated different flavors of school reform, beginning in earnest around 2005. So what’s changed in these districts?

What follows is a snapshot of five districts’ reform approach, followed by a single progress indicator: writing scores.  There are dozens to look at but I chose writing because: it is a more challenging assessment than math and reading; scores bounce up and down less than other subjects from year to year; it’s harder to teach to the test; and it is the best indicator of later success in college and career.

Aurora: In 2006, John Barry, a former Air Force General and Broad graduate started a series of reforms including the creation of Pilot schools  (similar to innovation schools) like William Smith, and career pathways designed to prepare students for a variety of careers. Barry was named Colorado Superintendent of the Year in 2011 by the American Association of School Administrators and was a finalist for Colorado State Commissioner. Current Superintendent Rico Munn, a former Colorado State Board member, seems to have largely picked up where Barry left off.

Denver: In 2005 Michael Bennet outlined a plan to right size the district financially while setting forth a number of instructional reform efforts including the approach to early childhood education, types of literacy programs, and providing college level courses. These instructional reforms later morphed into management reforms and a “portfolio” approach that focused on school performance management and new school development when Bennet’s COO Tom Boasberg took over as Superintendent in 2009. Denver has created more new schools than any other district in Colorado, and has sought to decentralize control and redistribute this authority to the school level. The district has also embraced charters and innovation schools. As a result of these efforts, Denver has received a lot of outside grant dollars and recognition for its work.

Douglas County:  DougCo is the wealthiest large district in Colorado and lately has been in the news for controversy over their voucher program (an issue now headed to the US Supreme Court). What has not received much attention, but is a more dramatic reform, was the decision to reorient the district so that its schools and instructional approach are focused on building 21st century skills. To that end, the district’s strategic plan is focused on three District-level priorities – Choice, World-Class Education and System Performance. Superintendent Liz Fagen is in her sixth year and her approach to school improvement isinspired by the work of various well known progressive education consultants like Steven Covey, William Glasser, Jay McTighe, Grant Wiggins, Tony Wagner and others.  The district’s leadership has also successfully dismantled the union representing teachers in DougCo, and has implemented a market-based pay-for-performance system for teachers.

Jefferson County: Cindy Stevenson, who served as the award-winning superintendent from 2002-2012, focused efforts on better supports for teachers, a “strive for greatness,” and more attention towards district managed schools (rather than on charters in the district who tend to serve a more affluent population).  Last year JeffCo significantly changed its strategy as Superintendent Dan McMinimee and new school board members took the helm. The recent board and superintendent shift has focused more resources towards schools of choice and noticeably less collaboration with the district’s teacher union. This new approach may not continue given this fall’s pending recall election (and it is too early to tell what the impact has been on learning).

Mapleton:  Mapleton is the smallest of these districts, but in many ways launched what was the most radical reform effort.  Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio made public the district’s  shortcomings when she started in 2001. In 2003, Ciancio put forth a plan to eliminate the district’s only high school and replace it with smaller district-managed schools of choice with varying instructional designs. Mapleton built the first forced parent choice system in Colorado (using district schools only, no charters) and created the most new schools as a percent of the student population of any district in Colorado.

After the efforts across the five districts, what’s changed?

These charts compare CSAP writing scores from 2005 to scores from 2014 for several categories of students as compared to the state average for that same group of students.  The color green indicates scores better than the state average, and red indicates scores at, or below the state average.  Most of the district reforms described above did not really begin to be implemented until after 2005 which is why I selected 2005 as the base year to compare to the latest scores from 2014.

Low-Income students (The FRL category groups “free” and “reduced” lunch category students together).

District 2005 CSAP Writing % Proficient or above 2014 TCAP Writing % Proficient or above % Proficient Change/Year
Colorado 32 37 0.6
Aurora 22 29 0.8
Denver 20 34 1.6
DougCo 44 39 -0.6
JeffCo 37 40 0.3
Mapleton 26 31 0.6

Non Low-Income students

District 2005 CSAP Writing % Proficient or above 2014 TCAP Writing % Proficient or above % Proficient Change/Year
Colorado 65 67 0.2
Aurora 44 49 0.6
Denver 47 70 2.6
DougCo 72 70 -0.2
JeffCo 69 70 0.1
Mapleton 40 47 0.8

Latino Students

District 2005 CSAP Writing % Proficient or above 2014 TCAP Writing % Proficient or above % Proficient Change/Year
Colorado 31 38 0.8
Aurora 21 30 1.0
Denver 20 34 1.6
DougCo 53 49 -0.4
JeffCo 40 43 0.3
Mapleton 26 33 0.7

African American Students

District 2005 CSAP Writing % Proficient or above 2014 TCAP Writing % Proficient or above % Proficient Change/Year
Colorado 37 37 0
Aurora 29 30 0.1
Denver 28 34 0.7
DougCo 53 38 -0.6
JeffCo 44 39 -0.6
Mapleton 40 31 -1.0

White Students

District 2005 CSAP Writing % Proficient or above 2014 TCAP Writing % Proficient or above % Proficient Change/Year
Colorado 65 65 0
Aurora 49 51 0.2
Denver 62 76 1.6
DougCo 72 69 -0.3
JeffCo 67 67 0
Mapleton 41 45 0.4

Clearly Denver is the outlier. The question is why? What are they doing that others are not? Is it their plan for improvement? Is it the charter schools?  The turnaround school efforts?  Community engagement?  New schools?  School choice?  All of the above?

I suspect that one of the key reasons why Denver is an outlier is that there has been more emphasis in Denver on schools as the unit of change (which is often framed, for political reasons, as “the classroom”) rather than the district. Another interesting note, there is a similar trend seen with ACT scores, with Denver and Mapleton being the only districts from this list that have outperformed the state average.

It would be helpful to do more in-depth investigation of each district’s results, along with some third party evaluations to see what was, and was not, implemented, and how changes impacted student outcomes. The education reform/improvement space has been dominated by state, and sometimes district, policy debates with next to no attention or resources being placed on how any of these efforts are–or are not–moving student achievement.

Here’s to hoping district school board members and leaders are asking some of these same questions. More districts and their communities need to spend time reflecting on what has or has not worked before launching into the next great reform effort or buying iPads for all.