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

Van’s Ramblings: A Plea for Inquiry on this year’s TCAP results

Dear friends,

On August 13 Colorado’s 2014 TCAP scores will be released, and as has happened since “Nation at Risk” was released in 1983, almost everyone will be frustrated with what will likely be only small, incremental improvement. Some will blame reforms, saying they’ve been too weak, too strong, or misguided. Others will point to a lack of money as the primary reason we haven’t progressed further.  Still others will say the measurement tools are meaningless and that we need not be frustrated at all. Regardless of what the numbers tell us next week, we need to frame our conversations around the long-term trends and use the data as a point of inquiry.

As always, there will be some cheers and plenty of groans. Justifiably so. The US spends more on public education than most of the developed world. Furthermore, we’ve more than doubled our spending since 1970, but achievement has remained stagnant or has fallen relative to other countries.

In Colorado, we’ve seen reform efforts span from resourcing the lowest performing schools (the federal government and others have ponied up more than $80 million over the past few years to turn around the lowest performing schools in CO) to making policy changes aimed at accountability and decentralizing control from districts to schools. The grand result of our investment in change so far has been a 2% improvement on writing statewide since 2003.

In Denver, improvement in TCAP scores over the past few years has been somewhat baffling for district-managed schools compared to most charter schools.  The overall district performance has historically improved 1-2% per year, but there seems to be few patterns of improvement at the school level. What causes a school to improve or lag? Other than having a great school leader for a sustained time period, I don’t know. It seems that no policy or investment has yet been able to leverage the kind of gains we need. We would need to make 5% or more per year instead of 1-3% to reach any of the goals that the Denver School Board is on the brink of approving.

I have argued for Common Core, school finance reform, better school performance management, more quality charters, new data systems, redesigning teacher and principal pipelines, changing the incentives for educators, quality early childhood programs, and more – and do believe these will improve outcomes for kids. But maybe it is time to invest less in trying to argue the loudest on policy, and instead invest in digging deeper into the obstacles or opportunities for educational improvement at the school level.

What do I mean? Practices in schools and classrooms matter more than any state or district policy. Too little time is spent investigating the school/classroom-level practices and culture that are related to stifling or improving education. School districts rarely investigate what is and is not working in terms of new initiatives at the school and classroom level.  On top of that, we are quick to jump onto a new initiative before investigating thoroughly why the problem exists in the first place. We love to layer new programs on top of existing programs rather than focusing on the fundamentals.

We must use the TCAP scores to do further investigation into what practices are impacting the scores rather than superficially claiming victory or defeat depending upon where you sit on a policy or political argument.

Instead of being frustrated by flat scores or minor gains, might we use the data for further inquiry? Might we ask: what are the trends and who are the outliers at the district and school level? What specifically are those schools doing differently than the rest? Until we gain better answers to these questions, I suspect substantial gains will remain out of reach.

A+ will contribute to this inquiry process by publishing information about student performance in our annual Start with the Facts Report, but this is just one step in what must be a more in-depth investigation into what successful schools are doing, why some schools continue to fall flat, and whether the supports along with accountability at the school level are as effective as they can or should be. Denver Public Schools must put inquiry above all other values and practices if we are ever to have the schools we all desire.