SPF update: Don’t trust parents with data!

Author’s note: I updated this post the day after I wrote it when it came to my attention that my description of Jennifer Bacon’s remarks was construed by some people as offensive, as well as sexist and racist. I should have immediately pointed out that the wording had been changed, to avoid confusion. More importantly, I should not have been so careless in my use of language in the first place. I want to extend an apology to Ms. Bacon, and I will try to be more judicious in my wording going forward. —Alan Gottlieb

It has been a couple of months since the Denver school board publicly took up the future of the district’s School Performance Framework. But Thursday evening’s conversation on the topic suggests the time off did little to clarify some board members’ muddled thinking.

A vote scheduled for later this month seems likely to lead to further delays and expanded navel-gazing rather than any forward motion. It’s hard to predict how individual members will vote, but based on Thursday’s Zoom work session, a wise bet would be that two of three recommendations put forward by an SPF committee will be tabled to — yet again — seek broader community input.

We’ve written about the Reimagine SPF committee previously, and have featured several guest columns on the topic (read this, this, and this for a sampling). It’s clear at this point that many parents and parent advocacy groups want the district to continue providing broad, public-facing data about school performance and a variety of measures of school quality and parent and student satisfaction. 

Some board members, and particularly the three elected last year and backed by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, seem bent on limiting the data parents have access to regarding how well or poorly their children’s schools are serving all kids, and particularly low-income kids of color. They seem to think schools are delicate flowers, and anything that smacks of criticism or potentially pits one school against another will cause them to wither and die.

Scott Baldermann, the board member with the closest ties to the DCTA, didn’t mince words yesterday when discussing his objections to a dashboard of data proposed by the SPF committee.

”What I worry about is how parents could weaponize this data,” Baldermann said. “I worry about opportunity hoarding, and I worry about marketing as usual.”

As Nicholas Martinez, co-founder and executive director of Transform Education Now remarked on Twitter, Baldermann’s position drips with irony, coming as it does from a guy who represents the most affluent and whitest section of Denver. “So @scott4schools is worried about “opportunity hoarding” by providing data and information. Hoarding by who Scott? Because white people in your district have done that pretty well for a long time,” Martinez tweeted.

But Baldermann didn’t stop there. He suggested that schools waste effort and money marketing themselves, which would be unnecessary if DPS simply eliminated choice in the form of charter and innovation schools. “Is school choice working to solve all these inequities we’ve been seeing? Is that what families want or is that what the district wants because we’ve created the narrative of failing schools over the years? Is our portfolio model something we all agree on, or is it something we need to now challenge, and is this a bigger thing we need to look at than just the SPF?”

While none of the other board members went as far as Baldermann, Tay Anderson echoed his sentiments about wanting to avoid pitting schools against one another. And board member Jen Bacon seemed to endorse providing parents with data, even though, she said, what parents really care about isn’t data but good schools where their children feel seen and recognized.

Bacon, too spoke against putting schools in competition with one another. Competition, she said, is “antithetical to what a public utility like education is” because it creates winners and losers in ways that aren’t helpful to parents. She seemed to suggest that data wouldn’t matter so much if every neighborhood just had a good school that reflected the values of that community.

But she also said that withholding data from families would “be tantamount to not teaching people to read.”

The clearest and most compelling voice came from board member Angela Cobián. She spoke of her experience teaching in a bilingual school where parents believed their children were achieving at higher levels than the data in fact showed. Those parents were clear that they expected their children to graduate with the skills required to succeed in post-secondary education. They wanted their children to have options other than earning a living through manual labor, as the parents had no choice but to do. 

She also spoke of attending Colorado College, an elite liberal arts school, and having to spend time in the writing center because her education had not prepared her for the rigors of CC academics.

Cobián said her personal and professional experiences have led her to believe that talk of depriving parents of data, “especially after disaggregated data had been hidden from families of color for so long, is insane.”

Cobián argued that “it is an abdication of our responsibility to say we fear that the dashboard will be used for competition.” As the governing body of the district, the board can help determine how the dashboard is used, she said.

Here’s the great irony in this whole debate. As Superintendent  Susana Cordova pointed out as the conversation concluded, deciding to scrap the multi-measure, locally created dashboard, and relying instead only on the state Student Performance Framework, means having only one significant data point with which to measure schools: state standardized tests, the great bugaboo of teachers unions and other allies of the current board majority.

“I am hoping that what we can do with additional data points is actually demonstrate where our schools are succeeding beyond test scores,” Cordova said. 

Cordova said this with a straight face, but it was hard not to detect the irony.

Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb is Boardhawk’s editor. Alan has been a Denver-based journalist for more than 30 years. He covered DPS for the Denver Post in the mid-1990s, worked as an education program officer for The Piton Foundation, and co-founded Education News Colorado and Chalkbeat. For the past five years, he has worked as a contract writer and communications consultant.