Dwight Jones as interim superintendent: Competence trumps ideology

Kudos to the school board for naming Dwight Jones as interim superintendent of Denver Public Schools. Jones is a solid choice with deep experience managing large systems, and a track record of success.

It’s a bit of a surprise choice, though, given what would appear to be some philosophical mismatches between Jones and his new bosses. It shows maturity that the board was willing to place competence and experience over ideology, at least for the next seven months.

Jones’ management expertise and strategic thinking excellence could be just what this board needs as it confronts the daunting task of hiring a new superintendent during a once-a-century pandemic that has turned schooling topsy-turvy. 

Jones currently serves as DPS’ senior deputy superintendent for equity. He has also been key in developing the district’s pandemic crisis priorities. This, board member Scott Baldermann said Wednesday, made the decision “incredibly easy.”

Jones told the board Wednesday evening that “we all have a lot of heavy lifting to do…My commitment is to keep the trains running, on time and under budget, then exit and turn it over to the next superintendent.”

Elaine Gantz Berman, who served on the State Board of Education when Jones was Colorado’s education commissioner, lauded the choice Wednesday. “He is politically savvy, smart, and familiar with the challenges facing DPS,” Berman said. “He is also strategic and will be able to assist the board in developing a vision for the incoming superintendent as they prepare to embark on a search.”

Jones left Colorado in 2010 to become superintendent in Clark County (Las Vegas) Nevada, the nation’s fifth largest school district.

When Jones left the helm of Clark County  in 2013, after three years, the Las Vegas Sun described him as a “reform-minded” superintendent. Reform, as defined in the education world, is the antithesis of what the current board is about. 

Here’s what else the Sun had to say about Jones.

  • “Jones …worked to make the district more transparent by launching the state’s first school ranking system, which rated schools on a one- to five-star scale. High-performing schools were given more autonomy while low-performing schools were given more support.” Some DPS board members, and in particular Baldermann, have frequently criticized district systems that have even the appearance of putting schools in competition with one another. Yet that’s precisely what a one-to-five-star scale does.
  • “Jones created plenty of enemies when he went to battle with the local teachers union, one of the largest unions in the state. To shift more resources to the classroom, Jones called for a freeze on all employee salaries.” Jones lost that battle in arbitration but prevailed in a subsequent case. The union wasn’t sorry to see him go. In Denver, several current board members have close ties to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.
  • Jones brought to Las Vegas the Colorado Growth Model, whose creation he oversaw as Colorado education commissioner. The growth model “measures student achievement by annual improvement rather than proficiency scores.” Again, test-based accountability is unpopular among some Denver board members.

It’s also worth noting that Jones, as commissioner, was a supporter of Colorado Senate Bill 10-191, which created a new teacher accountability system loathed by the DCTA and the Colorado Education Association. The bill, which has been watered down since its inception, tied teacher tenure to evaluations directly tied to student achievement as measured by standardized tests.

In a white paper he wrote as he began his work in Las Vegas, Jones said Senate Bill 191 “allows educators to be treated as are their professional colleagues in other fields; they will be evaluated with a variety of measures and will earn salary increases commensurate with the results achieved with their students.” 

He referred to this bill and another, along with the innovation schools law he also championed, as “aggressive reform legislation.”

Having talked to several people who know Jones and have worked with him in Colorado, here are a few quick takeaways.

First, as Berman said, he is a strong manager and leader. During his tenure as education commissioner, he restored the Colorado Department of Education’s reputation after several years of turmoil and missteps.He did this in part by employing decision-making based on data. This extended to school and teacher quality, among other areas.

Second, Jones has always excelled at surrounding himself with high-functioning teams composed of smart, accomplished people. As interim, he will be in more of a caretaker role, but he is a good evaluator of talent.

Third, he believes in measurement, which in the case of public education, means some form of standardized testing.

Finally, he is a well-known workaholic. At CDE, he often arrived at work before dawn, and left long after dark. He expects no less of his team.

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.