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What does education reform mean in Denver now? And where are its leaders?

Denver Public Schools has gone from an exemplar of education reform to a pale imitation of the Jerry Springer show.

A just-released study by the University of Colorado, with support from Tulane University, showed that education reform in Denver had a more significant positive impact on student outcomes than nearly any other improvement effort anywhere over the past several decades.

The research is significant because of the rigor of the analysis and the ability of the researchers to isolate the improvements from any other changes, including demographics, in the district.  The effect size or impact from the Denver reforms were massive. In fact they were bigger than the famous  Perry Preschool Project, which really says something about the power of these efforts.

Debates on the current Denver school board now mostly revolve around power and discussions on anything but student learning or academics. An analysis last spring showed that less than 2% percent of school board time was spent on discussions about students and the district plans related to academic improvement. I am guessing if that analysis were repeated today, time spent on student learning would be even less, given all the latest drama.

Gone are the days of mostly civil debates among the school board and with community over which groups of teachers should have the most compensation and the nuances of what is a “good” school and how we should measure it.

Denver Post editorials are now focused not on what policies should be supported or removed but about vanity and dysfunction of the school board.  DPS has had a remarkable fall from, if not grace, then at least respectability.

Education reform has become a dirty word in many circles. Reformers have been successfully painted as anti-teacher by the teacher unions (much of it triggered by some reformers dumb attacks on teachers — think Michelle Rhee with her broom on the cover of TIME).

This was accelerated significantly by President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in 2016,. Their primary objective was to undermine public education and promote religious private schools, and they also blindly supported charter schools regardless of whether they served students well.

And on top of all of that, those opposed to any form of reform have successfully if unfairly painted many reform leaders as puppets of rich hedge fund guys, or at the very least having some paternalistic savior mentality toward students of color.

The reality here in Denver is that the reformers over the decades have been varied in their outlooks, and have spanned all parts of the educational system. They have been teachers (sometimes even teacher union leaders), principals, central office administrators, and a series of three superintendents.

Reformers did not always agree on the specifics, but they all agreed on the big picture strategies of working towards improved student outcomes, school autonomy and accountability. And all agreed that student outcome measures, while imperfect, included high school graduation rates, CMAS/SAT scores, and college-going.

We know what education reform looked like in 2013. There was a focus on student achievement by setting clear expectations for school quality, supporting families to attend the program and schools that worked for their students, and providing additional resources and support for those students that needed them most. Finally, it focused on holding schools and people accountable for results.

This was called portfolio management and it did move the needle in a significant way for low-income students and students of color, while recognizing the results were far from what most of us wanted. One to 2 percent improvement per year in retrospect turned out to be not only good but when looked at over a decade possibly the best in the country.

So what does education reform look like in 2023? Is there an education reform agenda and who might lead or support this work?  I do not know.

Given all that has happened over the last 20 years, and now with the recent chaos, conflict and incompetence of the DPS board, I think it is time for the Denver community to do a reset and answer some key questions.

  • What should Denver students be expected to know and be able to do?
  • What must adults in the system do to support students to meet these expectations?
  • How will we know students are meeting these expectations? How will we know whether adults are supporting students and how can the district best support teachers and schools?
  • What should a system of schools look like and how should it be managed to support our expectations for students? Should the system support different education models of schools and programs or should the system support one best model of education for all students?

Our current school systems, including Denver, were designed more than a century ago to educate a small percentage of students (white and higher income) for college with the expectation that most other students would graduate high school (or not) ready to enter the workforce as laborers.

Our public education systems were designed not to be engines of opportunity, as most American’s seem to believe, but mostly large sorting systems, replicating societal inequalities and providing businesses with skilled workers (though that is becoming less true today).

Unfortunately, it is impossible to stop or walk away from the current system and build an entirely new public system, as many have suggested.  We can’t stop time, build something new, and restart the clock.  We have to take what we have and transform it into a system that provides all students with the opportunity to live out their full potential.

The Oxford dictionary definition of “reform” is “change that is made to a social system, an organization, etc. in order to improve or correct it.”

Can Denver leaders come up with a new definition of education reform or return to the most recent effort, called portfolio management, that seemed to work at least on a few fronts?

Can there be an agreement around targets for improvement on graduation and assessment scores that are realistic and based on what is possible?

Will Denver’s community, elected, and foundation leaders step up to ensure that Denver builds a great public education system for all of Denver?

Or will Denver’s board continue on a downward spiral, as Denver leaders and parents become more apathetic?

If nothing changes from the current trajectory, Denver will become just another large dysfunctional school system where any parents with knowledge and/or resources finds a school to work for their child, while most families are left to take whatever educational gruel the school district offers.

DPS is looking more and more like Los Angeles, Memphis, Atlanta, and all of the dozens of other mediocre school systems by the day.

Next November’s school board election will either accelerate the fall, possibly stop the bleeding, or maybe even reset a new course.

Does Denver become an education exemplar for progress, or a cautionary tale about the politics of education reform?

The next 10 months will set the course.