THE BLOG

For DPS, History Bites Back

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As Denver Public Schools struggles to pursue a consistent reform
strategy, the district is encountering a multitude of obstacles,
including repercussions from its history of failure. The current
situation illustrates why so few districts can establish a plan and
stick to it for long enough to make real progress.

DPS is being told by various pressure groups to speed up, to slow
down, to deconstruct itself, to shore itself up. What’s a
superintendent – and a divided school board – to do?

There is no easy answer. And the fact that over at least the past 20
years the district has left a litter of poorly and partially executed
reforms in its wake makes the voices of dissent all the shriller, and
more credible.

I’ve been following DPS closely since 1995. During that time, the
district has been consistent in this way: It has tended to falter in
its implementation of programs and ideas – usually too quickly and on
the cheap — and then blamed the program or idea rather than the
half-baked implementation. I see signs that this may finally be
changing.

I’ll name two examples from earlier this decade to make my point
about the past. Start with the Manual High School small schools
experiment earlier this decade. There is no single explanation for what
went wrong, or course. There is plenty of blame to go around. But
having witnessed this one from up close, I am convinced that the
district’s passive-aggressive implementation of the model was one major
problem.

DPS couldn’t say no to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s
largesse. Other than the money, though, the district demonstrated
through its actions (or lack thereof) that it didn’t want much to do
with the small schools movement. We all know how that ended up.

School revitalization is another example that comes to mind. The
district got voters to approve $2.5 million per year out of a $20
million mill levy override in 2003 to take under-performing schools and
transform them through an infusion of cash and a new educational model.

There were plenty of failures – schools where changes fell flat or
never materialized. But traces of early success in revitalization
remain as well, at Brown and Montclair elementaries, Hill Middle
School, and Kennedy High’s International Baccalaureate program. IB
programs at Lake, Henry and Smiley middle schools have had varying
degrees of success.

Under Michael Bennet, though, the revitalization program morphed
into School Innovation Grants and Beacons schools, and now apparently
has become part of the “performance schools” effort. In any case, money
initially earmarked for revitalization is now funneled into some newer
and different reform stream.

Today’s struggle over Lake Middle School represents backlash over
DPS’ incomplete implementation of school revitalization. Elementary
students from Brown’s IB program are almost ready to hit middle school,
and continue their IB schooling. Only now they may not get that chance.

If IB is languishing at Lake, critics say, it is at least in part
because the district did not fund the program adequately. Nor has the
district followed IBO recommendations and hired a district-wide IB
coordinator.

If DPS pulls the plug on IB at Lake – where yes, achievement is
lagging – it would provide another clear-cut example of blaming a
proven program for the district’s impatience and inadequate
implementation.

At this point, it has become almost irrelevant that the current
regime seems sincere about changing past practices. Superintendent Tom
Boasberg has shown every indication that he wants to improve upon his
predecessor’s visionary, if vague, reform plan. If Boasberg sticks
around five years or more, and stays the course, then Denver might
actually experience a reform strategy long-lasting enough to show
results.

The problem is that the city’s residents, particularly those
familiar with the district’s history, whether as parents, advocates,
policy wonks, etc., are accustomed to DPS’ usual way of doing business.
As a result, they might fight reflexively against what proves to be
real, meaningful reform, unable to believe it is staring them in the
face. Some of this is happening now in northwest Denver, particularly
around the Lake issue.

I’m generally as skeptical as they come, but I believe Boasberg is
serious about changing the culture of DPS. He believes in building
strong data systems, sharing findings with the public, and then basing
decisions, even if they are initially unpopular, on those data.

It would be ironic indeed if the restive public elects a school
board deeply skeptical about the direction Boasberg (and Michael Bennet
before him) is taking the district. I don’t know whether it is possible
to “reform” an urban school district in such a way that improvements
are large enough to be meaningful, and are sustainable to boot.

But my guess is we have a better shot at it by staying the course
with Boasberg – while keeping the pressure on his regime – than
changing direction yet again and continuing the long limp into
mediocrity, or worse.