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Accountability Starts at the Top

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On November 30 2010, the state of Colorado Department of Education (CDE) released ratings for Colorado's 178 school districts. Not surprisingly, Denver Public Schools' student performance was worse than any of the state's largest school districts, with DPS being rated as Accredited with Priority Improvement Plan.

The District's student performance numbers overall were shocking, with just 44% of all DPS students testing at grade level. DPS's student growth scores were among the top in the state at 25%, but only 3% better than a district like Jefferson County Public Schools, and 9% lower than Aurora Public Schools. DPS missed its academic growth targets for students in both writing and math.

What does this mean for DPS? Well, the District now has to file an improvement plan by January 15 for the Colorado Department of Education's review and approval. What this plan might look like has not been discussed with members of the Board of Education. It is clear that business as usual at DPS has to stop. It is time to turn around DPS, CDE style.

The Colorado Education Accountability Act of 2009 requires that all school districts in the state be evaluated in four areas: academic achievement on state exams; academic growth on state exams; closing achievement gaps among student groups on state exams; and post-secondary and workforce readiness as determined by performance on the Colorado ACT, dropout rate and graduation rate. This past year's academic data are being used for the first time to document overall school district performance. (For more information, see Nancy Mitchell's article "State releases district ratings.")

To get a better understanding of DPS's performance, let's take a look at the to-be-shuttered Oakland Elementary in Montebello. Last month, in a 4 to 3 vote, DPS's Board of Education decided to implement its Far Northeast Denver feeder pattern plan (see " What's Up in Denver's Public School System?") As part of this plan, Oakland Elementary School is to be closed and replaced by a charter school, SOAR II.

Now, admittedly, Oakland is not a stellar school in terms of academic performance. Its students consistently test below grade level and student growth is consistently below the state's goals. For example, on a 100 point scale, Oakland's students received a growth score of 51 in math. The state's goal for Oakland's students was 77. (It should be noted that only 16 elementary schools out of more than 800 across the entire metro Denver area achieved a growth score of 77 points or above.) Across all of DPS, students received a growth score of 53 in math. The state's goal for DPS's students was 73. Similarities for reading and writing track between Oakland and DPS as a whole.

Basically, Oakland Elementary is a microcosm of DPS's district-wide student academic growth performance.

But student growth isn't the only similarity between Oakland and DPS as a whole. In terms of academic achievement, only 25% of Oakland's students tested at grade level compared to 44% across all of DPS. However, Oakland's students were growing academically twice as fast as the average DPS student, 50 points per year vs. 25 points, respectively. Oakland and DPS are closing the achievement gap between disparate student populations at roughly the same rate (3 points separate the District from the Oakland itself.)

(The data used I've cited can be retrieved from the CDE website, here for DPS and here for Oakland.)

To address the school's performance, CDE twice has reviewed Oakland Elementary at the request of DPS. One review was done approximately three years ago. Teachers in the building say they began to address CDE's concerns with strategies identified by both the state and by teachers inside the building. However, the principal in the building scuttled the strategies' implementation.

When the second review was done, teachers again set to work, and luckily, the principal soon left Oakland. This time the strategies were being implemented by the new principal. Based on benchmark testing that occur during the school year, teacher's believe that the strategies are beginning to bear fruit but, of course, the true test will be this year's CSAP scores.

Teachers made this point at the DPS Board of Education meeting last month when they asked that Oakland be allowed to continue with its transformation plans. The district said no. Unfortunately, the scores for the 2010/2011 school year will not matter to Oakland. The school board voted to close Oakland despite the pleas of Oakland's community and teachers, approximately 80 of whom attended the school board meeting.

Despite the fact that Oakland is to be closed for its level of performance, I will not advocate that DPS be closed as well, despite the similarities between the school and its parent district. I will, however, advocate that DPS undergo a state program called "school turnaround."

Under turnaround, the broom sweeps clean. At least 51% of teachers in a turn-around school must be fired and all have to reapply for their jobs. The principal has to be gotten rid of. The presumption is that the teachers and principal in a turn-around school are not doing their jobs. The same presumption should be true at the senior levels of DPS. And when the cry comes that the reform is just taking hold, I say, so what? You've had five years. Isn't that long enough? It is, after all, 10 times longer than Oakland got. Further, those teachers were actually making progress. DPS's district management is not.

This may seem harsh, but the Michael Bennet/Tom Boasberg school-reform program has been in operation for 5 years. Let's look at the outcomes:

  1. Graduation rates are stagnant at 50%. During the last 3 years, DPS students have averaged a 17.6 on the ACT. With that score, students who have a 3.0 GPA would be eligible for admissions at Adams State College, CSU - Pueblo, Mesa State College, Metro State College, and Western State College.

  2. Student achievement rates are stagnant at the elementary level of the District, with DPS receiving a rating of "Does Not Meet" for reading, writing, math, and science. Secondary performance has improved, but likely because some middle class parents are beginning to choose to not move their secondary-age kids to suburban schools. At no level of the system, elementary or secondary, is DPS's performance above the 20th percentile for school districts in Colorado.

  3. The achievement gap between economically disadvantaged and non-economically disadvantaged students has remained about the same since 2007. Growth rates for these two groups of students have not changed meaningfully during that same time period, hovering around 50 points. Further, only about 25% of economically disadvantaged students across the District are proficient in math.
  4. Academic achievement continues to be split along racial lines. During the past three years, DPS's minority student population has not met adequate annual academic progress at the elementary, middle, or high school levels of the system. On average across DPS, white and Asian students continue to perform at a much higher rate than their Latino and Black counterparts, with 60% of whites being proficient at math while 27% of blacks are proficient, on average, during the past 3 years. (Latinos are, on average, 30% proficient in math.)

These data were taken from the CDE website, which provides the 1-year and three-year performance indicators for DPS as well as from various views generated by the Colorado Growth Model.

Without exception, DPS leadership has failed on every front across the entire district.

Sure, there are bright spots in DPS, like West Denver Prep and DSST, both of which matriculate about 60% of their students, but those who survive are well prepared to move on to the next level of schooling. Unfortunately, however, these schools serve a very small percentage of DPS' students, likely not more than 3%.

Overall, charter schools could be a solution, if the Denver community as a whole supported them, but they don't. Right now, charters serve about 10% of Denver's students overall, and the community did not ask for the vast majority of these schools. They just got plunked down by DPS senior leadership with no planning or community input.

If, after reading this, you feel despair, let me welcome you to my swimming pool.
  • If you have believed the news reports that DPS has been making progress, don't. DPS has made no real progress.
  • If you are worried DPS might lose "the reform" as so many Denver politicians say should new DPS leadership take the reins, don't. There is no reform to lose.

Almost noting has been accomplished in the past five years. Don't believe me? Check my sources. Don't ask Boasberg. He'll just make something up to pacify you.

To reform DPS, we have to start at the top. Get rid of the senior management team that is so entrenched ideologically it cannot conceive of a way to improve academic performance without spending millions of dollars on charter schools that don't perform, ill-conceived accountability plans, idiotic financing schemes, Denver plans that have no plan for how to get from Point A to Point B. Get rid of at least 51% of the upper and middle level management teams that have supported this foolishness and the senior management team that created it.

Really, it should be no surprise to anyone that DPS has made little progress. Not one thing done in the past five years has followed a single best practice in the industry of enterprise transformation. DPS has rigorously followed a transformation strategy of throwing stuff on the wall to see what sticks, and almost nothing has stuck.

So now it is time to start afresh. Do as the state department of education does to poor performing schools: hold people accountable. Make them own their mistakes, the mistakes and hubris that have left thousands of competent teachers and their schools rudderless, left our schools without money and resources, and left school feeder systems without plans. We have to start fresh.

After this district "turn around" strategy is implemented, we can begin the real work of planned transformation of Denver's school district. We can reform how money is distributed throughout the system. We can look at what innovation really means. We can start giving teachers the resources they have been crying out for. But most importantly, we can stop playing politics with the future of our students.

Now that would be reform.