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Apparently Michael Bennet Didn't Include Executive Accountability in His Reform Plans

07/06/2010 05:12 am 05:12:02 | Updated May 25, 2011

Amid the uproar surrounding its decision to ban employee travel to Arizona in protest of that state's new immigration enforcement law, Denver Public Schools faces a far greater issue: 3rd grade academic performance.

Yesterday, we learned that DPS' 3rd grade reading scores on the CSAP were flat, yet again. We do not know what the overall picture is for all grades in the District. That will have to wait until August, but we know that 3rd graders did no better on the reading component of the CSAP this year than last. But DPS employees won't be going to Arizona, and that's what matters.

DPS has set a goal of improving third-grade reading scores by 3.5 points every year for the next 5 years. Tom Boasberg, the current DPS superintendent, said in yesterday's Denver Post story, "We want to grow faster."

Boasberg was brought on as DPS' superintendent to continue the Michael Bennet Education Reform Plan. The DPS Board of Education didn't interview one legitimate candidate other than Boasberg. Bennet had to have his man in charge after he was appointed U.S. Senator. Bennet got his wish. Now, Bennet's man is failing, just like Bennet failed when he led DPS. For the most part, scores didn't go up under Bennet, either. (Maybe that's why Bennet left DPS before his promised 5 years as superintendent were up.)

I am sure DPS will handle the crisis, however. DPS' solution to all problems is to go on a propaganda blitz. So, I would bet the people of Denver will hear things like, "Changing a school system is hard work, and we are making strides. The performance of all Colorado schools is testament to that."

DPS will spin this fable over and over again. When DPS says something, it is very good at repeating it, until everyone accepts the fable as the truth. The Denver Post will suck up whatever DPS says, as will EdNews Colorado blog team, most likely. From there, all the other Denver news outlets will follow suit.

The press loves DPS because the District is really good at using easily understood platitudes like "forced placement," "teacher accountability," and "school reform." The phrases themselves have no meaning, so DPS, especially Tom Boasberg and Michael Bennet, can fill in the blanks with whatever is convenient to them at the moment.

After 5 years of DPS-style school reform, I've had enough of the B.S. DPS continues to fail as a system, and the only people to blame for this failure are the District leadership and the Board of Education, which keeps voting for the leadership's agenda no matter how ridiculous that agenda is. (My apologies to the three school board members who actually think before they vote.) Michael Bennet and Tom Boasberg set the course for reform. Now let them own its progress.

What can we say for DPS' reform efforts to date? Well, this --

  • After 5 years, standardized test scores have improved only slightly. DPS graduates still need significant remedial course work when they go to college, if they go to college at all. Most do not graduate from college after 6 years.
  • Since 2005, when Michael Bennet became DPS superintendent, DPS' debt has risen from $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion in 2009.
  • DPS has negotiated itself out of meeting its pension responsibilities -- thank you, Chris Romer, for the help -- and will likely create an unfunded pension liability of at least $400 million by 2015.
  • DPS has cut its school programs to the bone by getting rid of almost every non Reading, Writing, and 'Rithmetic-related program across the District.
  • Bennet and Boasberg have been touted as having returned DPS to fiscal solvency, but DPS is $654 million upside down when comparing its assets to liabilities. It was $312 million upside down in 2005. Detroit Public Schools are only $450 million up side down. Remember to thank Bennet and Boasberg for their fiscal wisdom.

But this is just the start.

Under the guise of reform, DPS imports charter schools like the Catholic Church makes excuses for priests who are pedophiles. It seems no matter how bad you are, if you are a charter school in DPS, you can slump along year after year. Heck, if you stink coming through the door, like Envision Leadership Academy, DPS will make a warm nest for you in a school that has been "redesigned" and given a whole year to succeed. If you need two principals to make it through your first year, that's fine with DPS, too. You keep right on going, Envision.

If you are a financially insolvent charter corporation, like the Cesar Chavez system of schools, DPS will welcome you with open arms. When you can't finds a home, DPS will help you find a building to buy. Want to "fix" a few CSAP test results? DPS will turn a blind eye to that, too, for the sake of those "reformers" from Pueblo. (In his grave, I'll bet Cesar Chavez is groaning about how the Pueblo education clown posse uses his name.)

Of course, DPS has successful charters, like the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), where every child has, at graduation, at least two letters of acceptance to college, or at least so I am told. Boasberg and crew like to talk up this school. Of course, only 50% of the students who enter DSST actually make it through to graduation, but hooray for 50%! Its just the same graduation rate as the rest of DPS.

If, however, you are a public school in DPS, the District gives you the leper treatment. Your teachers are all characterized as slackers. You are induced to take on the reform strategy called "innovation" status. Under innovation status DPS will allow you to fairly budget for your school's needs. For example, schools running the traditional school model get charged $65k per year for each teacher regardless of the teacher's actual salary. With innovation status, the school gets teachers at cost. Now that's what I call reform!

Even if a school does take on innovation status, DPS is still likely to give your school building to a charter school that is looking for a home. The building housing Cole Arts and Sciences Academy will soon become the home of DSST, so that school can open another campus. Cole will move next door to the Mitchel Elementary site. Cole was granted innovation status just this year.

Is it any wonder that after 4 years at Manual High School, Rob Stein can't get out of DPS fast enough? The net-net is we lose a perfectly competent principal at a school that used to be a shining star for education in our city. We get to keep bunglers who have not really improved our schools in 5 years.

And that is the point: after 5 years, when do the people of Denver get accountability? When does DPS' leadership have to own the failures it has perpetrated? By now we should know what the Bennet/Boasberg reform program is getting us.

It is getting us nothing.

  • Across the District, 80% of our 10th grade students are still incapable of doing high school level math. Less than half of all 10th grade students can read at a high school level. About a third can write at a high school level.
  • Since 2005, Denver residents' public school-related debt has increased by $400 million (that's $666 dollars per resident), which doesn't include teacher pension-related debt. None of this debt was incurred providing classroom services. Part of it was created playing Russian roulette on Wall Street as part of a failed attempt to fund the pension at little to no cost to the District. (DPS did give the teacher's pension fund $400 million, but most of this was lost when the market went south in 2008. This liability is not included in the $400 million in debt generated since 2005.)
  • Our classrooms are ever becoming more crowded because the state is cutting its education funding. DPS, however, receives more state money than does any other Colorado school district, but squanders money on an ever changing set of reforms that are never given enough time to affect a system of more than 75,000 students.

Let's look at this last bullet a little more carefully. Do you think we could reduce class size with the $50 million Bennet and Boasberg spent in 2008 as part of their Wall Street gambling binge? Hmm... The average teacher's salary in DPS is $49k. Divide that by $50 million. That's more than 1,000 teachers, or about 25% more teachers than the District has currently. Even if DPS hired 500 additional teachers, the District could have dramatically affected the teacher to student ratio.

So, if you're tired of the B.S., why not write your school board member? Well, most of them don't read their DPS e-mail, or at least respond to it. (Has anyone out there ever received an e-mail reply from Theresa Pena, our city-wide representative to the DPS school board? Maybe she's too busy working as Michael Bennet's campaign treasurer.) So writing Board members probably won't work.

Let's try this: call Mayor Hickenlooper at 720-865-9016. Tell him you're not paying property taxes until DPS leadership is held accountable for its system wide failure at reforming our schools. That may not work either, but someone is bound to take notice.

Hickenlooper hopes to be our state's next governor, so he needs to show some sort of responsibility other than walking in parades with Michael Bennet when Bennet flies into town from his ancestral home in Washington D.C. (Did I mention he went to prep school with Tom Boasberg in our nation's capitol?) This could be Hickenlooper's big opportunity, but he'll need a flashy name for his new program of responsibility.

He might want to try calling it "Responsible Education Reform." Yeah, I like that name a lot.