Did Senator Michael Bennet Improve DPS?

07/17/2010 01:20 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A large part of Senator Michael Bennet's campaign has revolved around his efforts to improve the Denver Public Schools during his time as superintendent there. He was in charge of the schools from the summer before the 2005/2006 school year and left halfway through the 2008/2009 school year. So 3½ years running DPS. The CSAP tests are given in the spring of each year so the 2005/2006 tests occurred after Michael Bennet had been on the job for ¾ths of a school year.

It takes some time for a superintendent to get up to speed and then have their efforts move through the system to then have an effect. So his impact on the difference between 2004/2005 and 2005/2006 was probably minimal. On the flip side the grades for 2008/2009 are totally under his efforts and the 2009/2010 are partially due to his efforts, especially as Boasberg has continued in a similar vein.

So, how did he do?

The above graph (Excel file: DPS_CSAP.xlsx) is the percentage of students, across all grades tested, getting proficient or above on the CSAP scores. For comparison purposes I included the composite score for BVSD to show the validity of this measure (BVSD has done nothing to improve its results and the composite score reflects that). The Composite line is the average of the 6 tests.

First off, DPS is in terrible shape. But they have also shown steady improvement over the last decade - and that is gigantic. The composite has moved from 30% to 40% and that means 10% of the children going through the schools are now graduating proficient where before they were not. Granted, at that rate it will be another 30 years to get up to Boulder's pathetic 70% - but 30 years is much better than never.

Now as to the impact Michael Bennet had. Looking at the composite, 2000/2001 - 2003/2004 was the best run for DPS. (Also this last year shows a very promising bump - if that is a true change in the trend line they we may have a real winner with Boasberg.) But Michael Bennet did keep it on an upward run. So by the measure of first do no harm, Michael Bennet did succeed by continuing the upward trend.

But to the bigger question, did Michael Bennet do a significantly better job than other superintendents? This is important because his efforts, his policies, his approach have been help up as a national model for the country. Before his example is repeated elsewhere, we should determine if it is worth of emulation. And the thing is, I don't see any measurable difference in the results from his tenure and prior to his arrival.

On the flip side, this can be very valuable information - if used properly. The vast majority of scientific knowledge is things that we know are wrong. We can look at the specific changes Michael Bennet proglamated at DPS and let other districts know that they have no impact. They don't help, and neither do they hurt. By not wasting time on initiatives similar to those Michael Bennet instituted, districts can instead try different models, where some will find great success.

What can also be of great value is to find the changes DPS instituted from 2000 - 2004 and identify the ones that set it on that upward trajectory. Those are the efforts that we want to publicize as a route to improvement in a public school system. And by focusing on what has worked at DPS, we should be able to improve those efforts to increase the rate of success.

Finally Michael Bennet should not be denigrated for not bringing about a change in improvement. First, DPS continued on its upward trend at the same rate and continuing that upward trend is major. Second, he tried. The only way we will improve our schools is to try new approaches. He tried many, and did so in a way that did not hurt the district (as a whole - some schools and kids did suffer under some projects).

ps - I asked if I could talk to Senator Bennet for 5 - 10 minutes to get his thoughts on this in case I missed something. The Bennet campaign declined to respond.