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. Elemebtary 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.
Popularity: 1% [?]