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Obama’s nod to Bruce Randolph School

Posted by Jan 25th, 2011.

Here’s what President Obama said about Denver’s Bruce Randolph School in tonight’s State of the Union address:

Take a school like Bruce Randolph in Denver. Three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado; located on turf between two rival gangs. But last May, 97% of the seniors received their diploma. Most will be the first in their family to go to college. And after the first year of the school’s transformation, the principal who made it possible wiped away tears when a student said “Thank you, Mrs. Waters, for showing… that we are smart and we can make it.”

Here’s what Eduwonk Andy Rotherham had to say in the NY Times about the mention:

The president singled-out a Denver school that was turned around only after its teachers took on their own union to get out from under the standard collective bargaining agreement. Needless to say that’s a strategy the two national teachers’ unions don’t want to see replicated around the country. I wrote about that episode on The Times’s Op-Ed page a few years ago. Michael Bennet, now a senator from Colorado, was the superintendent in Denver at the time and the move was controversial then and the idea remains contentious today.  Of all the schools the president could have chosen to highlight, it’s a fascinating choice.

And here’s some context:

Randolph, while on a better course over the past few years, is still struggling with student achievement. Growth in all tested subjects is above average, but not high enough to catch students up in the foreseeable future. Absolute scores remain low. In math, just 19 percent of middle-schoolers and 13 percent of high-schoolers at Randolph scored proficient or better on the 2010 CSAP. In reading, the subject where the school tested highest, a quarter of the middle-schoolers and 43 percent of high-schoolers hit the proficient mark.

Still, the school has become a must-see for visiting school reformers. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent an hour there during his visit to Denver last fall.

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3 Responses to “Obama’s nod to Bruce Randolph School”

  1. Jeffrey Miller says:

    I would agree union reform should accompany school reform efforts. As Rotherham suggests in his op-ed, today’s unions came into existence for a good reason but in an era of industrial unions, following their model, as our schools also followed industrialism’s demands. What is unclear is how the essential industrial paradigm is really changing–on any level. We all talk a good game about technology this and that but at the end of the day, I still walk to my school parking lot or hop on my bike after working a ten hour day only to come back as the sun rises.

    The essential workflow, the whole way in which education is packaged, funded, and evaluated has not really changed. Students produce standardized, homogenized test score numbers which ironically have come to reflect the value of their increasingly commodified lives. Oddly, their efforts after leaving the industrial school are not tracked by any measure; their value-added through schooling is not calculated each year of membership in the economic workforce.

    Why should unions agree to major concessions when the essential system in which they are key players is itself not changing in a way that makes those concessions seem more like opportunities and less like, well, concessions? I actually like pay for performance in principle but that is not changing the paradigm of industrial schooling. Most everything we are trying these days simply represent tweaking the status quo. I’m not even necessarily advocating a new paradigm for education. But I would like us to try to step outside of our own social world and try to look at as one might an alien world–an anthropological view, perhaps. Other Western nations do well on measures of educational success. Why? Personally, I’d look at how U.S. students experience schooling, how they value it, and find out of what value it is to them once out in the world. Does our media-saturated, instant digitally gratified American culture value kids who value learning? Sometimes, but mostly it seems this alien society values kids who follow the rules, get a job, win the World Series, or become a reality teevee star. I wonder if most of our kids even know how to value their own selves independently of any external measure of worth or happiness.

  2. jeff buck says:

    JJ – good questions. What does “value added” actually mean if we don’t ever look much past 12th grade? As a society, we don’t share a common understanding of what we’re even trying to do in the first place (a point you’ve made before). Absent that, deciding if we’re adding value toward that end is impossible. Instead, we hold ourselves “accountable” for a very narrow band of skills over a short time frame rather than for the actual outcome of schooling. We don’t even know if most kids can actually do anything but pass a test (or not). That’s too bad.

    Anyway, I do not mean to detract from the accomplishments of Senator Bennet when he led DPS but the current efforts at Bruce Randolph were initiated under Jerry Wartgow as he prepared to retire from DPS. We seem to have developed the belief that every popular reform idea was come up with by the Bennet administration. It’s a small point but attribution matters in the academic world and I think Dr. Wartgow should be recognized for the roll he played in setting the stage.

    • Jeffrey Miller says:

      I’ve been waiting for someone to give Wartgow his due. I got to see several initiatives begun during his time both from within and outside the system. The work with the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning especially stands out for me. There was so much promise there and then…

      And then, Bennett made some unfortunate changes when the data weren’t even in yet. I’ve come to grant him some slack as he seems to be on a learning curve but this constant change in leadership and policies does nothing to help kids in school. I’ve read that many reform efforts would work if we just gave them several years to work, tweaking here and there.

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