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Denver: Reformer Admits That Disruptive Reforms Failed to Help Poor Kids

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Theresa Peña served as president of the Denver school board when reform began more than a decade ago.

She describes the promises and high hopes.

Now she admits that reform failed. 

The kids who lost were the poor black and Hispanic students, she says.

She writes:

Almost 11 years ago, when I served on the Denver Board of Education, the board and then-Superintendent Michael Bennet published a lengthy manifesto detailing how we planned to transform and radically improve public education in Denver.

They published their manifesto. They said:

“Ten years from now, let them say that Denver was the vanguard for reform in public education. Let them say, 10 years from now, that in Denver we saw what others could not, and laid down our adult burdens to lift up our children. Let them say that a spark flew in Denver that ignited a generation of educators, children, parents, and communities, and gave them courage to abandon the status quo for a shimmering future. We can do this in Denver; it is simply a matter of imagination and will.”

In 2007 our board believed we were starting a revolution. We were going to dramatically change outcomes for Denver students. We were going to construct a new educational system that served students first.

We believed that the goals in our strategic plan, known as the Denver Plan, would close the achievement gap and set a new path forward for all graduates of Denver Public Schools.

I am writing today to tell you that we failed. And, as a city and a school district we are still collectively failing our neediest students.

The Denver public school system is now a darling of the rightwing.

Last year, Betsy DeVos visited Denver twice; she praised the city for its charter efforts, but declared that it needed vouchers as well.

The Brookings Institution released its “Education Choice and Competition Index,” which ranked Denver first in the nation. The Index was created by Grover Whitehurst, who was George W. Bush’s choice to lead the Department of Education’s research division.

Charter champion David Osborne showered praise on Denver’s “portfolio” strategy in the rightwing journal Education Next.

Kevin Hesla of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools raved about Denver’s commitment to the privatization agenda, again in the rightwing Education Next.

Denver is where Democrats gave up the fight for public education and invited the fox of privatization into the henhouse. The conservative media and think tanks love Denver.

Peña dissents. She writes:

My conclusion calls into question the conventional wisdom about Denver Public Schools. Over the past decade, under the leadership of Bennet and his successor, Tom Boasberg, DPS has gained a national reputation as a forward-thinking, even visionary school district, which welcomes high-quality charter schools and grants the most deserving of its own schools unprecedented degrees of autonomy from the district bureaucracy. Enrollment has grown and student achievement has improved.

While elements of that sterling national reputation are deserved, and some real gains have occurred, they have been far too slow and inequitable. On perhaps the most critical measure of success, literacy in early elementary schools, low-income and minority students have improved at a much slower rate than their Anglo and higher-income peers. This has caused Denver’s abysmal achievement gaps to grow even wider.

In 2017 64 percent of students who did not qualify for free or reduced lunch were reading and writing at grade level compared to 26 percent of students who qualified for free and reduced lunch, a 38 percent gap. And only one of three low-income third-graders read and write at grade level.

Our aspirations of a decade ago have not been realized. Until and unless Boasberg and the Board of Education take concrete steps to fundamentally change the district to serve its students and schools, real progress will remain elusive. Over time, I have come to doubt whether this is even possible.

The new reform board promised innovation, school autonomy, transparency, accountability, closer monitoring of results, and higher expectations.

She concludes:

We failed on all counts.

Teacher turnover and principal turnover remain large. Achievement gaps are as large as ever, possibly larger.

Denver, the shining model of reform by charters and test-based accountability, is no model at all.

So says one of the reform leaders who was there at the beginning.

Jeannie Kaplan was a school board member also during those heady years. She quickly became disillusioned with the disruptive tactics. She is not sure whether Theresa Peña means what she says or has something else in mind. But she has long believed that the “reforms” failed the neediest kids.

What say you, Senator Michael Bennett? What say you, Superintendent Tom Boasberg?

Why not focus on what works? Reduced class sizes; support and retention of teachers and principals; collaboration; school nurses and clinics. Talk about root causes of low academic performance and focus on changes that address the root causes.

 

 

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