Anyone who follows education policy knows that many programs are oversold. Initiatives and bills are touted as groundbreaking, landmark, and unprecedented — often well in advance of any ground broken, land marked, or precedent undone. This is generally part of the political game: to pass a controversial bill or initiative, one has to manufacture the widespread belief that it will have a large and significant impact. But recently this tendency seems to have jumped to a whole new geographic level.
For apparently it is not enough to say anymore that an State education bill will simply transform Colorado. One has to say that what Colorado is doing is so mesmerizing that the rest of the 49 states should stop short and gaze upon us in our resplendent majesty. Witness yesterday’s passage of SB 213, which would revamp the way Colorado finances its school districts, from the perspective of both the Governor and the bill’s primary sponsor:
Is is SB 213 truly “bringing the best accountability and transparency in the nation“ and a “national model for equity and outcomes” [my emphasis]? This is not a confluence of random opinions, it is a pre-meditated talking point weaving its way through the latest debate about education reforms (see this Op-Ed, or comments here). Is it now too low a bar to want to simply improve the state of affairs for the citizens of Colorado? Is the national stage the best place to debut?
One of the arguments opponents of school choice — and particularly those who are anti charter schools — now make most frequently is that increased options and the ability for families to select schools rather than be assigned to them is somehow decreasing diversity and promoting segregation. I’ve written previously on this topic through the lens of Denver Public Schools (where it’s not the case), but wondered what a broader look might reveal. Thankfully, this analysis has now been done over a nine-year period, and by Brookings (so please hold off on claims that it is politically tarnished).
What the author found was really interesting. To start, as I’ve argued as well, the comparison of large static averages are not particularly useful, particularly when comparing dense urban populations with other demographics, which the Brookings analysis makes clear:
The debate over SB 191 — better known as the bill that revamped teacher evaluations — was a watershed moment in Colorado, and one of the most bitterly debated education issues of the decade. Proponents of the bill took out full-page advertisements in the Denver Post, opponents held rallies at the state capital. Both sides engaged in pitched PR battles, enlisting numerous other groups.
The bitterness has lingered, and considerable animosity remains — particularly from opponents (which is logical; prevailing views have far less to shout about). Groups that lobbied hard against SB 191 remain ardent critics as it moves towards implementation. Whatever one’s position on SB 191 (and I am sort of in the middle), it’s impossible to believe that the sustained volume and venom of pubic rhetoric had no impact, particularly on teachers.
Sure enough, in a just released biannual poll of Colorado teachers, one of the major findings is cited thus:
In this year’s survey, the percentage of teachers who felt evaluations are fair dropped from 84.1 percent to 79.8 percent.
That’s a decent size drop. Is it meaningful?
March brings with it two education rituals: college becomes young adults trying to get an orange ball through an iron circle, and K-12 public education transforms into students filling in small circles of multiple choice questions. The month-long NCAA tournament is viewed as a pleasant and worthy distraction, while a few days of standardized testing is seen as an evil intrusion. Both seem to inspire a certain madness well beyond the actual stakes, and a lot of passionate yelling.
The complaints about standardized testing vary, but most of them originate from either a profound or deliberate misunderstanding of what standardized tests are supposed to measure. These complaints include painfully obvious critiques: answering multiple choice questions is not the same as communicating a love for poetry, and assertions that such tests are useless because “as a parent, I see my child as an individual who deserves a personalized education.” Nobody is arguing the other side of such platitudinal truisms. For these criticisms are both perfectly valid and yet they absolutely miss the point; they are airballs hurled without direction at the periphery of the public school system.
On the surface, Colorado has all the right ingredients for K-12 innovation: a fertile ecosystem of talented educators, an engaged philanthropic community, supportive legislation and policy, and the open and collaborative culture of the West. However these promising ingredients have yielded little of substance. Why is this so?
Back in 2008, the Colorado legislature passed the Innovation Schools Act. At the time, there was great optimism that the energy of education reform combined with the ability to remove various constraints would produce a wave of innovative new approaches. Five years on, and it has not been so: the act itself is notable mainly for its unfulfilled promise, and the schools which came into being under the act have shown little to no change. A formal evaluation from November of 2011 summed it up thus:
…interviews at the seven Innovation schools suggested that at least on the surface, the majority of these schools had not made significant departures from their practice prior [...] To a large extent, Innovation schools are very similar to DPS schools in terms of the curricula they use, their calendars, and their instructional time.
What went wrong? I believe that, in large part, Colorado’s innovation has been focused at the wrong scale, initiated by the wrong people and pursued at the wrong time:
You know the story. It goes like this:
A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a wide river, and the scorpion asked the frog to carry him across on his back. “How do I know you won’t sting me?” the frog asks. The scorpion says “because if I do, then I will die too.”
Satisfied, the frog puts the scorpion on his back and starts the journey across the river. When they are halfway across, the scorpion plunges his stinger into the frog. As paralysis sets in and the frog begins to sink, knowing both will now drown, the frog asks “why?”.
“Because” says the scorpion, “it is my nature”.
Since the elections in November of 2011, the parable has played out. The board majority are frogs; the minority are scorpions. The board frogs keep agreeing to carry the scorpions across the river. The board scorpions keep accepting the ride, only to eventually produce their sting.
The most recent example of this living parable is the replacement of majority member Nate Easley, who is leaving the board before his term is up. The board president has the legal right to essentially appoint a replacement. Instead the majority hastily developed a transparent system with an open application process and public interviews, after which the entire board votes for their preferred choices. The candidates with the most votes were placed on a short list for further discussion with the hope of a unanimous board agreement. Sounds reasonable enough. “Climb onto our backs and we’ll work together on this” say the frogs. ”Okay, we will” say the participating scorpions.
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark Keyes case, which was instrumental in desegregating the Denver school system. Colorado Public Radio’s enterprising Jenny Brundin has a brief but mesmerizing story that summarizes the case. Keyes was remarkable as it marked the first time that the United States Supreme Court identified discrimination in a state that had never imposed racial segregation by statute (the benefits of the case are complex; this article helps).
Many people played a critical part in this case, but among the most prominent would have to be Rachel B. Noel, the first black official elected to the Denver School Board, and the author of the Noel Amendment to integrate the school system. As part of her legacy, DPS eventually named a school after her: the Rachel B. Noel middle school in far northeast Denver.
The school has not been the legacy the person deserved. Noel middle school was consistently one of the lowest performing schools in the district, and remains considerable distance from the hopes of equal opportunity: in 2012, 97% of its students were minority; 96% were low-income.