Written three years ago, the Denver Plan begins:
“We believe that over the next decade Denver can lead the nation’s cities in student achievement . . . .”
But even with this year’s substantial gains in reading, the trajectory of CSAP results mean that over the next decade Denver will not only fail to lead the nation’s cities, we will remain well below the average in our own, below-average state.
Even assuming zero improvement anywhere else in Colorado, it will be 15 years before Denver equals the state average. To draw even within a decade, DPS realistically needs an increase in CSAP of at least 3 points every year — twice the existing pace.
These statistics are not the bad news. The bad news is that they persist despite the most talented DPS administration in memory. They persist despite the deep engagement of large numbers of Denver’s citizens, and despite millions of dollars from taxpayers and philanthropies.
The Achilles heel of smart people with good intentions is overestimating one’s ability to affect change: DPS is trying to transform itself almost entirely through processes and resources under its direct control. The end result is a limited range of tactics and thinking when a diversity of approaches and ideas is vital.
In contrast, the two cities with the most recent student achievement gains have relinquished control and increased variety — New York by design and New Orleans by disaster. These cities took different paths to a strategy DPS should emulate: shift from acting solely as a school operator to also managing an array of independent organizations that run schools and provide services.
This shift is critical to break the chokehold of incremental change. Here are five places to start:
1. No new schools with old rules.
Attempts to recreate district schools have largely ignored best practices and withheld autonomy while retaining DPS leadership. Failing schools must be “rebooted” — closed and reopened one grade at a time with external leadership and increased control over curriculum, staffing, and budgets.
2. Evaluate new schools under one process.
DPS has three separate authorization tracks, allowing weak models and pet projects to emerge without competitive review. DPS now evaluates existing schools under a single performance framework; they should likewise have one process to judge all school applicants.
3. Recruit national operators.
Efforts to attract quality new school operators have consisted of issuing a request for proposals and hoping a crowd forms. DPS must actively court top national operators: Achievement First, Aspire, Green Dot, IDEA, KIPP, Uncommon Schools, YES, and others.
4. More external catalysts.
All organizations require new talent and ideas, yet over 95 percent of current principals were DPS employees three years ago. DPS needs to increase affiliations to attract and train new school leaders and teachers, and should enhance and add partnerships with organizations such as Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, New Teacher Project, and similar groups.
5. Accept risk and failure.
Critical to successful reform is the ability for schools to fail individually (instead of collectively). DPS needs to both take some risks on a variety of proven educational models while closing drastically underperforming schools.
In three years, DPS has made significant progress on fiscal management and academic measurement. This can be a platform for successful reform, but it should not be mistaken for reform itself. DPS needs to relinquish control, operate fewer schools better, and empower independent organizations.
Significant improvements to pubic education are not yet here, but they have never been closer.
Originally published in The Denver Post, August 3, 2008