What can turn DPS around?

DPS Board Vice-President Michelle Moss quoted in Monday’s Denver Post article:

“We are turning to charter schools and innovation schools, but even if we serve 10,000 more kids in charters, the vast majority are still in Denver schools that are dramatically underperforming,” she said. “Charter schools cannot turn DPS around.”

I used to agree with this truism a lot more; now I am less sure it is accurate.  It sure helps if district schools could show considerable improvement, but I no longer believe that the size of the district precludes considerable success from charters, even as an isolated group.  Let me run through both sides of the argument — and I am assuming that the primary goal here is to increase student achievement, particularly for low income (FRL) kids.

On the “can’t turn DPS around” side: DPS has roughly 75,000 students, of whom about 50,000 are FRL.  I’ll skip the math (see footnote at end) but one would need about 100 new high-performing schools to fully address this FRL population.  So one would need to replace over half of DPS schools with charters — yet so far we have seen at most 2-3 good Denver charters open in any single year.   To paraphrase what another DPS board member told me once in conversation: Charter don’t scale.

Now, let me look at the other side.  First, what I think is a more pertinent question: “What is DPS doing that is more effective than charters?”  The unfortunate answer is: not much.  DPS’s progress during the current reform movement — progress that has been generally praised despite averaging less than a 2% annual increase in proficiency over the last three years — is minimal.

Taking a percentage increase off a small underachieving base does little to nothing for meaningful numbers of Denver’s students. Two quick stats to consider:

  1. Michael Bennet got a lot of mileage from pointing out that in 2005, only 61 latino and 33 black students passed the 10th grade math CSAP.  Let’s assume that these percentages have increased in the same ratio to overall proficiency.  So in 2008, 65 latino students and 35 black students (100 total) would have been proficient at 10th grade math. That is an increase, in 3 years, of just 6 more proficient minority students. Think that is too low an estimate? While we wait for DPS to provide an update, let’s add 50% more — and you can still fit all 9 students comfortably in a minivan.
  2. Based on data from a recent report, just 357 of district graduates in 2006 managed their first year of college without remediation  – which is just 14% of all seniors, and only 8% of those who entered into 9th grade.  The likely improvement here – in numbers of actual students –  ensure it is another one-vehicle solution.

Compare these numbers now with Monday’s other news — an ambitious plan from the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST).

DENVER  … Responding to Denver Public Schools (DPS) new schools RFP which calls for new and improved secondary schools (grades 6-12), DSST will help fill this need by replicating its highly successful model.  DSST’s expansion to serve 4,000 students will double the number of four year college-ready DPS graduates by 2020. [my emphasis]

Read that again: A single charter organization will double the number of DPS graduates prepared for college.  An organization with 4,000 students will prepare as many for college as one with 75,000 students. If they achieve this metric (and I would not underestimate DSST given their track record), it is a remarkable step forward.  From this year’s senior class of 91 students, all have already been accepted to 4-year colleges – which would place DSST second in producing college-ready students based on the remediation data, despite a senior class about one-fourth the size of your average DPS high school.

DSST is one organization – there are probably 3 others in Denver with the ability to make a similar impact. It is unlikely all four will be successful, but what if just two others are?  Three organizations with 10,000 students producing 1,500+ college-ready students a year, compared to the 357 DPS produced in 2006?  And compared to the estimated 100 minority students proficient in 10th grade math? Does that not qualify for turning DPS around?  And if not, can anyone present another scenario which is more likely and has a higher chance of success?

So, back to the initial subject – is Michelle correct that student achievement would happen more quickly if some district schools could show substantial improvement?  Of course.  But where is the data-based narrative or proposal for how this success might arrive?  Beacon schools begat Innovation schools begat Performance schools, all to little effect.  And as much as I admire the school leaders at Manual or Bruce Randolph, they have moved their schools from the bottom of the heap to merely the better of the worst – and these are the most successful stories in district open-enrollment schools.  Where is the district equivalent to DSST or KIPP?  In the ideal scenario, charters would be but one of many different tactics for overall improvement – but where are the alternatives that show similar promise?

And why, might one ask, are there no other alternatives with similar potential impact?  On Monday night, two innovation proposals squeaked through the DPS board with a single vote margin (4-3), despite being recommended by their individual school leadership and with the support of over 90% of their faculty. How bold are these proposed reforms?  Suffice it to say that most (if not all) successful charter schools would reject these models of antonomy as woefully incomplete.  Is this the sort of innovation that has a better chance at turning DPS around?

At the same Monday meeting, DPS announced that its annual request for proposals yielded applications for 36 schools, 25 of them charters (70%). Now not all (or even most) of these applications either will or should be granted, but it’s pretty clear what tactic has the most force and momentum behind it. And, as a friend reminded me, at some point – be it at 20% or at 50% of students in high-performing charters — the fundamental rulesof school reform are likely to change.

Charter don’t scale? Sure, I’ll agree with that, with the caveat that in public education, absolutely nothing scales.  There is no idea or program that has shown it can increase student achievement across a district significantly and quickly.  Education reform is a long slog, and if there is a better catalyst for improved academic performance in Denver than charter schools, it better show up soon.

Footnote: math as follows – Start with 50k FRL students.  Of these, being optimistic, perhaps 15% attend good schools (FRL rates range from about 10-30%, but the number of qualifying schools and programs are limited), so let’s assume we have 35,000 still in failing schools.  Assume that an average charter holds 350 kids, and continuing our buoyant optimism, is both 90% FRL and achieves 90% proficiency. You still need about 100 new schools to get to 80% proficiency with those FRL kids.

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