Shhhhh. Don’t talk about quality.

The Denver Post’s article yesterday focuses on schools trying to attract students.  It talks about marketing, fliers, door-to-door recruiting, money, branding, promotion, etc.  Absent, except for one indirect instance, is any mention of school quality.

Quality not only matters, in choosing schools it is probably paramount.  Parents are smart, and most care more about their children’s future than just about anything else.  A flier may get their attention, but does one really think some district schools are facing lower enrollment because of a lack of four-color postcards and signage?  Will the parents for whom marketing collateral was the primary determinant for choosing their child’s school raise their hands?

Quality can be deeply individual – students (even siblings) may find specific schools more tailored to their personalities or academic needs, but the line of discussion here is that K-12 education is a base and equal commodity and that the “winners” (because you have to have a winner, it can’t be that competition might raise education standards across multiple schools) will be the ones with the most money and best advertising campaigns.

A dozen new schools — mostly charters — are planned in Denver in the next five years, the first of which open next month. If fully enrolled, the schools would serve a total of 7,771 students.

Well, why is this?  Is it because the current schools don’t have flashy marketing campaigns with “slick brochures and posters”?  Why is Denver opening new schools at all?  Perhaps because 9 out of 10 DPS kindergarten students won’t have the chance to attend college?  Maybe related to 10th grade CSAP proficiency in Math at 15.6% (far lower if you are a student of color)?  Because the high-school dropout rate is now above 50%?

It’s like writing about the marketing campaigns of different drugs, except you don’t mention that some make you sick and some make you better.

Why is it that there is nary a mention of student proficiency, the achievement gap, of educational statistics in a story that has 29 paragraphs and some variation of the word “competition” six times.

Ah, but I overlook the single instance:

An issue arose earlier this year in a mailing sent out for a private fundraising event from officials with the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP.

The mailing included performance statistics of at least two DPS high schools — North and West, where fewer than half of Latino students graduate on time.

The mailing to prominent Latino businesspeople and community members said KIPP’s new high school, which opens in August, will try to give those students a better shot. […]

“It is very important to get the truth out there and have people understand the true situation, but I don’t think negative campaigning is the right thing to do,” Boasberg said.

[DPS Superintendent] Boasberg complained to KIPP leaders, and the flier was withdrawn.

DPS has been refreshingly open about the shortcomings of a number of its schools – and it should rightly be applauded for this transparency.  But help me with this: someone distributed publicly available information on the academic performance of two DPS high schools with the suggestion that there might be a better option for some of Denver’s kids.  And this was so anathema to public citizens that they complained directly to the Superintendent.  Is it better not to know?  The actual academic performance of the schools is not what rankles these folks —  it is someone saying it out loud and suggesting that there should be a better alternative.

I don’t know what the offending statistics were, but here is a link to district CSAP scores, and here are the schools mentioned:

  • North CSAPs from their 2008 SAR (percent proficient or above): Reading 23%, Writing 12%, Math 5%. (Note that 86% of students are Free and Reduced Lunch.)
  • West CSAPs from their 2008 SAR (percent proficient or above): Reading 26%, Writing 10%, Math 6%.  (85% of students are Free and Reduced Lunch.)
  • KIPP CSAPs from their 2008 SAR (percent proficient or above): Reading 40%, Writing 32%, Math 42%. (91% of students are Free and Reduced Lunch.)

What do you think KIPPs marketing advantage is here?  Better color coordination on their posters? A more glossy quality to their flyers?  Is the fact that their CSAP scores are roughly 2.5 times better worth a mention?  Are the respective differences in academic performance not relevant, particularly given that all three schools serve high FRL populations?  Is the reason that new schools are opening becuase the current schools are so very good that we collectively need a good marketing battle to keep local families from yawning in boredom as they flip through the stacks of college acceptance letters for their kids?

There is no magical marketing sauce here: over time, quality will trump marketing.  Attempts to suppress the metrics of quality will not help make a school better, nor will it attract more students.  And any discussion of school choice and competition might find the space to consider academic achievement. Quality matters, a lot.

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