This month in Denver, six new public schools open their doors. Both innovation and charter schools operating autonomously from certain district and union regulations, these programs offer novel approaches ranging from environmental sustainability to language immersion in Mandarin Chinese. Their founding educators, and the Denver Public Schools’ administration and Board of Education (who vetted and approved each proposal), deserve praise for their willingness to try new models in the face of a troubled system.
However, both in the education community and among many public officials there remains a pervasive belief in the inherent superiority of the traditional public school model. Under this bias, traditional public schools are the de facto correct choice, with new schools either harmful distractions that divert resources (at worst), or permissible side projects limited to research and development activities (at best).
This mistaken belief increasingly prevents meritocracy in public education. It results in a dogmatic approach that elevates school type to paramount importance, dwarfing more relevant criteria: academic growth, demographic achievement, and enrollment policy. Parents instinctively care less about school type and more about school quality. Our education policy needs to follow suit.
For on close inspection, the presumed superiority of the traditional public school model is largely a myth. And, like many myths, these narratives were created to explain what otherwise resists comprehension: how our noble educational values somehow resulted in an appalling public school system. Also like many myths, these beliefs reflect what we want to believe, rather than what is true.
1. The Access Myth: Traditional public schools serve all students.
This myth depends upon a particularly myopic view of “all students,” as it eclipses two large groups: those who have dropped out of the education system entirely, and those who have chosen private options. In Denver, almost 30 percent of school-aged children do not attend any city public school.
The access myth also hides a public system that increasingly separates children by ability. Traditional public education survives partly through the sanctioned segregation of the most talented students. DPS now houses over a dozen programs with selective admissions policies where students compete to enroll based on academic performance, ability or skill. Roughly 13 percent of DPS students are in selective programs.
Contrary to the access myth, traditional public schools now serve less than half of Denver’s school-aged children, and have largely relinquished both ends of the academic spectrum — students who drop out, and students who excel.
2. The Diversity Myth: Traditional public schools encourage diversity.
Diversity is a valuable attribute, but this myth quickly dissipates beyond a school’s front door. While traditional schools allow everyone to enter at the ground floor, a specific demographic still dominates the academic penthouse. In 2010, even East High School, Denver’s best traditional public high school — routinely lauded as a model of diversity — maintained a staggering 41 percentage point gap between white students (78 percent proficiency) and students of color (37 percent proficiency), a chasm of academic preparation and opportunity 7 percentage points larger than the district’s overall achievement gap.
Diversity-myth proponents too often praise the integration of schools where few students of color can read, write and add at grade level, simply because they are surrounded by a suitable number of their proficient Caucasian peers. Diversity cannot and must not be limited to mere attendance; it must embrace achievement. It is only when a school’s honor role, merit scholar, and college acceptance lists boast diversity equal to its student body that public education will live up to its fundamental promise of equal opportunity.
3. The Democracy Myth: Traditional public schools democratically enroll all local students.
In contrast, it is remarkable how many families choose not to attend their local school. During the 2008-09 school year, fully 45 percent of DPS students choiced out of their assigned school into a different public program.
Assigning students to schools by locality is also arguably less democratic than other open-enrollment systems. Where one lives is primarily a function of income, and access to good public schools greatly increases housing prices. If Denver’s wealthy families paid a substantial fee for their places at top public schools, there would be a deserved public outcry. So instead, this payment is masked with a real estate transaction, obscuring the undemocratic reality that wealth buys superior traditional school options.
False myths only fade when we acknowledge and incorporate new information. Denver now has a variety of tools — such as the Colorado Growth model and the School Performance Framework — that evaluate schools not simply by type, but also on achievement. If we truly believe in the fundamental principles of access, diversity and democracy, we need to re-examine and redefine them in light of new data and criteria. For education meritocracy to trump myth, we must evolve past the belief that any one model is superior and recognize that the central purpose of all schools is the same: to educate students. Traditional beliefs die hard, but where improvement is essential, die they must.
Originally published in the Denver Post on Sunday, August 15, 2010.