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.
There was a terrific article a few weeks back in the New York Times about the demographic imbalance in the gifted and talented (G&T) programs within the public school system in New York City. The school system serves primarily students of color. The G&T programs serve a disproportionate percentage of white students. The only classrooms in many schools that have a majority of white students are those that host G&T programs.
The piece included a brief and helpful summary of G&T programs:
THE idea of gifted education has drifted in and out of vogue in American schools. It was elevated in the 1950s, when educators and lawmakers pushed gifted programs in math and science amid fears about communism’s rise. It waned in the 1960s but re-emerged with a White House task force on giftedness and the signing of several federal bills in the 1970s that recognized gifted children’s needs.
Urban districts were seen as using the programs to help prevent white flight from the schools, in essence offering a system within the system that was white-majority and focused on achievement. “There have been claims that gifted education resegregates the public schools,” Dr. Borland said.
Reading the article, I wondered if Denver looks any different. It’s not too hard to get a quick read on the data — the Colorado Department of Education lists four categories of G&T: Language Arts, Math, Both Language and Math, and Other (these categories are exclusive). For simplicity, I combined all four into a single category of G&T, and ran the numbers for DPS.
A new day is dawning at North High School. Under the watchful eye of an experienced and proven principal, with the unwavering support of passionate teachers and coupled to galvanized support from many residents, North High is on a fresh track towards success.
Take, for example, this descriptive article in the Denver Post that was published in August:
On the west side of the city, North High students will walk into their restructured school with dozens of new teachers and a new mission led by an ambitious principal. Late last week, teachers tacked up posters, unpacked books and set up their classrooms. … [The new principal] says there has been a change in attitude, in the appearance inside the building and in the school’s focus. “There is a sense of this is a community,” she said. “I am convinced that when students see that there are people who care about them, some commonalities, we will make it work.” [….]
“It’s important for us to show results this year,” [the DPS superintendent] said. “It’s important both to give people confidence that we are moving in the right direction and to build momentum.”
All good, except for one problem: these sentences are from August of 2007, not August of 2012. The celebrated new North High principal in the article is JoAnn Trujillo-Hays; the optimistic superintendent is Michael Bennet.
And now? Flash-forward five years, three principals, and one superintendent to the present day. Almost all of the advocates who believed that North High was on the verge of change back in 2007 have long since moved on to different futures. Ms. Trujillo-Hays runs an elementary school, Mr. Bennet walks the lofty halls of the United States Senate. Has the future’s of North’s students changed as well?
Current United States Senator and former DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet is the subject of a Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times. One has to overcome Dowd’s unfortunate fetish for both absurd analogy (Vail’s ski cliffs) and odd personal detail (yes, Falafel), but the piece is worth reading.
Bennet says he voted against the legislation because believes that getting the nation’s debt under control is an issue that will impact Colorado’s kids. And there is a paragraph in Dowd’s column where he equates the choices facing the nation on fiscal issues to those he saw in education reform:
[Bennet] said his focus is now the same as when he was the Denver Superintendent trying to get more poor kids to stay in school.
“The burden of proof has to shift from the people who want to change the system to the people who want to keep it the same” he said.
Bennet’s vote on the fiscal cliff was a bold one – even if it put him in the same camp as many people with whom he has little in common ideologically. But his point in the chaotic mess of the end of the holiday season is simple: there is far too much activity that is merely using new wrapping paper or adding a ribbon, but offers no fundamental change to the package itself. Our elected officials are essentially re-gifting the same problems to other people, over and over again.
Like most people, the events at Newton left me stunned — the scale of it, the suddenness, the finality. The hours and days afterwards were defined primarily by silence: I could not talk about what happened, even with family or friends; I would turn off television news or walk out of the room. This quietness both seemed the only possible response, and the void it created was present and palpable. As a father of elementary-aged kids, I’ve struggled with it since.
Someone recently pointed me to a piece on NPR referring to Mahler’s Songs on the Death of Children (Kindertotenlieder) a song cycle for voice and orchestra. Composed between 1901 and 1904, this is a song cycle based on five poems by Ruckert which were part of a larger work written in the early 19th century. Ruckert had lost two children to scarlet fever and wrote these poems — not intended for publication — to assuage his grief. Mahler set five of them to music.
In the 19th and early 20th century, the death of children was common. Today is is rare. But the grief is neither diminished nor heightened in either case. It is pure. For Mahler, the song cycle became deeply personal: shortly after composing these songs he lost a child to scarlet fever as well. He wrote afterwards that in writing the Kindertotenlieder “I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs any more.” I know of no parent, no person, who can place themselves in the situation of Newton.