‘The Limits of School Reform’

On Monday, The New York Times published a column about the dangers of thinking teachers can cure the disease of poverty in our public schools. The basic thesis of the piece is this: Good teaching alone can’t overcome the many obstacles a student faces when he is not in school and when his family is struggling economically.

While the idea that teachers cannot overcome all the issues in a student’s life makes sense to the majority of thinking people, it seems to be a fact forgotten by the education reform crowd, most of who seem to believe that “good teachers” can overcome any and all out-of-school issues faced by their students.

Going back to the famous Coleman report in the 1960s, social scientists have contended — and unquestionably proved — that students’ socioeconomic backgrounds vastly outweigh what goes on in the school as factors in determining how much they learn. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute lists dozens of reasons why this is so, from the more frequent illness and stress poor students suffer, to the fact that they don’t hear the large vocabularies that middle-class children hear at home.

Yet the reformers act as if a student’s home life is irrelevant. “There is no question that family engagement can matter,” said [Joel] Klein,” the former superintendent of New York City’s public schools. “But they seem to be saying that poverty is destiny, so let’s go home. We don’t yet know how much education can overcome poverty,” he insisted — notwithstanding the voluminous studies that have been done on the subject. “To let us off the hook prematurely seems, to me, to play into the hands of the other side.”

Klein’s comments are illuminating, as they show the “us” vs. “them” mentality of education reformers across our country. While it is not clear who Klein means by “the other side,” it is clear that he, like most “reformers,” feels that anyone who says teachers are not 100% responsible for their student’s academic performance is probably “anti-reform.”

The fact of the issue is pretty simple, really. Kids in impoverished neighborhoods have needs that the school system generally cannot meet. In cases where the system is able to meet these needs, an enormous financial investment is made so the resources can be brought to bear on the community.

When placed in this context, the question is no longer about education reform. The question is about how do we reform our society so as to level the playing field for the “haves” as well as the “have nots.”

In Denver Public Schools, we know definitively that the ~$4,800 per student received by the school simply cannot possibly overcome the issues faced by our students whose families are struggling economically.

The column is definitely worth a read.

Recall organizers question Denver Elections Division findings, vow to continue fight

Below is a statement issued by John McBride, chair of the Northeast Community Congress for Education and spokesman for the Nate Easley recall effort:

Considering that Nate Easley had over $60,000 in campaign contributions from wealthy donors who didn’t even live in his district, our unfunded volunteer effort signals the beginning of the end for DPS officials who are tone-deaf to the needs of their constituents.

While we do have significant concerns about the Denver Elections Division’s process regarding fairness, accuracy, professional conflicts of interest and alleged leaking of information to Nate Easley’s operatives, the fact remains that more people signed the petition to recall Nate Easley than voted to elect him.

If anyone thinks that those 6000 voices don’t matter just because the Elections Division threw out their names, they had better think again. Our grassroots effort should put Mr. Easley on notice that whether through another recall effort or by voting him out of office, his days are numbered as our District 4 school board representative.

The public has no tolerance for elected officials who are bought and paid for. The recall initiative mobilized thousands of people who are dissatisfied with decades of DPS experiments resulting in school shut downs and phase outs that disrupt our communities, displace our children and scapegoat our teachers.

We have built significant political capital within the Northeast and Far Northeast communities, and we intend to use it to improve our schools the right way – in true collaboration with the community.

58 percent of Denver citizens rate Denver Public Schools’ performance as either ‘fair’ or ‘poor’

In a recent survey of Denver residents, Ciruli Associates found that the majority of Denver’s residents believe Denver Public Schools are performing either fair or poor. Overall, 21 percent of those surveyed rank the District’s performance as “poor,” and 37 percent called the district’s performance “fair.” The survey’s statistical range of error is ±4.4 percentage points.

Poll Results

Twenty-eight percent of Hispanics gave DPS a poor rank, 34 percent of African Americans said poor and 19 percent of white respondents rated the district as poor.

None of this comes as a shock to parents whose children attend DPS schools and who exposed to the great DPS reform experiment conducted under the guise of The Denver Plan.  Since 2005, when the plan was put into place, graduation rates have increased from 51.7% of eligible students graduating to 53%.  In 2010, DPS had 5,083 students in its graduation base.  Of these, 2,634 students graduated as the class of 2010.   Based on the goals set forth in The Denver Plan, DPS’ graduation rate is 29 points below the District’s goal.

Of equal concern is the fact that post-graduation remediation rates for DPS students attending college have increased by 13%. Overall, 59% of DPS’ graduates needed to enroll in some form of academic remedial course work upon entering college. Between the 2005/2006 school year and the 2009/2010 school year, the percent of DPS graduates needing to take remedial course work at the collegiate level has increased from 46% to 59%.

When writing the story of this survey’s results, The Denver Post reports, “Denver has cut its dropout numbers, increased its graduation rate and attracted more students than it has had in decades. Standardized test scores are improving and growth rates on those tests are better than ever.”

DPS has relied on dropouts reported by the Colorado Department of Education to indicate the success of reform programs implemented by the district. However, the CDE data do not measure what the public typically understands as dropouts. Under Colorado law, a dropout is defined as —

…an annual rate, reflecting the percentage of all students enrolled in grades 7-12 who leave school during a single school year without subsequently attending another school or educational program.

According to the most recent CDE report, DPS has a dropout rate of 6.4%, down from 7.4%, indicating that DPS is getting better at completing CDE’s student transfer paper work.

According to this year’s student census, DPS saw an increase of approximately 2,000 students, or about 2.5% of the overall DPS student population, resulting in an increase of roughly 2% of the District’s overall revenue stream under the Colorado Student Based Budgeting formula.

Van Schoales, executive director of Education Reform Now, is quoted as saying, “Historically, no one has ever thought (DPS) is doing great. Now, all you hear is the bickering on the board, whether it is the pension swap or turnarounds. I would totally expect uniformed [sic] people believe the district is adrift. I don’t think that is true.”

Schoales was the architect of the first Manual High School reform effort, wherein three schools were placed in the Manual building. After 3 years, Senator Michael Bennet, then DPS superintendent, shut the entire building down for 1 year, restarting the school in 2007.

In 2008, Schoales supported bringing Envision Charter Schools to DPS.   The first of these schools was placed at Smiley Middle School, where the principal was fired in the first 3 months of operation and then the school was shuttered and reopened the next school year as Venture Prep Middle/High School. Students at Venture Prep currently do not meet the State of Colorado’s expectations for academic performance in reading, writing, and math.

Lead Denver Public Schools reformer leaves district for Chicago

Many will not know the name Noemi Donoso.  Donoso led the DPS Office of School Reform and Innovation for just about 10 months, which isn’t a long time, but it appears it was long enough.

On Tuesday, DPS announced that Donoso will become the chief academic officer of Chicago Public Schools.   Donoso is the second member of DPS’ senior staff to leave the district in the past 6 weeks.  Denver Public Schools Chief of Staff, Amy Friedman, recently left the District to become the executive director of a not-for-profit organization in Fort Collins.

As director of OSRI, Donoso had a reputation for being hard charging and passionate about her work, impressing many in the education community with her ideas and ability to get things done.  Unfortunately, not many in the Denver community got to see Donoso in action.

In an email to DPS staff, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said Donoso would begin her job in Chicago in June and that DPS will begin an “intensive” search to find a replacement, a process that is demonstrated by the DPS employee recruitment training video provided below.

Caution: video contains DPS-proprietary and confidential business information

Riddle: What do today’s ‘education reformers’ have in common?

St. Albans dinning hall, aka The Refectory
The Refectory at St. Albans School in Washington DC.

According to a story in today’s New York Times, the “…one thing that characterizes a surprisingly large number of the people who are transforming public schools: they attended private schools.”

The list of reformers provided by the story’s author, Michael Winerip, is long and distinguished, including people like Senators Judd Gregg and John A. Boehner, software tycoon Bill Gates, governor Mitt Romney, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and our president and first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama. Of course, the list neglects Denver’s two best known “reformers,” Michael Bennet and Tom Boasberg, both of whom when to St. Albans School in Washington DC. (The picture above of St. Albans’ dinning hall, aka “The Refectory,” was sure to prep Bennet and Boasberg for life in the public school lunch room.)

The story asks an important question, one raised by a number of education activists — if you never went to public school, how do you know what will fix our public education system?  Given Denver’s continued flat student academic performance over the past 5 years, it would appear that attending a school like St. Albans doesn’t provide an answer.  After all, the Michael Bennet/Tom Boasberg school reform plan, also known as The Denver Plan, for Denver Public Schools is now in its 6th year and student performance continues to be flat.  DPS’ graduation rates hover just over 50% and post-secondary remediation rates have risen by 13% during the past 5 years.  There is little evidence that these numbers will improve this year.

For our money, however, this is the quote of Winerip’s story, taken from the list of private-school-educated reformers:

Michelle A. Rhee (Maumee Valley Country Day School, Toledo, Ohio), the former Washington schools chancellor and a founder of StudentsFirst, an advocacy group, is probably the No. 1 celebrity of the reform movement. She is education’s Sarah Palin.

Amen, brother.

Hancock’s fundraising problem

It appears that the Hancock for Mayor campaign is accepting contributions from companies that don’t actually exist, which is not “kosher” in the campaign finance world.

According to the Cherry Creek News:

The Hancock campaign provided the Cherry Creek News with addresses for both businesses, and spokeswoman Amber Miller claimed both businesses were legitimate, but would not provide further documentation. The Cherry Creek News went to both addresses. No evidence of either business at either address could be found. In one case, the leasing agent said he had never heard of P.O.W.E.R., at the other, a neighboring business owner said he had never heard of America’s Children Dental Management. At best, the addresses provided by the Hancock campaign were inaccurate, at worst long dead corporations are among Hancock’s maximum donors.

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