Category Archives: Reform

‘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.

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.

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.

Hey, candidates! Mayoral control doesn’t work!

Protestors against mayor-controlled New York City schools

The municipal campaigns have, of late, had a lot to say about school reform, most notably the mayoral candidates.  The ideas have run the gamut, from Carol Boigon’s idea of city-run charter schools to Thomas Andrew Wolf’s re-warmed merit pay ideas (and he seems to think the kids in greater Montbello are “non-performers” that for the “greater good” should be “gotten out of there”) to the big shot across the bow, a.k.a. Michael Hancock’s stance that mayoral control is good for our kids.

He claims that his life experience with “partnering with DPS to turn around failing schools” makes him able to turn Denver’s economic engine on.  Does that mean that he supports the hostile takeover of the greater Montbello schools, the accompanied community engagement epic fail, and the ensuing lack of an implementation plan that makes the Keystone Kops look like geniuses?

The most tone-deaf position that Hancock has taken thus far seems to be his support for mayoral control of the school district.  “We have to let go of the concept that the mayor doesn’t run the schools.” he said at a forum a month ago.

We’re with Ms. Atencio, also quoted in the article, who wondered out loud if the candidates knew there is a school board, saying, “I have a feeling they think we are naive.”

We think so too, Ms. Atencio, especially in light of the recent release of the report, “Should Chicago Have an Elected Representative School Board? A Look at the Evidence,” which examines just how much effect having a mayor-appointed school board has had on achievement in the Chicago Public Schools.  The report is available here.

What did it say?  Here’s a nutshell:

  1. There is no conclusive evidence that mayoral control and mayor-appointed boards are more effective at governing schools or raising student achievement.
  2. The Board’s policies of top-down accountability based on standardized tests, and its simultaneous expansion of selective-enrollment schools, expanded a two-tier education system in Chicago (can you say “caste system?”).
  3. Under the mayor-appointed Board, CPS has made little progress in academic achievement and other measures of educational improvement, and on nearly every measure there are persistent, and in some cases, widening gaps between white students and African American and Latino students.
  4. The Board’s policy of closing neighborhood schools and opening charter schools (Renaissance 2010) has generally not improved education for the students affected. In some cases, it has made things worse.
  5. Chicago’s mayor-appointed board is comprised of elite decision makers who are neither representative of the student population of CPS nor directly accountable to the public. Board structures and processes severely limit public input in decisions (sounds eerily familiar).

The report’s recommendations for Chicago Public Schools are:

  • Chicago should transition to an elected representative school board (ERSB).
  • The ERSB’s operations should be transparent and publicly accountable.
  • The ERSB should establish structures and practices that strengthen democratic public participation in district initiatives and decisions.
  • The ERSB should draw on sound educational research and educator, student, and community knowledge to develop and evaluate policy.
  • Achieving equity in educational opportunities and outcomes should be integral to all ERSB decisions

The conclusion seems to be that just because the reporting and decision-making structure becomes more streamlined under a mayoral-control scenario, you still need people that understand education to make any governance structure work.  Additionally, they need to be close to the situation, not elite appointees, which makes the need for locally-elected representatives all the more important.  How can you decide what’s right for a neighborhood if you don’t have any connection with its kids?

Plus, given the fact that mill levies are used to partially fund schools, it seems wholly undemocratic to eliminate important oversight for taxpayer dollars by collapsing a board under a mayor’s control.

Taxation without representation is so 1775.

Note: the good news is that there’s plenty of evidence and research to tell us what does work.  Visit our “What Works” page to find out more.

Diane Ravitch addresses 500 “shadowy” public education supporters

It appears that $1,700 buys a whole lot of notoriety. Please watch (there will be more from last night’s event very soon).

500 is pretty good for no advertising budget, huh? Maybe that means that Denver is fed up with failed reforms that dismantle neighborhoods, disenfranchise parents and community, and deprives kids of access to a good public school education in the neighborhoods in which they live.

November’s coming, folks!

DPS Parent: Boasberg, the Denver Plan is a failure

February 12, 2011

Dear Superintendent Boasberg,

When I opened The Denver Post this morning and read about the 52% graduation rate in DPS, I was stunned.  We have had The Denver Plan for six years now, and all we can manage is a 5% improvement in our graduation rate?  Particularly when this “improvement” is due to nothing other than a “lowering of the academic bar” to make DPS numbers look better than they are?  Proof of this is in the increased remediation rate to 55% of our DPS graduates who attend college.  That is outrageous!

It is time to fix our schools starting with the high schools.  By “fix” I do not mean closing the schools and replacing them with charters.  Find six excellent principals, or pairings of competent assistant principals with smart business people, (not those from education corporations), and put them into the failing high schools:  Manual, Montbello, North, West, Lincoln (and possibly Kennedy).  That leaves only five decent high schools remaining to serve the students in DPS:  East, GW, TJ, and South.  How can you spend six years not addressing the most pressing problem in DPS, that three fifths of our traditional high schools are failing their students and the remaining two fifths are struggling to competently serve all of their students?

I am tired of reading quotes from you in the paper which frequently contain the following words, “we are very concerned,” and “it speaks clearly to the need…”  Clearly, the DPS Administration knows what is wrong.  Quit being “concerned” and do something constructive.  Parents, teachers, and school administrators have turned around many DPS neighborhood elementary schools in the past decade.  Even some of the middle schools have been turned around or are making significant progress.  If the community can do it, surely 900 Grant with its wealth of human resources should be able to accomplish the same feats on a much larger scale.

Bill Gates is an accomplished businessman.  He has yet to prove himself an esteemed educator.  Gambling our kids’ education with a bet on corporate America seems very shortsighted.  “Rolling up one’s sleeves” and getting to work is a time-tested method of success.  We Westerners still have that quality in our fabric.  We would embrace that type of effort.


Kristen Tourangeau
DPS Parent & Graduate

P.S.  While writing this, I received your e-mail letter to the DPS Community.  Your “spinning” of the story is, in fact, quite misleading.  What truly is important is the quality of the DPS high school graduate.  I would like to see a true measurement of the academic level of our graduates as demonstrated by results from the ACT or SAT.  With remediation rates as high as 55%, one has to infer that our students are not as prepared for college or a career as they once were.  Tragically, this truth is never told.

An evening with Diane Ravitch, champion of public schools

Plan to attend An Evening With Diane Ravitch, moderated By Eli Stokols of Fox31 News. You will not want to miss the chance to hear the author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.”

In her latest book, distinguished education scholar and former proponent of the federal No Child Left Behind Act Diane Ravitch raises concerns over testing mania and school choice. In the process, she is reframing the national debate over the best ways to improve our nation’s public schools.

From 1991 to 1993, she was Assistant Secretary of Education and Counselor to Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. She was responsible for the Office of Educational Research and Improvement in the U.S. Department of Education. As Assistant Secretary, she led the federal effort to promote the creation of voluntary state and national academic standards.

From 1997 to 2004, she was a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal testing program. She was appointed by the Clinton administration’s Secretary of Education Richard Riley in 1997 and reappointed by him in 2001. From 1995 until 2005, she held the Brown Chair in Education Studies at the Brookings Institution and edited Brookings Papers on Education Policy. Before entering government service, she was Adjunct Professor of History and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Here’s some footage of a talk she gave last fall in Los Angeles with the local teacher’s union…

Out of a shared commitment to Colorado’s public school children, the following hosts are pleased to bring you the opportunity to share an evening with Dr. Ravitch:

University of Colorado at Denver, Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), Uniting 4 Kids, Democrats for Excellent Neighborhood School Education (DeFENSE), Jeanne Slavin Kaplan, Northeast Community Congress on Education (NCCE), Black Education Advisory Committee (BEAC)

Sponsors:University of Northern Colorado – College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, Piton Foundation, Every Child Matters, Connect Us, Friends of the Open Schools (FOTOS), Progress Now, University of Northern Colorado – Center for Urban Education, Community College of Denver, Metro State College

The sponsoring groups do not want anyone to be deterred from attending because of cost. Therefore, if ticket cost is an issue, please contact or call 303-831-0590 for scholarship information.


Universitiy of Colorado at Denver
Tivoli Student Union
900 Auraria Pkwy.
Turnhalle Event Room
2nd Fl. Rm 250
Denver, CO


Thursday February 17, 2011 from 6:00 PM to 9:00 PM MST

Reception, Book Signing and Preferred Seating:
6:00 pm to 7:30 pm

Speech and Q & A (Prior to Event): $10.00
7:30 pm to 9:00 pm

Speech and Q&A Only:
(Day of Event)
7:30 pm to 9:00 pm

Event to support Friends of Education

To register for event, click here.

For more information, send an email to or call 303-831-0590. We hope you can join us!

Protesting corporate takeover of public education is nationwide

You see, taking back our schools is not just something we do in Denver.  It’s happening all over the country.  Watch this video.  Internalize what the protesters are pointing out about NYC schools.

Doesn’t it sound familiar?

The time to take back our schools for our kids has arrived.  The petition to recall northeast Denver school board member, Nate Easley, has been approved, and this weekend we’ll be talking to voters for the first time.  It’s an entirely grassroots effort.  There is no money to pay campaign workers.  We have nothing to defend our children’s futures except our hands and our hearts.  Will you take back our schools with us?
It makes no difference what part of Denver you live in.  EVERY DPS STUDENT is being affected by the top-down, community-crushing decisions being made at central administration.  Every community is facing the prospect of weak academic programs, dictatorial principals, tone-deaf school board representation and misguided experimentation on our children and their futures.  And worst of all, NONE OF THEIR “REFORMS” ARE WORKING. Will you take back our schools with us?
With the election of Nate Easley in November 2009, neighborhood schools won.  Even though he’s turned his back on the community that raised him, we can win again by holding Easley accountable for his eggregious conflict of interest that only props up a bloated central administration that soaks up 50% of every education dollar and further weakens our children’s chances for success.  A community-driven reform of our schools is possible.  It’s happening in our district right now.  Will you take back our schools with us?
Click on the green button to the right to help us hold Nate Easley accountable.

DPS releases “call for new schools”

Tonight, the district presented its “Call for Quality Schools,” which is the open call for proposals from (mostly) new charter schools.

There are a couple new developments, like asking for evidence of English-language learner support.  They’re also asking for schools in some specific areas, with the Near and Far Northeast sectors being the most up for grabs.  The crazy thing is that they’re asking for new proposals before the official census data actually becomes available, expected in March or April 2011.

At any rate, here’s the “call”:

Call for Quality Schools Presentation 2011