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A different view from Denver

By Guest blogger on Jan 24, 2012 06:26 PM

This guest blog post comes from Andrea Mérida, a director of the Denver School Board.


Andrea MeridaRecently, a mayoral delegation from Philadelphia traveled to Denver to visit Denver Public Schools. Given their reaction, you would have thought that they were journeying to an educational Shangri-La.

But in reality, DPS has been a national flashpoint for the battle between corporate-style education reformers and those focusing upon a more child-centric, collaborative approach to improving student achievement.

In Denver, reforms for the past half decade have focused upon strategic changes in the district, including student-based budgeting and a relentless push for more charters. At the same time, traditional neighborhood public schools have received less emphasis and resources, as well as more school closings, cleverly spun as "phase-outs."

Teachers have been fired wholesale or their jobs turned into at-will positions as a matter of course in the district's attempts to turnaround schools. The district as a whole has relentlessly pushed teachers to teach to standardized tests, forcing them to conform to pacing guides that  amount to highly scripted classroom presentations that ignore the needs of individual students. While reforms have taken various programmatic forms, they have been lumped together by politicians as the "Denver Plan," which remains a convenient placeholder term.

The results have been less than stellar.

In 2006, DPS's four-year graduation rate was 51.7 percent. In 2010, DPS's graduation rate was 51.8 percent, and the district has just announced a jump to 56.1 percent in 2011. Close examination of the state data shows that this increase may not be all that it appears. The data show an uptick in the numbers of students with enough credits to graduate, but this increase may have more to do with the increased use of a computer-based program for credit recovery than appropriate academic triage. For students who do graduate, nearly 6 percent more DPS students needed academic remediation upon entering higher education in 2010 than in 2005.

Do you like NCLB-type test data? The picture worsens. In 2009-2010, Denver students met 84 percent of the Adequate Yearly Progress targets. A year later, that watermark had dropped to 71 percent, falling faster than surrounding school districts (almost every urban district fell in target meeting in 2010, Denver just fell farther than its urban peers in Colorado).

So whether you choose to look at very broad metrics like the myriad AYP targets, end of process measures like graduation rates, or at what should be DPS's top students, its college enrollees, the picture is not one of progress. If anything, Philadelphia parents should want the polar opposite of Denver's results.

For English language learners in Denver the situation is all the more grim.

Some educational justice has been served through a 1999 court decision that compels DPS to offer opt-in/opt-out sheltered English or native tongue instruction according to parental choice. But, chances are that schools with high ELL populations will be summarily phased out or faced with other drastic restructuring.

The state standardized test, the CSAP, is only available in Spanish for grades 3 and 4, making Denver's high-minority middle schools the target of an aggressive RFP process for new schools, the justification of which is low test performance. Of course, no one stops to consider that the majority of the students at these "low performing" schools include large numbers of students who are not linguistically ready to take the CSAP.  And taking into consideration their steep gains in English reading and writing proficiency, as measured by another state-mandated exam, which in a fair world would have bearing on what could be considered "performance," is the last thing on anyone's mind.

But it's "all about the kids."

Philadelphia parents should scrutinize any decision that has a Denver-inspired tinge:

  • Whenever data is cited, ask for justification.

  • Arm yourselves with the facts, and link up with national groups like Parents Across America who will quickly help you understand the half-truths that are regularly spoon-fed to the mainstream media.

  • Dissect data yourself by visiting the Pennsylvania Department of Education's website and sifting through the reports.  

  • Support publications like this one, as well as other alternative media, so that the truth about what works becomes cemented in your mind.  

  • Talk to other parents. Compare notes. Hold elected officials accountable.

  • Finally, take time to really talk to your children's teacher. Don't be afraid to ask him/her silly questions about data. Get an accurate account of what actually happens after you drop off your kids. Resist excessive testing and test prep that robs precious learning time from your child.  

The future belongs to your child, and it's up to you to steward it. Philadelphia, take back your schools.

Guerin Green, publisher of The Cherry Creek News and a parent of two DPS students, contributed to this post.


The guest blog section is a place for people, other than our regular cast of bloggers, to share their views. (See our "About Our Blog" note at the top, right.) Got something you'd like to write about? Email us with a pitch, idea, or a completed post.

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Comments (22)

Submitted by Andrea Mérida (not verified) on January 24, 2012 5:58 pm

Hello there, Philly! Thanks for giving me a chance to share my thoughts with you!

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on January 24, 2012 11:59 pm

Thanks again for taking the time, and thanks to Ben Herold for connecting us.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 24, 2012 6:20 pm

Philly has spent the last ten years providing a revolving door for every superstar superintendent that they thought would revolutionize the schools. Instead you've got a school district at the precipice of financial collapse and an appointed school board grasping at straws as to a remedy for a situation. Now they are out in Denver looking at yet another "failed" system trying to find ways to implement their system in Philadelphia. Folks, it can't be fixed. Close all the traditional publics and push all the kids into the Charters. Let's really see how good these Charters really are. Then when the system finally does collapse there will be no where to send these kids to school.

Submitted by Helen Gym on January 24, 2012 6:49 pm

Andrea: This is a fantastic post that offers a critical context and perspective to the rah rah cheerleading that inexplicably goes along with delegation visits. Is it too much to ask that visits be reflective and discussed in terms of what works and what doesn't? The mayoral delegation and their summary of the Denver visit was a surprisingly shallow and narrow view of education systems, reform and change. Thanks for taking the time to have us think in broader ways!

Submitted by Down the Hall (not verified) on January 24, 2012 7:03 pm

Andrea,
Thank you for posting this, I did check out your website and I commend you for your efforts in advocating for the less fortunate students in your district.

One issue that I have heard here since our delegation has returned home is the idea of decentralizing our district. How has that worked in DPS? Are the schools more autonomous or is that just another buzz word to set up for Charterization?

Submitted by Andrea Mérida (not verified) on January 24, 2012 7:07 pm

Hi there...truth be told, I am an advocate for site-based autonomy, so that school cadres can do what's necessary for the particular kids they have in the building. So in a sense, I do support a concept of decentralization. The problem is that our "education outsourcing" has not taken care of things like equity, whole-child programming, proper support of English learners, etc. Just like in other parts of the country, the charters have exacerbated segregation along ethnic, linguistic and socioeconomic lines.

When the district cannot find a charter, they push "innovation" schools, which supposedly are autonomous as well but who never get the autonomy and localized control that was sold to parents. In fact, one of our first innovation school principals had to seek legal opinion to clarify the school's rights under Colorado's Innovation Schools Act. Of late, the most recent approved innovation school proposals (with a couple notable exceptions), have really just been excuses to bust the teacher's union by turning all jobs in the building into at-will positions. And the worst part is that almost none of these innovation schools use a curriculum, calendar or textbooks that are different from the traditional public schools.

I can't see any real value to kids in these strategies. It's not as if the charters have these varied formats. They're all KIPP or BES-styled models. They still don't support the most vulnerable of our kids any better, but they do push them out.

Hope that clarifies.

Submitted by Down the Hall (not verified) on January 24, 2012 9:06 pm

Thank you for your answer. You mention "education outsourcing", what educational services have been "outsourced?" Is that only for the innovation schools or all schools in the DPS? Are services being provided by for-profit companies? Please excuse all of these questions, The phrase "education outsourcing" concerns me.

Submitted by Andrea Mérida (not verified) on January 24, 2012 9:13 pm

Sorry, I'm referring to the whole process of outsourcing our educational responsibility to charters, as opposed to doing the job ourselves. We have an RFP process for new schools twice a year. I was being faintly ironic.

Submitted by Samuel Reed III on January 24, 2012 10:04 pm

Andrea;

Thank you for your post and comments. "When the district cannot find a charter, they push "innovation" schools,..."

Reforrmers love to play with words... Innovation.. Empowerment...  Renaissance... Vanguard...

What if the reformers get out of the way, and let principals, teachers, students and parents have "site based automony"  as you advocate.

 

Submitted by Wendy Harris on January 29, 2012 4:25 pm

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Hi Sam:

We are putting together our From our readers page, which compiles letters to the editor, comments on our blog posts, and comments on our previous editions that have been posted on our site. We would like your permission to republish this comment to the post A different view from Denver in our February edition. Please let me know ASAP if we have permission to reprint this comment. Also, please let me know how you would like to be referred to in the credit line. In other words, we would put Samuel Reed II I is a xxxxxxxxxx (fill in the blank with your title, organization affiliation, whatever you would want us to say).

Thanks very much.

Wendy

Submitted by tom-104 on January 24, 2012 7:05 pm

When Mayor Nutter returned from Denver he was reported to have said that he was impressed that Denver had gone to private industry for its current Superintendent. Now we have someone running the School District who is taking a corporate restructuring approach to the School District's problems. (See his interview in The Notebook for the approach he is taking at http://tinyurl.com/6tfko3j) With all of the universities in this city, no educators are being consulted in this situation.

We are not a corporation putting out consumer products. Education requires specialized training in pedagogy and child development. Nowhere in any of this restructuring is education being considered. Schools have become testing factories and the tests are used to vilify and blame teachers for the conditions they did not create. Education has always had a low value in our culture and the conditions of our schools are the result. Taking a business approach to education will only compound the disaster.

Circling for the kill are the Wall Street and privatizer vultures who hope to make a hefty profit from the lowering of the living standards of school employees. As Ms. Merida documents, all of Denver's "reorganization" has done nothing to improve education. You can bet the private charters are boasting to their shareholders, however, that they are making record profits. Left behind are the children in the struggling, underfunded public schools who were not born into acceptable social conditions and therefore are not given the right to a fully funded education.

Submitted by William T. (not verified) on February 2, 2012 9:33 pm

Yes, but ONLY in the inner cities and places like Appalachia. The typical suburban school districts are just fine, The collateral damage is the poor kids, most people of color, who will have no chance at all if charters take over for all the reasons you listed. So where's the outrage from the unions?? Yes, they're too busy worrying about the Kardashian Sisters and nonsense of that ilk.

Submitted by Paul Socolar on January 24, 2012 7:00 pm

Andrea - Thanks for your piece and for making yourself available for follow-up! 

Tom-104 mentioned private charters and their profits. Part of Philly's stated interest in Denver is about getting charters on board with accountability standards. Some Denver folks contend that the charter office is tougher than in other districts: that it's hard to get approved and that Denver has frequently closed down poor-performing charters. That's been exceeding rare in Philadelphia.

Are there many for-profit charter operators there? Or chains like KIPP?

I hear you saying charters push students out, but do you agree at all with the assessment that Denver takes charter accountability seriously? Is anything monitored besides test scores?

Submitted by Andrea Mérida (not verified) on January 24, 2012 8:35 pm

Hi Paul! It's true that it's hard for community-based charters to be approved. The most recent charters are all KIPPs and Building Excellent Schools (http://www.buildingexcellentschools.org/) spin-offs. We had an Envision charter that merged into an independent charter, and we have an expeditionary-learning charter (http://www.odysseydenver.org/about_us.html) that was built by and for a group of affluent parents.

In a nutshell, if a charter is not part of the "kill-and-drill for minorities" ilk, it will not be approved. The only charters we've closed have been a community-led, alternative-ed focused, and similar "fringe" charters. There have not been many.

At the moment, one third of our schools are "autonomous," either charters or "innovation" schools.

We do have one for-profit, an Edison K-6. They test well.

I'm not sure that I can agree that Denver takes charter accountability seriously. What they're looking for is a particular model, and if a proposal doesn't emulate that, it doesn't fly. In essence, for all the talk of "school choice," most Denver kids get the same rubber-stamped model of charter all over town.

Submitted by tom-104 on January 24, 2012 8:54 pm

Paul,

You raise an important issue in regard to charters in Philadelphia, and that is the issue of transparency. What testing are charters required to do and are the results public knowledge as in regular schools? How many of them are run by for profit companies? What is their management structure? For those that are run by a CEO, what is their salary? What is the salary and benefits structure for employees? If the claim is that they are so much better than public schools, then there must be complete transparency to back this up.

Of Philadelphia's 80 charters, five have been unionized, the most recent is Khepera Charter School. (http://tinyurl.com/6rxgjxg) How do their contracts compare with PFT and the working conditions at other non-unionzed charters.

Regardless what the information shows, however, there is not a level playing field between charters and public schools. Charters can be very selective in their student population, public schools cannot. It one of the reasons charters are being promoted. They can be a safe haven for selected families from the problems of underfunded public schools.

There is growing awareness of the inequity of school choice. See this article on today's Salon, "The ugly truth about “school choice” at:
http://tinyurl.com/72s6dhb

Submitted by Erika Owens (not verified) on January 24, 2012 11:31 pm

Oh, also, two years ago Communities for Public Education Reform held its annual convening in Denver, where many groups from Philly, including the Notebook, got to learn about education organizing in Denver. Several docs from that event are still online.

Submitted by David Lapp (not verified) on January 25, 2012 12:35 pm

Hi Andrea,

One piece of the Denver experience that, from a distance, appears promising, is the notion of universal enrollment. We have quite a complex system of charter school enrollment here in Philly, with each charter having its own enrollment documents and its own deadlines. Many of them ask for extremely inappropriate (and illegal) things - like social security numbers, letters of recommendation from former teachers, and student written essays. The idea of one system and one deadline for all charter enrollment is very appealing. Curious about your thoughts on that.

Also, it appears that here in Philly the District, the charters, the mayors office, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education have no interest in allowing meaningful parent and community engagement in the "Great Schools Compact" process. Did Denver allow for such engagement?

Submitted by Andrea Mérida (not verified) on January 25, 2012 12:15 pm

Well, apparently the district pulled together a focus group to take a look at the form, but no meaningful engagement was done with charter school parents, for example, to ask them how their enrollment experience played out.

DPS is in a strange phase, in which the incidences of community engagement are increasing, but the "meaningfulness" of them have not improved. Parents and community are still being lectured and "powerpointed" to boredom. The district uses a strange engagement model of powerpoint presentation - breakout into small discussion groups - recap, with no real opportunity for capturing feedback or reporting back for results. Needless to say, the public doesn't like it at all.

What you have to keep in mind that this method of giving only a perfunctory ear to parents and community is absolutely a Broad Institute technique.

And I guess I'd have to say that we were streamlining and processing enrollment just fine in the public school system before charters.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on January 25, 2012 1:35 pm

While I know a number of charter high schools require more than date of birth and proof of address, I was told I had to give my child's social security number for a SDP site select high school. When I questioned the secretary, she said the principal said it is required. So, there is a lot of abuse of SS numbers.

That said, I know CHAD, a charter high school, requires an essay and a submission of art work. Boys Latin requires a during the day interview with the parent/guardian and student. Prep Charter requires report cards, test scores and household income/size. Freire Charter HS requires students to have a 75% average in a major subjects or go to summer school before entering the high school; they also have "optional" paragraphs to write on the application. I'm sure there are many other charter schools "weed out" students before their names are put into the lottery.

I agree - we need a streamlined system that has no admission requirements than a neighborhood school .

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on January 25, 2012 5:03 pm

Please note: It has not been the Philly School District for the last ten years. It has been the state controlling the district and hiring the superintendents, not the citizens of Philadelphia or the government of Philadelphia. The other school district controlled by the state was Chester-Upland who contracted with Edison which nailed it into the ground.

The mayor of Philadelphia has almost no say in the school administration (Although Meatloaf may say two out of three ain't bad -- believe me, two out of five is.). The state has had it all and it is the state who is responsible for budgetary problem. Please look for LOCAL CONTROL of our school district to solve our problems. Get it out of the hands of the rural and suburban politicians who would be happy if all of our children cease to exist. (Their schools get twice as much revenue per student as Philadelphia does.) Both Vermont and New Hampshire have passed laws that all students within the state have to have the same amount of monies applied to their public education, thereby taking all public school taxes to the state and having it divided up their to the school districts. Imagine that that would mean for Philadelphia.

It is also interesting that when my children started in the school district in 1976, a main concern was racial balance in the schools -- even to the threat of busing. Instead, now we have charter schools who are now ethnically and racially segregated -- to the idea that the children and parents are happier that way. Boy, I heard that back in the 1950s when fair housing was a topic. Charter Schools only seem to appear where minorities in cities live. The suburbs are not interested.

Submitted by Andrea Mérida (not verified) on January 25, 2012 5:11 pm

"Charter schools only seem to appear where minorities in cities live." You have hit the nail on the head very squarely in this statement.

In fact, Anthony Cody said in his piece today that, "The drive to get rid of bad teachers for the benefit of the poor is a phony crusade." Check it out: http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2012/01/teachers_off...

There is a reason why the NYC NAACP has come out strongly against charterization, to the point of bringing suit against the NY Department of Education.

Submitted by William T. (not verified) on February 2, 2012 10:42 pm

Thank You Very Much. Of course, this is all about money for the corporations which will completely destroy any hope the inner city kids have at a real life. But they don't care as long as their profit margin looks good and where is Obama?????? He's been a disgrace.

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