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