Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Are Denver school reforms a success story that can and should be copied elsewhere?
A report published by the Progressive Policy Institute calls for aggressively closing more public schools and expanding charter schools and charter networks. It highlights reforms adopted by Denver Public Schools, notably a “portfolio model” of school governance, and argues that these reforms positively impacted student test scores.
The new report is the latest attempt to paint a narrative of Denver as an exemplar – a success story that can and should be copied elsewhere. However, a review finds that the report’s data do not support the weight of its conclusions.
Assistant Professor Terrenda White of the University of Colorado Boulder reviewed A 21st Century School System in the Mile-High City, for the Think Twice Think Tank Review Project at the National Education Policy Center, housed at CU Boulder’s School of Education.
As Professor White explains, the report is written in a reportorial voice, and the only data presented are in the form of simple charts. The report did not attempt to isolate the effect of a multitude of reforms—including charters, performance pay, and a new performance framework—from larger complex forces shaping student demographics in the city. The lack of conventional statistical analyses thwarts the reader’s understanding, and causality cannot be determined.
The report also characterizes the reform’s adoption as a “political success” born of a healthily contentious electoral process, White explains. In doing so, it downplays the role of outside forces and moneyed groups that influenced the nature of reforms, and it disregards missed opportunities for meaningful engagement with community stakeholders.
Finally, Professor White raises the concern that, while the report acknowledges the district’s failure to close achievement gaps and admits limitations with the evaluation system, it never explains how a successful reform could be associated with a widening gap in performance between student groups by race and class.