When David Osborne was considering cities to spotlight in a book about reinventing American public schools, he started with the drastic overhaul of schools in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, moved on to Michelle Rhee’s controversial changes in Washington, D.C., and found his way to Denver.
Osborne, an author and consultant who specializes in documenting public sector reforms, is an advocate of charter schools and giving schools greater autonomy.
He was sold on Denver Public Schools, he told Chalkbeat, because of the district’s unusually long and strong track record of embracing charters — and by “performance improving going back a decade.”
DPS can point to successes: Enrollment and graduation rates are up, and state test scores are creeping closer to state averages. But the district also has yawning achievement gaps between minority students and white students, and between poor students and wealthier students, and teacher turnover is high.
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Osborne was in Denver this week to discuss his book, “Reinventing Public Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System,” and take part in a panel with Jeffco Public Schools Superintendent Jason Glass; Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez; and Jennifer Holladay, DPS’s executive director of portfolio management.
The Tuesday discussion at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs was hosted by A-Plus Colorado, Democrats for Education Reform, the Donnell-Kay Foundation, the Gates Family Foundation, the Progressive Policy Institute (where Osborne works) and The 74. (The Donnell-Kay Foundation and the Gates Family Foundation are funders of Chalkbeat).
Here are five themes that emerged from Osborne’s remarks and the panel discussion that followed:
Autonomy, accountability, choice … and districts getting out of the business of operating schools altogether
In his book and his Denver talk, Osborne laid out the ingredients he believes will improve America’s public school system. It starts with autonomy: giving school leaders the freedom to do whatever it takes to help kids. This is why Osborne is a steadfast believer in charter schools, which are operated independently and can make their own decisions about school calendars, hiring and firing, and curriculum, among other things. Next is accountability: schools that succeed grow and replicate, and those that fail are closed. Then you give parents a choice among schools. Finally, the most politically difficult piece: Osborne thinks school districts should get out of the school operating business altogether. All schools would be independently operated, with districts doing the “steering” and school operators doing the “rowing,” he said. “Denver has done a pretty good job of doing both, but it’s really unusual,” Osborne said. Not everyone is pleased with how DPS is doing both. As Chalkbeat reported last spring, charter school operators complained that they were not getting a fair shot in the competition to replace two schools being closed for poor performance.
Denver’s “family” of schools is sometimes in need of counseling
Denver is known nationally for its “portfolio” system that includes traditional district-run schools, charter schools and innovation schools, which enjoy many of the same freedoms as charters. Holladay, who oversees that portfolio, has a different term for it. “I sometimes think of it more like a family of schools, because we fight a lot,” she said. “… There are periods where the family of schools has to go to marital counseling, and there are periods where we do extraordinary work for children with each other.” Holladay suggested that collaborative work could be improved and expanded. “If you look at the portfolio of schools, the ones that struggle the most are single-site charters because they operate in isolation,” she said. Holladay cited new models of collaboration popping up around the country, including innovation network schools in Memphis and Indianapolis, as well as Denver’s own Luminary Learning Network. That network of four schools is part of an innovation zone, which gives schools even more autonomy than regular innovation schools. So far, the effort has shown mixed results, with two of the four schools posting low growth and slipping scores on the latest state tests.
Indianapolis could prove to be a model for Denver and other cities
Osborne had plenty of praise for Indianapolis, the only city in the country where the mayor authorizes charter schools. Much like in Denver earlier, education reform advocates in Indianapolis poured money and energy into winning control of the school board. When that paid off, the board coaxed the superintendent into retirement, brought in a new leader, and the district successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass what’s called the Innovation Network Schools Act. In Colorado, innovation schools enjoy many of the freedoms afforded charters, but they’re still run by school districts. Not so in Indiana, where nonprofit organizations and outside charter operators operate innovation schools that are still considered to be district schools. To Osborne, a true believer in as much autonomy as possible, this is the way to go. He said both Denver and Washington, D.C., should look to the Hoosier state for inspiration. On the most recent Indiana state tests, innovation schools’ scores were still pretty dismal, but showed the most improvement in English and math tests compared to other school models (schools taken over by the state made the second-most progress). Note: Critics say innovation schools had an easy road to higher grades under Indiana’s system. “Within the district framework,” Osborne said, “it gives you the dynamics that can lead to higher performance.”
Segregation and quality school authorization are challenges to choice
Glass, the Jeffco Public Schools superintendent, clearly was meant to be a contrast to Osborne and the DPS folks who are all-in on charter schools and autonomy with accountability. On the job since July, Glass is a sort of reformed reformer. He’s had a change of heart on strategies such as tying teacher pay to student performance (used to champion it, is now against it) and he came strongly endorsed by the Jeffco teachers union. Glass on Tuesday praised Denver for its nationally recognized centralized admissions system and for taking “courageous stands” on school authorization and closing schools that need closing. He also took issue with aspects of Osborne’s book. Glass said Osborne overlooked “some of the segregation issues that come with school choice — that are a problem every place you implement school choice.” Osborne’s book “also glosses over some of the difficulty” of being a quality school authorizer, Glass said. Charters often “come with low quality applications, and if they keep fighting, they get the state board or some other entity to roll over and approve them,” he said. “That’s a problem.” (Glass is not alone in this sentiment). Osborne conceded that some charter school authorizers are “awful” and advocated that less is more: one strong authorizer in each city and an “escape valve” at the state level if charter applicants are “somehow treated unfairly.” That’s essentially the Colorado model.
Denver is not getting out of the business of running schools any time soon — maybe ever — but is likely to loosen the reins
DPS has shown no indication of backing away from operating schools altogether. If anything, it has invested greater energy into replicating promising district-run models, including opening spinoffs of Grant Beacon Middle School and McAuliffe International School. The district in 2018-19 is planning on giving all innovation schools more freedom over their budgets, allowing them to opt out of district services (like, say, help from the district’s family engagement office), and spend that money on something else. Osborne’s advice to DPS: “Be bold. You have gone partway down this path, but there are other steps you can take.” Among his suggestions: giving schools even more autonomy, recruiting charter networks from outside the city, adding stand-alone charter preschools (some charters in Denver run preschools as part of elementary schools) and adult schools, and improving its school rating system, known as the School Performance Framework. That system, which is adjusted and tweaked frequently, is a common target of criticism, in part because it gives much more weight to how much students are improving than it does to whether they are proficient in a subject.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described how state-run schools in Indianapolis performed on state tests.