GOOD TO GREAT: Study Examines Douglas County School Reforms

September 19, 2013
A new report examines the cutting edge school reform effort underway in Douglas County

A new report examines the education reform effort underway in Douglas County

DENVER – The question many Douglas County parents will ask themselves on November 5: Are my kids getting a better education than they were four years ago? 

The slate of four pro-reform candidates argue “yes”. They believe performance-pay and market-based teacher’s salaries, expanded school choice, and customized curriculums based on the needs of district students, and not federal bureaucrats, have brought noticeable improvements for K-12 students.

A recent study published by the American Enterprise Institute, titled “The most interesting school district in America?,” examines the methodology of pro-reform advocates of the seven-member Douglas County Board of Education.

“Douglas County is serving as the site of what may well prove a critical chapter in the story of contemporary school reform. Attention ought to be paid,” according to the paper’s authors.

Through interviews with school board officials, administrators, and teachers, as well as dozens of anti-reformers, the white paper explores the possibilities of education reform when over 50 percent of those surveyed nationally say they are dissatisfied with quality of K-12 education, according to Gallup.

“DougCo reminds us, in an era when federal leadership and state legislation have sometimes encouraged a one-size-fits-all vision of education reform, that what works in one community may be very different from what makes sense for another,” the report reads.

Pro-reform parents had argued for years that the district needed to go “from good to great”, and that a top-down approach to education created a bare-minimum curriculum that was holding thousands of students back, according to those interviewed by authors Frederick Hess and Max Eden

In the report, school district superintendent Liz Fagen explains the pitfalls of teaching to national and state standards, most notably Common Core which Colorado adopted on August 2, 2010. In July 2013, the Board passed a resolution opposing the standards.

“Such standards included “[expecting] kindergartners to successfully “use appropriate pencil grip” or “blend sounds orally to make one-syllable words”…some of our students come into kindergarten reading chapter books!,” said Fagen.

Jim Calhoun, Principal of Castle View High School, was another administrator interviewed.

Calhoun said he recognizes the shortfalls of state- and federal-mandated curricula, and believes teachers must go beyond ‘teaching to the test’ to prepare students for the futures they choose.

“The ACT has 60 questions in 60 minutes. We can train our kids to do that, but that’s not teaching them sound problem-solving. Some of our kids are doing geometry problems that take hours or days to work through,” said Calhoun.

So far, state figures show that the reforms coincide with a positive trend in on-time graduation rates.

The Colorado Department of Education reported a steady year-over-year improvement of on-time graduation rates. The class of 2012 graduated 87.4 of its students within four years, compared with 84.2 and 83.1 in the previous two graduating classes.

And while the reforms have garnered national media attention – and the ire of Washington, D.C. special interest groups – more of the most important decision makers – parents – see the value of the reforms, says Fagen.

“We have had some resistance from parents. They ask, ‘Why isn’t my kid taking a spelling test every Friday?’ There’s only so much we can do to convince them, but our biggest ambassadors are our kids” said Fagen.  “I had kids come up to me crying last spring because they didn’t want to leave school for the summer… and now we get parents calling us saying, Now we get it; this is great!”

Political observers point to the irony of a suburban Republican stronghold applying methods traditionally used in poor, urban communities dominated by Democrat voters.

Now that school board officials have applied the model with their own twist, Washington-D.C. backed teachers’ unions are mounting a significant opposition campaign, arguing against the cutting-edge reforms.

School board President John Carson explains, “[c]hoice is something fundamental we all believe in; it’s in our DNA and the DNA of the district.”

Many pro-union stakeholders have been critical of the board for supporting broader school choice for parents.  But the AEI report finds that expanding school choice is a small part of a broader agenda to constantly improve the quality of K-12 education.

“While DougCo is noteworthy for its approach to school choice, it may be more intriguing as a high-performing district where the leadership is radically overhauling standards, curriculum, assessment, and teacher evaluation and pay in pursuit of ‘world-class’ performance,” according to the report. “While outside observers have paid more attention to the voucher program, DougCo itself is more focused on these other efforts,” the report says.

The report also examines the conversation surrounding teacher performance-pay and the “salary bands” that have been assigned to teacher’s positions based on the difficulty of filling the slot.

Union campaigners have also argued that the reforms adopted by the board would result in a mass exodus of teachers seeking in other districts.  But the report notes that in the first year of the new system, “DougCo made 414 job offers and just 3 candidates declined employment because of salary considerations.”

In addition, teacher retention rates in Douglas County are average compared to the state, suggesting there has been little response to the reforms.

Most importantly, the changes are not about teachers, or their union, reformers argue, but about pushing kid’s education from “good to great.”

“This is a way to nudge teachers to pursue work where we need them most,” noted Fagen in the report.

Election Day in Douglas County may prove to be a proxy war for a larger, national education battle, but Hess and Eden are intrigued by the reformers efforts.

“DougCo does not fit neatly into any simple political or educational box,” the report concluded. “Instead, it offers a bold, radically different vision of school reform.”

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