Denver vows to compete for students

Denver Public Schools will compete for students with charter and private schools, vows Superintendent Michael Bennet and the entire Denver school board in an open letter to the Rocky Mountain News. In response to the Rocky’s “Leaving to Learn” series, Bennet and his board vow the system will change: “We will fail the vast majority of children in Denver if we try to run our schools the same old way.”

. . . parents of more than 40,000 Denver students chose a school other than the one DPS assigns them, if you count the students who attend private, religious or public schools in other districts. In a recent opinion survey, 70 percent of responding Denver parents said that they looked at more than one school before making their final decision. At this rate, the parents of 61,250 out of the city’s approximately 87,500 school-age students are shopping before they select their school.

Choice has been a significant benefit for parents, but a challenge for DPS. Traditional DPS schools have lost considerable enrollment, due to choice and demographic shifts.

. . . We have endorsed competition, but we have forced the district to compete with two arms tied behind its back. . . . the district has been slow to respond while other schools have been able to market richer academic environments for our kids like extended day, different uses of time, smaller class sizes, and focused and thematic academic programs.

Parents and students who choose a school make a commitment that strengthens the chances of success, the letter says. DPS schools will have to improve to become schools of choice.

We must provide a wider array of offerings, including many more alternatives to traditional schools – schools designed to meet the needs of students who excel, are behind on skills and credit, are newly arrived to the United States from around the world, or are working during the school day to support their families. We must expand early childhood education and open up new pathways to college.

The letter calls for decentralizing and letting “students, parents, teachers, principals … find their own solutions, rather than assume DPS, alone, will find the right answers in time.”

“Extraordinary,” writes Education Gadfly. But can DPS pull it off?

About Joanne


  1. Elizabeth says:

    I say why can’t they pull it off?

    It is time for all public schools to be choice schools. We have known for years parents that choose the school their child attends are much more supportive of the program and seeing that the child is ready for school.

    If educators are finally willing and ready to incorporate changes from outside of education — such as choice made by the consumer everyday, top quality leadership in every building and classroom, different pay for different skills and ability to help children learn, stopping tenure or sure as heck make it more difficult to get and much easier to fire ineffective teachers, etc. I say this can be done. It can be done in Denver and other districts, too.

    I will be watching this closely. I hope my district will be moving this way too — at least there is talk of this — all schools choice schools, those that cannot draw a significant student body, figure out how to distinguish themself from another school to attract students will close, etc.

    It is past time education enters the modern world.

    Joanne — thanks for the heads up on what Denver is trying to do!

  2. I wish them well but I have my doubts. In particular, the union head weighed in a couple of days later with this sort of edu-cant:

    “It would be an interesting experiment to facilitate a discussion of school reform with two separate groups – one made up of district administrators, school board members, and education experts, and the other made up of classroom teachers and rank-and-file parents. We can tell from experience what those plans would look like.

    One would be full of sweeping rhetoric about “state of the art” this and “world class” that and “21st century” the other to describe inherent contradictions, like unleashing the creativity of teachers by giving them the latest standardized model for guided instruction (i.e., teacher-proofing teaching) or encouraging the best performance of all by rewarding a few. It would be full of “right-sizing” and “sweeping away the status quo,” but, in the end, it would preserve one element of the status quo that is most harmful: the top-down decision making that has dominated schools for many years. It would likely include more standardized testing, more dire consequences for not meeting prescribed test scores, and remedies that look like exit strategies.

    The reform plan of teachers and parents would be much more down to earth. It would include things like reducing class size, setting and maintaining high standards for all teachers and offering compensation that attracts the best and brightest in every teaching position. It would be child-centered, calling for more preschool programs and all-day kindergarten, more after-school programs and summer school for students who are struggling. It would include ongoing opportunities for teachers and parents to work together, informally as partners around the development of individual children and more formally through site-based decision-making councils for ongoing assessment and continual improvement at the school level.”

    “Teacher-proofing teaching”? It’s going to be a bumpy ride for Bennett. I wish him well.

  3. I meant to include the link (I hope the HTML works out):

    Let’s work together for the sake of children

  4. linda seebach says:

    Non-Colorado readers might like to know that the state has full inter- and intra-district choice. Parents can send their children to any public school in the state, including charters, that has room (obviously there are practical constraints) and the school they are “assigned” is merely the default, if they don’t make an explicitly different choice. They cannot be required to send their children there, as they are in many other states.

    The excerpt does not make clear that the “more than 40,000” includes children who attend a DPS school other than their default one.

    Nearly half of Denver’s teachers have elected to leave the rigid step-and-lane salary schedule for a more flexible plan called ProComp that takes into account scarcity of skills and difficulty of assignment.

    I should also note (as a Rocky editorial writer) the district’s extraordinary cooperation on the series “Leaving to Learn.”

  5. My kids go to Southmoor, the jewel of DPS. The teachers are terrific, the principal is terrific, the school is terrific. It is, however, still a religious school. My kids are taught the basic catechism on a daily basis: that to be closer to nature is to be holier; that the world is warming up because of our sins; that collectivism is promotes the goodness in everyone’s heart; that the lighter one’s skin is, the more one has inherited a burden of evil and a rejection of nature; that one’s destiny in life is tied to one’s group affiliations; that we must pick our heroes based on those same group definitions rather than on individual achievement; and so forth.

    In the end, school choice doesn’t mean as much as it might if there’s no philosophical choice across the board.

  6. Nancy Flanagan says:

    To Steve:

    Regarding what you term “edu-cant,” it seems to me that most parents who select charter, private and school-of-choice alternatives do so for precisely the reasons listed in the “union head’s” description: schools with smaller class sizes, better and more motivated teachers, greater parent input and attractive ancillary programs. Both sides of the school choice debate are equally prone to “edu-cant” and puffed rhetoric. I’m from Michigan, an early leader in the charter schools movement, and have seen the best mission-driven charters succeed and the ones based on mere opposition to existing public schools fail quickly.

    I give Denver Public Schools credit for responding to challenges by addressing the issue openly, and pledging to try new things to meet the needs of their clients. It’s a far better plan than fighting or subverting the competition.

    This is precisely what school choice is supposed to do, isn’t it?–make everyone more aware of and working toward schools that meet student needs and parent desires? Good schools are built on optimism and a vision of good education, not cynicism.

  7. To Nancy,

    The union head claims to be for educational reform, better teachers, better curriculum, better schools. Who isn’t? Yet immediately she stakes out the union position that serious educational reform must involve the union precisely in those ways that have stifled reform in the past. There is plenty of evidence, both rigorous and anecdotal, that what she calls “guided instruction” provides the best opportunity for poor student to learn to read, learn to write and learn to calculate. Yet that is a policy she disparages. “Teacher-proofing teaching” is just cheap sloganeering, not any thoughtful criticism of an educational policy. It deserves to be called “edu-cant”.

    She want site-based decision making councils. DPS has had them for a number of years and, still, here she is in 2007 talking about them as though they had not been tried and found wanting.

    She seems not to recognize the disparity between her announced goal and her job. She says she wants DPS to be “offering compensation that attracts the best and brightest in every teaching position.” Her job, as union head is to protect her members. Does she publicly commit to weeding out the ineffective teachers as the counterpart to attracting the best and brightest? No. When push comes to shove, whose side will she be on?

    I give DPS credit for recognizing they need to change. And, in all fairness, the union has cooperated with the District in the past with the ProComp plan. And at least she recognizes that changes have to be made.

    I applaud charter schools, school choice, and most policies that empower parents in their children’s education. In fact, this move by DPS validates some of the primary arguments that have been made for school choice. The establishment is being forced to respond by the pressure of children leaving. They are forced to compete in the arenas of convenience, programs and especially, educational excellence.

    Personally, I think school choice is a great idea. Parents and students should be able to choose schools freely and schools should have more choice in the students they admit, the teachers they employ, and the policies they follow.