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  • Joanne Jacobs

How Denver schools improved: Choice, accountability

Denver schools' reform strategy improved achievement dramatically, concludes a University of Colorado Denver study. "The overall effects of the reforms over 11 years are among the largest ever observed in educational research," concluded researchers.


Jennifer Holderman's kindergarten class at Carson Elementary, a blue-ribbon school in 2021.

The reforms focused "on school choice and competition, closing low-performing schools, empowering educators, and holding everyone accountable for test results," writes Jenny Brundin on CPR.


Denver Public Schools improved at a much faster rate than other large and low-performing Colorado districts from 2008 to 2019, the study found. DPS rose from the 5th percentile to the 60th among districts in English and the 63rd percentile of districts in math.


"High school graduation rates went up 14 percentage points, and between 2008 and 2019. DPS students received about 1 to 1.5 years of additional schooling compared to students at other large and low-performing districts," writes Brundin. "All demographic groups, Black, white, Hispanic, Asian Pacific Islander, English learners and special education students, saw improvements."

Today more than half the schools in Denver are district-authorized charter schools or innovation schools, which have greater control over time, budgets, hiring, and can waive elements of the teacher’s union contracts.

The growth of charter schools and performance pay for teachers have been controversial, writes Bundin. "DPS has rolled back" some of the reforms.


A union-backed school board majority is "dismantling" Denver's success story, write Parker Baxter, who headed the UCD study, and education writer Alan Gottlieb in Education Next. The school board offers "vague platitudes about prioritizing traditional district-managed schools and focusing on equity," they write. "Yet there’s no evidence that traditional neighborhood schools in this city have ever provided anything close to an equitable education for all of Denver’s kids."


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