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Dougco Collision on Testing and Accountability Could Rattle Reform Debate

Have you ever watched a scene in an action movie (in my case, one that’s obviously edited for younger viewers to enjoy) where two cars, or trains, or planes are on a collision course? The characters in the movie may not realize what’s coming, but everyone watching in the theater or at home can sense that they are about to crash into each other. Then 3-2-1…

BOOM!!! Bent metal, broken glass, and explosions… cool stuff.

I exaggerate just a little to say that’s kind of how I feel today. Minding my own business at Chalkbeat Colorado, I’m directed to a Denver Post story with the headline “Douglas schools seek to opt out of federal, state standardized testing.” This is the super-conservative school board that’s transforming education, right?

I kind of saw it coming. Even so, I feel a little jarred by the impact. It was only six months ago the Douglas County Board of Education passed a resolution opposed to Common Core “because our District’s standards are more rigorous, more thorough, and more directly tailored to the unique needs of our students.”

If you read my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow’s 2013 paper Douglas County: Building a Better Education Model (come on, it’s okay to admit you haven’t… yet), you would know that one of the three legs for the district’s innovation has been to develop and implement its own 21st century curriculum and standards. Ambitious stuff, for sure.

But for those who try to understand education reforms and philosophies in terms of black and white, the “constructivist” (as opposed to core content-focused) academic program they have developed is much more typically pigeonholed as a “liberal” idea than a “conservative” one. Former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett, who has openly repeated that he is “very impressed” with Douglas County’s work, gave his one hesitation at this point:

What is notable about this is that constructivism is typically associated with
liberal education reformers seeking to move away from more conservative policies of rote learning and memorization. One would not expect a dyed-in-the-wool Republican district to embrace constructivism, and frankly, it caught me off guard as well. I have long been an advocate of Hirsch’s core knowledge and have had doubts about the effectiveness of constructivism.

However, when I visited the district and questioned [Superintendent Elizabeth] Fagen and teachers about the constructivist curriculum, they pushed back on the notion that they were rejecting content knowledge. Rather, they emphasized they were pursuing a balance of constructivism and content that teaches higher order thinking and creativity about content. When I said, “You start to learn how to learn by learning something,” they responded that they were “learning how to learn by learning something and then doing more with that.”

Intriguing, right? Maybe a little unexpected? To the extent the district is pursuing this approach, I say “more power to Dougco.” It’s also a luxury that most districts, without the benefit of a largely affluent and educated parent base, are not capable of making now. I would like to see more students showing proficiency in reading and math, and understanding some core content, before taking this leap. But maybe this little kid is too cautious about collisions.

So where does this leave me? I’ve said it before and will say it again. State testing certainly isn’t the be-all and end-all of understanding school performance, but it does tell us something. The case clearly can be made that the testing regime may cut into the use of limited time and resources, if a school agency is effectively pursuing higher priorities.

And while I have no doubt that Dougco is “committed to full accountability,” this young blogger still has learning to do, some questions to answer. When Colorado’s third-largest and most “outside-the-box” school district starts advocating for the right to opt out of mandated tests at the State Capitol, that’s when I really want to start watching.

Ever see the people in traffic who slow down to see the accident on the highway shoulder? Mm hm. That’s me. This just might be a different kind of collision, though.