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Douglas County: Building a Better Education Model

IP-8-2013 (September 2013)
Author: Ben DeGrow

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Executive Summary
Effecting successful suburban school reform poses an authentic challenge. Many students do well compared to their peers in neighboring districts, but overall test scores conceal shortcomings. The U.S. spends more per person on education than any other country, yet even middle-class students academically lag their peers in other countries. The fast-growing Douglas County School District (DCSD) south of Denver, Colorado, has attempted a different approach to aim higher.

The relatively high-performing suburban district has broken down boundaries through a wide range of innovative strategies. Since the 2009 election of a reform-minded school board majority and a change in district leadership, DCSD has implemented a fiscally responsible, three-pronged strategic plan:

  • Enhanced student and parental choice, including public and private options
  • An enriched system of world-class standards, curriculum, and assessments
  • Performance-based instructional evaluations, pay, and career growth

The ambitious program is designed to enhance district operations, and, ultimately, outcomes for students. By adopting the Blueprint for Choice, including the first-of-its-kind Choice Scholarship Program, DCSD leaders have given tremendous attention to serving individual student needs based on parental direction. By developing a new curriculum rooted in world-class education standards, and aligning assessments and professional development to serve the needs of schools and teachers, DCSD has expanded their vision and raised the bar for students.

At the core of the performance-based system upgrade are new evaluation frameworks for teachers and for principals. DCSD has placed itself a year ahead of a 2010 state law’s requirements to tie educator effectiveness to new quality standards and to student academic growth. The district further has taken the unprecedented step of blending substantive performance pay with market-based salary bands that distinguish teacher specialties based on supply and demand. More than 40 career options provided through “Professional Pathways” give teachers a tremendous degree of career flexibility.

To complete all the changes in a cost-effective manner, DCSD leaders took a bold stance in their first-ever open negotiations with the teachers union. While the union conceded on many points, they would not give up all tax dollars to subsidize union officers, nor the privilege of district dues collection to fund a national union organization, nor the exclusive authority to bargain for all licensed educators. The collective bargaining agreement lapsed in 2012, even as many teachers worked directly with district leaders to craft many elements of the innovative system.

The crafting of a “new order” has generated some friction. The repurposing of current resources to raise expectations and reward performance has motivated interest groups to marshal a focused opposition. DCSD leaders face a political challenge as they build a better education model that seeks to translate comprehensive innovation into long-term student benefits. As key elements of the model spread and take hold, Douglas County’s example points the way to transforming American public education.