By Floyd Ciruli
Pop quiz: Guess which of the state’s 176 school districts chose a military officer as superintendent. Colorado Springs? Logical guess, but wrong. Boulder the bastion of pacifism, environmentalism and feminism has selected a nonprofessional educator, a retired Naval commander from Colorado Springs, to lead its school district. If liberal Boulder as conservative educational haven seems far-fetched, then its story of educational reform as a model for the rest of the state would appear otherworldly. But it’s not.
A revolution began in 1990 in Boulder that has made it a model for the rest of Colorado. Boulder has moved from the liberal education philosophy that governs many larger school districts in the country to a back-to-basics strategy aimed at the “radical” notion of educating our kids by holding schools accountable. The change came after a decade of educational leadership in Boulder that downgraded content in classrooms. Boulder became the epitome of liberal education philosophy at its most extreme. Its former low points included:
Content learning (the who, what, why and when of Western civilization) was out. “You don’t need to know where Florida is, just how to use a map,” said the educrats.
Grammar, spelling and reading were out. “Drills are too regimented,” they warned.
Honors classes were scrapped and testing de-emphasized because “it leads to excessive competition that undermines classroom equality.”
More extreme holders of the philosophy even tried to eliminate sports in younger grades because they feared competition would encourage individual achievement over group activities.
Signs surfaced in the early 1990’s that this philosophy was in educational and political trouble. Private schools expanded rapidly as parents pulled their children out of the system. SAT scores stagnated and for a couple of years declined. Boulder voters rejected a school bond proposal for the first time in many years.
Two critics of the liberal philosophy were elected in 1993 and immediately began articulating another vision for Boulder schools: Strict standards with rich content, higher graduation requirements, lessons in spelling and grammar and honors programs for accelerated work.
In 1995 in the largest turnout in school district history a back-to-basics majority was elected, cementing the new direction. The new Board wasted no time in removing the superintendent and changing policy and personnel across the district. Two years later, Boulder continues to raise standards and recruit personnel committed to achieving results. Today the first signs of success are visible with a slowdown in parents escaping the system and an upturn in SAT scores.
If Boulder, the stronghold of liberal education philosophy, can adopt a school philosophy that requires accountability, change is likely to sweep all of Colorado, where parents and taxpayers are frustrated with meager results and high costs.
Three major trends are forcing Colorado’s public school “establishment” to change. First, public education has become very expensive; Colorado now spends more than $5,000 per student in public schools ($150,000 for a classroom of 30 children). Public education takes an average 60 percent of local property tax and has grown to 40 percent of the state budget, the largest single item.
Second, student performance throughout the public system has weakened over the last two decades. Standard test scores have declined and dropout rates have increased. Most important, social promotion and a lack of basic education have left up to half of graduating classes unable to perform basic mathematics or write a simple letter.
Finally, many parents today are demanding educational choice. The era of deferring to professional educators and the latest pedagogical fad is over. Boulder not only offers independent charter schools but also such choice options as magnet schools and the core knowledge approach.
Having deregulated and broken up most of our former monopoly corporate structure, public education now stands out as a system highly resistant to change. Change is coming. While public education will survive, it will have less of a monopoly hold on education and will have to adapt to the driving trends: More productivity, higher standards and more consumer driven choices for parents. Colorado is a national leader in charter schools. Colorado Springs and Denver are experimenting with the Edison project, a private school making use of computer technology linking classroom and home. Most school districts now offer magnet, Montessori and core knowledge schools within the public system.
Education is our most critical task in the next century. In an age of globalization, our children must have the best basic education available.
Boulder’s revolution is a wake up call for the entire education establishment and a model for parents and taxpayers throughout Colorado.
Floyd Ciruli is president of Ciruli Associates, a research and public policy management firm in Denver, Colorado. He provides research and facilitation for Colorado school districts and managed the Boulder Valley School District Superintendent search in 1997. He wrote this article for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank located in Golden, https://i2i.org.
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