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“True North” Report Calls on Denver Public Schools to Refocus, Raise the Bar

A team of local education reform groups has partnered to release the new report True North: Goals for Denver Public Schools. It’s a quick, worthwhile read for anyone interested in improving the outcomes of American urban education. Denver Public Schools is often cited as a reform model for districts in other cities across the land, but this new report says even DPS isn’t aiming high enough.

True North places a healthy focus on academic achievement as measured by “exit-level proficiency,” or how much students know when they complete elementary, middle and ultimately high school. As Ed News Colorado commentator Alexander Ooms notes, this focus corrects a misplaced obsession on academic growth scores as an end unto themselves. While DPS is above the 50th percentile in growth, not enough students are catching up to where they need be. In some cases, they’re actually falling further behind.

DPS justly has been lauded for the development of its School Performance Framework (SPF) that incorporates a range of meaningful factors to determine how well schools are doing. But the new report makes a great argument that the current bar is set too low. Expecting more DPS schools to earn 50 percent of the available points on the SPF isn’t enough to ensure students are enrolled in a “quality school.” I agree with the report that a quality school should have to reach at least 70 percent on the SPF.

While Colorado and other states should work seriously toward improving the measures of exit-level proficiency, we have to make do with what’s out there now — including the ACT standardized test for 11th graders. The Denver Post story on this report aptly picks up on another point raised in the report, namely that a current DPS goal distracts from the primary mission by emphasizing a function that overlaps with another program:

And, in a diversion from the prevailing conventional wisdom, the report takes issue with the Denver Plan’s goal of providing all kids access to Kindergarten.

Apart from the value for DPS itself, True North provides insights (of somewhat limited value) in the Appendix by posting the academic growth ratings for each of Colorado’s largest 35 school districts at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Likely worth some further investigation are these quick observations:

  • Pueblo City Schools is struggling with poor academic growth, at the very bottom of all three lists
  • Douglas County is one of the top performers at the elementary level, but stuck in the middle of the pack for middle and high school (Lewis-Palmer 38 has a similar, if not more striking, pattern)
  • Eagle County (with its forward-thinking strategic compensation system) is in the top three for both elementary and middle school, but below 50 percent and nearer the bottom for high school
  • Cherry Creek Schools and Roaring Fork Re-1 (Glenwood Springs) are the only two districts with top 10 growth ratings on each of the three levels

As we’ve been reminded, the academic growth scores are valid indicators, though still only a means to an end. Comparing Colorado school districts among themselves has some worth as an exercise, but more important is tracking how much students have learned to make them successful as citizens and economic producers in their adult life. DPS starts off further behind than most because of the number of disadvantaged students, but it isn’t the only school district that needs to raise the bar.