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DPS is outpacing most districts across the state in CSAP gains but it did not meet its own 3.5 percent annual growth goals this year. Fewer than half of its students are achieving at grade level in writing and math.
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On August 10th, the Colorado Department of Education released the Colorado Student Assessment Program, or CSAP, scores for the state's public schools. To most, the day CSAPs are released comes and goes like any other day. For the happy millions who know less about CSAPs than they know about Wall Street swaps, the day isn't even a blip on the radar.

While I can't blame anyone for not paying much attention to CSAPs, it is worth taking a look at the results this year. These CSAPs document the 5-year mark for Denver Public Schools' reform efforts.

Along with other Colorado progressives, I find myself wondering about the future of my city, Denver, and my state. Unlike my fellow progressives, however, I am not really wondering how Michael Bennet won the primary election. I am wondering how we overcome a malaise, a lack of engagement that plagues our democracy like beetle kill along the I-70 corridor through the Rockies. I think the problem can partially be explained by the new list of bad words we have to call each other, words like activist and idealist.

But then we ask ourselves, why do things not get appreciatively better?

To answer that question, let's return to the 2010 CSAP scores. Let's talk about Denver's public schools and the city's education reform efforts. Before you read further, ask yourself this: how are Denver Public Schools doing? What are their successes? Where are they failing?

If your answers are, not so good but getting better, we've created new schools that are better than the old schools, but we have failing teachers, you shouldn't feel alone. Most of the people I know say the same. But the CSAP scores say something different, and they don't agree with any of the usual, easy answers.

Despite that, the easy answers were offered up, as they are each year when CSAP scores are released. On Huffington Post, Alan Gottlieb wrote, "DPS, we now know, has continued to make steady progress on the CSAP. Most impressive is the district's trajectory over the past five years," Hard truths or sour grapes?

You don't need to look very hard at DPS' CSAP scores to see the truth about about the District's reform efforts, however: they are not working as well as we would all hope they would in the short term. After 5 years, it can only be concluded that, systemically, they are not working at all.

Nancy Mitchell, who works for Gottlieb at EdNews Colorado, but on the news side on the shop, writes in Results rise in DPS, but far to go --

It [DPS] celebrated being home to two of the highest-growth schools in Colorado - Beach Court Elementary and West Denver Prep's new Harvey Park campus, both schools with poverty rates topping 90 percent.

But if the Colorado Student Assessment Program results illustrate how far DPS has come in achievement in recent years, they also highlight how far the district still has to go.

DPS is outpacing most districts across the state in CSAP gains but it did not meet its own 3.5 percent annual growth goals this year. Fewer than half of its students are achieving at grade level in writing and math.

At its current rate of progress, DPS won't be on par with state [academic] achievement levels for a decade.

Michell's data look like this:

Graph prepared by Ed News Colorado

The averages in the graph above are based on the performance of all students in DPS, 3rd grade through 10th grade, who successfully completed the CSAP exam. Aggregated together, the data look better than they actually are.

Being a systems guy, I always like to see what the system produces as an end product. To do that, you have to look at the 10th grade scores, the last grade at which the CSAP is administered.

All values represent the percentage of 10th grade students who are at or above proficiency in the specific subject area.

In math, the only subject in which DPS made positive gains at the 10th grade level, it will take 6.5 years for the District to catch up to the rest of the state, which has an abysmal score all on its own. If the state-wide math performance score improves, which we all must hope for, who knows how long it will be before DPS catches up.

As for reading and writing at the 10th grade level, DPS is headed in the wrong direction. DPS is moving backward.

Gottlieb's blog includes two e-mails sent by Denver school board member Jeannie Kaplan. These e-mails have some interesting insights, and some good questions from one of three board members who actually operate based on data when making decisions about public schools. In one e-mail, Kaplan states --

We [DPS] have been instituting "reform" for almost five years now. I had a conversation with Tom [Boasberg] over a year ago before last year's scores came out where we both agreed if we didn't see significant improvement, perhaps it would be time to change course. I don't see significant improvement. All I see is very, very slow growth with non-proven experiments added to already overburdened school environments.

Emphasis added.

Boasberg's response?

"The growth has been very, very strong. Still, we've got a tremendous amount of work to do to bring the absolute numbers up." (Check out the Denver Post's article written when last year's CSAP scores were released: DPS gains outpace the state. See any similarities?)

I'm not sure how Mr. Boasberg concludes that growth is very, very strong. As Mitchell points out, student growth is nowhere near the District's goal of 3.5%. Further, to be proud of the District's overall performance in math with 39% of students proficient or above, up from 37% in 2008/09, is incomprehensible. As one parent at Cory Elementary said to me, it's like saying our child failed math by 39%, instead of failing math with a 37% like he did last year. I'm so proud of our little Tommy!

Where the rubber meets the road, the students in DPS' high schools, scores are horrible, not getting better, and the high school graduation rates, post graduation remediation rates, and college graduation rates for DPS students bear that out. In fact, of every 100 9th grade Latino students in DPS, 4 will graduate from college.

If your jaw just hit the floor, it should have. Even if DPS were to hit its stated goal of a 3.5% student growth rate per year, the lives of Latino students would not be any better educationally for at least 20 years. That estimate is optimistic, in fact.

Our heads are buried in the sand if we think this is progress. As DPS school board member Mary Seawell likes to say, everyone should care deeply about every child's education. I will add, every child's education is certainly more important than politics. It is more important than how the Broncos do this fall. It is incredibly more important than Lindsey Lohan's stay in prison. If you are like most people, including me until 3 years ago, you know a lot more about all of these subjects than you know about Denver's education system.

So, what is killing our schools? A number of things, which I will write about in another blog, but none more pernicious than administrators who spin outcomes and systematic success. The denial of struggle is the stone against which real reform is crushed. We need administrators who are honest about successes and serious about looking at ways to do better, ways that are more than opening a few schools per year to serve 150 students.

We also need a school board that is committed to data-driven decision making when it comes to reform. The board needs to look at ways to improve the education of as many students as possible when it makes programmatic changes, not just about closing schools that appear to perform poorly. Board members must know what is really happening in an unsuccessful school, about why a teacher is really being fired, about credible ways of changing the entire system to support the needs of every child. We do not need school board members who are "yes men."

Last, we need the citizens of Denver to truly care about our schools, care more than just saying they care. We need citizens who are involved. You don't have to have kids in DPS to take action. Often it is as easy as remembering to do a little research and vote during a school board election cycle. Maybe you have expertise that could be used by the neighborhood school.

I volunteered as Skinner Middle School. My 7th grader does not attend this school, and people could not understand why I would spend time in the Skinner building. It was simple -- I had something to offer and Skinner was happy to accept.

The schools of Denver do not have these resources now. Maybe this isn't news to you. If it isn't, congratulations. If it is, welcome to the world we are creating by failing to manage the development of our most important resource, our kids.

As long was we allow our current course of reform to continue, a course largely based on ideology and little else, we are doomed to a society built on stagnation, cultural poverty, and a crumbling infrastructure. If we, as citizens of Denver, continue to make uninformed decisions about school board candidates, or, worse yet, not participate in the decision at all, we are surely lost.

If we do not give of our time, if we fight tax increases to better fund our schools, if we continuously blame teachers for the lack of student achievement in a system that is failing, all we do is guarantee that things around us, and for us, will never be better. We guarantee that schools will continue to be exercises in political ideology, student hopelessness, and community frustration.

As you read this, ask, is this what I support? Very few will say yes. But most will feel the problem is too big -- I can't make a difference, they'll say. Believe it or not, you can. Pay attention. Know the facts. Dig for answers. Get involved. Become a dirty word.

Become an advocate.

Its the only chance you have to make things better, and you need Denver's kids now more than ever. Invest in them.

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