What's facing Denver schools

Study points to problems and fixes

By Alan Gottlieb and Van Schoales
July 3, 2005

Article Last Updated: 7/02/2005 08:50 PM

The selection of Michael Bennet as Denver Public Schools superintendent, combined with significant turnover on the school board expected this fall, means the district is on the cusp of a new era. Such moments provide an opportunity to reflect on the past and begin setting a vision for the future of public education in Denver.

Honest reflection and realistic planning depend on thoughtful examination of meaningful data. The Piton Foundation and The Colorado Children's Campaign recently concluded an in-depth analysis of DPS's performance on the Colorado Student Assessment Program test.

What we found in our study, while not good news, holds some hope for the future, particularly if the district, with active involvement of the greater Denver community, can develop a long-range strategic plan that adopts practices that have begun showing results in other major cities.

It's also important, we believe, for DPS to continue promoting promising initiatives launched during the laudable tenure of Jerry Wartgow. These include:

The ProComp teacher compensation program, funding for which must be approved by voters this fall;

Some key elements of the districtwide literacy and math plans;

An intensified focus on high- quality, affordable early-childhood education for the largest possible number of Denver children.

Our analysis found that DPS's lowest-income schools - those most in need of academic growth - have shown little progress on the CSAP since the test's inception in 1996. While some CSAP gains have occurred, they have been disproportionately in the district's highest-income schools. As a result, the achievement gap in the district has widened, despite a concerted effort over the past few years to narrow it.

The analysis assigned all DPS schools to one of four groups based on percentage of students eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch. Each group contains the same number of students, and groups were calculated separately for elementary, middle and high schools. First group schools are those with the highest average family income, while fourth group schools are those with the lowest average family incomes.

Piton and the Children's Campaign conducted two separate but related analyses of CSAP data. First, we aggregated all CSAP tests at grades three, four and five for elementary schools for each of the past three years, to determine trends in proficiency. We then analyzed those by groups, as described above.

We conducted similar analyses for middle schools and high schools. We limited the analysis to the past three years because only in that time period have all grade levels been tested in reading, writing and math.

Then, to get a longer historical perspective, we analyzed CSAP reading and writing scores for fourth, seventh and 10th grades as far back as the state tested those grades. Key findings from the analyses include:

DPS has had some success in moving elementary school students out of the lowest test category ("unsatisfactory") into the next lowest ("partially proficient"). This is a necessary first step, and would be a positive sign if students continued to move up to proficiency.

At that point, however, the analysis shows students in higher-poverty schools hitting a ceiling. Students only meet state standards when they reach "proficient" or "advanced" on CSAP tests. But gains in those categories have been limited to the highest- income schools.

Even these modest gains made in elementary school are more than offset by plunging scores when students reach middle school. Seventh- grade reading and writing scores have declined steadily over the past five years in all but the highest-income schools.

DPS's achievement gap between wealthier and poorer schools, as measured by CSAP, is either staying the same or continuing to widen, despite the district's focus on diminishing it. Some examples:

The elementary school gap (as measured by students scoring "proficient" or "advanced" on CSAP) for all tests combined has held steady at about 40 percentage points between the wealthiest and poorest quartiles of schools over the past three years;

The achievement gap in seventh- grade reading between the poorest and wealthiest schools has grown from 29 percentage points in 1998-99 to 42 percentage points in 2003-04;

The achievement gap in 10th- grade writing has grown from 43 percentage points (2000-01) to 46 percentage points ( 2003-04).

The study's findings may seem puzzling in light of well-publicized data showing that the number of Denver schools rated "unsatisfactory" on the state's School Accountability Reports has dropped steadily every year since 2001. Clearly, district and state reforms deserve some credit for this improvement.

But accountability ratings are misleading in important ways, because they mask CSAP score decreases as well as the widening achievement gap between wealthier and poorer schools. In most instances, schools that have moved up out of the "unsatisfactory" category have done so by moving their lowest-performing students to the "partially proficient" category.

But those schools have had little success making more significant improvement. So, while the ratings look better, the day-to-day reality inside those schools remains unacceptable.

At the virtually flat rate of improvement experienced over the past three years, it will take another 10 years before half of DPS's elementary students are proficient or better in math, 21 years before half are proficient in reading and 43 years before half are proficient in writing.

As gloomy as that may sound, we are confident that these flat rates will not continue. Wartgow and his team laid the groundwork for significant improvement, and other districts like Chicago have demonstrated that large urban districts can improve achievement for all students.

The odds of significant improvement occurring will be heightened, we believe, if the district follows these recommendations:

Community support and accountability: City and state officials need to provide strong public support for DPS while holding the district accountable for leading reform and improving achievement. The development of a "Denver Compact for Reform" would build on the DPS Secondary Reform Commission's recommendations and provide a long-term framework for improvement.

Strategic Plan: DPS must develop a long-term strategic plan that outlines the goals and strategies for improvement. Strategies should focus on instruction, school choice (beginning with the most in need), operations, finance and labor. These plans should be flexible and subject to change when credible research warrants it, while being explicit enough to guide schools and communities.

Economic Integration: The district must promote a healthier economic mix of students in its schools. Research shows that low-income students perform significantly better when they attend schools that are not overwhelmingly poor. Developing attractive school choices in mixed-income neighborhoods is one viable strategy for increasing socio-economic integration.

Achievement Data Transparency tied to Resources: DPS should consistently report the percentage of students that reach proficiency in all subject areas and set reasonable goals for achievement at each grade level.

Portfolio Manager: DPS's central office needs to move from a centralized bureaucracy to a focused portfolio manager of schools. DPS should have accountability contracts for all schools combined with effective intervention strategies for low-performing schools, and a new set of strategies for closing the worst schools while opening new schools.

Learning Organization: The district needs to learn from its current efforts to improve achievement. All district- wide strategies for improvement, such as the new curricula in literacy and math, must take into account each school's current culture and structures, so that these new reforms are not relegated to a shelf when a teacher closes the door or the principal changes jobs.

DPS should feel encouraged by promising efforts in other cities to improve achievement. It can happen here as well. Our city's future depends on a strong, high-performing public school system.

But the school district does not operate in a vacuum. Community, business and political leaders must join with DPS to commit the human and financial resources needed to improve our city's schools, so that all students reach their fullest potential.

Alan Gottlieb is education program officer at the Piton Foundation. Van Schoales is executive vice president of the Colorado Children's Campaign.

For related letters and articles, see the NYC HOLD page Watching Curriculum and Academics at DPS under Michael Bennet.

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