Experts' advice for DPS leader: Focus on long term

By Kevin Simpson
Denver Post Staff Writer
July 3, 2005

Article Last Updated: 7/03/2005 04:25 AM

Create a can-do culture. Focus on instruction. Build coalitions. Cultivate principals. Filter out the special-interest noise. And lock in on a few specific, quantifiable goals.

The road to improving Denver Public Schools features plenty of recognizable landmarks for incoming Superintendent Michael Bennet - some of which he has already mapped out in his vision for the district.

But in the twisting, treacherous route toward improving test scores and closing the minority-achievement gap in urban education, can one man really make a difference?

He can make a start, experts say.

"The changes that really make a difference take some time to take root," says Don Moore, founder and executive director of Designs for Change, a 28-year-old education research and reform organization based in Chicago. "But people are looking for short-term results. Part of the political acumen is to be able to stay in the job long enough to really make changes with lasting differences."

Although proof of large- scale, districtwide success at improving test scores and closing the achievement gap that plagues minority students has been elusive - and likely to take longer than any one superintendent will stay in the job - pockets of progress have emerged.

And the superintendent's role has been pivotal, says Jason Snipes, deputy director of K-12 education research for MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan social policy research organization.

"There's a lot to distract leaders of urban districts from the business of school reform," he says. "But what made these people different is they consistently and persistently thought about reforming the instructional core of the district."

Experts from across the country harp on common themes: It's all about curriculum, professional development and principals versed in instruction, not just management. Districts also often fall into the trap of using data solely as an accountability hammer instead of a more useful tool to tweak teaching methods.

"You've got to focus on the instructional core, and then invent the organization that goes with that," says Richard Elmore, professor and program chairman of the Harvard Institute for School Leadership. "The big strategic errors in the past have been to change the form of the organization without paying attention to the instructional core."

Bennet, the 40-year-old corporate turnaround artist who morphed into Mayor John Hickenlooper's chief of staff, has no professional K-12 experience but won the DPS job as the kind of outside-the-box candidate that has inspired hope for substantive change in many districts across the country.

Heather Beck, a principal at Deer Creek Middle School in Jefferson County, visited seven nontraditional superintendents in 2002 for her doctoral dissertation at the University of Denver.

She interviewed the school boards that hired them to determine what the candidates brought to the party - and why they were invited.

"What nontraditionals bring is a lot of charisma and leadership skills from other areas that they use in education," Beck says. "They're the first to say they don't know pedagogy, and they will generally hire a chief academic officer quickly. They see themselves as change agents, and that's their biggest asset. They have a belief that education is entrenched, not interested in change. They'd been hired to make a difference."

And one person can accomplish that, she says.

"The ones I interviewed were dynamite, brilliant, visionary, forward-thinking, eager," says Beck. "I'm a lifetime educator, and I'd work for one of them in a heartbeat."

The temptation - and pressure - for any new superintendent is to offer quick change, and that formula can backfire in the long term, says James Harvey of the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington.

"Superintendents always come in and make a splash," he says. "That's the formula, and it always has to do with basics, usually math and science, and solving a problem in the next three to five years.

"We've been showing progress in 3- to 4-year spurts for a long time," he adds, "but it's time to dig in and do the heavy work of changing the system and making the community accountable."

In Boston, one of the first things Superintendent Thomas Payzant did when that city's education reform law removed principals from collective bargaining was to announce that he wasn't renewing the contracts of seven.

"That had never been done," Payzant says. "The message I was trying to send was the importance of the role of principal - that they need to be not just good managers, but key leaders of instruction."

The next key for a new superintendent: focus.

"Go deep in a few areas to get evidence of improvement rather than superficially in a variety of areas that a lot of people would like to see you take on in the first year," Payzant says. "Goals need to be based on continuous improvement."

Excuses and finger-pointing between educators and the community have not only been counterproductive, but largely baseless, says Peter Martinez of the University of Illinois- Chicago's Center for School Leadership. With attention to curriculum and leadership, educators can counter environmental problems such as poverty.

Nowadays, achievement has become an expectation.

"So you set the culture up that says, 'Yes, there are challenges there, but we know how to overcome these things,"' Martinez says. "The new culture is a can-do culture."

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

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