Under pressure to improve performance within its district, especially at struggling schools, Denver Public Schools (DPS) has created a task force to make recommendations about how to determine what makes a “quality” school. The new rating system will identify schools that are performing well and those that are underperforming and require remediation. This will reassure some parents while alerting others who may want to shift their children to different schools in the district.
A diverse group of 30 were chosen on the basis of qualifications, where they live and racial and ethnic diversity in this ratio: 8 teachers, 8 school leaders, 8 parents or family members, 2 administrators and 4 community members/activists. Members include several representatives of high-performing charter schools. How they get along and what they come up with remains to be seen in these racially charged times. DPS has no easy task. Of its 93,000 students, a majority are black or Latino, many of whom come from low income families. That doesn’t mean that minority or poor children are inherently less educable, but it stands to reason that one educational approach doesn’t fit all.
Here are just a few of the controversial issues facing the task force:
* Testing. An argument can be made that testing is overdone, detracting from time spent teaching. This is a sensitive area for those teachers and administrators who would rather not be held accountable to a public that “doesn’t understand” the complications of public education. On the other hand, parents, taxpayers and their legislators who finance public schools justifiably demand some quantifiable measure of performance, especially when it comes to adequately preparing students for college or a vocation.
* Reading and math levels. Should schools be rated on how well students perform in reading and math at their grade level or, instead, on their progress in closing that gap from year to year? The obvious answer is: both. What’s the worth of a high school diploma for a student who reads at a sixth grade level but has improved from a third grade level? This also gets at the futility of automatically advancing students to higher grades who can’t read. How can they possibly succeed in upper grades with deficient reading ability? And how well do schools do in making students fluent in English if that’s not their native language.
* Graduation and dropout rates. That’s easy to calculate and a vital measure of “quality” schools. But these statistics can be distorted if schools deceitfully lower their standards through grade inflation, undeserved advancement from one grade to another and lowered graduation requirements. That’s cheating the kids, their parents and the taxpayers.
* Discipline. It’s reported that black children are disproportionally disciplined, especially when it comes to suspending or expelling students. Is it because of racism, “unwokeness” or white privilege on the part of teachers and administrators? Or is it because some black students, bored and doing poorly in school, disproportionately misbehave? Perhaps the task force can this figure out. Anything less than zero tolerance of misbehavior and disrespect in the classroom breeds more of it and undermines teacher authority. This makes it extremely difficult for teachers to do their job and deprives other students of a productive learning environment.
* Serving all students equitably. Defining “equitably” is a conundrum. The flawed concept of the federal 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was in its very title. Given the wide range of individual student IQ, motivation, aptitude and attitude, insuring that “no student gets left behind” requires slowing the pace of instruction to that of the least “gifted and talented.” This is preposterous. A better concept is “No Child Left Out” which recognizes that “equitable” doesn’t mean “identical.”
* Curriculum. Should schools focus on cognitive education, what you know; or affective education, how you feel? Basic academics or social engineering? This is an ideological landmine. Charter schools with different choices are a good option.
Educators make a valid complaint about irresponsible parents who don’t sufficiently value, encourage and supervise their children’s education. But there’s no practical remedy. Breeding and parenting don’t require a government license. Frustrating as it may be, teachers can only do their best in dealing with the students as they come. Some are better at this than others.
Parents and taxpayers with complaints and alternatives on public education are often disdained by educrats who retort, “What do you know, you’ve never been a teacher.” That’s just a glib evasion. It’s like brushing off a Trump-hating educator with, “What do you know, you’ve never been president.”
Longtime KOA radio talk host and columnist for the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News Mike Rosen now writes for CompleteColorado.com.