My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


On High School Reform

The Sunday Post/News dedicated the entire front page of the Commentary Section today to high school reform. It featured three articles:

First: an article written by Jared Polis (member of the State Board of Education and financier of several liberal 527s in the last election cycle) and Patricia Hayes (member of the CU Board of Regents), who were co-chairs of the Colorado Commission for High School Improvement. Their article was dedicated to detailing the recommendations of their commission , which included creating one statewide standard for computing graduation rates, supporting high school options, improving data management, enhancing school-level flexibility, and altering the mindset from K-12 to pre- through college. Unfortunately, their justifications are weighed down by bad datae:

While the 2003 graduation rate for white students was 68 percent, it was only 44 percent for black students and 42 percent for Hispanic students.

We can and must do better.

In today's competitive job market, a college degree is fast becoming a necessity, not a luxury. Currently 80 percent of adults with bachelor's degrees are employed, as opposed to 60 percent of high school graduates and only 40 percent of high school dropouts.

I have not seen a single piece of evidence to support the proposition that the graduation rate in Colorado is hovering around 60 percent--NOT ONE (except, of course, the Commission's own report, which selectively ignores vital statistics such as GEDs and late completions). And what world are these guys looking at that has the overall employment rate at around 65% (extrapolating and guessing from the numbers provided above) when the UNemployment rate is only 5%? It's those little details that undermine the credibility of this argument.

The second article is by Dorothy Horrell(director of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation) and Lucia Guzman (member of the Denver School Board), who co-chaired the DPS Commission on Secondary School Reform. The main thrust of their article is focusing on academic Rigor, educational Relevance, and positive Relationships. They talk some of the resistance to change, and imperative to make difficult choices together. In the end, they don't especially recommend any concrete steps, though they do suggest that schools start studying other schools that are successful (ed.--is it wierd that education is the only field where somebody needs to TELL you to copy what works? or is it just me?)

The third article is the most interesting to me. Post editorial board member Dan Haley devotes his space to a case study using the Denver School for Science and Technology. His conclusions are that a diverse population which is held to high standards in a community-fostering environment can--and likely will--defy the odds and be highly successful.

At DSST, which eventually will enroll about 425 students, students interact with their advisers an average of 10 times per week, since teachers also act as advisers.

And remember the community circle? Before the school day even began, each student was addressed by name by Brosius, a positive adult contact, and they stood among their "advisory groups."

Kurtz hand-picked his staff at DSST, choosing people already sold on the school's principles. He can ask them to work late to tutor students and can fire them if it's not working out.

What Haley is careful to never say, though I think most people know it already, is that DSST is a CHARTER SCHOOL!! Of course the Principal has more flexibility and the students have more accountability--IT'S A CHARTER SCHOOL! In a traditional school, the Principal cannot ask for more hours because it's a violation of the teacher's union's contract, and firing a teacher is usually a seven-year process. No such freedom exists now in traditional schools, nor will it ever exist if unions have anything to say about it.

DSST is still in its infancy, so it's an unproven model. But if education leaders follow these two reports, there will be more schools like it in Colorado's future. It's worth a shot.

This particular charter school was the result of collaboration between Gov. Bill Owens and Bill Gates (another factoid Haley leaves out), and is based on the idea that partnerships outside of the traditional school systems have some flexibility to be creative and successful. The key, I think, is that "outside the traditional school systems."

Proponents of charter schools ought to study these articles carefully and glean from them all the anecdotal evidence they can to justify the charter school movement. As I have said before, charter schools are not a silver bullet; what they CAN be, though, is a creative niche enterprise that has the unique ability to serve specific populations in enriching and encouraging ways.

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