15 June 2009

Denver Public Schools Flunk Equity

While hardly remarkable for an inner city public school system, the Denver Public Schools still persistently fail to bridge socio-economic gaps among their students.

Denver student performance is improving, but continues to remain very low on nearly every measure when compared to the district's own goals, to state averages, to demographically similar districts in Colorado and to other urban districts around the nation. . . .

* Persistent and wide gaps in achievement continue to exist between students of different backgrounds.

* Few students perform at grade level, and as they get older, more students fall below grade level.

* While students do show academic growth from year to year, almost none improve fast enough to rise back up to grade level if they ever fall behind.

The news report cites "Denver's Public Schools: Reforms, Challenges and the Future," a report sponsored by the Children's Campaign, A-Plus Denver and Metro Organizations for People.

I have two children who attend DPS and every reason to support improvement in the district. The District is throwing all manner of solutions at its academic performance problems. While other schools in the states have higher per pupil funding, DPS is above average in the funding that it has available to it. It has a myriad of charter schools and special programs. It has experimented with compensation reforms, new performance measures that look at value added, relaxing district and union work rules, overhauling underperforming schools, and tweaking school calendars.

Many factors that make the woes of DPS so visible are a product of demographics and family decisions made about school choices. Demographics are not destiny, but demographic change is a powerful and persistent force that profoundly impacts the kind of challenges that the district faces. About 25,000 out of about 95,000 school aged children in Denver opt out of the Denver Public Schools, and those children are overwhelmingly children who are more academically able than those who stay in the district; often they are middle class, white, native English speakers who do not need special education services. Denver's desegregation plan led to massive white flight (as it did across the nation) and the demographic impact that white flight did not dramatic undo itself when the desegregation order was lifted.

Not surprisingly, the large number of students who are poor, are learning to speak English, or have been identified as needing special education services fair particular well on measures of academic achievement and make up a large share of DPS students.

A high concentration of academically struggling students may simply accentuate problems that would have been there in any case, even without student flight from DPS, which would simply have been statistically masked but still present if a larger share of academically able students stayed in the district.

The report's news isn't new, although it does package a lot of pertinent statistics in one handy package. Clearly, the students who are doing poorly deserve a better education and better opportunities. But, the way to achieve this is elusive.

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