Executive Summary of Denver Public Schools Analysis
I look at the detailed data for the Denver Public Schools below. About 9.6%* of students who start high school in DPS graduate from high school and start college without needing remedial work, and about 6% of DPS students who start college will eventually earn a two or four year college degree (the percentage of DPS students who start high school who earn a four year college degree within six year of starting college is between 4% and 5%).
DPS greatly underperforms the rest of the state mostly because it has a student body that is dealing with an immense load of problems from poverty, to homelessness, to lack of English language proficiency, to disabilities. In part, this is because Denver is a central city where these issues are concentrated. In part, this is because affluent students who grow up in Denver choose private school, have families that move to the suburbs, or exercise rights in the state school choice system to leave the District and this happens disproportionately at the high school level, where DPS performance by absolute measures is worst. The Denver Public Schools fails to enroll more than one in four of the students who live in the District and that measure itself fails to capture the continuing tendency of families with older school aged children to move to the suburbs. DPS has made great gains in the post-desegregation order era, first at the elementary school level, and in the past few years, at the middle school level, at increasing the share of resident children who attend DPS. But, progress at the high school level in increasing the share of resident children who attend DPS continues to be quite low. (Note, much of the factual support for this paragraph is in prior posts at this blog.)
In many of Denver's high schools, the collection of personal stresses and schools where academically well prepared students coming into high school are too rare for the school to be sufficiently geared towards meeting their needs, combine to pose very poor odds of earning college degrees even for students who have been identified as gifted and talented and do well in other districts in the state. The very low college attendance rate of students at Lincoln High School and West High School, relative to the number of gifted and talented students at those schools is particularly distressing.
Meanwhile, the District is failing the roughly half of its students who drop out, and we have few good ways of measuring how well the District is meeting the needs of the students, who make up a larger share of its student body than all but one or two other districts in the state, for whom graduating from college is an unrealistic goal by the time that they enter high school.
This isn't all the high school's fault. Overwhelmingly, students who are well below grade level in elementary school academic performance stay there, having academic troubles in middle school, often flunking classes there, and then drop out of high school only after the public schools have shown them one profound academic failure after another for a decade. It is rare for a students whose "at risk" status has not been obvious for many years to suddenly drop out of high school. But, high schools, despite a wide variety of non-traditional programs, are still failing to show students that they have something to offer them as they are now about half of the time.
The statewide high school graduation rate in Colorado is 72.4%.
In the Denver Public Schools the high school graduation rate is 51.8% (2,623/5,083). This isn't necessarily a product of the Denver Public Schools doing a poor job. Its students come to school with lots of problems. Of the 5,083 students who start high school in Denver, 655 have disabilities, 633 have limited English language proficiency, 3,488 are "economically disadvantaged," 188 are "migrant" students, 3,171 are in Title 1 programs, and 209 are homeless. On the other hand, 699 have been identified as gifted and talented. More than one category can apply to a single students - a gifted and talented student can be economically disadvantaged and homeless for example.
There is great variation in high school graduation rates from school to school.
Denver has twenty dropouts from its incoming cohort before they start their freshman year.
Graduation rates by high school in the Denver Public Schools are as follows;
Abraham Lincoln High School 51.7% (208/402)
Ridge View Academy Charter School 5.1% (13/255)
Academy Of Urban Learning 31.0% (13/42)
Amandla Charter Academy 0.0% (0/6)
Emerson Street School 0.0% (0/13)
Fred N Thomas Career Education Center 85.7% (72/84)
Challenges, Choices & Images Charter School 0.0% (0/2)
Colorado High School 19.5% (22/113)
Ace Community Challenge Charter School 0.0% (0/29)
Connections Academy 28.6% (16/56)
Denver Center For International Studies 92.5% (37/40)
Denver School Of The Arts (96.8% (120/124)
Denver School Of Science And Technology 80.7% (67/83)
Denver Venture Charter School 0.0% (0/1)
East High School 80.7% (405/502)
Emily Griffith Opportunity School 3.2% (9/277)
D P S Night High School 0.0% (0/1)
Escuela Tlatelolco School 33.3% (4/12)
Florence Crittenton High School 2.6% (2/77)
George Washington High School 80.9% (313/387)
John F Kennedy High School 77.0% (207/269)
Justice High School Denver 26.9% (7/26)
Life Skills Center Of Denver 0.5% (1/216)
Manual High School 0.0% (0/2)
Martin Luther King Middle College 89.6% (69/77)
Contemporary Learning Academy High School 0.0% (0/106)
Montbello High School 56.2% (221/393)
North High School 63.8% (155/243)
Bruce Randolph School 85.9% (73/85)
Online High School 42.6% (20/47)
Prep Assessment Center 0.0% (0/40)
P.S.1 Charter School 10.5% (8/76)
Skyland Community High School 29.4% (10/34)
South High School 61.8% (215/348)
Southwest Early College Charter School 32.2% (29/90)
Thomas Jefferson High School 78.0% (199/255)
West High School 47.6% (119/250)
Remediation In Higher Education
At the two-year institutions the overall remediation rate in FY2010 was 52.8%. . . . At the four-year institutions the overall remediation rate was 18.3%. . . . When examining remediation by discipline, most Colorado students required remediation in mathematics, followed by writing and then reading. At both two-year and four institutions, mathematics is by far the subject with the highest number of students assigned to remedial study (Figures 1 & 2). Approximately 41% of total two-year students and 14.5% of total four-year students were assessed math remediation.
The remediation report notes that about $19 million a year of Colorado General Fund dollars are devoted to remedial education for public college matriculants. Of this, $18.1 million is spent at the community college level, while $1 million is spent at Adams State and Mesa State Colleges (several other four year colleges failed to produce detailed cost estimates). About 60% of students taking remedial education courts at higher education institutions passed those courses, about a quarter failed, and most of the rest withdrew.
For the 2006 cohort at 2 year Colorado institutions, 52.7% of students who did not need remediation graduated, while 19.3% of those who did need remediation graduated (from a two year program or with a certificate or after transferring to a new institution). Half of students (49.9%) at two year colleges assigned to remedial classes were retained a year later.
For the 2003 cohort at 4 year Colorado institutions, 62.9% of students who did not need remediation graduates in six years, while 29.5% who did need remediation graduated in six years. Students requiring remedial instruction at schools with higher overall graduation rates were more likely to graduate that students requiring remedial instruction at schools with lower graduation rates. For example, 65.0% of students at the Colorado School of Mines who needed remedial classes graduated in six years, while only 19.6% of students at Metro State who needed remedial classes graduated in six years. Six out of ten students (60.1%) at four years colleges assigned to remedial classes were retained a year later.
Within the Denver Public Schools, many non-traditional high school programs sent no students to public college at all in the Fall 2010 year covered by the study (Challenges, Choices and Images; Colorado High School; Contemporary Learning Academy; Emily Griffth Opportunity School; Florence Crittendon High School; Fred N. Thomas Career Education; Life Skills Center of Denver, P.S. 1). Those schools that did have student starting public colleges in the fall of 2010 had remediation rates as follows:
Lincoln 78.6% (55/70) Prepared Graduates Starting College: 15
Denver School of the Arts 19.0% (8/42) Prepared Graduates Starting College: 34
East 38.5% (79/205) Prepared Graduates Starting College: 126
George Washington 60.0% (84/140) Prepared Graduates Starting College: 56
John F. Kennedy 62.7% (74/118) Prepared Graduates Starting College: 44
Montbello 71.8% (61/85) Prepared Graduates Starting College: 24
North 72.1% (44/61) Prepared Graduates Starting College: 17
South 68.8% (66/96) Prepared Graduates Starting College: 30
Thomas Jefferson 57.3% (71/124) Prepared Graduates Starting College: 53
West 90.7% (39/43) Prepared Graduates Starting College: 4
DPS Total 59.0% (581/984) Prepared Graduates Starting College: 403
The last report shows, for example, that in the fall of 2009, a total of 1,196 students from the Denver Public Schools (about 46% of its high school graduates) enrolled at the following institutions of higher education in Colorado:
Community College of Denver 313
Metropolitan State College 169
University of Colorado Boulder 159
University of Colorado Denver 106
University of Northern Colorado 85
Colorado State University 65
University of Denver 44
Community College of Aurora 42
Arapahoe Community College 33
Red Rocks Community College 28
Colorado State University Pueblo 26
Mesa State College 26
Northeatern Junior College 26
Adams State College 15
Fort Lewis College 13
Colorado School of Mines 9
University of Colorado Colorado Springs 6
Front Range Community College 6
Western State College 5
Colorado Northwestern Community College 4
Regis University 3
Trinidad State Junior College 3
Pikes Peak Community College 3
Colorado Christian University 2
Colorado Mountain College 2
Aims Community College 1
Otero Junior College 1
Pueblo Community College 1
Lamar Community College 0
Morgan Community College 0
Thus, 733 DPS graduates went on to publicly funded four year colleges in Colorado and 463 DPS graduates went to publicly funded two year colleges in Colorado.
The data are also broken out by individual high schools. For example, the University of Colorado Boulder matriculants from the Denver Public Schools were graduates of East High School (69), George Washington (31), South (16), Thomas Jefferson (13), Denver School of the Arts (12), Denver School of Science and Technology (10), Montebello (3), North (2), P.S. 1 (2), and Lincoln (1).
Rate of Prepared College Student Production
What percentage of students do DPS high schools graduate who enter college and don't need remedial work when they get there?
The numbers are approximate, because two new turnaround schools (Martin Luther King Jr. Early College and Bruce Randolph) are excluded from the data which precedes their first graduating classes. The understatements are likely to be greatest at high schools like East, George Washington, South, Thomas Jefferson, DSA and DSST that send significant numbers of students to the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Also, keep in mind that these numbers also understate the number of prepared college students by omitting students who go to college outside of Colorado or to private colleges that receive no state support (e.g. Harvard, the University of Colorado, or Colorado College).
But, for older schools the numbers (in rank order) are as follows:
Denver School of the Arts 27.4% (34/124)
East 25.1% (126/502)
Thomas Jefferson 20.8% (53/255)
John F. Kennedy 16.4% (44/269)
George Washington 14.5% (56/387)
South 7.8% (30/384)
North 7.0% (17/243)
Montbello 6.1% (24/393)
Lincoln 3.7% (15/402)
West 1.6% (4/250)
DPS Total 7.9% (403/5,083)*
* The 9.6% figure cited above in this post is more accurate for DPS as a whole as this 7.9% figure and the per high school figures use data from inconsistent years which is adjusted for in the estimate earlier in this post, but for comparative purposes between high schools this adjustment has not been made; the absolute numbers for high schools understate the total but are still comparable relative to each other).
Even these school by school figures fail to tell the whole story. George Washington's numbers would look very different if they were broken out between a high performing IB program and a lower performing traditional program. East High School is very strongly tracked into what amounts to separate high and low achieving programs (academically). Other schools may make similar divisions.
One interesting comparison in the number of prepared college students a high school produces and the number of students identified as gifted and talented that it has in the cohort used for the high school graduation rate numbers above.
But, for older schools the numbers (in rank order) are as follows:
Denver School of the Arts 68.0% (34/50)
East 88.7% (126/142)
Thomas Jefferson 110.4% (53/48)
John F. Kennedy 93.6% (44/47)
George Washington 56.0% (56/100)
South 75.0% (30/40)
North 77.3% (17/22)
Montbello 80.0% (24/30)
Lincoln 36.6% (15/41)
West 18.2% (4/22)
DPS Total 57.7% (403/699)*
At DSA, East, GW and South there may be meaningful distortion in the numbers due to significant numbers of graduates attending private colleges, while a larger share of talented students from Thomas Jefferson, JFK and North are probably attending public colleges in Colorado, as they have less affluent student bodies.
But, by any measure, it is clear that the most talented students at Lincoln High School and West High School are disproportionately not graduating from high school and then going to college, presumably due to some combination of financial stress and inadequate college advising and peer support. This may also be happening a GW and DSA where financial stress along may be at work.
There are several big picture points that the data drive home for me:
1. The detailed high school data in Denver confirms that national data on a key point. A large number of low income kids in poor neighborhoods who are very talented academically are not going on to college, despite the fact that they have what it takes to succeed there. To recap the slogan of the United Negro College Fund, "a mind is a terrible thing to waste." This reaches a particularly distressing level at West High School and Lincoln High School in Denver. It is imperative that our society do more to help these kids achieve their potential. We have to overcome the financial barriers to meritocracy which are demonstrably still very present today.
2. The dominant reason that students need remedial courses when they show up at colleges and universities in the state is weak preparation in math. The good news is that math is much more self-contained as a subject than reading and writing, and much more a product of the educational process than reading and writing which are part of language skills developed every waking hour (and many dreaming hours) for a student's entire lifetime. Beefing up the curriculum and our expectations of our students in math can reasonably be expected to make a dent in this problem.
3. Graduation rates, college matriculation rates, remedial education rates, and college retention rates are exceedingly sticky and are decades in the making. There is room for improvement. The performance of the Denver Public Schools as measures by factors like graduation rates is poor even when factors like poverty, lack of English proficiency and other concerns are taken into account. DPS has poor graduation rates not just overall, but for specific demographic and individualized need based subgroups. But, the realistic goal for DPS should be to bring its performance up to or above par for the course considering its student body's needs, which even if it overperforms state averages somewhat for every category of student will still be far below the state averages.
4. The Denver Public Schools has not yet succeeded in making itself attractive enough for affluent families with academically talented kids to keep them in its high schools. Previous successes at the elementary and middle school level have shown that making attractive options available can bring these students back into the system, but the crunch time is approaching as a cohort of families who have stuck with DPS for elementary school and middle school when a few years ago similar families were not doing so have to decided if they will stay in DPS for high school. DPS needs those students to have the critical mass of students that it needs for academically rigorous programs that can be made available to all students, and to make economical use of its ample excess of infrastructure resources like empty schools.
5. Half of students who begin high school at the Denver Public Schools won't graduate from high school, half of those who graduate from high school will never go to college, and well over half of those graduates who go to college will never earn a degree with many dropping out of college in the first year or two. Only about five percent of students who start high school at DPS will ever earn a four year college degree. By the time they enter high school it is possible to predict with considerable accuracy how likely it is for a particular student to graduate from high school and to earn a college degree.
The only high profile measure of how successful DPS high schools are at equipping non-college bound students for life after high school is the dropout rate, and that is a crude measure indeed. DPS has many non-traditional programs for non-college bound students. Some, like the Fred N Thomas Career Education Center, appear at least to be doing a successful job of convincing students who are not college bound that it is worth their while to stay in school and graduate. Others may or may not be making a difference, but there is no way for the public to know if these programs fit that bill - dismal graduation rates in many of these programs aren't encouraging.
DPS needs to have something to offer its non-college bound students besides a watered down college prepatory curriculum that makes it worth student's time and effort to stay in school and graduate. It may as well have these students out pounding rocks all day for all the benefit they will get from that approach - that might at least do something about obesity and improve their lifetime fitness. Indeed, many teachers and counselors encourage these students to sign up for the Army and enter basic training if they can graduate, which has a certain amount of similarity to it. These students have spent more than eight years trying traditional academic classroom instruction aimed at getting them ready for a college prepatory high school curriculum and that approach crashed and burned. Four more years of the same won't make a difference for them. We need to find something more fruitful to offer the students who have failed with this approach.
Since students are the consumers here and are voting with their feet, figuring out which programs matter to them is more important than what college admissions officers or state politicians think that these students should be learning. What kind of educational opportunties would these students have purchased with the $6,000+ per year per head that the district is given to spend on them if they had more of a say in devising it? My intuition is that what most of these students want is to be ready for a career that will support them in life, while having the same high school experiences extracurricularly that their college bound peers do. Vocational education is an attractive possibility for a lot of students that has been neglected for too long.
DPS also needs to devote resources to develop useful, high profile measures of its success with non-college bound students that go beyond graduation rates, college matriculation rates and remedial education rates. It needs these measures much more than most districts in the state. For example, there should be good individual high school and individual high school program data on unemployment rates, criminal conviction rates, earnings, voter registration, poverty, and teen/out of wedlock parenting rates for non-college bound DPS graduates and dropouts. Schools that produce good results on these measures with students who have little realistic chance of graduating from college should be recognized for their achievements.