Rwenning

Today, on Twitter, I asked some critical questions about opinion piece the Honorable Rep. Jared Polis wrote for the Denver Post.  You can read the article yourself, but the central claim of Rep. Polis’ argument is that “public school choice is an asset to improve all schools.”

I’ve written before that I’m not an opponent of school choice.   However, I do question whether school choice policies have the capacity to actually lead us to system-wide improvement and, if school choice isn’t carefully overseen, that it can lead to a re-segregation of our schools – effectively returning us to an era of “separate but equal.”

I asked Rep. Polis (and a non-profit called “A+ Denver” which claims to “advocate for the changes necessary to dramatically increase student achievement in public education”) some questions about school choice and its ability to really “improve all schools.”  I’ll put these questions here, and also provide some answers based on the evidence.

Question 1 – Which high performing global systems have used choice and competition as drivers for greatness?  Answer – no education system that leads the world’s performance league tables has used school choice and competition as a driver for greatness.

Question 2 – Does school choice improve all public schools?  Answer – there is no peer reviewed, journal quality evidence to support this claim.

Question 3 – Are we overselling school choice as a policy for large scale improvement?  Answer – given that no high performing system has used this approach, and we have no quality evidence to support this claim, I’d deduce that we are overselling this policy, if the goal is that all schools improve.

From Rep. Polis, I got the typical imperious silence one should expect from a Member of Congress.  “A+ Denver” did respond with another statement/claim, saying “school choice combined with performance management will have an impact on the largest school systems.”  To which I again say: evidence, please.

Enter Rich Wenning

Rich Wenning is the current Executive Director at BeFoundation, a nonprofit purportedly working to bring about “sustained and dramatic improvement in the educational outcomes of disadvantaged students and the vitality of their communities.”

Let me say that I make no personal criticisms of Rich or his organization.  While I admit I don’t know a lot about them or the strategies they use, BeFoundation has a wonderful purpose statement and I applaud any group that champions better services for students in poverty.  Also, Rich and I both spent some time at the Colorado Department of Education, though our tenures did not overlap.  State agencies are incredibly tough place to work, and I commend him for the work he did with the Colorado Growth Model website – although the Growth Model doesn’t take into account the error present in all student assessment data, which is a serious methodological flaw, in my professional opinion.

Rather than address any of the questions I raised, Rich chose to attack my school district, Eagle County Schools using the Colorado Growth Model.

In my experience, I’ve noticed that when someone goes on the attack when a critical question is asked, it is an indication that they recognize that there is some truth or a painful point in the question that they are trying to deflect.  But since Rich and I didn’t fully explore this notion (and Twitter certainly has its limitations!), we’ll let that issue go without further examination.

In his attack, Rich also used data from before I was even the Superintendent in Eagle County, but that is another matter as well.

For the sake of discussion, let’s explore Rich’s attack and the point (I think) he was trying to make.

Rich compared Eagle County’s growth results to those of Denver Public Schools.  According to the way-cool bubbles on the growth model, DPS’s results generally outperform Eagle County.  To this, I’d say “congratulations” to DPS!  It’s great they are making progress and it’s additionally great news because they are such a large district.

I think Rich was trying to make the point that DPS’s results were higher because they have school choice.  However, there are a great variety of school choice options in Eagle County as well.  According to a CDE report on charter schools, about 12% of students in Denver are in charter schools.  In Eagle County, about 20% of all students are in either charter or private school options.  Since Eagle County and DPS both have school choice options, can we really make the inference that school choice is driving the results?  I think Rich is generally a smart guy, based on his successful career and many accomplishments – but this seems like a pretty basic logical error.

Also of note, Chalkbeat Colorado did a great job covering the heartbreaking story of Denver’s Manual High School and how, despite years of “no excuses” and other disconnected/disjointed education reforms, little real improvement had been made.

I wonder, Rich, how can this possibly happen given Denver’s myriad of school choice options?  Aren’t all schools supposed to improve as a result of school choice?  Shouldn’t choice and competition and the supposed open market for schooling have pressured Manual to get better? Could it be that school choice facilitated “white-flight” that may have actually exacerbated the poverty-based problems Manual continues to struggle with?  I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’m hoping you do, Rich.

Rich, Eagle County is not a perfect school system.  But we did have one of our two comprehensive high schools recognized by U.S. News and World report as one of the top 10% in the United States.  And our other high school produces Boetcher Scholars and puts a number of kids into top colleges (including Ivy League Schools) every year.  We even have a ski and snowboard academy that is a public school and which put four current or former students in the Olympics.  But we don’t have a story like that of Manual High School, Rich.  Somehow, despite all our shortcomings, we’ve been able to keep that kind of failure from our community and our kids.

Rich, like all schools, we have students who struggle.  But we are working very hard, Rich, to build not just a good system – but a great system, a world-class system.  We have a great plan, Rich and we are proud of it, we are excited about it, and we are executing it.  I’d love to have you read our plan and think about it too, Rich – we’d love to have your feedback in helping us become a great school district!

So, Rich, please do resist the urge to make unfounded claims about school choice being yet another “silver bullet” that will be the cure-all for schools.  Such claims are misleading to the public and to families.  I know you are a data guy, Rich, and the evidence just doesn’t support that claim.  No matter how much you (and others) may say it, believe it, and want it to be true – that just doesn’t make it so.

What is true is that the work of building a great school is really, really hard work and it doesn’t matter if you are a public, charter, or private school.  Genuine greatness requires a focus on instruction, it takes being supportive and respectful of great teachers, it takes working hard to customize instruction to fit students, and it takes intensive efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty as early and as aggressively as we possibly can.

Rich, though you might feel defensive, try hard not to take shots at us.  The people in our schools are giving it all they’ve got in a genuine effort to be great.  We will get tired, so we need people like you cheering us on and supporting us.

So, Rich, we at Eagle County Schools aren’t perfect.  But, we are trying really, really hard to be better – because we love our children and we love our community and we want wonderful outcomes for both of them.

This exchange was probably more than you expected!  I do appreciate your engaging with me and I look forward to your reactions and thoughts, Rich.

Kind regards,

Jason