Evidence Matters: Proving whether school reforms make a difference for kids

Christine Campbell & Betheny Gross, via a kind Deb Britt email:

When people lament that innovation is not possible in “regular” districts–ones that are overseen by elected school boards and working with active teachers unions–we at CRPE often point to Denver Public Schools. We’re not alone in noticing Denver–cities around the country have heard about its energy, new ideas, and solid implementation. Last year alone, more than a dozen city teams visited Denver to try to bring some of its ideas back to their own communities.
But this enthusiasm is not universal. In a recent Denver Post article about the challenges facing Superintendent Tom Boasberg in the upcoming school board race, one interviewee remarked that his “national notoriety is pinned more to the change that DPS has been willing to initiate and less on the results that it has produced.”
Actually, Denver has produced results. During Boasberg’s tenure, graduation rates rose and dropout rates fell. According to a 2012 study by a local foundation, over four years, 68 percent of new charter schools and 61 percent of new innovation schools exceeded the district median in student growth. Independent researchers found that the district’s teacher compensation reform was associated with improved student achievement. And the district’s new enrollment system, which allows families to apply for any of the city’s public schools with a single application, matched 83 percent of students to one of their top three choices and, as hoped, showed that families across the city demand high-performing schools.
Concerns remain, of course–but the city is working to address them. When the foundation report revealed that only 32 percent of the city’s turnaround schools performed above the district average, the district sought to open new schools rather than rely on turnarounds. Researchers found that the high-quality schools that families prefer aren’t evenly distributed across the city; local civic leaders are keeping a close eye on the progress of the district’s landmark effort to improve schools in the historically underserved Far Northeast section of the city.