Student-based reform, or sound-byte reform?

At tonight’s school board meeting, DCTA Executive Director Carolyn Crowder gave the following speech to the DPS Board of Education.

Student-Based Reform or Sound-Byte Reform?
The Denver Classroom Teachers Association’s top goal is student success.

We understand that in order to increase student success, we must be willing to embrace change. But we don’t want to embrace change for change’s sake. In other words, we want Student-Based Reform– not Sound-Byte Reform.
Student-based reform pays attention to research, builds on the success of others, and avoids the mistakes of those who have not succeeded. Student-based reform does not waste precious resources on projects that do not have a clear plan for evaluation or sustainability.

On the other hand, sound-byte reform is about putting the latest idea into the school district’s résumé and issuing a press release about it. Now, I’m not saying providing DPS with a new sound byte is what was intended in this case, or that anyone involved in the DPS Extended Learning project doesn’t have the students’ interests at heart. But DCTA is concerned that, unless some process changes are made, this project could become just another sound byte.

Part of the district’s response in turning down our request to bargain the issue was that “DPS already does this in several schools ”. Now, we could discuss the difference between an individual school making a slight change in their schedule, and multiple schools being told they have to accept one-size-fits-all district mandates. But this is about student-based reform, not winning an argument, so we decided to try and settle before going through the entire grievance process.

We surveyed twelve of the schools that have been involved in exploring an ELO pilot this year, as well as experienced schools that have changed their schedules in the past and used the results and a body of research in our discussions with district representatives. But after hours of talking, we couldn’t get a settlement. So unless this Board can influence its representatives to resolve this before the arbitration deadline a week from today, it will go through an extensive process– possibly into next school year.

The research literature on Extended Learning says that successful extended learning time programs have involved teacher commitment and leadership, and have answered the question: “How will support for the program be generated and maintained among all stakeholders?” The teachers we surveyed felt as strongly about this as the researchers; 215 returned our survey from the pilot schools, and an additional 100 returned the survey from the experienced schools.

Survey results from pilot school teachers show that 79 percent believe there has not been teacher involvement. Ninety-five percent say there should have been more teacher involvement, and 90 percent say there should have been more parent involvement. Results from Experienced schools show that although 75 percent believe their current schedule will continue for the 2012-2013 school year, only 45 percent think it should continue, for one reason– teacher involvement. 77 percent say there was no teacher involvement in designing their change and 96 percent say there should have been more. In addition, 86 percent say there should have been more parent involvement in designing their change.

We separated Innovation schools from the other Experienced schools because they enacted an entire plan of change in addition to extended time. Their results were a little different, but not much. Seventy-eight percent believe the current schedule will continue for the 2012-2013 school year, but only 47 percent think it should. On teacher involvement, 50 percent say there was involvement, while 50 percent say there was not. The fact that about half of the Innovation schools had a faculty vote before their plan was submitted to the school board, and about half didn’t have a vote before plans were submitted, could account for the split. Something most agree on is what should have happened: 86 percent say there should have been more teacher involvement in the design, and 85 percent say there should have been more parent involvement.

On the issue of Program Quality:
Research literature says that if resources are to be directed toward extended learning time in any form, the investment will be wasted unless high standards for programming and staff are maintained. That literature clearly says that spending time doing more of the same does not count as maintaining “high program standards.”

So what do teachers have to say to this?

Fifty-nine percent of the pilot school teachers said their school’s plan is not tied to ideas that clearly introduce new strategies, and 70 percent say their plan merely extends the same curriculum that was going on already.

The experienced school teachers were split on whether their initial plan was tied to new ideas. Fifty-two percent said their plan was tied to new strategies while 48 percent said their plan was not. But 71 percent said their plan just extended the same curriculum, so I guess many of those who thought their school’s plan did include new ideas also think a significant part of it was “more of the same”.

Now the Innovation School results came out differently. Seventy-two percent felt like their plan included new strategies, and 46 percent felt it was “more of the same.” Again, these results may have been influenced by the fact that half of these teachers did get to help design and vote on their “innovations” before they were submitted.

So the experiences of pilot schools and experienced schools do not match the best practices promoted by research. Additional responses that I don’t have time to report tonight show many teachers are not against extended learning. In fact, many volunteered ideas to make their school plans better, but they are adamant about sharing the responsibility of plan design and getting to vote before it is submitted so that it is their plan.

Not paying attention to the research or the teachers is a recipe for failure, something our students do not deserve. And there is something strange about the fact that, when they believe the law mandates it, this district allows a vote for schools seeking Innovation status – whether or not they are waiving contract provisions – but regular schools aren’t enjoying that same right. You shouldn’t have to apply for Innovation status in order to have a voice in school change!

Just in case the data has not convinced you to urge settlement, I will end with a story.

I moved here two and a half years ago from Oklahoma City. While there, my husband was an Instructional Facilitator in an inner city school. One day, he was working with a fifth grade girl who was struggling with a math problem. He explained it one way and she didn’t get it, so he used another technique and the light came on. “Wow, Mr. Crowder,” she said, “I didn’t think I’d ever get this, but you figured out how to help me. You are a genius!” He thanked her. But then she said, “So, why are you a teacher? You’re really smart and could have done anything. Why are you a teacher?” When I heard this story, I was depressed by the fact that a little girl from the poorest neighborhood in our city had heard enough bad things about teaching to think it must be a dead end job.

But I’ve heard worse things here. I’ve heard too many teachers say, “Why do I do this job?” They tell me they do not want their children in this profession. And contrary to popular belief, it isn’t about pay – it’s about respect. These teachers know why they teach. They love working with students – they always have; it’s what gets them up in the morning.

What they don’t know is how much longer they can keep it up as teacher-bashing continues to escalate, and when their district disregards their input and voice as unnecessary when enacting major change. It is an insult, a total lack of respect.

We are asking the Board to urge a settlement of this issue that respects teacher voice, and the elements needed for student-based reform.


  1. K says:

    I greatly appreciate this speech! Finally someone is looking at the research and discussing it. The administration at my school has been trying to push the extended time idea through for next year. We did the research and found that quantity over quality is more important. This research was ignored by the administration, and it became very clear that this is a district push regardless of what the researchers have found.

    Perhaps the district should present the Evidenced Based Research they are using to support their stance on extending the school day instead of changing a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum that fits. Investing in a Evidence Based Curriculum would be a great start (besides Every Day Math). The Gates Foundation funds many projects in DPS…perhaps they could fund the adoption process of an adequate curriculum.

    Let’s not forget that we have no way to compare our elementary school children to those across the country. Only a select few children are given any Nationally Normed Test, such as the IOWA test of basic skills given through most districts throughout the country. So…how do we know these “innovative” measures are really increasing student achievement?

  2. Linda Pangle says:

    Tom Boasberg made very clear in a welcome back letter at the start of the 2011/12 school year that he valued NEW teachers; there was not one mention of experienced teachers. Watching DPS drive out quality teachers of experience because they cost more causes me to submit my opinion, as an experienced teacher, with much trepidation. Clearly, there is a lack of respect for teacher opinion. The younger teachers don’t know it because they are simply eager to work, not knowing that the hardships of teaching never go away or get fixed by “reform”. They should care now, because in time they will be spit out without respect as well. Let’s ask this, what is the point of obtaining the expensive teaching credentials to only be driven out after a 5 to 10 year stint? Rendering an opinion on the idea of extended learning will not be respected unless it’s from a newer, inexperienced teacher who provides the district with the words they want, whether in the best interest of students or not.

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