Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Douglas County: The Most Interesting School District in America?

By Rick Hess — September 18, 2013 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In a new report released yesterday, “The Most Interesting District in America? Douglas County’s Pursuit of Suburban Reform,” my colleague Max Eden and I take an extensive look at the reform efforts in Douglas County, Colorado. For a decade or more, school reform has been an urban tale of superintendents seeking to “turn around” schools in poverty-stricken communities, where vast numbers of children read below grade level and drop out before graduation. Urban reformers have focused intensively on the challenges of poverty and on “closing” race-and income-based “achievement gaps.”

The urban communities in question tend to be lopsidedly liberal, making reform largely a Democratic family affair. Cities like Chicago, Washington DC, and New York mostly elect Democrats to the city council, the school board, and the mayor’s office. As a result, while debates between teachers’ unions and reform-minded Democrats have been fierce, they have also largely stayed within the bounds of Democratic convention, with even Democrats for Education Reform seeking to temper criticism of teachers’ unions by embracing “reform” unionism and denouncing Republican efforts to curtail collective bargaining.

Douglas County, one of the nation’s most affluent communities and a Republican bastion, provides a stark counterpoint to the familiar narrative. The Douglas County Public Schools enroll 65,000 students, making the system Colorado’s third-largest and one that performs at high levels on conventional metrics. Indeed, the Douglas County reform agenda is shaped in important ways by the advantages its students enjoy and the concomitant effort to raise the bar for teaching and learning. The result is that, in this unlikely setting, the superintendent and school board are pursuing perhaps the nation’s boldest attempt at suburban school reform.

Douglas County has put the tenets of contemporary reform to work--but with an unusual, and unusually ambitious, twist. The district’s distinctive aim of going from good to great, rather than from poor to passable, is remarkable in the annals of contemporary school reform. For Douglas County, school choice is not seen not as a “ticket out” of failing schools, but a way to encourage customization and to offer more paths for students to choose. Teacher evaluation is viewed less as a tool to weed out poor performers than as a tool for helping good teachers get better and to help reward outstanding performance. Douglas County may be unique among “reform-minded” districts in that it is actively dismissing the Common Core, state assessments, and state-designed teacher evaluation in order to devise its own custom-built versions of each.

The district has been a flash point in Colorado, where the system’s difficult relationship with its local teachers union led to the expiration of its contract with the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT)--a remarkable outcome when one considers how unthinkable that would be even in big cities with contentious district-union relationships. The clash was especially notable given that key Colorado Democrats regarded Brenda Smith, the president of the DCFT, as a crucial ally on Colorado’s landmark 2010 teacher quality legislation (Senate Bill 191).

The district has also received national attention for its Choice Scholarship Program (CSP). The CSP uses a novel interpretation of the state charter law to establish a district-authorized “charter school” which is in practice a voucher program. Students enrolled in the CSP “charter” get 75 percent of the state per pupil funding as tuition that they can take to any private school in the district. Douglas County will make sure that the students take all of the publicly required tests, so they will be able to judge student progress to see how CSP students fare in relation to their public school counterparts. A judicial injunction, however, means the program has yet to be implemented. The district won at the appellate court, and the Colorado Supreme Court is expected to take up the case in 2014.

Perhaps most intriguing is Douglas County’s forthright embrace of a constructivist approach to school improvement. Douglas County has embraced the tenets of “student-centered” instruction touted by influential thinkers like Harvard University’s Tony Wagner and the University of Oregon’s Yong Zhao. It’s no small irony that a Republican hotbed is embracing a pedagogy typically associated with the cultural left. But it’s not hard to fathom the potential appeal of such an approach in an affluent community, where the vast majority of children read at grade level, graduate, and attend college. Douglas County superintendent Dr. Elizabeth (Liz) Celania-Fagen sounds eminently reasonable in arguing that the national reform agenda has not been crafted with her students in mind and embraces insufficiently ambitious goals.

DougCo suggests that the familiar paradigm of urban reform (which has driven so much of the K-12 agenda in the past decade) may be an uncomfortable or problematic fit in suburban districts. Suburban reform has garnered little attention in recent years, so it’s worth examining and encouraging where it appears. It ought not be unduly surprising that such efforts may look quite different from those to transform troubled urban systems struggling to educate children mired in poverty. While it’s easy for those focused on the urban agenda to dismiss suburban reform as a distraction or a novelty, it may be more useful to think of high-performing communities as terrific laboratories for bold solutions and as the place where high-functioning systems working in advantageous circumstances may have much to teach about how to help schools go from good to great. Fueled by a unified board with a coherent vision and a bold superintendent, and granted the leeway provided by a record of high-performance, Douglas County is serving as the site of what may well prove a critical chapter in the story of contemporary school reform. Attention ought be paid.

[Clarification: As I gathered the data for the Douglas County paper, I functioned in the capacity of a consultant to the school district contracted to write a study. As the preface of the white paper says, my co-author and I wrote the study with the full support of the Douglas County School District. I also state in the paper that it was not our intent to evaluate the success of the reforms, but to describe what struck us as an extraordinary effort. Since the blog did not try to make the case that Douglas County has been successful in its efforts, it didn’t seem necessary to note my consultant role. It has been pointed out to me that it would have been more appropriate to do so, and I agree.]

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar How Pandemic Tech Is (and Is Not) Transforming K-12 Schools
The COVID-19 pandemic—and the resulting rise in virtual learning and big investments in digital learning tools— helped educators propel their technology skills to the next level. Teachers have become more adept at using learning management
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Building Teacher Capacity for Social-Emotional Learning
Set goals that support adult well-being and social-emotional learning: register today!


Content provided by Panorama
Jobs October 2021 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Tiny Wrists in Cuffs: How Police Use Force Against Children
An investigation finds children as young as 6 and a disproportionate amount of Black children have been handled forcibly by police officers.
15 min read
Jhaimarion, 10, reacts as he listens to his mother, Krystal Archie talking with an Associated Press reporter in Chicago on Sept. 23, 2021. Archie’s three children were present when police, on two occasions, just 11 weeks apart, kicked open her front door and tore through their home searching for drug suspects. She’d never heard of the people they were hunting. Her oldest child, Savannah was 14 at the time; her youngest, Jhaimarion, was seven. They were ordered to get down on the floor.
Jhaimarion, 10, reacts as he listens to his mother, Krystal Archie talking with an Associated Press reporter in Chicago on Sept. 23, 2021. Archie’s three children were present when police, on two occasions, just 11 weeks apart, kicked open her front door and tore through their home searching for drug suspects. She’d never heard of the people they were hunting. Her oldest child, Savannah was 14 at the time; her youngest, Jhaimarion, was seven. They were ordered to get down on the floor.
Nam Y. Huh/AP
Education Gunman in 2018 Parkland School Massacre Pleads Guilty
A jury will decide whether Nikolas Cruz will be executed for one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings.
3 min read
Annika Dworet and her husband, Mitch Dworet, wipe away tears as their son's name is read aloud during Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's guilty plea on all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The Dworet's son, Nicholas Dworet, 17, was killed in the massacre.
Annika Dworet and her husband, Mitch Dworet, wipe away tears as their son's name is read aloud during Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooter Nikolas Cruz's guilty plea on all 17 counts of premeditated murder and 17 counts of attempted murder in the 2018 shootings, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. The Dworet's son, Nicholas Dworet, 17, was killed in the massacre.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP
Education Briefly Stated: October 20, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Gunman in Parkland School Massacre to Plead Guilty
The gunman who killed 14 students and three staff members at a Florida high school will plead guilty to their murders, his attorneys said.
4 min read
Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz is sworn in before pleading guilty, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on all four criminal counts stemming from his attack on a Broward County jail guard in November 2018, Cruz's lawyers said Friday that he plans to plead guilty to the 2018 massacre at a Parkland high school.
Parkland school shooter Nikolas Cruz is sworn in before pleading guilty, Friday, Oct. 15, 2021, at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on all four criminal counts stemming from his attack on a Broward County jail guard in November 2018, Cruz's lawyers said Friday that he plans to plead guilty to the 2018 massacre at a Parkland high school.
Amy Beth Bennett/South Florida Sun Sentinel via AP