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Douglas County: The Most Interesting School District in America?

By Rick Hess — September 18, 2013 5 min read
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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.