Reform Is Not a Dirty Word

The real meaning of school reform

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There's only one thing that makes my work as an education advocate easy: Everyone agrees that public education nationwide needs to change. We know that math- and reading-proficiency rates are alarmingly low, dropout rates are far too high, and the percentage of students who need remediation in college is unacceptable. The difficult part is finding consensus on solutions.

From the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to the proposal of the dream Act, I can point to several debates about education that have split caucuses and voters, but none is as close to my home as the recent Denver school board elections.

At a glance, the importance of a simple school board election may not be obvious. But Colorado, and Denver in particular, have long been at the forefront of the movement for national education reform. Over the past several years, the board of the Denver public schools has passed high-impact reforms that aim to improve dramatically the quality of education Denver's children receive. The reforms, which include turning around underperforming schools, expanding school choices for families, and developing programs to recruit and retain great teachers and principals, are well ahead of the curve. And with the support of Denver's school board, the Colorado legislature passed SB 191, the landmark overhaul of the state's teacher- and principal-evaluation system. By any measure, Colorado is leading the rest of the country in innovative programs designed to help kids beat the odds.


Though Denver's reforms are showing progress, these policies have not passed without debate. With three school board seats up for grabs, the November elections were predicted to be a referendum on reform that would havenational implications. But as the campaigns unfolded, it became clear that voters were not being asked to make a decision on whether reform has a place in public education, but to define the word itself.

My organization, Stand for Children Colorado, falls into the so-called reform camp. That means we support initiatives such as meaningful teacher and principal evaluations, accountability for schools and districts, and a range of school models. We endorsed three candidates in the recent elections, those who in past years would be considered reform candidates. But two candidates who sought but did not receive our endorsement also claimed the reformer badge, although they wore it in a very different style.

Take the race in northwest Denver. Arturo Jimenez, an incumbent, fought against Jennifer Draper Carson, a politically savvy mom who has made a name for herself from her work in several local schools. Jimenez did not receive our endorsement, because of his record of consistently voting against reform initiatives, but on the campaign trail this year, he began to call for "real reform" that would put an end to the status quo. He also touted his interest in extending the school year and noted his support for a poular charter school in his district, even though he voted against that school's placement—twice.

Jimenez held on to his seat in a nail-biting race that extended two days beyond the election. Two of the candidates we supported, Anne Rowe and Happy Haynes, will be joining Jimenez in the boardroom later this month. If the impact of Denver's school board elections was a litmus test of any sort, it showed that reform is no longer a dirty word, whether that label comes by word or deed.

"As the campaigns unfolded, it became clear that voters were not being asked to make a decision on whether reform has a place in public education, but to define the word itself."

What happens if anyone can claim to be a reformer? Certainly, it stands the risk of diluting our work, making it appear as if any change is an improvement. But my hope is that this shift offers an opportunity for policymakers and advocates to finally get to work. After all, if we are all reformers, we are all accountable for the quality of our public schools.

I find it remarkable that the challenges facing public education are unbelievably complex, yet the conversations around them have been largely black and white. What would happen if we turned labels upside down and started evaluating each program and policy on its merit, rather than on which faction supports it?

I know all reforms don't work for every school or student. I also know that many of the traditional notions of public education need a serious re-evaluation. Unless adults can have a real discourse about what works and what is a waste of resources, we'll never be able to reclaim our position as a world leader in education.

I hope the results of our local board elections are a sign that education advocates are ready to move out of pro-reform vs. anti-reform camps. Serious, honest, and collaborative evaluations will take work. But for the sake of our children—the real reason we all got into this work in the first place—we have to aim toward this ideal. Long into the future, no one will remember who supported which policy. What they will remember is whether those policies actually made a difference.

Vol. 31, Issue 12, Page 28

Published in Print: November 16, 2011, as Dispatch From Denver
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