School & District Management

Report: Translating ‘Urban’ Reforms in the Suburbs

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — September 17, 2013 2 min read
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Douglas County, Colo., an affluent suburban/exurban district outside of Denver that has implemented many policy changes more often presented as solutions for troubled urban districts, is the subject of a new report from the American Enterprise Institute.

In The Most Interesting School District in America? Douglas County’s Pursuit of Suburban Reform, Frederick Hess, who also writes a blog that is posted on the Education Week web site, and co-author Max Eden describe how the 65,000-student district has increased the number of charter schools, begun performance-based pay and using a new teacher evaluation systems, and introduced the nation’s first district-level school voucher program. But the report also emphasizes how those policies have been tweaked for an affluent population and different (i.e., not Democrat-dominated) political environment.

Hess and Eden dwell in some of the details: The report steps through some of the history of these changes in policy and curriculum in Douglas County, including a politicized school board race that pitted (to simplify) Republican-backed supporters of school choice against Democrat-backed teachers’ union supporters (the choice supporters won) and that board’s decision to let its contract with the union in the district expire. It’s a glowing but fairly thorough chronicle of the district’s recent years.

Here’s a video conversation with Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, the district’s superintendent since 2010:

The authors say that the Douglas County reforms are proof that reforms need to be tailored to individual districts. Some of the framing and changes in Douglas County definitely reflect the fact that we’re talking about a school system in a well-resourced area that’s confident in its autonomy and in its students and not a system like, say, Camden, where the state has shown little confidence in district leadership, or Tucson, where Celania-Fagan was previously superintendent and where many students needed remedial support.

For instance, the report quotes superintendent Celania-Fagan saying that the Common Core is regarded as the “Common Floor” in her district—that is, most of her students are well beyond the expectations laid out for them in the new national standards. The district is creating its own standards, which, the report says, makes sense: It cites Celania-Fagan citing Yong Zhao, an education professor at the University of Oregon, in suggesting that the monopoly on the brainpower to create good standards doesn’t necessarily reside at the state. A state takeover, this is not.

The authors say that Douglas County is a place to watch to see how reforms work when the goal is not to rescue a failing system: “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,” the authors write at the beginning of the report.

While the report says that “in DougCo, the stakes are much more modest and the debate is correspondingly cooler,” there has certainly been backlash to the changes. EdNews Colorado, which has been following the debates in Douglas County, recently published several letters from teachers who lays out some of their concerns.

Will suburban districts move closer to the center of the education reform discussion? A new consortium of big suburban districts formed last year, but Douglas County is not (yet?) part, and the consortium hasn’t made many waves yet.

The American Enterprise Institute is hosting a Google hangout about Douglas County at 4:30 today.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.