A deep dive into a well-heeled suburban CO district, where $1 billion buys a lot of mediocrity

There are not a lot of  folks in the educational advocacy space who have taken on the sacred cow of the suburban school system. Some of it is because there bigger issues to resolve around urban schools, and part of it is because so many parents in well-resourced suburban schools have a vested interested in promoting and protecting the status quo.

So it’s nice to see Tom Coyne, a colleague out in Colorado, digging deep on some of the issues in his suburban school community. Tom is a dad and the cofounder of an organization called K12 Accountability Inc, which aims to connect business leaders with school districts to improve management and achievement.

In an article published recently in Medium called “Why Do So Many School Districts Fail to Improve?” Tom offers two paths forward for school districts–the alternative scenario being a backward slide into “fiscal chaos and increased social and political unrest.”

One path forward, he argues, is “a substantial improvement in the performance of traditional district-run schools. The second is aggressive expansion of charter schools and other forms of choice.” To make his case he uses as his case study an analysis of his hometown district in Jefferson County, a sprawling and well-heeled district west of Denver. With 160 schools serving 86,000 students, JeffCo is the 35th largest district in the U.S.

Despite Jeffco’s affluence and spending on public schools, its academic results have been mediocre for the seven years since we moved here from Calgary.

On the 2016 ACT, which is taken by every 11th grader in Colorado, only 32% of Jeffco students met all four college and career ready benchmarks (ACT results are highly correlated with scores on the ASVAB test that students who want to serve in the military must take, as well as pre-employment screening tests)….About one-third of Jeffco students who attend college must take one or more non-credit remedial courses.

How does one go about improving the performance of an organization like Jeffco? Experience has taught me that the search for silver bullet solutions based on accurate predictions of the future is fruitless. In a complex adaptive system, a leader’s only choice is to experiment and learn their way to better results — to evolve their way to survival and success, as it were.

A core challenge for such leaders is therefore to strengthen and accelerate the three basic drivers of all evolutionary processes: feedback, external selection, and internal adaptation.

Consciously or unconsciously, defenders of the status quo in Jeffco and more broadly in in US K12 education seek to weaken all of these drivers.

The case study Tom outlined is long and detailed, so it’s not for the casual reader. And I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusion that the solution to low standards, rampant grade inflation, toxic school culture, broken teacher evaluation systems and remedial education in suburbs like JeffCo is to “accelerate the expansion of charter schools and other forms of choice…here in Colorado, I’ve realized it’s the best hope we have left.”

This feels a little like giving up on traditional schools, which I’m not prepared to do. It also ignores the reality that alternate governance is not in and of itself a magic bullet – some charters and private schools suffer from the same ailments (financial mismanagement, grade inflation and underperforming teachers) that drag down traditional schools.

Even with that quibble, it’s worth a read. It’s encouraging to see other parents fighting the good fight against suburban status quo.


Photo courtesy of Chalkbeat.

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Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy Dell'Angela

Tracy loves to ask questions and write stories. She roots for the underdog, wants our nation to reimagine schools and the teaching profession, and seethes about how much school inequity she sees. She spent most of her career as a journalist covering schools and crime. She and her husband raised two daughters in a diverse suburb of Chicago. She currently runs an education foundation in her community and formerly served as managing editor of Education Post. After leaving journalism she explored her wonkier side communicating school research at the University of Chicago and the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. She is Californian by birth and a Chicagoan in spirit. She loves the outdoors and all animals, especially her spoiled "dingo" dog.

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