The list of failed school reforms launched since 1983’s A Nation at Risk is embarrassingly long. Worse yet, these sputtering reforms appear to be stacking up at a faster rate: Common Core, evaluating teachers partly on student test scores, luring top teachers into low-performing schools.
Nothing seems to work out, with one very big exception: Districts that fold high-performing charter schools directly into the mix of schools offered to parents.
Denver is probably the best example of a traditional school district taking that path, called a portfolio strategy. In many other cities, including Boston, Los Angeles, Washington and New York, charter schools that are independent of districts — but in some cases experimenting with district collaborations — offer the best opportunities for kids growing up in poverty.
In Denver, business groups, foundations and community organizations were all fed up with the traditional district’s failures. When the board hired a new superintendent in 2005 — today’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet — he quickly realized they were right. His decision to embrace charters had support from both sides of the aisle.
Back then, Denver had the lowest rates of academic growth of Colorado’s medium and large districts. Since 2012, it has had the highest. By fall 2014, the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level in reading, writing and math had increased 15 percentage points (from 33% to 48%), far faster than the state average. On a new state test last year, Denver took a huge leap, its middle schools surpassing the state average. Charters are among the biggest reasons.
Now, just when other cities should be greenlighting similar reforms, Denver-style innovations could be at risk.
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