Monday, April 12, 2021

AV #229 - Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt - cautionary words from 100 years ago

“The Business of Education - is Education” – continued.


In a series I called “The Business of Education - is Education” (#171-175, Jan. 2018), Another View examined the way the business community seemed intent on redefining the mission of public education in America. That trend has only accelerated.[i] I offer here nothing original. In fact, the cautionary words about commerce trampling on and revising the purpose of 

“Business pushes an agenda. In 2018, educators must be clear-eyed about the role some business leaders wish to play in advancing career education. Something fundamental has changed these past few years. … educators sense their mission shifting. Which is why we must speak up.”                     AV #172 – Jan. 10, 2018

education come from a book that Sinclair Lewis was writing 100 years ago—published in 1922. If you pick up this classic novel and read it for the first time, as I did this winter, you too might laugh at the ridiculous views expressed by our main character and his peers. But can we laugh at ourselves? What if we realize Lewis is not just poking fun at the attitudes of another time and place, but – almost prophetically – he offers a rebuke to our world. I find Lewis’s criticism all too relevant. I hope to show you why. 

In Babbitt, Lewis, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1925), created a stinging portrait of America in those early post-war years. Forty years after the novel was published, the novelist and scholar Mark Schorer wrote that Babbitt “remains today as the major documentation in literature of American business culture in general.” A century has now passed, but those words may still be true. 

How is that a powerful satire can endure? Lewis was describing a younger America, more naive—pre-Depression, World War II, etc. – hardly the confident superpower of the 21st century. The shibboleths of 1922—for example, Lewis’s “Solid American Citizen”—certainly can’t be prevalent today, can they? 

Typewriting class is now coding 

To be sure, the specifics have changed: Shop class is Career Technical Education (CTE). Business English is now competencies demanded in the labor market. Correspondence courses then; immersive boot camps today—courtesy of the for-profit college industry. But the insistence that public education be, above all, practical, that we not waste time teaching “a lot of camembert,” as Babbitt’s son describes his classes, is much the same. The language used about the purpose of education, careers, even of a good life is revamped, but this (all-too American) philosophy has survived. I agree with Lewis. It still deserves a drubbing. 

The economy prevails. We do not educate, we train. We do not want seniors to graduate with communication skills: reading, writing, listening, speaking—in order to be thoughtful citizens; we want them to be “career ready.” This is how we in “the real world” will get a return on our investment in public education.[ii] We cannot trust school people—“bookworms and impractical theorists”–to develop the curriculum; business must step in to define what is to be studied, so as to best train our future workers. 

In Babbitt, Lewis has fun mocking this shallow, shortsighted view of education. Excerpts here—from just one chapter of his novel—might amuse us. And yet I also present excerpts from articles—all from the past three years (since AV #175)—that provide a mirror to our own foolishness. An invitation to reflect, I hope, on the wisdom of the path we are on.  


Quotes in my next newsletter will offer a richer idea of the purpose of education. In May, a look at attracting good people to the teaching profession. Success there also depends on a higher purpose.


 

From Babbitt,[iii] by Sinclair Lewis (published 1922)

From a variety of publications (2018-2021)

 Chapter 6, part iii

Babbitt’s teenage son, Ted, is complaining to his parents about his high school classes. 

I don't see why they give us this old-fashioned junk by Milton and Shakespeare and Wordsworth and all these has-beens," he protested. "Oh, I guess I could stand it to see a show by Shakespeare, if they had swell scenery and put on a lot of dog, but to sit down in cold blood and read 'em—These teachers—how do they get that way?" 

Babbitt is eager to see his son go to law school.

"I'll tell you why you have to study Shakespeare and those. It's because they're required for college entrance, and that's all there is to it! Personally, I don't see myself why they stuck 'em into an up-to-date high-school system like we have in this state. Be a good deal better if you took Business English, and learned how to write an ad, or letters that would pull. But there it is, and there's no talk, argument, or discussion about it! Trouble with you, Ted, is you always want to do something different!” 

Ted: "Oh punk. I don't see what's the use of law-school—or even finishing high school. I don't want to go to college 'specially. Honest, there's lot of fellows that have graduated from colleges that don't begin to make as much money as fellows that went to work early. Old Shimmy Peters, that teaches Latin in the High, he's a what-is-it from Columbia and he sits up all night reading a lot of greasy books and he's always spieling about the 'value of languages,' and the poor soak doesn't make but eighteen hundred a year, and no traveling salesman would think of working for that. I know what I'd like to do. I'd like to be an aviator, or own a corking big garage, or else—a fellow was telling me about it yesterday—I'd like to be one of these fellows that the Standard Oil Company sends out to China, and you live in a compound and don't have to do any work… And then I could take up correspondence-courses. That's the real stuff!... Just listen to these! I clipped out the ads of some swell courses."

"He snatched from the back of his geometry half a hundred advertisements of those home-study courses which the energy and foresight of American commerce have contributed to the science of education. The first displayed the portrait of a young man with a pure brow, an iron jaw, silk socks, and hair like patent leather. Standing with one hand in his trousers-pocket and the other extended with chiding forefinger, he was bewitching an audience of men with gray beards, paunches, bald heads, and every other sign of wisdom and prosperity. Above the picture was an inspiring educational symbol—no antiquated lamp or torch or owl of Minerva, but a row of dollar signs."

The samples Ted shows his father are produced by “Shortcut Educational Pub. Co.”

Babbitt is somewhat impressed, but insists his son’s high school can do the job. 

Ted: “Yuh, but Dad, they just teach a lot of old junk that isn't any practical use—except the manual training and typewriting and basketball and dancing—and in these correspondence-courses, gee, you can get all kinds of stuff that would come in handy…"“I just wanted to show how many different kinds of correspondence courses there are instead of all the camembert they teach us in the High.”

"Ted had collected fifty or sixty announcements, from annual reference-books, from Sunday School periodicals, fiction magazines, and journals of discussion."

Ted:

“Listen to some of these …” 


"The advertisements were truly philanthropic. One of them bore the rousing headline: "Money! Money!! Money!!!" The second announced that "Mr. P. R., formerly making only eighteen a week in a barber shop, writes to us that since taking our course he is now pulling down $5,000 as an Osteo-vitalic Physician;" and the third that "Miss J. L., recently a wrapper in a store, is now getting Ten Real Dollars a day teaching our Hindu System of Vibratory Breathing and Mental Control."


"[Babbitt] listened to the notices of mail-box universities which taught Short-story Writing and Improving the Memory, Motion-picture-acting and Developing the Soul-power, Banking and Spanish, Chiropody and Photography, Electrical Engineering and Window-trimming, Poultry-raising and Chemistry."

"Well—well—" Babbitt sought for adequate expression of his admiration. "I'm a son of a gun! I knew this correspondence-school business had become a mighty profitable game …I didn't realize it'd got to be such a reg'lar key-industry! Must rank right up with groceries and movies. Always figured somebody'd come along with the brains to not leave education to a lot of book-worms and impractical theorists but make a big thing out of it. Yes, I can see how a lot of these courses might interest you."

"I can see what an influence these courses might have on the whole educational works. Course I'd never admit it publicly —fellow like myself, a State U. graduate, it's only decent and patriotic for him to blow his horn and boost the Alma Mater—but smatter of fact, there's a whole lot of valuable time lost even at the U., studying poetry and French and subjects that never brought in anybody a cent. I don't know but what maybe these correspondence-courses might prove to be one of the most important American inventions.”

                                            (Bold mine)

“Teens Feel Ready for College, But Not So Much for Work,”[iv] by Alyson Klein, Education Week, Sept. 25, 2019. 

   “Overwhelmingly, students, parents, and employers surveyed thought high schoolers would be better off learning how to file their taxes than learning about the Pythagorean theorem. At least 82 percent of parents, students, and employers thought schools should focus more on the 1040-EZ form than on that fundamental concept in geometry.

   “And 81% of students said they thought high school should focus most closely on helping students develop real-world skills such as problem-solving and collaboration rather than focusing so much on specific academic-subject-matter expertise.” 

**

“Price Policy explained,[v] by Elizabeth Hernandez, The Denver Post, Dec. 3, 2020.

   Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education: “The value in higher education at any level is earning a degree that lands its recipient a fulfilling job and maximizes their earning potential.                                                   “‘It’s critical that students get a credential,’ Paccione said. ‘Maybe not a bachelor’s, but you have to get something if you want to contribute to the economy, to the society and to your own livelihood and fulfillment. When you do, you earn a whole lot more money. One million dollars more in a lifetime, research shows.’” 

**

“Getting Students Future Ready” – Bryan Johnson, Superintendent, Hamilton County Schools, Chattanooga, Tenn., Leaders to Learn From, Education Week, Feb. 19, 2020. 

  “A key piece [in developing a five-year] strategic plan is boosting students’ ‘future readiness,’ which the district defines as preparing them for jobs that pay well and are in demand. Some of those jobs require only short-term training and certification after high school.”

**

An Untapped Path to Equity Runs Through Career-Technical Education,”[vi] by Susana Cordova (former DPS superintendent, now deputy superintendent in Dallas). “Education Leaders to Learn From,” Education Week, Feb. 17, 2021.

   “In the Conrad graduating class of 2020, 90 percent of the early-college students graduated with associate degrees. And students at Conrad are able to select from five National Academies Foundation-certified academies… all of which are high-wage, high-demand jobsLast year, two Conrad graduates went directly into the workforce in IT, making higher wages than an average first-year teacher… “

**


“Report Examines Competencies Needed to Succeed in Workforce,”[vii] Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Nov. 20, 2020.


   A new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) pinpoints the five most in-demand competencies across the labor market…

   “In a nutshell, the report looks at what competencies are demanded in the labor market, as in what is judged as the highest level and most important competency that you need for your job,” said Dr. Megan L. Fasules, assistant research professor and economist at Georgetown University. “But also what competencies are rewarded monetarily, which have labor-market value.”

   “If you want to make money, and that’s not the only reason you go to college, and if you’re thinking in terms of a career you got to think, ‘What does my specific field of study bring? Is it worth something?’” said Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale, director and research professor at Georgetown, co-author of the report.

** 

“It Pays To Be An Apprentice: 63% More,”[viii] Adedayo Akala, NPR, Oct. 2, 2020. 

   An apprenticeship program that matches employers with community colleges has launched graduates into middle class careers and could be a way to address the flagging fortunes of Americans lacking four-year degrees, according to a study published Monday…  

   The study, released by Opportunity America and the Brookings Institution, found that graduates of the program earned salaries far exceeding their peers at community colleges.  

   Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education [FAME]  graduates earn about $59,164 one year after completing the program — 63% more than non-FAME graduates (others from similar backgrounds who had chosen similar careers), who earn around $36,379. After five years, FAME graduates were earning about $98,000, 86% more than non-FAME participants, who earned about $52,783. 

**

 “Devos touts administration's education proposals,” Politico, March 5, 2020.

   Trump's budget requests a nearly $900 million increase for career and technical education programs, which the White House has pitched as a way to expand vocational education in high schools. The proposal stands out as an area with potential for bipartisan action given the broad support that career education programs enjoy on Capitol Hill.

   "We know that in too many communities and too many states, career and technical education was sort of put on the back burner for the last two or three decades," DeVos said Wednesday. "That is changing. And the where I've seen the most promise and the most success is in those communities and in those regions where employers get together with educators and they collectively work on what the possibilities are for the students in that region or in that community, and put together relevant curriculums."

[See Addendum A for more on the business community designing curriculum (and cutting time spent in class) for high school students.]

**

“Nederland Middle/Senior High to offer outdoor career classes,”[ix] by Amy Bounds, Daily Camera, Oct. 7, 2020.

   “Nederland students soon will have class options that include rock climbing, snow science, wilderness ethics and backcountry navigation.”

    Nederland science teacher Daniel Wade “said the work included ‘picking the brains’ of industry contacts to see what skills and certifications students would need.”           

   “A student who wanted to work in ski patrol, for example, would need to know snow science, have avalanche training certifications and have the background to take Emergency Medical Technician community college classes, he said. ‘They could go straight to careers or need to have minimal post-secondary work to get there. It saves kids a ton of money.’”

**

“The New Reality of Career and Technical Education,”[x] by Kimberly Green, School Administrator, AASA, August 2018.

   “This research also highlighted that students and their parents not involved in CTE want more of the opportunities that CTE has to offer. Eighty-six percent of parents say they want their child to learn more real-world skills in high school, while 82% of those enrolled in CTE report being satisfied with their ability to learn those skills, compared to only 52% of non-CTE students.”

**

“An illustration of career and technical education,” Politico, Sept 30, 2019.

     “The Education Department released a new interactive data story that illustrates career and technical education in American high schools and outcomes for students who participate in such programs ... Eight years after their expected graduation dates, students who focused on CTE courses in high school had higher median annual earnings than students who did not. 

**

“Helping Workers Displaced By the Covid-19 Economy,” by Tamar Jacoby, The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 19-20, 2020. 

   “But there’s also good news: The last decade or so has seen a revolution in how we prepare people—high-school students, college goers, midcareer adults and others—for the labor market. These changes have touched almost every corner of American job-focused education and training…  

  (Jacoby is the president of Opportunity America, a nonprofit.)

**

“Oxford’s 2020 word of the year?”[xi] by Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times Co., Nov. 22, 2020. 

   Katherine Connor Martin of the Oxford Languages noted “the most common collocates (as lexicographers call words that appear most frequently together)… This year, Martin said, they were ‘learning,’ ‘working’ and ‘work force.’”

 

 

Addendum A – Let’s “not leave education to a lot of book-worms and impractical theorists”

What are the skills students need? Remember the Colorado Academic Standards? That is so YESTERDAY!

Today’s focus: teach what the market demands.  Ask industry what we should be offering—in order to provide that “talent pipeline.” This is how business can influence what skills – the relevant skills – our students are really learning in that K-12 space.                                                                                         (Bold mine)        

                                        

1)     “Introducing the Bill that’s Reimagining High School,” Colorado Succeeds,[xii] SB 21-106 (Feb. 25, 2021)

   “Now is the time for Coloradans to reimagine the high school experience. Through the Successful High School Transitions bill…, Colorado Succeeds and partners are working to make high school more engaging and relevant for students and connect more of them to high quality pathways to career and other postsecondary opportunities, while laying the groundwork for a strong, local talent pool for Colorado’s businesses…

   “Colorado businesses – who were already facing talent pipeline challenges before the crisis – need to find talent solutions that set the economy on the path to recovery. Many employers view career connected learning as critical to their economic recovery to help address the talent pipeline, and this gives them the opportunity to provide a rich learning experience for students…

   “The bill is also a win for talent pipeline development. It encourages business to invest in the training and support of young people. Through career-connected learning experiences, students can develop both the soft and technical skills needed in local industries, while businesses benefit from the new ideas and energy that interns and apprentices bring.” 

2)               “An Education Innovation That Beats Learning Pods,” by Max Eden, The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 5-6, 2020.

   The Idaho Legislature “last year expanded the program to provide funding for apprenticeship and workforce development courses. [State Senator Steven] Thayn and his colleagues hope that in the future Idaho will have a Swiss-style education system in which high school students can opt in to a college track or train to acquire a specialized skill that the market demands.”

3)        “Colorado educators and companies team up to attract high schoolers in biotech,” by Jensen Werley, Denver Business Journal, Feb. 28, 2020.

   Meg John is vice president of the Colorado Bioscience Institute. When her CSBI member companies “were struggling with talent gaps in entry-level biotech manufacturing,” according to the article, they came together to explore solutions. “While many talent recruiting efforts for manufacturing are structured around the community college level, it was decided that talent building would be more effective if it started younger. The decision was to do a P-Tech program, which recruits eighth graders to spend high school taking relevant classes…

    “How often do companies really have an opportunity,” said John, “to directly influence what their talent will look like? This is a unique opportunity to establish a relationship and influence what are the skills they’re really learning in that K-12 space. The beauty of P-Tech is it all comes together with all entities working together on what it looks like.” 

4)        "Thriving Work-based Learning Communities"

                                  – from the website for Colorado Workforce Development Council [xiii]

     “Successful WBL initiatives require a community working together to address the evolving needs of businesses and create a labor force with a flexible and continuous approach to developing and upgrading skills. Businesses need to partner with educational entities to design and deliver curriculum …”

5)       “What High School Course Would You Design? - Microsoft, Verizon, and Other Big U.S. Companies Design Their Ideal High School Courses,”[xiv] bMichelle R. Davis, Education Week, Feb. 4, 2020.

   “Today’s classrooms aren’t preparing students for tomorrow’s jobs."

   “… A recent RAND report on reimagining the workforce development pipeline for the 21st century found that … just 33 percent of employers in a recent poll agreed that educational institutions were graduating students with the expertise to meet their needs.

   “Education Week asked some of the biggest and fastest-growing companies in the United States how schools can prepare students to be an essential part of their future workforce.”

   [Among courses imagined by companies, consider this from ServiceNow.[xv] No satire required.]

 

Endnotes



[i] Last month’s Education Week provides a useful example of this trend. An entire issue devoted to “Equity and the Future of Work.” Main articles: “Thanks to COVID-19, High Schoolers’ Job Prospects Are Bleak,” “The COVID-19 Economy Is Putting Vulnerable Students’ Career Prospects at Risk,” “How Virtual Learning is Falling Short on Preparing Students for Future Careers.” Shall we rename the publication: Economy Week?

[ii] See HB18 -1226 -See How the Colorado legislature expects CDHE to report “costs and outcomes.”  “The act requires the department of higher education (department) to prepare an annual return on investment report of undergraduate degree programs and certificate programs offered at each state institution of higher education.”

[iii] Copyright policy for BabbittWikisource-  https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Babbitt

Dec 31, 2020 — HARCOURT, BRACE AND COMPANY, INC. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926. The author died in 1951, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less.

Chapter six: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Babbitt/Chapter_6

[x]Advance CTE, with support from the Siemens Foundation, commissioned a national survey to explore the attitudes of parents and students currently involved in career and technical education, as well as prospective CTE parents and students.”  http://my.aasa.org/AASA/Resources/SAMag/2018/Aug18/Green.aspx

[xv] “Designing a High School Class.” From Service Now – Cloud Computing, by Tracey Racette Fritcher, global director, HR transformation.

Begins this way: “This class would focus on designing human-centric technologies and applications that will help organizations retain both customers and employees and run their businesses more effectively and efficiently. Students would learn skills critical for succeeding in a digital era from both a business (sales, profit and loss, customer service, workforce enablement) and technology (code development, data analysis, predictive analytics, AI and machine learning) perspective…”

 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

AV #228 - Learning together - low-performing high schools in the metro area

 

Collaboration – would a small group of schools – with common challenges – see value in teaming up?

 

A follow-up to AV #92 - Why not a regional recovery school district? (Jan. 1, 2013)

 

So much time has passed. Eight years. Eight graduating classes. A stubborn problem. Complex. Frustrating. But we do agree, don’t we, that we can do better than this? That we must? Or have we grown too discouraged? Do we now resign ourselves just to muddle along … another year with little progress? 

Eight years ago, in AV #92, I offered a New Year’s Resolution: “In 2013 Coloradans will make a determined effort to begin to turn around our lowest-performing high schools.” We might take a lesson, I wrote, from the success of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation (EDC) in bringing together key players from the seven counties around Denver. It had become, according to the EDC, “the nation’s first and only truly economic development entity … to represent the interests of an entire region.”

By the fall of 2012 Colorado’s School Performance Framework had provided accreditation ratings for each school in our state. Most every district in the metro area had at least one high school rated poorly - on Priority Improvement or Turnaround. In AV #92 I listed ten of them. Four had received that rating each of the first three years: Adams City High, Aurora Central, and, in Denver, Montbello and West High.

I suggested we bring these ten high schools together. Create a regional effort, I wrote, “a ‘new’ district focused solely on dramatic improvement for these high school students.” I pointed to three other states which had created “recovery districts” along these lines.  

No takers.

What has happened since then? Is it a good story? Would my suggestion, if acted on, have made any difference?

Three of the 10 schools I listed closed: West High, Montbello High, and Southwest Early College (which later became Early College of Denver, before closing).

Two, Bruce Randolph (6-12) and Sheridan High, were rated on Improvement or Performance as of 2015 and stayed there through 2019. Apparent progress. Although in AV #222, “The PSAT and SAT do not work well for perhaps 25% of our high schools,” I noted the rating for all PSAT/SAT scores at both schools: Does Not Meet.

One, Westminster High, lifted its rating in 2013 and 2014, but then was on Priority Improvement for three years, 2016-2018. In 2019 it was rated on Improvement—Year 3 on Watch.

Two schools came off the lowest ratings at times, but in 2019 were again rated Priority Improvement - Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts, or even lower, on Turnaround - Jefferson Jr./Sr. High.

And two schools, Adams City High and Aurora Central High, were accredited with one of the two lowest ratings for the 9th straight year.

Perhaps my idea back in 2013 was foolish. Still, I hope it is fair to ask what could we have done eight years ago to support the five schools, those that did not close, and that continued to struggle to perform at even a satisfactory level? Most tragic, of course: Adams City High and Aurora Central. Since 2012 eight more classes have graduated from these schools – over 4,000 students. How many were “college and career ready”?

ACCREDITATION RATINGS:     P–Performance     IMP-Improvement      PI–Priority Improvement      TR–Turnaround

District

School

School Performance Framework – RATING

Final % Points Earned

Entering Year on PI or TR

 

School Performance Framework – RATING

Final % Points Earned

Year on    PI or TR

 

2012

2012

 

 

2019

2019

 

Bruce Randolph (6-12)

(PI again in 2013, then on Improvement 2014-2019)

Priority Improvement Plan

57.9

Year 1

 

Improvement

51.9

 

Sheridan H.S.

(PI again in 2013, then on P or Imp 2014-2019)

Priority Improvement Plan

45.5

Year 1

 

Improvement

47.5

 

Westminster H.S.

(PI again in 2016, 17, 18)

Priority Improvement Plan

43.2

Year 3

 

Improvement

42.3

YR 3 ON WATCH

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Southwest Early College/ (became) Early College of Denver

(PI again in 2013 and 2014, then on P or Imp until closing)

Priority Improvement Plan

50

Year 1

 

Improvement/

Closed after 2019

48.6

 

Montbello H.S.

Turnaround Plan

40.8

Year 3

 

Closed

 

 

West H.S.

Turnaround Plan

43.1

Year 3

 

Closed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adams County 14

Adams City H. S.

Priority Improvement Plan

35.9

Year 3

 

Priority Improvement

35.5

YR 9

Aurora Public Schools

Aurora Central H.S.

Priority Improvement Plan

41.6

Year 2

 

Priority Improvement

35.2

YR 9

Jefferson County

Jefferson Jr./Sr. H.S.    

(PI again in 2013 and 2017)

Priority Improvement Plan

45

Year 1

 

Turnaround

39.9

YR 1

Mapleton

Mapleton Expeditionary Sch. of the Arts (7-12)

(PI in 2014, then on P or Imp until 2019)

Priority Improvement Plan

45.8

Year 1

 

Priority Improvement

48.2

YR 1

 

2013 to 2021 - What is different now

We have tried a wide range of approaches and we have sought numerous external partners. Adams City High and its district are now under management from MGT of America Consulting, LLC, in association with the University of Virginia Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education (UVA/PLE). Aurora Central High continues its “Turnaround Pathway” in a partnership with Mass Insight Education; the effort now also includes Denver’s Public Education and Business Coalition to provide more academic support. Sheridan High is all-in with the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) system as a guide to its improvement. Westminster High and other WPS schools continue to focus on implementing competency-based learning with support from external partners AdvancedEd and Marzano Academies. And in DPS, both Abraham Lincoln’s “College and Career Academy” and Manual’s “Early College Model” also work with the University of Virginia-PLE. At Bruce Randolph, the first item for its Major Improvement Strategy and Action Plan (2019-20 UIP) reads: “Use Data Driven Instruction System.”   

What comes to mind? Haphazard? Jumbled? Random? Are we all over the map because … we still have no clear idea of what works? Throwing whatever comes to mind up on the wall—and hoping some of it sticks?

When $7 million in federal grants,[i] Innovation status,[ii] and opening more 6-12 schools achieve so little, I would not blame district leaders for throwing up their hands and saying: To be honest, we don’t have a clue.

Which might be the beginning of wisdom. To admit that we need help. To realize we cannot do it alone. To accept that the enormity of the challenge is beyond any one district to figure this out for itself.

It is humbling, of course, to say the challenge is too big for any one of us. But crucial, if we are to collaborate.

Collaborate - to work together with somebody in order to produce or achieve something[iii]

I say: let’s pool our resources. Ask the outside experts to sit down at the same table with all of us. Everyone at the Colorado Department of Education’s School and District Transformation Unit, having worked closely with many of these schools over the past decade, join us too. Are there lessons we have learned? Put them in writing. Share them. No need to force each school to search through a dark maze, alone, in the hope of finding a way out.     

Then let’s apply our new insights. We must do a better job of bringing dramatic improvement to our low-performing high schools - in this decade - than we did these past 10 years.

Here are 11 metro areas schools that might benefit from collaboration on improvement efforts:

District

School

2019 SPF Rating

Year on Accountability Clock

Adams County 14

Adams City High School

Priority Improvement

Year 9

Aurora Public Schools

Aurora Central H.S.*

Priority Improvement

Year 9

Gateway H.S.

Turnaround

Year 5

Hinkley H.S.

Turnaround

Year 2

Denver Public Schools

Abraham Lincoln H.S.

Priority Improvement

Year 5

John F. Kennedy H.S.

Turnaround

Year 2

Manual H.S.

Priority Improvement

Year 6

STRIVE Prep - Smart Academy

Priority Improvement

Year 3

Jefferson County

Jefferson Jr./Sr. H.S.

             Turnaround                         (PI 2012, 2013, 2017)

Year 1

Mapleton

Mapleton Expeditionary Sch. of the Arts (7-12)

Priority Improvement              (PI 2012, 2014)

Year 1

Westminster

Westminster High School

Improvement. (On PI previous 3 years; hence, On Watch.)

Year 3 – On Watch

In 2019 two Denver high schools, Denver Center for International Studies (at Baker) and South High School, were rated on Priority Improvement or Turnaround for a second year in a row, but this was mostly due to a lower rating on Denver’s SPF. On the state SPF, they would have been on Improvement.

Other metro area high schools on YEAR ONE on Priority Improvement on the 2019 SPF:

-in Denver Public Schools: Denver School of Innovation and Design & Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College;

-in Jefferson County: Arvada High School;

-in Mapleton: Big Picture College and Career Academy.

Four other low-performing secondary schools in Denver will be closed after 2021-22: Collegiate Preparatory Academy, DCIS at Montbello, Noel Community Arts School, and West Leadership Academy. 

Obstacles to collaboration

Collaboration is hard. Books are written about the roadblocks to effective alliances. In fact, I recently edited one – by an old friend, Keith Gaylord, Alliances, Strategic Partnerships and the Power of Analytics: Gain Control, Reduce Risk and Accelerate Growth (2020).[iv] Much of his book is about the need for honest conversations, early on, to establish clear goals. As he reminded me: “It’s nice to say, let’s partner. But it is critical to ask: How and to what purpose? What is the problem we want to solve?”

At the district level, one obstacle is the conviction that we are so different from each other: we, in DPS (90,000 students) and Jeffco (80,000), have little in common with you, in Westminster (8,400) and Adams 14 (6,000). 

We hold different beliefs on the value of keeping schools small—Mapleton versus Aurora. Different beliefs, too, on choice; four of our districts authorize no charters.[v] We have, understandably, different priorities. 

We must not overlook the differences. But let’s be clear, “the problem we want to solve” is not our districts.

It is our schools. It is 10 or 11 or 12 schools that we want to improve. And soon. Sure, even there, every struggling school has a different set of challenges. But consider the commonalities, below.

        FRL - students on Free or Reduced Lunch          EL – English Language Learners         SC - students of color

Data from CDE’s pupil membership, fall 2020,[vi] and from CDE’s SAT test results, 2019.[vii]

District

School

% on FRL

 % EL

% SC (est.)

SAT- Math

Adams County 14

Adams City High School

74.9

32.7

92

412

Aurora Public Schools

Aurora Central H.S.*

79.6

47.0

95

398

Gateway H.S.

71.2

34.9

88

406

Hinkley H.S.

78.0

36.8

95

424

Denver Public Schools

Abraham Lincoln H.S.

87.2

56.6

97

424

John F. Kennedy H.S.

73.2

24.2

90

438

Manual H.S.

76.0

27.2

95

429

STRIVE Prep – Smart Academy

94.5

55.4

99

477

Jefferson County

Jefferson Jr./Sr. H.S.

88.3

31.6

90

388

Mapleton

Mapleton Expeditionary

Sch. of the Arts (7-12)

64.9

25.1

85

446

Westminster

Westminster High School

72.5

24.7

87

431

STATE AVERAGE

 

40.2

12.9

47

496

The similarities among 11 of our lowest-performing schools tell me many of them can look at these other 10 buildings—and see their own school reflected back. That bodes well for one critical ingredient: trust.

The challenges of connecting to families in low-income communities, addressing the number of families where English is not spoken, appreciating the systemic racism that a majority of their students have most likely encountered – my guess is the school leaders, faculty, and staff in these schools would say: these are definitely among our chief concerns. They would look at their peers and say: You wrestle with these challenges every day too? Good to know. This is damn hard, isn’t it? Let’s talk with each other.

After a year with the pandemic, anyone else done with all this isolation! Let’s collaborate.



Endnotes

[i] During the Obama Administration the federal government provided School Improvement Grants (SIG) of over $7 billion.  Colorado received over $70 million of those funds.  (Later renamed as the Tiered Intervention Grants – TIG.) 

Several high schools referred to in this newsletter received significant federal grants designed “to substantially raise the achievement of students” (U.S. Department of Education – School Improvement Grants -    https://www2.ed.gov/programs/sif/index.html)

 2010-2013

  Montbello High - $3,388,350 (A Plus Colorado - Turnaround report, 2011 – http://apluscolorado.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Background-Turning-around-low-achieving-schools-in-Colorado.pdf)

2012-2015

  West High - $1,293,589  (email from CDE, March 11, 2021 – slight change from page 2 https://www.cde.state.co.us/sites/default/files/documents/fedprograms/dl/ti_a_stig_dps.pdf - $1,113,589)

“The plan to turnaround West High School has been underway since spring 2010 when west Denver community

Leaders met with DPS leaders to discuss the future of West High School…. Committee discussions led to the decision to phase out West High School and phase in two new 6th-12th grade schools collocated within the historic West High School building” (p.  34).

2013-2016

  Aurora Central High - $2,680,000 – (email from CDE, March 11, 2021)

[ii] Aurora Central High and, more recently, Abraham Lincoln.

[v] Adams 14, Englewood, Mapleton, Sheridan.