Innovation schools showing mixed results in DPS

Denver innovation schools aren’t outperforming similar campuses tied to district bureaucracy, according to a report released today.

Students at Denver Public Schools that operate under “innovation” agreements showed higher level of academic growth, the most highly scrutinized measures of academic prowess in Colorado, but proficiency rates have stayed below state average.

The study, which compared 19 of the districts 30 innovations schools to a dozen similar schools without innovation status, was co-authored by education advocacy organization A+ Denver, DPS, Denver’s teacher union, the Colorado Education Association and the Evaluation Center at the University of Colorado–Denver.

A 2008 state law created the innovation schools designation. Schools granted innovation status are freed from many central administration policies such as budget rules, curriculum mandates and teacher contracts. Architects of the law believed that granting such freedoms could accelerate academic achievement.

But, in the three years since the coalition started studying innovation schools, the results have been mixed.

Among the study’s other findings:

  • Teachers in schools that have had innovation status longer have a greater sense of school mission, which the authors believe is a key premise to innovation schools.
  • But those teachers were often less experienced, averaging 3.77 years in the classroom. And teacher turnover was 11 percent higher than at comparison schools.
  • Slightly more than half of innovation school principals had fewer than three years of experience, while 38 percent of principals at non-innovation schools had fewer than three years of experience.

Van Schoales, CEO of A+ Denver, was surprised by the mixed results, but still believes innovation schools can be successful.

“Autonomy on a variety of fronts — hiring, programs — can provide an incredible position for schools to do better,” said Schoales. “But its not everything you need for a school to succeed.”

The flexibility innovation contracts provide doesn’t diminish the importance of quality school leaders and school design, Schoales said.

The study also found correlations between student achievement and two important factors education observers commonly cite as change drivers: teacher empowerment and turnover.

Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, DPS’ director of innovation, said she was exciting to see the level of teacher “buy-in” and “ownership.” 

The study didn’t include any recommendations. But, the district is responding, Whitehead-Bust said.

The 19 schools studied are all up for renewal this year and part of that process will include a review of accountability and policies.

In Schoales’ opinion, the results remind him of early data from charter schools that showed little improvement compared to district run schools.

“Everyone was like ‘what’s the point?'” he said.

But he said newly-formed innovation schools could be better with more planning and development before they’re granted autonomy.

Whitehead-Bust agrees. She’ll present the report to the Board of Education tonight at a work session.

“There’s some promising indicators,” she said. “But we still have a long way to go. We’re early in the movement, but there is enough positive indicators to prove we should continue.”