adios — for now

Denver Public Schools superintendent Tom Boasberg to take six months unpaid leave

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg speaks to students at Denver's McMeen Elementary School in 2014.

The chief architect of Denver’s aggressive school reforms, superintendent Tom Boasberg, announced Monday that he will take six months of unpaid family leave starting in January.

Boasberg, his wife Carin and their three children — Nola, 15; Ella, 13; and Calvin, 11 — will spend that time in Latin America, traveling and learning to speak Spanish well, according to a letter Boasberg sent to DPS staff Monday morning.

Boasberg, who lives with his family in Boulder, said in an interview on Monday that he’s committed to continuing in his role.

“I’d love to lead for several more years,” he said. “And at the same time, this is trying to both serve the district and serve in my role as superintendent and be the kind of dad and husband that I want to be.”

The timing was right — both for his family and for DPS, he said.

“I’ve been superintendent for seven years and we’ve achieved some terrific progress and we’re seen nationally as having achieved more progress than almost every district out there,” Boasberg said.

He added that DPS has “a very strong and aligned and committed board of education” and “a very strong and experienced leadership team,” both of which he said allow him the opportunity to spend time with his family. He wrote in a letter to staff that he’s “fully confident” that DPS will “move forward full steam ahead” during his six-month absence.

A board behind him

Indeed, the timing of his leave is opportune. The recent school board election ensured that all seven board seats will soon be occupied by members who agree with Boasberg’s brand of reform, which includes cultivating a mix of charter and traditional schools, paying teachers based on performance and closing underperforming schools.

The board will name an acting superintendent on Dec. 1, according to a letter from board president Happy Haynes. Haynes wrote that the board has discussed Boasberg’s status in detail but felt it was right to formally address the matter at the Dec. 1 meeting, after the newly elected school board is sworn in.

Boasberg’s contract is set to renew for another two years starting Jan. 1. The contract sets his annual salary at $236,220 but does not provide for unpaid leave. Boasberg said the board will have to approve it.

The board’s next regular meeting is Thursday, but the sole new member, Lisa Flores, will not be sworn in until after that meeting’s agenda is complete. Flores is replacing Arturo Jimenez, the lone consistent critic of the Boasberg administration, in representing northwest Denver and other close-in neighborhoods that are part of District 5. Jimenez was term-limited.

Jimenez said Monday that he expects that the district will stay the course in the superintendent’s absence. To Jimenez, that’s a bad thing. DPS has become more of an authorizer of nonprofit charter schools than an educator of kids, he said.

He called Boasberg “the hired mercenary to ensure this all happens without full consideration to the community impact.” And he noted that he hadn’t heard about the superintendent’s planned leave until he got an email on Monday.

“Now that he’s put the machine in motion and now that the school board is completely reliant — let’s call them unified — to serve these other interests, Tom Boasberg doesn’t really need to be there,” Jimenez said.

Boasberg said that he expects to return to work in July.

Unusually long tenure

Haynes’s letter notes that Boasberg is one of the longest-serving big-city superintendents in the country and says that his “leadership continuity has been critical for our progress.”

Boasberg has worked for the district since 2007, first as chief operating officer and then as superintendent. He took over the top position from Michael Bennet, who left the district in January 2009 after being chosen by former Gov. Bill Ritter to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat.

The nearly seven years Boasberg has shepherded the district is unusually long for someone in his position. The average tenure of big-city superintendents is a little more than three years, according to a 2014 survey by the Council of the Great City Schools.

Mike Casserly, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization, said Monday that Denver’s progress is a tribute to the longevity and momentum Boasberg has provided.

“If you have an agenda that is really focused on improving student achievement and building the school district, and you have a board and senior administration aligned around that set of goals and able to do that work over a prolonged period, the chances of your getting results are far, far better than a school district that changes over its leadership every year or two years and is constantly fighting with itself about what its priorities are,” he said.

Casserly said doesn’t know of any other urban superintendent who has taken a six-month leave, but he applauded Boasberg for doing it.

“It’s a great way for him to step back and reflect on the work and then come back to that work with renewed energy and perspective,” he said. “It’s also a great vote of confidence in both the board and the senior staff around how good they are. And I think those things together make this another example of how Denver has created tools and strategies that other big city school districts across the country pay attention to.”

DPS’s track record under Boasberg is mixed. While enrollment has boomed and student growth has improved, the district still boasts low academic proficiency scores and the achievement gap separating white and minority students has grown. While minority students are showing gains on standardized tests, white students are improving more, widening the gap.

Asked what’s kept him at the helm, Boasberg said: “When I see the level of commitment and dedication and passion that folks have, that’s really what has helped sustain me and drive me, combined with this extraordinary opportunity to change kids lives for the better.”

Here is Boasberg’s letter to DPS staff:

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.