The Temp

Who will be interim superintendent of Denver Public Schools?

PHOTO: Matt McClain/Denver Post
Denver Public Schools superintendent Tom Boasberg is taking a six-month break.

On Tuesday, the Denver school board will choose an interim superintendent. That person will fill the top leadership spot in the state’s largest school district while longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg takes an unprecedented (and unpaid) six-month break.

The seven-member school board has been tight-lipped about the selection process. But there are three likely scenarios: choosing between Boasberg’s two top lieutenants, picking a lower-profile district official or tapping an outsider with ties to Denver Public Schools.

Whether the choice will signal anything about the direction of the district is up for debate.

The structure of the DPS senior leadership team suggests two strong candidates: Susana Cordova, chief of schools, and Alyssa Whitehead-Bust, chief academic and innovation officer.

Cordova and Whitehead-Bust are effectively Boasberg’s top deputies. In 2014, Boasberg reshuffled his leadership team and rebranded some departments. Cordova was put in charge of district-run schools and innovation schools, which have more autonomy and flexibility when it comes to things such as hiring teachers. Whitehead-Bust oversees charter schools.

Under the unique division of labor, Whitehead-Bust is responsible for developing academic policies, whereas Cordova coordinates efforts to put those policies into practice.

Both women worked their way up in DPS. But they started from different places.

Cordova is a Denver native and DPS graduate who began her career as a bilingual teacher at a traditional middle school in northwest Denver and then taught at West High School.

Whitehead-Bust is a former consultant who helped start more than 15 charter schools across the country. She was the founding principal of Highline Academy, a successful DPS charter.

“From the outside, it would appear they’re both in contention to be the interim or the next superintendent, and they’re each trying to prove their case,” said Tony Lewis, executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has provided grant funding to DPS.

But Lewis doesn’t think either will get the interim job.

“If Tom chooses one, he chooses the favorite child,” he said. “I think he’s going to choose someone else.”

One possibility: David Suppes, the district’s chief operating officer.

Suppes came to DPS at the same time and from the same place as Boasberg. Both men left Level 3 Communications, a telecommunications company in Broomfield, in 2007 to work for DPS under the leadership of Michael Bennet.

Under Bennet, Boasberg was chief operating officer and Suppes was chief strategy officer. When Bennet left in 2009 to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat, Boasberg became superintendent and Suppes took Boasberg’s former job.

In that role, Suppes oversees several important departments including transportation, facilities, finance and enrollment. He was instrumental in the 2008 bond and 2012 bond and mill levy, in which voters approved extra taxes to improve school buildings and programming.

The district is gearing up to ask voters for more money in the fall of 2016. The interim superintendent will likely be involved in planning the campaign.

Another possibility is that the board will choose someone who doesn’t currently work for the district, such as a former employee or board member.

“It would not surprise me if it’s an external choice,” said Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools. “If they have it right with the senior leadership, they might not want to shift around the positions.”

It seems less likely that the interim superintendent will be someone unfamiliar with DPS, which in the last ten years has put in place a series of reforms such as opening a mix of charter and traditional schools to replace schools where kids aren’t making academic progress, and paying teachers based in part on how their students score on tests.

“I just can’t imagine it would be somebody totally outside,” said former board member Jeannie Kaplan, a critic of DPS’s reforms. “Six months isn’t a very long time. And if Tom really is going to come back, it seems like the learning curve would be so steep, it’s hardly worth the effort.”

Boasberg announced two weeks ago that he’s planning to be gone from January through June, living and traveling in Latin America with his wife and three kids. He told Chalkbeat that he hopes to lead the district for several years after his return. He announced his plans shortly after an election that saw all seven board seats align with his vision of school reform.

Pam Shamburg, executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said the board hasn’t asked the opinion of the teachers union, which has also been critical of the district.

Ultimately, she said, the decision isn’t likely to have a big impact on teachers.

“If the person really is a seat-warmer, it will feel the same,” Shamburg said.

“We aren’t sweating it,” she added, “because whoever it is, we have to deal with it.”

Given the disparate backgrounds of Boasberg’s top lieutenants — Cordova started her career as a teacher in a traditional school, while Whitehead-Bust is a former charter school principal — some observers said that choosing one of them could send a message about the value of school autonomy and decentralization.

DPS is already headed down that path: Starting this year, the district offered all school principals the chance to choose their own curriculum, teacher training and student tests.

“Choosing one over another would signal to the larger community that there might be a greater emphasis toward decentralization or not going as quickly toward decentralization,” said Van Schoales, chief executive officer of the pro-reform advocacy group A-Plus Denver.

But others cautioned against reading too much into it.

“I think the only signal there is that this is the person that the board felt is best positioned to move in the direction that Tom has moved,” said former board member Nate Easley, who is executive director of the Denver Scholarship Foundation.

“I wouldn’t read a whole lot into it because Tom is committed to coming back,” said Mike Vaughn, who served as DPS’s chief communications officer for five years under Boasberg.

“It’s easy to say, hard to do.”

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, he 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.