Memo from the Boss

Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg’s vision for giving more power to schools, annotated

PHOTO: Wesley Wright
Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg visits a district summer camp in 2016.

Denver Public Schools, the largest school district in Colorado, is striving to be more decentralized and less top-down. More than a year after the school board granted school leaders more autonomy, Superintendent Tom Boasberg has penned a document detailing how he envisions the district should function under that philosophy.

“The purpose of this document is to try to make clear in one coherent framework how all these pieces fit together,” he said. “We’ve been saying that the school is the unit of change. We wanted to take the time to say, ‘What do we mean by that?’”

What follows is the full text of the document. We’ve annotated it with comments and explanations from Boasberg, and links to our previous coverage and other sources. Click on the highlighted passages to read our annotations.

EQUITY AND EMPOWERMENT:
THE SCHOOL AS THE UNIT OF CHANGE
October 2016

In order to meet our goals of student growth and achievement under the Denver Plan, we believe it is essential that we empower our educators at all levels to act and lead under a theory in which the school is the key unit of change. School leaders and their teams, working with their communities, should have a strong ownership of all that happens within their buildings, encouraging innovation, flexibility and differentiation at our schools to meet the needs of the students and close gaps in student achievement in each school. To complement this, the district should play a leading role in establishing performance expectations, leading research and development, sharing best practices, coaching and support of school leaders, and ensuring that in all respects our actions and practices promote greater equity among our students.

A. SCHOOL EMPOWERMENT

We believe that effective teaching drives student achievement and that effective leadership is critical to attracting, retaining, and developing great teachers. We believe that empowering our school leaders will help us attract and retain the most talented leaders and teachers who will drive growth among our students. Our school leaders, working collaboratively with their parents, teachers and leadership teams, should have ownership of what goes in their schools – a sense of efficacy and urgency, a conviction that they have the opportunity to set vision, strategy, and priorities for their school. In so doing, they should be encouraged to re-imagine and innovate to challenge the status quo.

In order to set and implement the vision, strategy and priorities for their school, our school leaders should have the authority to:

  • Define the unique vision and mission of each school, working with the school’s community;
  • Lead engagement with parents and the broader school community;
  • Establish the critical priorities for the school based on their root cause analysis of the challenges facing the school, with a particular focus on equity and closing gaps within the school;
  • Make personnel decisions about school staff (hiring/non-renewal);
  • Choose and develop the instructional expectations, practices and systems within the school, consistent with overarching district vision and Colorado Academic Standards. This would include choice of curriculum, implementation of professional learning for teachers and school staff, and use of data and progress monitoring systems to ensure all students access grade level material and are on track to meet graduation requirements;
  • Establish the culture and behavioral norms and expectations for adults and students in the school, with a focus on inclusion, respect, and equity and consistent with district-wide expectations and shared core values;
  • Establish systems for supporting social, emotional, mental and physical health of students;
  • Define the use of time in the school;
  • Align school budgets to the above choices on school priorities through our student based budgeting system.

B. ROLE OF THE DISTRICT

In this construct, what then is the role of the district and the principal’s supervisor, the instructional superintendent?

The starting point of the discussion is that the default is that decisions are made at the school level. When a decision or policy is not reserved for the school level, there needs to be a compelling reason why not.

In short, the main role of the district is to recruit and develop talent at every level and in particular to ensure that school leaders have the skills, knowledge and support they need to lead their schools successfully.

In addition, it is the role of the district to:

Ensure Equity. The district has a vital role in establishing expectations and practices to ensure equity for all students, especially those with the greatest needs and least privilege — our students of color, those from lower-income families, English-language learners, and students with special needs. Experience has painfully shown us the need for clarity in such expectations and practices and the cost to students of their absence. We live in a society where differences in privilege and social capital often work to perpetuate in our schools the inequities in our society, and the district has a fundamental leadership role in driving and ensuring equity in all we do.

Equity issues can involve both inter-school issues such as resource allocation, boundaries, enrollment systems, and transportation and intra-school issues such as personnel decisions, discipline, culturally responsive education, and access to rigorous classes. Where practices or actions at the school or district level exacerbate inequities, the district must ensure changes are made.

Establish a Vision of Excellence and Performance Expectations. In order to drive improvement across all schools, the district has the responsibility for defining excellence – both in terms of what excellence in classroom instruction looks like as well as what student performance goals we are setting for ourselves. While under our approach the district is generally loose on inputs, the district is tight on outputs – what the performance expectations are for schools, educators, and students. Setting clear performance expectations and a system of performance accountability aligned to such expectations is an important role of the district, as is offering the supports that help schools, educators and students meet and exceed such performance expectations.

Drive R&D and Differentiated Professional Learning. To provide such supports, the district should be responsible for researching and spreading effective practices and promising innovations (including best- in-class curricula and assessment and instructional methods). The district also should provide professional learning to enable educators to master these practices, generally by supporting the delivery of professional learning at the school level and at times on a direct basis to teachers.

At times, when leading a major change management effort, the district may require all schools to participate in a particular initiative in order to establish a common base of learning or practice across schools (e.g., full-day preschool and kindergarten, ELA training, early literacy, teacher leadership and collaboration). Generally, however, schools have the opportunity to opt-in to district-provided professional learning.

There is a critical difference here between our approach and that seen in most successful charter management organizations (as well as private sector entities of similar scale). In those successful CMO’s, schools and school leaders generally have little flexibility or choice regarding instructional strategies, assessments, professional learning, or progress monitoring tools. In our system, school leaders do have the choice to accept district-recommended offerings in these areas or choose alternative offerings.

We believe that giving school leaders such choice will stimulate competition among support alternatives both inside and outside the district, and such competition will improve the quality of both district and third-party offerings. Giving school leaders these choices is also designed to address long-held concerns in both schools and the public about the quality of the district’s supports. It also furthers school-level empowerment and ownership of critical decisions. In order for the district to offer high-quality supports, the district does not expect to have the ability to support more than its recommended offering in matters such as curriculum and assessment. Schools choosing alternative offerings, therefore, will generally have to obtain supports from third parties or through their own internal capacity and will be provided with funds to do so, in an amount equal to the school’s pro rata share of the per-pupil cost of the district’s offering.

Stimulate Innovation. As part of its R&D role, the district should also seek to stimulate innovation by researching, resourcing and supporting innovative change efforts. While a critical part of supporting innovation is the freedom to innovate at the school level, equally important is the district’s role in researching innovative practices and supporting schools through approaches like investments in innovative practices and cohorts who work together to develop, refine, and implement such practices.

Lead Talent Development and Mapping. In order to develop the best leaders across schools and to ensure our best leaders are working with our students who have the greatest needs, the district has a role in both recruiting and developing leaders over a long-term horizon and mapping leadership talent across schools. This is one of the most important jobs of the instructional superintendents, both individually and collectively, and includes the shaping of leadership growth paths, evaluations of principals, planning for succession, and recommendations on hiring and non-renewal of principals.

Manage Economies of Scale and Inter-School Issues. The district also can supply economies of scale or assistance to principals in operational matters (like student safety, purchasing, recruiting or transportation), where expecting each school to perform the function for itself could lead to significant additional expenses or decreases in quality. Nevertheless, the power of school leaders to seek alternative providers for many support services provides an important check on assumptions by the district about the quality or cost-effectiveness of its supports. Likewise, where issues necessarily involve multiple schools (e.g. enrollment, transfers, and feeder patterns), the district plays a leading role.

Meet Legal Obligations. Education like medicine is one of the most heavily legislated and regulated areas of our economy with significant risks and penalties for failure to fulfill legal obligations. The district has a responsibility to be aware of its legal, contractual and regulatory obligations and to ensure that those obligations are fulfilled at the district and school levels.

C. ROLE OF INSTRUCTIONAL SUPERINTENDENT/NETWORKS

Role of IS. As is clear from the above list of what we are empowering and expecting our principals to take on, the diversity and level of skills a principal needs is extremely high. No principal, and especially a new principal, is likely to have all such tools in their toolkit from day one and will be constantly learning and strengthening this wide range of skills. And our data is clear that, in order to close our achievement gaps, our principals and teachers must perform with a very high level of professional skill.

Therefore, the most important role of the instructional superintendent (each of whom has been a successful principal) is to coach and grow principals to master the diverse skills they need. This comes generally in the form of strategic planning guidance, school visits, joint observations of instructional practices and systems, analysis of student data, and reflective coaching conversations. Just as we expect our principals to be empowered to lead their schools and be accountable for the growth of their students, so our IS’s need to be empowered to lead their networks and be accountable for the performance of students in their networks.

In their leadership of networks, the IS is responsible for facilitating peer-to-peer learning among principals. Networks play an important role in the sharing of successful practices, as well as professional and personal supports for principals.

As discussed above, the IS also has the primary duty of assessing and growing the level of leadership talent in the school among all the school’s leaders.

Finally, an IS can help principals navigate district support systems, as needs for supports (such as IT, HR, facilities) generally cut across multiple schools. In this role, the IS plays an important policy role at the district level in influencing how support systems are designed and how services are provided.

Direction. In a system of empowerment where schools are the unit of change, an important issue to address head-on is where should a principal’s supervisor, the IS, go beyond coaching and advice to direct or order a principal to take or not take a particular action. Direction by an IS should not be the norm; coaching and empowerment of principals should be the norm. Nevertheless, if coaching does not produce changes in actions/behaviors, there are times where an IS should be directive.

Two important guidelines should be a central part of this conversation. First, only an IS should give direction to a principal so there are clear lines of authority and accountability. While coaching resources from the district such as network partners are vital, these resources are strictly coaching resources. They should not be directive. Second, it would be expected that direction from an IS should be more infrequent with veteran principals or with principals leading higher performing schools.

So, when, if coaching fails to produce changes, should an IS be directive? Several situations come to mind:

  • When school practices are causing or perpetuating significant inequities for students – e.g., disproportionalities in discipline, lack of culturally responsive educational approaches, lack of access to rigorous course opportunities, high numbers of students referred to center programs, failure to provide services and accommodations to students with disabilities;
  • When a school is demonstrating significant deficiencies in critical practices or systems that are leading to poor student outcomes, especially over a sustained period of time – e.g., instruction of English language learners, lack of observation and feedback or use of progress monitoring data, lack of student-centered instructional practices;
  • When schools are not fulfilling legal obligations or are otherwise at risk of breaching public trust (e.g., IDEA or ELL obligations, breakdowns in financial management, or poor parent and community relations);
  • When school-level decisions are materially inconsistent with high-priority district-wide systems such as student discipline, diversity in hiring, or personnel evaluation;
  • When a school-level decision creates significant health and safety risks.

D. TWO FINAL FACTORS

Finally, in looking at the distribution of decision-making authority between schools and the district, two additional factors are important to consider:

o Clarity. As important as determining the balance between school and district decision- making authority is the paramount importance of clarity. A theoretically better-balanced system that does not provide clarity to its participants will almost certainly perform worse than a system with greater clarity of decision-making rights. Therefore, it is very important that we seek to make decision-making rights and responsibilities as clear and as straightforward as possible.

o Transaction Costs. Any system should strive to minimize transaction costs. For example, a system that gives school leaders flexibility to opt in or out of district supports at a very granular level (e.g., pay-per-use of district supports) or to require significant customization of district-provided services is likely to impose significant transaction costs. While some transaction costs are certainly going to be part of our growth and implementation of greater school-level decision-making authority, we should be very conscious of the resources we invest in such transaction costs that might be better spent in direct provision of services to students.

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

Super Search

Denver community has lots of advice on picking a new superintendent – who will the board heed?

PHOTO: Denver Post file
DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg guest teaches an Advanced Placement history class at Lincoln High in 2009.

Denver teacher Carla Cariño hopes the district’s next superintendent is a bilingual person of color. Ariel Taylor Smith, a former Denver teacher and now an education advocate, wants a leader who tackles school improvement with a sense of urgency. Collinus Newsome, a leader at the Denver Foundation, hopes the search process includes community voices that have been silenced in the past.

These are just a few of the desires community members have expressed in the wake of Tuesday’s news that Tom Boasberg will step down after nearly a decade as superintendent of Colorado’s largest school district.

While the district has released few details about the process for selecting the next schools chief, board President Anne Rowe said Tuesday it’s the board’s most important role and that it will soon schedule a meeting to discuss the process publicly.

The 92,600-student district won’t be without a superintendent immediately. Boasberg‘s contract requires him to serve for another 90 days.

Randy Black, who coordinates superintendent search services for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said large urban districts like Denver typically launch comprehensive national searches to fill superintendent vacancies. On average, such searches take two to three months, but the length can vary based on district circumstances, he said.

“DPS is royally set up to do this,” Black said, using the district’s acronym. “They’ve done great strategic work in an extremely complex environment.”

The suburban Douglas County district, the state’s third largest, picked a new superintendent in April after a national search that drew more than 1,000 inquiries and culminated with three finalists. Thomas Tucker, previously superintendent of Princeton City Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the new schools chief there.

While national searches are the norm for large districts, that’s not what happened when Boasberg was unanimously selected by the board in January 2009, a few weeks after his predecessor Michael Bennet was appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat. Boasberg was the district’s chief operating officer at the time and the sole finalist for the position.

Susana Cordova, currently the district’s deputy superintendent, is one likely internal candidate this time around. A graduate of Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School and a longtime district administrator, she served as acting superintendent in 2016 when Boasberg took a six-month sabbatical to live abroad.

“Most urban and suburban boards will wrestle with how do you honor internals at the same time you open the door to potential matchups outside the district,” Black said. “That’s a fairly common dilemma.”

With news of Boasberg’s departure, one of the biggest questions on the minds of Denver parents and educators is how the public can weigh in on the superintendent selection.

Cariño, a teacher at North High School, responded to Chalkbeat’s online survey, wondering how the district plans to involve teachers and community members in the process.

She also wrote, “While being the superintendent of a large urban district is no easy task, the gains made under Boasberg for students of color were minimal. The fact of the matter is there is still a significant amount of work to be done so our students of color can better access and complete [a] four-year college … Our new superintendent should be a bilingual person of color who understands our communities and can make the needle move out of a genuine need to see progress for our students versus a political career.”

Ricardo Martinez, president of the parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said Wednesday he would like to see an open process where students, parents, and the community have some opportunity to ask questions and provide feedback.

He said parents he works with didn’t feel left out when Boasberg was selected because they understood the district had a short timeframe to find a replacement, and they had already worked with Boasberg and knew he supported the work they were doing together.

Now, Martinez said, parents are looking for a leader who understands and listens to the community, and who can take stock of what’s working and what’s not and use that information to find solutions.

“But making sure everyone is aware of that logic — That’s been extremely lacking with the administration. It’s about letting the community know so it’s not just an internal debrief,” he said.