Study: High Expectations Lead to Higher-Performing Denver Charter Schools

Published April 30, 2012

Denver Public Schools could improve by applying charter school-tested strategies such as specific performance metrics, according to a report published by Colorado’s Donnell-Kay Foundation.

Compared to traditional public schools and district-run “innovation” and “redesign” schools, charters had the highest performance of academic growth over time, the report noted.

“There are a couple of very good charter schools and many not so good charter schools, so just being a charter school isn’t sufficient,” said report author Alexander Ooms, a senior fellow at the foundation. “I don’t think anyone has come up with the menu of strategies and practices of what makes a successful school.”

While not all charter school students in the city are scoring above their peers, two major charter school models being replicated in Denver have shown great potential, said Vincent Badolato, a vice president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

“One bright light of success in Denver has been the growth of some charter school networks,” said Ben DeGrow, senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute. “It just shows that the kind of flexibility they provide and the focus on innovative ways to help students learn are paying off and other schools could do a lot to learn from them.”

More, Advanced Metrics
The study, “Great Expectations, Mixed Results,” considered data from 36 schools over a five-year period. While charter and innovation schools tended to outperform traditional public schools, redesign schools did not fare as well, having academic growth equal to or below their traditional counterparts.

The study’s primary recommendation reads: “In advance of any new school (and annually for existing schools), determine the appropriate set of metrics under which to judge performance. Then do more of what works. Do less of what does not.”

“For new schools and different models of schools I think we need to be more nuanced with our evaluations,” Badolato said. “We’re beyond the conversation of collecting data and using data. Now it’s time for data 2.0 or 3.0, delving into that and really understanding what difference performance metrics mean for different types of schools, who they serve and what kind of kids.”

High Expectations
The study also concluded that high expectations and anticipation of changes increased student performance levels. A rise in median student growth was evident in both innovation and redesign schools the year before any major changes occurred.

“The notion of change improves people’s entire view of the school and how they operate within the school,” Badolato said. “You get stuck in the status quo and it’s hard to inject that new energy.”

Resistance to change may be the reason redesign schools performed worse than charter and innovation schools. The study pointed out that substantive school change “often takes place against the desire of many of the faculty, who are often then replaced.”

DeGrow said when parents and communities collaborate on new choices for students, schools tend toward success more than government-instituted turnaround processes could achieve.

Transparent Information, Competitive Startups
Denver schools are currently rated under the School Performance Framework, developed for the 2009-2010 school year.

“Parents and the public need as much as good transparent information about how schools are doing as possible,” DeGrow said. “Using the best tools that are available, the Denver School Performance framework is doing a very good job of showing what schools are helping students learn and which aren’t.”

The report also found that new schools tended to perform better than expensive restructuring implemented in existing schools, often called “turnarounds” or “redesign.”

“New school start-up is very expensive and very difficult,” Badolato said. “Opening it up on a competitive matrix so only the best proposals and best options get the dollars [is the best course].”

Given Denver’s political realities and limits, the district has done well improving some areas of its education system, DeGrow said.

“Looking at the results, there’s a long way to go to make sure students are graduating on time and prepared for college,” he continued. “They’ve taken some small steps in the right direction, but there is still progress to be made and areas to address.”

Image by DeepCWind.