The board of Denver Public Schools in May voted unanimously to give more discretion to principals in choosing curriculum, choosing assessments to monitor progress, and training teachers. On the surface, it seems surprising that such a sudden dramatic change came with a unanimous vote and happened at the end of the school year. But board member Landri Taylor says it wasn’t an overnight decision and it wasn’t surprising that it was unanimous.
“We’ve been talking around the edges and we finally just said, you know what? In order to really get there, we’re going to have to do something very dramatic and very, what’s the right word, earth-shattering. Because for where we want to go with the 2020 plan [goals DPS has set to achieve by 2020], what we’re doing now will not get us there. Something has to change. Either we have to change the plan or we have to change how we are going to achieve the plan,” said Taylor.
Both Susanna Cordova, DPS chief academic officer and Taylor talked about the need to accelerate the pace of achievement. Cordova says, “One of the things that we do know is the more bought into a plan a school is—the teachers, the leaders—the more bought in they are to the work that they’re doing, the more investment they make in the work, and the greater the results.”
“The authority to have control of your outcome is so important for a school leader and staff,” says Taylor. “When you don’t have control of the outcome that you seek, it can just be awfully frustrating. This is an opportunity for school leaders and staff to actually say, okay, the things we really think we can do better, let’s go and do those things better than what may be in the central office to get us there. This is exciting. I’m awfully excited for the fact that teachers can do this.
“You’ll find teachers being very creative in classrooms. Man, this really just confirms the fact that their individual creativeness and innovation in classrooms is going to be rewarded at a system-wide level now with the ability for their school to have more control,” addsTaylor.
Cordova says DPS staff are excited about this too, and DPS had already started cutting staff from the central office and putting more teachers and more money into the classroom. “The biggest shift that we’re trying to achieve is to have more staff on-site in schools who work as both teachers and coaches … coaching is now from somebody who in the morning is doing the exact same job you’re doing and in the afternoon, is observing you and giving you feedback.”
In the past, a district curriculum committee selected a program for districtwide use. All schools would have that material purchased for them says Cordova, and the district ran the professional development sessions for teachers. Principals who wanted to use a different curriculum could do so only by applying for an innovation waiver dealing with curriculum.
Now principals can choose the best curriculum for their school and the DPS Academic Office will review curriculum selections to be sure they align with the Colorado Academic Standards. Principals may contract with providers for training, they may do it themselves, or they can opt into the district-provided trainings.
How did the teachers union respond to this board decision to decentralize? Taylor says he hasn’t heard anything from them. “The union is really more interested, in my mind, on representing their teachers, and making sure their teachers have jobs. This opt in and opt out doesn’t really have anything to do with a job function of teachers … The union has never, since I’ve been on the board, brought up the issue of curriculum.”
Following the decision, about 20%, many of which were innovation schools, opted for alternative curricula for the 2016 school year.
For more information on decentralization at DPS read these Chalkbeat articles: