5.3.2015 Questionable Reform


In the musical My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins, frustrated by the emotional outburst of his protégé Eliza Doolittle, laments in song to Colonel Pickering, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Today, there is a reform movement in education that is singing a similar tune: “Why can’t a school be more like a business?”

This reform movement is known as market-based or market-oriented education. The Douglas County school board, despite a contentious relationship with many teachers and citizens, has embarked on a crusade to bring this business-oriented reform to the Denver area. Jefferson County, having elected three board members who favor market-based education, is poised to follow in Douglas County’s footsteps.

The Jeffco School Board majority — John Newkirk, Julie Williams and Ken Witt — have clearly demonstrated their voting power as they continue to ignore both the voices and questions put forward by not only fellow board members Lesley Dahlkemper and Jill Fellman, but teachers, parents, and community members as well. Their actions make it imperative that the community critically exam the nature of market-based education as these reforms are imposed on Jefferson County Public Schools.

Market-based education is a business model that turns school districts into enterprises, and superintendents into CEOs who manage an array of public and charter schools. A school’s existence and staff hiring is based on market needs and student achievement. Touted as new and innovative for Colorado, MBE is not new to the United States.

While it is too early to see the results of reform in Douglas County Schools, there is a great deal of current research available for citizens to answer the question: “Why can’t a school be more like a business?” Current research shows that the market-centered business model in many schools nationally is not working and is actually detrimental to the education of the students.

An April 2013 report by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, investigates the use of market-oriented education in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C. Citing information provided by the National Assessments of Educational Progress, scores in reform schools have actually “stagnated for low-income and minority students and/or achievements gaps widened.”

These findings were in contrast to “non-reform” urban schools within the same city that actually increased scores and shrank the achievement gap. The findings also demonstrate that those with disabilities lost ground academically under the business model. The NAEP research concludes that improving education for these marginal students has not materialized through a business model. The report suggests that low achievement may be based on inadequate staffing.

Market-based education argues that effective teachers can be secured through market-need hiring, yearly evaluations, and merit pay. The report, however, states that teacher evaluation, relying heavily on test scores, “thinned the ranks of experienced teachers, but not necessarily the bad teachers.” [emphasis ours]

Furthermore, these districts documented a significant loss of experienced teachers to other districts and other careers. Teachers in those districts averaged only six years of experience. Despite the reformers argument that merit pay rewards good, experienced teachers (or dare we say perhaps because of it?), teachers are leaving the business.

Another major component of MBE is a belief that competition between schools will result in better schools. Parents have the ability to leave public schools and take their tax dollars to a choice of charter schools. The Center for Reinvention of Public Education reports that the effectiveness of charter schools remains inconclusive. CRPD states, “they vary widely and are on the whole, no more or less effective than comparable regular public schools.”

What is problematic however, is the revolving nature of charter schools. Following a business model, if the charter is not effective or financially solvent, the school is closed. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers reported in 2012 that the rate of charter school closures has “ballooned by over 255%.”

For example Kingston Charter Academy in North Carolina and the Solomon Charter School in Philadelphia each closed within the first month of the school year. Parents at both schools had two questions: “What happened to the voucher money?” and “Where do we send our kids now?” Jeff Bryant, Director of the Education Opportunity Network in Chapel Hill, NC asks how this “business churning” of charter schools can be called effective education.

Despite all of these known issues, the merits of market-based education are not being debated openly with the Jefferson County School Board majority. They are being imposed.

 Keep fighting, JeffCo!



Does Witt have a conflict of interest?

We received this letter from a Jeffco parent recently, and received permission to reprint it here. The writer is addressing John Newkirk’s “Plan B” for the Jefferson articulation area and whether board president Ken Witt should have abstained from voting on that issue.

Mr. Elliot, Chief School Effectiveness Officer, stated at the March 17th community meeting that neither Maple Grove nor Manning are at capacity or in risk thereof.  He also said that it is proven that additional transitions negatively impact students and their success, which makes me and several others wonder if there is another reason for Mr. Witt and Mr. Newkirk’s push to add capacity to Maple Grove. Some have speculated that their plans might include closing other neighborhood schools and sending those students to Maple Grove.  

My husband and I are both in the construction industry and believe that Mr. Witt’s past employment with ProBuild Holdings is crucial in the move.  Carlson Land is currently going through the rezoning process with Jefferson County to rezone, buy, and develop the Applewood Golf Course with 454 track homes.  Track/Pre-Fab Homes are the bread and butter of Mr. Witt’s ProBuild company.  He was there for 5.5 years and I’m sure he has stock or a vested interest in ProBuild’s continued success.  

By expanding Maple Grove’s capacity, Mr. Witt would help Carlson Associates to move forward with their plan to develop the property. I implore you to look past the two “rogue” WREA members (one of whom is a Realtor!) and see that there was a real conflict of interest involved for Mr. Witt to vote on the Jefferson Articulation Area “Plan B.”

Witt’s LinkedIn profile shows that he worked for ProBuild Holdings from February 2008 to June 2013 as their VP for IT governance, and that he worked as a consultant for them for six months before that.

Board policy GP-09 states the following:

A Board member who has a personal or private interest in a matter proposed or pending before the Board shall disclose such interest to the Board, shall not vote on it and shall not attempt to influence the decisions of other Board members in voting on the matter.

Still have questions about Witt’s connections? Check out these items:

Kenneth Witt _ LinkedIn

Carlson History

Jeffco Applewood letter

BoardDocs® Policy_ Ends 1 Student Achievement

Thanks to the reader who brought this to our attention. With a need for expanded or new school facilities in areas of new construction, Witt’s past (and current?) ties with ProBuild beg even more questions about this board’s motives and good governance practices.

Keep fighting, JeffCo!


Analysis: Are Sensational Board Majority Stories Distracting From, or Highlighting, the Dismantling of Jeffco Public Schools?

The board majority’s actions keep producing headlines that capture the attention of the general public, and not just those in the school district or others that follow their actions closely. To insiders, it’s a daily occurrence: the board majority or the district’s new top staff make inexplicable mistakes that are alarming, or say or do things that further the idea that their end game is ultimately to privatize the public school system. We suspect that the board majority’s privatization goal stays mostly under the radar.

Still, some of their bizarre actions have captured a wider audience, garnering media attention because they either sit at the intersection of one of our nation’s cultural wars, or because the action would have direct and immediate impacts on a lot of families. Who can forget this sampling of these headline-grabbers?

-Last fall, Julie Williams proposes a committee to review the AP U.S. History course out of concerns that the course is not patriotic enough and emphasizes social conflict and civil disobedience. This is followed by mass student walkouts during which Ken Witt calls the students “pawns.”

-This winter, John Newkirk and Dan McMinimee attend and speak at a community forum hosted by the Evergreen Tea Party and co-hosted by the “American Freedom Party,” an avowed white supremacist party that does have a foothold in Colorado and a presence in Jeffco. Although labeled a mistake, questions remain about how such a mistake could possibly have been made and why no one caught it.

-This spring, John Newkirk proposes jettisoning large portions of a district plan to address underperforming schools in the Jefferson articulation area in favor of moving two other schools without adequate research, vetting, or analysis, and for reasons that were not clear. Sustained outrage over a lack of thought or planning around the proposal causes the board to scrap the idea, and even the members of the community group that had originally proposed the alternative rescinded their support of the plan.

-Last week, Julie Williams shares a message on her Facebook page that promotes far-right views about the “Day of Silence,” including the suggestion that parents keep their kids home from school because the Day of Silence “teach[es] children to support and embrace the unnatural and unhealthy homosexual-bisexual-transsexual agenda.” Mass media and social media again catch fire over these comments. She later apologizes, saying she hadn’t read the post before reposting it and calling it a mistake. Nevertheless, see above (the white supremacist group). That’s a lot of accidents in a few months.

This is just a sampling. To be sure, these are important issues that deserve scrutiny. They offer a window into the board majority’s lack of competency and naked political motivations. They also each ultimately have real, practical effects on our students, teachers, and the community.

Nevertheless, we wonder: are these stories making the general public more watchful?

Or are these tabloid stories intended to distract the general public from the more general, policy-oriented steps that the board is taking to seemingly to dismantle the schools in order to make way for a private system?

After all, as many “insiders” realize, the board is not behaving very conservatively. It approves loans to poorly performing charters, often doesn’t follow its own governance policies, and its key staff appears to be hired more for political reasons than for their merit. Even more concerning, staff morale appears to be at an all-time low. Many of our most talented teachers are leaving at a record clip, while the board majority continues to fight with student groups on another front.

Everything is run through a legal filter that lacks transparency, and the board majority seems to think that the teachers’ association serves only nefarious purposes, rather than working for reasonable working conditions so that our teachers can concentrate on teaching. They put off building new public schools despite the exhortations of long-time key staff and local business leaders about a coming train wreck. Thinking that they have a mandate (and almost unlimited outside funding), the majority keeps doing whatever they want, claiming to listen to the community when in fact it appears to be the same few inside supporters appearing at public comment, and a whole lot of money backing them from places like Texas and Colorado Springs.

The general public knows the shocking headlines, but do they really understand what’s happening to our district over the long-term? If they do understand, will it be enough to withstand the avalanche of Koch and related money coming for this fall’s elections?

One could argue that the sensational headlines put the general public on notice and create an air of distrust. While many voters are still entirely disengaged with what’s happening with our school board, more and more people have heard one or more of these troubling tales. If an uninformed and uninvolved voter hears one of these stories, unfortunately it may be easy to dismiss as an isolated incident. On the other hand, when the stories start adding up, it creates an atmosphere of distrust for the board majority, and then suddenly the majority’s other decisions don’t seem as trustworthy to the general public either. That’s a lot to overcome.

An opposite argument can also be made. Because the media hasn’t been covering plummeting teacher morale or the board’s financial irresponsibility, voters with little connection to the schools might think of the board as bumbling, but generally headed in the right direction. Does the average voter really care that the board rejected the findings of a neutral federal fact-finder, no matter how important that decision was to our community? Do the majority of voters strongly oppose tying pay to performance? (Do they even kow how pay for performance works?) Are they concerned about the treatment of public comment time at board meetings?

Some are aware, but we think that many are not. Does all the coverage of the sensational stories make the general public think that there’s not more going on, because the attention is diverted? Do voters not see that the board majority is being coached to dismantle the schools slowly, and mostly non-sensationally? Or are they already too saturated with the sensational stories rapidly cascading out of the district to realize there is a deeper story?

Whatever the case may be, we don’t think that Jeffco voters will be pleased to wake up with a decayed school system and most of their best teachers gone. We don’t think that businesses will be happy, once the real estate boom has slowed, to learn that people don’t want to settle down or do business in Jeffco because the school system is not highly regarded. We do not want to be associated with incompetent and partisan leadership. We don’t think that Jeffco wants their schools to be modeled in cookie-cutter fashion after the schools in Dougco. Jeffco is independent; Jeffco was fooled in 2013 but won’t be fooled with the disastrous results that occur with the implementation of unproven philosophies crudely rammed home.

The truth is, we don’t know if the stories that raise the eyebrows of the general public distract from, or shine light upon, the real issues.

In our minds, this questioning does underscore two strategies that need to be in place more moving forward.

First, we need to tie the policy shenanigans more to headlines. We need to tell stories of the individual human cost of what’s happening. We need to see more significant actions that are visible and dramatic reminders of what is happening.

It is easy to think of policy disagreements as only having incremental impact, but we need to translate policy impacts into a steady stream of headlines that feature personal stories, or stories of mass disenchantment. The public forms its opinions primarily from mass media still, and the mass media covers the sensational stories. Fact-finders and changing pay scales do not make for sustained headlines. Personal stories of excellent teachers leaving Jeffco, student action, or mass teacher departures for more supportive environments, get the media’s attention.

Finally, as we were reminded just this week, it will take money to tell these stories. We are not affiliated with JCEA or any other organization, so we don’t know what their plans are for this fall’s critical elections. We do know that the board majority’s allies at the Independence Institute called for $300,000 in donations to fight the imagined “’Leftists’ iron grip” in Jeffco. Candidates this fall will have to stave off Independence Institute money in addition to huge money that will be coming in from other outside sources, but well-hidden, just as it did in 2013.

For Jeffco to keep fighting effectively, it will take generating more media attention through the sharing of real stories or clever activism, and for all parties to fund reasonable and competent candidates this fall so that those stories can be shared.


4.25.15 On building bright futures

Our district proudly displays a banner on its homepage advertising that Jefferson County Public Schools builds bright futures. Somehow, that’s hard to believe when one of the key architects, our school board member Julie Williams, is taking pieces out of our foundation all the time.

Here’s one foundational truth that applies to all of Jefferson County’s
students. It can be hard to be an adolescent. It’s a time filled with insecurities, rejection, fear, and often loneliness. It can be torture to be a gay adolescent. It’s a time filled with teasing, hateful words, threats, and additional fear.

It’s an atrocity to realize that a student in our district holding the hand of a same sex partner is still an act of bravery that might be punished through unthinkable acts of violence while Julie Williams can sit comfortably in her chair and say she didn’t take the time to read the hateful, gay bashing post she put on her Facebook page. Of the many people in Jefferson County who care passionately about the well-being of our students, Julie Williams does not appear to be one.

After all, our teachers are working tirelessly to make sure that students do read things and become thoughtful and contributing members in our diverse community. Julie Williams is far from a role model.


4.20.15 Notes from the 4/16/15 BOE retreat

Thursday’s board retreat was at the request of Julie Williams, who wanted to talk about innovation in education before deciding what kind of new buildings to build (should they ever agree to fund new facilities for the new housing developments in the west Lakewood and northwest Arvada areas). The first part of the meeting was about innovations in Jeffco, and the second part was devoted to outside experts.

The school presentations were fairly interesting. Lumberg Elementary talked about innovating with technology, looking mostly at their 1:1 iPad initiative. Pennington Elementary talked about their extended time initiative and how it has allowed them to provide a lot of opportunities that their students might not otherwise receive, such as instrumental music for every fifth and sixth grader, and access to wraparound services, and the opportunity to participate in sports and similar activities.

Then they switched gears to talk about innovation in middle schools. Falcon Bluffs Middle School explained its Sparks PE program, in which students participate in 20 minutes of high-impact activity to improve focus and concentration on crucial subjects. Bell and Deer Creek Middle Schools talked about their STEM programs and the benefits it has had for students at both schools.

All of the presentations were quite interesting, and we encourage you to take the time to look at what’s going on in Jeffco.

Next up were guests panelists, including:

Tony Lewis, executive director, Donnell-Kay Foundation
Scott Fast, parent, Columbine High School, retired executive director, Accenture Foundation
Michael Cushman, senior fellow, DaVinci Institute
John Evans, Ph.D., J.D., executive director, School Leaders for Colorado
Tammy Thorn, master teacher, School Leaders for Colorado

This was an interesting mix of presentations. Cushman, who represented the futurist think tank the DaVinci Institute didn’t have much to say about new school facilities other than he thought spaces should be movable and that there should be lots of 3D printers so students could create stuff and just throw it away if it doesn’t work. The accompanying presentation also included predictions, some of which were more far-fetched than others (like the idea that the average person would live in a printed house by 2030). He offered few concrete solutions, however.

Scott Fast focused on career readiness and the importance of using a more accurate career-readiness measurement, like ACT WorkKeys, to measure outcomes for students who will seek employment immediately after high school. His ideas included creating career pathways for those students to seek certification and focusing on essential sills like collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, professionalism and self-direction.

The third presentation was by the School Leaders for Colorado group. It was confusing, at best. They talked at length about alternative licensure and career pathways for those in the military seeking to become teachers—all of which makes since until one remembers that they started talking about providing alternative paths to principal licensure and subsequent careers.

There were a few hints about the kinds of training that would prepare a principal (like shadowing another principal) but the lion’s share of the presentation was spent talking about Troops to Teachers (a Department of Defense program) or waxing eloquent about how some of these veterans have two masters degrees and are experts in their field who work with sophisticated technology, so they should be teachers now because more teachers should be content experts. Perhaps no one told them that WNW do not want to pay for one master’s degree, much less two?

Of note: School Leaders for Colorado had absolutely no data to show the impact of their former military principals on student achievement. Why do we mention this? Because Ken Witt loves to ask district presenters why there isn’t a slide linking [presentation topic] to student achievement. Did Witt ask this group to show that student achievement had improved by virtue of teachers and soon-to-be-principals going through this program? Nope. (But he did ask Lumberg, despite the fact that they had multiple slides showing the effect the iPad initiative had had on student achievement.)

Last was Tony Lewis’ presentation from the Donnell-Kay Foundation, a school reform organization. Lewis is also a charter school representative. He didn’t bother with PowerPoint, but said schools need to teach both “resume virtues and eulogy virtues” (see David Brooks’ “Moral Bucket List” column in the New York Times about both kinds of virtues), suggested the board consider course choice (i.e., a student could take courses at other schools. For example, if no AP course was offered at the student’s school, they could take the AP course at a school that did offer it).

Lewis pointed the board to several concrete examples to consider for buildings, including the e3 Civic High School in San Diego, an online high school offered through the Los Angeles Library, and Architects of Achievement. He also suggested that the board consider putting out an RFP for new school models, that they engaged with students who have dropped or opted out to see what models would make sense for them, and create a faculty space that could incubate new schools, regardless of the type of school.

He also cautioned, however, that some standards need to be met to successfully innovate. For example:

  • People need to know they can fail; innovation won’t happen if people might be subject to repercussions
  • Problems need to be identified and defined before you can solve it. Too often, people jump to a solution but have never defined the problem.
  • There needs to be fidelity to the model in any innovation
  • Implementation trumps concept

When Williams asked about putting out an RFP for school models, Lewis told her that first they need to talk to the community — specifically small subsets and neighborhoods. Only after finding out the interests and needs of that community should an RFP be issued. For example, if it became clear an area was interested in a Montessori school, the board might consider issuing an RFP for Montessori schools.

It’s unclear where WNW intend to go from here. Williams inquired about printing a new school building with a 3D printer. Cushman said not many places were doing it now, but he expected the process to be cheaper and yet still durable when it becomes widespread.


And in case you missed it: Friday was the national Day of Silence, a protest that aims to raise awareness about LGBT bullying. Board member Julie Williams, however, posted a link on her Facebook page to a LBGT hate group that encouraged parents to keep their students home. She has since apologized, claiming that she didn’t read the post. Chalkbeat was first on the scene with this article, and 9 News was one of many other organizations that have reported on the story since.

Feeling as disturbed as we are? Take action: write the board, write letters to the editor, and speak up at public comment. Have other ideas? We’d love to hear them.

Whatever you do, keep fighting, JeffCo!