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The 74 Interview: Denver Schools Chief Talks ‘Trump Effect,’ School Closures and Teacher Performance Pay

Photo Credit: Getty Images

February 2, 2017

Talking Points

.@DPSNewsNow Tom Boasberg talks ‘Trump effect,’ charter/district relations & teacher performance pay

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See previous 74 interviews, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Senate Education Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, former education secretary Arne Duncan and athlete-turned–education entrepreneur Andre Agassi. Full archive here.

Tom Boasberg has been the superintendent of Denver Public Schools (DPS) since 2009, when he replaced now–U.S. Sen. Michael Bennett, who gained attention last week when he invited Education Secretary–nominee Betsy DeVos to visit Denver to see what Bennett described as a high-quality school choice system at work.

(The 74: Betsy DeVos Nomination Clears Hurdle, Leaving Acrimony and Uncertainty About Full Senate Vote)

During Boasberg’s eight years leading that roughly 91,000-student district, he has seen the city’s student growth scores persistently outpace the state average, but its achievement gap is large and, by some measures, growing.

In recent elections, the school board became even more supportive of Boasberg’s policies, which include support for charter schools, as well as closing low-performing schools. Boasberg also backed a successful effort to increase taxes to raise money for Denver’s 199 district schools.

Some resistance has formed, however. The city’s teachers union backed opponents of Boasberg’s policies who nearly won spots on the board. A new caucus has formed within the union pushing for more combative opposition to prevailing school reform policies.

Boasberg sat down for an interview in his downtown Denver office on the day of President Trump’s inauguration. He discussed a range of issues: student reaction to Trump’s presidency, a controversial DPS school closure, the challenges and opportunities of gentrification, DPS’s efforts to combat school segregation and how that relates to the unique relationship between the city’s district and charter schools, and Denver’s philosophy on teacher evaluation and compensation.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The 74: Today President Trump was inaugurated. I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal concerns about a “Trump effect” — students being bullied, feeling worried, concerned. Have you seen that at DPS, and if so, how have you addressed that?

Boasberg: There are very deep fears among students, particularly among our immigrant students. But not just that. I think, across all races and ethnicities, that we have in Denver and throughout the country a generation of deeply caring and idealistic young people who have a deep passion for our society, where people’s differences are not the subject of ridicule or a source of hatred but a source of strength in this country. Frankly, that’s wonderful. To me, that is the absolute foundation of our country, which is a nation of immigrants, a nation that celebrates difference. Have we done it terribly at many times in history? Yeah, we have.

I think that so much of what we hear now is a rhetoric of division, it’s a rhetoric of separation, it’s a rhetoric that separates by race or by income or by disability. I think that’s wrong.

How are you seeing that play out in schools?

We see it play out in schools some — just pure fears around our country and what kind of country we live in. We see from both our kids of color and our white kids, they see, instead of diverse parts of our society coming together, they see them being ripped apart. We’re in the most divided political times we’ve been in an extremely long time. Sometimes our kids can’t express it in the prose of the Federalist Papers — they feel and see that sense of that value around “We’re in this together,” that who you are as a person matters more than what your race is.

And at the same time there is a celebration — it’s not this quote “color-blind” idea — but a celebration of, I’m in a school of African-American kids, Latino kids, Asian-American kids, and Jews and Christians and Muslims, and we celebrate that. We learn from each other. I think they feel this deep sense of fear that we’re entering a phase as a country where there will be much more emphasis put on differences and divisions laid and political capital being sought over inciting people’s hatreds and fears. In their own way as young people, they feel that very deeply, and I think that makes them scared and anxious.

Let’s talk about something that’s happening closer to Denver. There was a contentious school closure decision yesterday. What is DPS’s philosophy on closing schools? How do you decide to close a school, which is obviously a difficult decision, I assume?

The philosophy is very simple, which is: We need to give our kids the very best opportunities possible, and particularly for our low-income kids and kids of color who have not had those opportunities in this city and this country for so long. We need to work extraordinarily hard with our kids, with our communities, to offer great schools.

We have a really strong focus on investing in our highest-needs schools, whether it’s our strongest talents, our leaders, our teachers, financial resources, support resources, social and emotional and mental health resources. We also know, and it’s painful, that schools, like other entities and institutions, sometimes get to a point where, despite repeated efforts they are not able to improve at a pace or a level that they need to. Sometimes it has to do with the internal culture; sometimes it has to do with the external reputations and brands or feelings about the school or momentum. Our experience has been that in those cases — and you want to work extraordinarily hard to have those cases be as rare as possible — in those cases, restarting a school leads to much better student outcomes for kids. And the bottom-line goal is, how do we improve opportunities for kids.

Last night’s closure decision was rare because the issue was not just performance; it was enrollment. That neighborhood, because of gentrification and housing changes, has been losing kids. You have several elementary schools in a very small area that were set up for a time when family sizes were bigger in that area. With housing change and gentrification, there are far fewer kids. This was an instance where the school is actually being closed, whereas in all our other instances, we’re not closing buildings — you’re turning around schools; you’re doing a restart of the school. For a family, you may have great concern and angst about that, and understandably so, but their kids are staying in that building with their friends, and that building continues to be available to them as a school. This was an instance because, again, the school was so small that we were not able to offer the kind of robust programming that parents cared about. It wasn’t just performance issues but enrollment issues and the building being closed.

That understandably brought out a great deal of concern, hurt, anger, fear from our parents. One of the hardest parts of it is that we work so hard with our parents and our teachers and our kids to build a really strong sense of loyalty, identity and community in our schools. I think we’ve made a huge amount of progress in doing so, and you see tremendous enrollment growth, for example, a huge decrease in the dropout rate, a huge increase in parent satisfaction. What that means when you get this kind of situation where because of housing changes — which adds to the pain — these are families who see their neighbors, their friends being displaced because of housing changes. That that sense of community and feeling and loyalty to the school, and then to see the school close, is extraordinarily painful.

Let’s talk about the housing change and the gentrification. What do you see as some of the challenges and some of the potential benefits for DPS with the changing student population and that changing population in Denver?

There are a lot of challenges. There are challenges around communities being torn apart, families being displaced, uncertainty for families and kids and a fear of “Jeez, if my neighbor got priced out of their house, is that going to happen to me? What’s going to happen to my rent? Or are the economics of sale going to be so overwhelming that they’ll be hard to resist?” I think it creates a real instability and fear in our communities that are being displaced. I think the downside is worse than the upside.

If there’s an upside, it’s that it gives us a chance that communities can become more integrated. I think one of the real fears is that so many times in our history we see integration be just for a moment in time and then things flip — either to be overwhelming white or overwhelmingly families of color.

The question is, can we work and work with the city and work with community groups and have schools — with schools being the heart of the community — that appeal strongly to very diverse families that are in these rapidly changing neighborhoods, without one part of the community or one group of families seeking to shape the school in the image of what they want as members of the communities.

It does give us the opportunity to create and shape enrollment patterns and boundaries and choice systems to promote greater integration, to deal with very deep patterns of housing segregation that we have in this city and elsewhere.

How do you see the relationship between school choice/charter schools and integration? There’s some research evidence from other cities and states that school choice can exacerbate segregation.

We’ve looked really carefully at a lot of that research, put a lot of time into it. What we’ve done differently than most other places, and I really give a lot of credit to our charter sector on this, is that in most other places, there’s this mutually convenient war where from the district-run side, they don’t give charters the same kind of access to buildings, facilities, resources; and schools aren’t boundary schools — they don’t have equitable choice systems. Then the charters operate as choice-only schools, and as choice-only schools, they attract a higher proportion of kids with greater social capital.

From the district-run side, they scream, “It’s not fair — charters aren’t serving the same kids.” From the charter side, they say, “We’re not getting the resources. We’re not getting this.” But in some ways they’re mutually happy to serve higher-social-capital kids. What we’ve said is, that can’t happen.

And I’ll say, that’s not just a district-charter thing; it’s a district-district thing. We have a lot of districts with magnet schools and schools of choice where there are tremendous inequities and segregative effects within district-run schools, between our whole magnets and boundary schools. To think of this as solely a district-charter issue shows remarkable ignorance of all the intradistrict segregation effects.

We’ve worked really hard to do several things. One is to really have this set of equities with our charters, which they’ve all agreed to, called our three equities. Equity of opportunity, which at heart is basically saying, all of our public schools in DPS are public schools, whether they’re district-run or charter — they’re all going to be public schools. They’re all going to get the exact same opportunities: resources, funding from every funding source, access to district-run facilities, access to transportation systems, access to any district-level service. Every single opportunity a district-run school has, a charter school has.

And every single responsibility a district-run school has, a charter school has.

Part of what we’ve done, the last seven or eight years, is that almost all of our charter schools are boundary schools; they serve an enrollment boundary. We have a common enrollment system that applies to all. Charters have the exact same obligations around kids with disabilities — not just small or moderate, but also severe disabilities. They get the exact same resources to serve kids with severe disabilities. There are almost no other districts in the country where charters serve equally and receive the same resources to serve kids with severe disabilities in what we call center programs or some places call self-contained programs.

In order to do that, in many cases we’ve drawn boundaries larger. We’ve gotten away from a notion of one boundary, one school. In a city that has highly segregated housing patterns, one boundary, one school means segregated schools.

Has school segregation decreased in recent years?

Moderately. I would say somewhat but not — I mean, there are some really good examples of this, but the patterns of housing segregation are still so strong, and also the choices that families make often perpetuate that segregation.

But we do have a number of examples where it is significantly better as a result of having these, what we call community enrollment zones, where you have one larger boundary because in Denver, if you draw a larger circle, within that larger circle you’ll likely see more integration. You’ll have in that community enrollment zone five schools, a mix of district-run and charters, and each one of them is equally a boundary school. You as a family have a guaranteed right to go to one of them, and you have to choose.

I think this is a really important part of the philosophy, is that systems where you have only some students choosing but a significant number of students defaulting serve to perpetuate greater segregation between those with social capital, who are more likely to choose, and those without, who are less likely to choose. In these systems you have to choose. And if you don’t choose, we find you and make you choose. That’s been a really fundamental part of trying to deal with these issues around segregation and pushing for greater integration in our schools and among and across charter-run schools, district-run schools.

We have a magnet arts school. That’s the only magnet school. We have one elementary magnet. That’s the only magnet school we’ve got.

In the whole city?

Yep.

I’d think that’s very unique for a city Denver’s size.

That’s very intentional. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have schools that show every characteristic of what is typically a magnet, you know, a specialized program, dual language, IB, or Montessori or something else. We feel incredibly strongly about getting away from a world where schools can choose or screen applicants, where there are criteria to get into some schools and you have some schools that play by one set of enrollment rules and other schools that play by a different set of rules.

Let’s talk about teachers. I know that seven or eight years ago, I think 2010, a big teacher evaluation bill passed, in which teacher ratings are 50 percent based on student assessment. How has the implementation of that gone here in Denver?

I think it’s gone very well, but far from perfectly. We worked really hard with our teachers and our teachers union to draw up a new system. We really emphasized from the beginning that the system was much more about coaching and support and learning and growth than it was about evaluation. Yes, it was an evaluation system, but the metaphor we used, as poor a metaphor as this is, is that the eval is the tail — what you care about is the body, which is the learning and the growth of how you become a better teacher. I think that really helped.

And as painful as it is, you don’t want those two systems to be separate. You don’t want to say, “Here’s the system under which we’re going to give you coaching and help you become a better teacher, and by the way here’s this completely different set of other standards that we’re going to evaluate you on.” No — it should be the same damn thing, but to try to put the emphasis on learning and coaching and growing.

We have now by far the biggest teacher leadership program in the country. The majority of our teachers are not just coached and supported by teacher leaders, but they’re also observed and evaluated by teacher leaders. Most of our teachers went into wondering if they were comfortable with this, have come out of it saying this teacher leader, who has a team of eight teachers and is in my classroom every week coaching and observing and helping me, they know my practice incredibly well. Ultimately when it comes to an eval, they know me better. I think the leadership of teachers in helping devise a system, and now, as teacher leaders, being the prime people responsible for delivering the coaching, observation, support, the learning — and the eval, which, again, that’s the tail, it’s connected, but it’s a hell of a lot smaller part — I think has helped.

I do think the 50 percent of student growth has been more challenging, to try to get clear and consistent and fair student growth metrics across, one, a rapidly changing state assessment environment, and two, even if the state assessment environment had remained constant, which it certainly didn’t, only one third of our teachers have kids who can be measured for growth on the state assessments.

That was my next question. How do you evaluate, say, gym or art teachers on that?

Each of them works with their teacher leader and principal to set a set of learning objectives that they’re monitored against. I think that exercise of setting a learning objective is a very healthy one, but at the same time, can we guarantee that we have complete consistency and quality across 5,000 individually teacher-set learning objectives? No.

You cannot.

That remains a challenge. Often in education we let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There are lots of other knowledge-based professions that don’t have quantitative measurements for judging your performance in that profession. In fact, very few do. Maybe sales does, from a commission standpoint. Most other professions get to a level of both knowledge and trust where not only do they not have them, but they never want them.

What’s ironic here is that the biggest dispute we’ve had with our teachers association on this is, the teachers association believes deeply and fairly how important objectivity is, and in their view, you need to have a quantitative numerical system that tries to take away as much judgment and discretion as possible with, I think, the very laudable aim of eliminating bias.

But this is one where the cure is far more painful than the disease. At some point you have to accept that in any performance system, in any profession, there’s a risk of bias. To try to solve for that by, in their view, having these quantitative system, and if you’re a 3.71, you’re a this, but if you’re a 3.69, you’re a that — every other profession fundamentally rejects that as complete false precision. I think most of our teachers do as well.

That’s been one of the real challenges: We think it should be more of a judgment-based system, based in evidence, but not trying to reduce teachers to numbers. Whereas I think the whole push for “fairness” and “objectivity” — in quotes — has produced the very negative and unfortunate consequence that you have systems that are quantitative systems that masquerade as if it’s like some quantitative result that you can get, when your performance as a professional has to have and will always have a degree of subjectivity in it, and should have a degree of judgment.

Talk me about “ProComp,” Denver’s performance pay system for teachers. Do you think it has been successful?

I think ProComp has been successful, but not successful enough. I think, one, it’s been successful because our average teacher gets about a $7,000- or $8,000-a-year pay increase from ProComp, so it’s very meaningful to help attract and retain teachers. I think it’s helped us direct teachers to our highest-poverty schools, because of the pay incentives for high-poverty schools, and I think that’s been successful. I think because of the performance elements in ProComp, it’s helped us develop a stronger performance culture in the Denver Public Schools.

I don’t believe — you know, people say, do I believe that giving a teacher $4,000 will make them work harder? No, I don’t. I think our teachers work extremely hard, but I do think that having, particularly where every teacher at a school receives an incentive based on the performance of the school, helps strengthen a performance-based culture, where people care about results and work toward getting results.

And you don’t worry that creates a disincentive effect for working in low-performing schools if they don’t have a shot at getting that bonus?

If you had a system based on status [i.e., proficiency], it would, but our system is based on growth. I think that’s a fundamental piece of this — you have to base your systems on growth.

But it would still disincentivize working in a low-performing — as defined by growth — school, right?

It would. In any performance system, that’s a concern. I do think, because of our growth-based system — it’s based on comparing like kids compared to like kids across the state — you have just as strong a chance of seeing growth in a very low-academic-status school as in a very high-academic-status school because the high-academic-status kids are being compared to the highest-academic kids across the state and likewise. In any performance system, that is a legitimate concern.

So I think that’s been to the good. I think to the bad, ProComp is way too complicated. It’s got way too many elements. It’s got too many elements that, by a lot of research, prove not to be differentiating or have much effect.

Like what?

Frankly, with very few exceptions, advanced degrees don’t show much effect, and they’re incredibly expensive for teachers to pursue! So it’s a horrible bargain, which is, pay tens of thousands of dollars for the purpose of getting a salary increase. If you want to get an advanced degree in math, hallelujah — you’ll likely be a better math teacher. But why don’t we pay you for being a better math teacher rather than ask you to pay tens of thousands of dollars to get a degree and pay you for the degree?

We have things like professional development units, which conceptually are very good but in practice have not shown to correlate with performance, because the systems around trying to discern what is an effective professional development unit and what’s not are not very effective.

I’d like to see a radically simplified system that really increases money for our teachers who work in our highest-poverty schools, for our effective teachers who work in and stay in our highest-poverty schools, for teachers who show effectiveness over time and can build their salary over their career, and for teachers who take on additional responsibilities, like teacher leadership, as well as for teachers who take on jobs that are hardest to fill — high school math and science, bilingual teachers. That would be the hope.

All these things obviously are subject to discussion and negotiation, but I think it’s been a win with the caveat that salary systems in and of themselves do not lead to more student growth. What salary systems can do is help you attract and retain talent, which, if you work with, empower and invest in, and help grow and learn and develop, will lead to better results.

I think there was a little bit of a notion of, if we went to a salary system, that is the most important thing we could do to get better results for our kids. No. The most important thing you can do is attract, retain and grow your teachers in which a salary system plays a part, but far from the leading part.