January 29, 2020

Four Questions Denver Public Schools Should Ask About Their SPF

By Bellwether

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Denver Public Schools (DPS) has been held up as an urban school district success story, due to a strategy focused on holding a system of diverse, autonomous schools to high performance standards and enabling family choice across the city. The district’s school performance framework (SPF) has long been part of that story, serving as the means by which the central office managed its array of schools and the primary tool for families to understand and compare quality across schools.

Denver, CO skyline

Photo of Denver skyline via Shutterstock

But over time, criticisms of the SPF have grown among community stakeholders and school leaders. Just two weeks ago, a community advisory committee voted to replace the local SPF’s academic components with a rating system created by the state. 
Common criticisms are that the current tool is overly complex, lacks transparency, and costs too much to manage. There is also concern that the SPF as it exists today over-emphasizes test-driven metrics. DPS reportedly invests $900,000 annually in operating its current SPF, a hefty price tag for a troubled system, whereas other Colorado districts use the state’s school rating system. 
While the recent vote is not the end of the process and the committee is still considering ways to modify or adapt the state system, the signal is clear: there’s desire for a top-to-bottom SPF rebuild, not just surface-level revisions. What does this mean, and when the elected school board votes on the SPF later in the spring, what should it consider?

In Bellwether’s recent research (which features analysis on Denver’s SPF), we grapple with whether it’s worthwhile for districts to develop a locally designed SPF when every state now has a system (mandated by ESSA) to identify low-performing schools and publish data on school performance. 
Our conclusion is that local SPFs should be additive and not duplicative. The state accountability ratings and Denver’s system include many of the same academic metrics, but Denver’s version includes more detail, and a greater emphasis on measuring growth for different subgroups of students. The current DPS system also incorporates measures not reflected in the current state system, including early literacy indicators and annual school survey data that reflect family and student engagement and satisfaction. And, because the state system is designed to identify the lowest performing schools across the state, schools tend to rate higher on the state reports than in DPS’ system. 
When assessing the state system for the purpose of accountability, board members will need to ask themselves:

  • If a new SPF will be used to identify schools for intervention and possibly closure, is the state’s mix of academic metrics likely to produce results that are consistent with local goals and values on this question? 
  • Is the decreased emphasis on measuring growth for student subgroups appropriate for a community focused on closing achievement gaps among English learners, low-income students, and students of color?

The board will also need to consider whether using the state’s ratings as an academic baseline will serve families well in the school choice process. They can ask themselves: 

  • Are families familiar with the state ratings (which are newer than the SPF)? 
  • Do the state ratings provide the information families want and need to make school choices and assess academic performance in different schools? 

The answers to all these questions may be yes, or the district may need to supplement or adapt the state system substantially (which is part of what the advisory committee is now evaluating). No matter how it’s constructed, rolling out a new SPF after a decade with a pre-existing system will be a hefty job. 
This debate may seem like another confusing and technical twist in a system that already frustrates many families and school leaders. But the potential implications for Denver’s school strategy are far-reaching. If the state’s system does not reflect the vision for quality held by Denver families, then adopting it as the foundation of the district’s SPF could mean a step backward in equity, transparency, and progress for students.
Our colleague Brandon Lewis will have more context on this tomorrow, in a post with advice for districts facing similar crossroads.

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