The most interesting school district in America? Douglas County's pursuit of suburban reform

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Article Highlights

  • DougCo may be affluent, but its schools are not flush with cash, and all its reforms have been accomplished with tight budgets.

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  • DougCo is a compelling illustration of how a unified board majority can fuel rapid, ambitious reform.

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  • Whereas most district reforms are aimed at taking their schools from poor to passable, DougCo is trying to take its schools from good to great.

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Introduction

For a decade or more, school reform has been an urban tale dominated by cities with high rates of poverty and troubling records of high-school completion and academic achievement. The tale has been one of superintendents seeking to “turn around” schools in poverty-stricken communities, where vast numbers of children read below grade level and drop out before graduation. Naturally enough, such reform has featured a relentless focus on boosting reading and math performance and graduation rates. This has meant a decided emphasis on test performance and on traditionalist instruction that emphasizes skill-building in literacy and numeracy. Urban reformers have focused intensively on the challenges of poverty and on “closing” race- and income-based “achievement gaps.” They have avidly promoted the Common Core and the virtues of standardized accountability to raise the bar and ensure comparability across communities.

The urban communities in question tend to be lopsidedly liberal, making reform largely a Democratic family affair. Cities like Chicago; Washington, DC; Denver; Los Angeles; New York; and Boston have a heavy Democratic tilt in voter registration and mostly elect Democrats to the city council, school board, and mayor’s office. As a result, while debates between teachers unions and reform-minded Democrats have been fierce, they have also largely stayed within the bounds of Democratic convention. Even notable reform Democrats like Arne Duncan, US secretary of education; Joe Williams, head of Democrats for Education Reform; and Steven Brill, influential author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools have sought to temper their criticism of teachers unions by embracing “reform” unionism, denouncing Republican efforts to dramatically curtail collective bargaining, and insisting that unions must be essential partners in systemic reform.

Douglas County, Colorado, one of the nation’s most affluent communities and a Republican bastion, provides a stark counterpoint to the conventional reform narrative. Douglas County Public Schools enrolls 65,000 students, making the system Colorado’s third largest and one that performs at high levels on conventional metrics. Indeed, the Douglas County reform agenda is shaped in important ways by the advantages its students enjoy and by the commitment to raise the bar for teaching and learning. The result is that, in this unlikely setting, the superintendent and school board are pursuing perhaps the nation’s boldest attempt at suburban school reform.

Douglas County has put the tenets of contemporary reform to work, but with an unusual, and unusually ambitious, twist. The district’s distinctive aim of going from good to great rather than from poor to passable is remarkable in the annals of contemporary school reform. For Douglas County, school choice is not seen as a “ticket out” of failing schools but as a way to encourage customization and to offer more paths for students to choose. Teacher evaluation is viewed less as a tool to weed out poor performers than as a tool to help good teachers get better and to help reward outstanding performance. Douglas County may be unique among “reform-minded” districts in that it is actively dismissing the Common Core State Standards, state assessments, and state-designed teacher evaluation to devise its own custom-built versions of each.

The district has been a flash point in Colorado, where the system’s difficult relationship with the Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) led to the expiration of its contract with the teachers union—a remarkable outcome when one considers how unthinkable that would be even in big cities with contentious district-union relationships. The clash was especially notable given that key Colorado Democrats regarded Brenda Smith, president of the DCFT, as a crucial ally on Colorado’s landmark 2010 teacher-quality legislation (Senate Bill 191).

Perhaps most intriguing is Douglas County’s forthright embrace of a constructivist approach to school improvement. The county has embraced the tenets of “student-centered” instruction touted by influential thinkers like Harvard University’s Tony Wagner and the University of Oregon’s Yong Zhao. It is no small irony that a Republican hotbed is embracing a pedagogy typically associated with the cultural left. But it is not hard to fathom the potential appeal of such an approach in an affluent community, where the vast majority of children read at grade level, graduate, and attend college. Given her context, Douglas County superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen sounds eminently reasonable in arguing that the national reform agenda has not been crafted with her students in mind, does not promote the rich curriculum her families demand, and embraces insufficiently ambitious goals.

Celania-Fagen worries that the kinds of basic instruction appropriate for schools serving struggling students are generally ill-suited for Douglas County students. “In Douglas County, you don’t have kids who haven’t eaten the whole weekend,” said Celania-Fagen. “Things were very different when I was superintendent in Tucson. But, here, if kids need a coat, we buy them one.” She argued that these advantages oblige Douglas County to raise the bar: “Middle-school parents may think that memorizing state capitals are important. But these days students can just Google them. Memorization doesn’t prepare students for the 21st century. Look at what leading companies say they want from their employees. Google is looking for ‘curious risk-takers’ and Nike is looking for ‘people who obliterate boundaries.’”1

All of this has made Douglas County one of the nation’s few suburban districts to see the kind of conflict and national scrutiny more typical of urban systems. (See the “Douglas County in the News” box.) National voices, after all, rarely weigh in to debate what suburban school districts are doing. In late 2012, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said: “The [Douglas County] school board is only interested in its own power. . . . For political and malevolent reasons the board has undermined the public education system that once was known as the jewel of Colorado.”[2] Similarly, in spring 2013, author and pundit Diane Ravitch wrote: “There are times when reality is zanier than satire. Read about Douglas County, Colorado, where choice fanatics run the district. They want students and families to choose schools the way you choose a color for your car or a brand of cereal. In other words, they don’t believe in public education.”[3]

From the other side of the political spectrum, former US secretary of education, radio host, and author Bill Bennett has commented, “Somebody’s trying to do all the good reforms at once out in Douglas County. It’s a remarkable group of people there who are trying to do choice, accountability, high standards. These kinds of things have happened, but not quite like in Douglas County.”[4] All in all, Douglas County is well worth a closer look.

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Notes

1. This quote and all uncited quotes throughout the remainder of the paper derive from our interviews with individuals in Douglas County that were conducted between May 5 and May 8, 2013. 
2. Rebecca Jones, “AFT Prez Sees Best, Worst in DPS, DougCo,” EdNews Colorado, October, 3, 2012.
3. Diane Ravitch, “Choice Zealots Take Control of Wealthy Douglas County, Colorado,” Diane Ravitch’s blog, May 30, 2013, http://dianeravitch.net/2013/05/30/choice-zealots-take-
control-of-wealthy-douglas-county-colorado/.
4. William Bennett, “A Nation at Risk: 30 Years Later” (speech, Fordham Institute, Washington, DC, April 26, 2013).

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