Wouldn’t It Be Nice

/ 7 March 2012 / jennifer

Michael Diedrich, Minnesota 2020, March 7, 2012 –

A school district grapples with a decreased budget. It’s got 60,000 students spread between 80 schools (including 11 charter schools). In recent years, it’s looked into a voucher program and brought a significant focus on assessment and teacher evaluation. At the same time, it’s well-regarded for its consistent high performance. Sound like a familiar story? Waiting for the catch?

Here’s the catch. The district is Colorado’s Douglas County, a middle-class suburb of Denver. That decreased budget I was talking about? Here’s how the superintendent, Liz Fagen, describes it: “We are in such an interesting budget time in our school district, where for the first time, really, budgets are shrinking instead of growing.”

That’s right, budgets are shrinking for the first time. How many districts across Minnesota would kill to be in the position of just starting to contemplate lower budgets instead of having dealt with over a decade of dropping budgets?

But I don’t want to explain away Douglas County’s success by writing them off as a well-resourced middle class district. Rather, I want to explore the good things Douglas County’s been able to do_because_ they’re a well-resourced middle class district.

Consider student assessment. Here’s Superintendent Liz Fagen again: “[W]e’re working with our own teachers and our own assessment department, developing assessments for our students’ most important outcomes. [This includes] some of the more interesting 21st-century skills [around] creativity, collaboration, and communications.”

There are a lot of things that are right with this. First, they’re working with teachers to build assessments. Second, they’re focusing on the outcomes _they _want. Third, the skills they want are the right kind of skills to elevate, emphasizing higher-order thinking and moving outside the bubble sheet mindset.

It would be so easy to discount this as the luxuries afforded to well-off districts, and indeed, that was my first reaction. On contemplation, however, I realized how warped that shows my perspective has become. For as much time as I spend railing against bad tests and the narrowing of the curriculum, I’ve succumbed more often than I would like to the mindset that says, “This is how things are, so deal with it.”

Well, I’m done with that. Douglas County’s freedom to try the right things isn’t a luxury. It’s a staple of good education denied to too many of our districts for too long by conservative cuts and bad tests.