Guest Blog by Megan Miclette

Last week, Colorado got a special nod from President Obama during his State of the Union address. “Take a school like Bruce Randolph, in Denver,” he said, “three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado… but last May, 97% of seniors received their diploma.” He went on to describe a young woman who thanked her tearful principal at graduation, saying, “thanks for showing that we’re smart and we can make it.” So how did Principal Kristin Waters (now an administrator for the Denver Public School system) create such a drastic change? Is the new system actually working? What does this mean for the future of other failing schools?

In 2005, when Kristin Waters decided to create and implement her reform plan, the school was on the brink of closure. Her plan involved two major changes: re-evaluating each of the teachers—after the rehiring process, only 6 of 40 teachers kept their jobs–and gaining autonomy from the school district. That’s right—autonomy. Waters, as the principal, no longer needed district approval for hiring, curriculum, scheduling, or budgeting. Did it work? I would argue that it did, to a degree. What if schools got to decide how to best motivate and challenge their students? What would a school district look like that trusted its principals to make these sorts of decisions, rather than tangling them up in webs of red tape? Moreover, if more schools were willing to critically evaluate at their teaching staff and replace bad teachers, we might see a significant change in our children as well. What would happen if our children actually wanted to go to school because they were actually being challenged by good teachers?

With all of the changes that took place, the success of the school’s reform can’t be denied—in the six years since the school’s reform policies were implemented, the school has gone from one of the worst in the state to having a 97% graduation rate. Their test scores, dismal at best before the reform’s implementation, have been steadily and quickly rising in the last five years; in 2005, only 7% of the students at the school scored proficient on math, and only 11% scored proficient on reading. Last spring, however, 17% of students scored proficient or advanced in math, and 32% scored proficient in reading. Test scores two and three times better in five years is a great accomplishment, but let’s be honest here—despite the increase, the school is still failing. If only 17% of your entire student body is proficient in math, how many of those students who fell way below average got diplomas that year? How many of the 97% of students who graduated are really ready for college or the career job market?

There are no easy answers here. This model seems to be contributing to the steady increase in the school’s success, but that doesn’t guarantee that the students who go there are getting a high-quality education. If education reform was as easy as replacing the bad teachers, we wouldn’t still be here talking about it. If raising test scores was an accurate way to measure student learning, no one would be worried about “teaching to the test”—which, by the way, is probably partially to blame for Bruce Randolph’s success. While we can sit and complain about the how’s and the why’s, the fact is that the reform is working for The Bruce Randolph School, which means we might have gotten one teensy, tiny step closer to successfully reforming what I see as a failing educational system.