Douglas County: Building a Better Education Model

IP-8-2013 (September 2013)
Author: Ben DeGrow

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Executive Summary
Effecting successful suburban school reform poses an authentic challenge. Many students do well compared to their peers in neighboring districts, but overall test scores conceal shortcomings. The U.S. spends more per person on education than any other country, yet even middle-class students academically lag their peers in other countries. The fast-growing Douglas County School District (DCSD) south of Denver, Colorado, has attempted a different approach to aim higher.

The relatively high-performing suburban district has broken down boundaries through a wide range of innovative strategies. Since the 2009 election of a reform-minded school board majority and a change in district leadership, DCSD has implemented a fiscally responsible, three-pronged strategic plan:

  • Enhanced student and parental choice, including public and private options
  • An enriched system of world-class standards, curriculum, and assessments
  • Performance-based instructional evaluations, pay, and career growth

The ambitious program is designed to enhance district operations, and, ultimately, outcomes for students. By adopting the Blueprint for Choice, including the first-of-its-kind Choice Scholarship Program, DCSD leaders have given tremendous attention to serving individual student needs based on parental direction. By developing a new curriculum rooted in world-class education standards, and aligning assessments and professional development to serve the needs of schools and teachers, DCSD has expanded their vision and raised the bar for students.

At the core of the performance-based system upgrade are new evaluation frameworks for teachers and for principals. DCSD has placed itself a year ahead of a 2010 state law’s requirements to tie educator effectiveness to new quality standards and to student academic growth. The district further has taken the unprecedented step of blending substantive performance pay with market-based salary bands that distinguish teacher specialties based on supply and demand. More than 40 career options provided through “Professional Pathways” give teachers a tremendous degree of career flexibility.

To complete all the changes in a cost-effective manner, DCSD leaders took a bold stance in their first-ever open negotiations with the teachers union. While the union conceded on many points, they would not give up all tax dollars to subsidize union officers, nor the privilege of district dues collection to fund a national union organization, nor the exclusive authority to bargain for all licensed educators. The collective bargaining agreement lapsed in 2012, even as many teachers worked directly with district leaders to craft many elements of the innovative system.

The crafting of a “new order” has generated some friction. The repurposing of current resources to raise expectations and reward performance has motivated interest groups to marshal a focused opposition. DCSD leaders face a political challenge as they build a better education model that seeks to translate comprehensive innovation into long-term student benefits. As key elements of the model spread and take hold, Douglas County’s example points the way to transforming American public education.


Posted by ben on Sep 30th, 2013 and filed under Charter Schools, Issue Papers, Labor, Pay for Performance, School Choice, Teachers, Vouchers & Tax Credits. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response by filling following comment form or trackback to this entry from your site

6 Responses for “Douglas County: Building a Better Education Model”

  1. [...] Experience has taught some I know the importance of the first and last solution offered, and I have no doubts that number 3 is a critical piece. But the fourth point in particular struck me. Hess recently came out with a paper (co-authored by Max Eden) detailing how Colorado’s Douglas County has become the most interesting school district in America. And now my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow is releasing his own piece along the same lines — Douglas County: Building a Better Education Model. [...]

  2. [...] have to slow you down. While we collect ourselves here, please check out the new paper Douglas County: Building a Better Education Model; learn all you can about Amendment 66, the billion dollar tax increase on Colorado’s fall [...]

  3. [...] measurements, why isn’t there more talk in Colorado about rewarding great teachers? Look at Douglas County and Harrison, which provide two terrific [...]

  4. [...] admittedly, these things are harder to measure, and accountability matters — which is why Douglas County is looking to expand frontiers through a Balanced Assessment [...]

  5. [...] you read my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow’s 2013 paper Douglas County: Building a Better Education Model (come on, it’s okay to admit you haven’t… yet), you would know that one of the [...]

  6. [...] fact that the single salary schedule “suppresses pay differentials by teaching field.” Douglas County has taken one approach to rectifying this inequity; it’s called market-based pay. And they [...]

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