Obama’s Education Policy: In Need of Change

I had hoped my first candidate diary would be one of those ones that simply lavish praise upon a presidential hopeful – maybe a nice “Thank You, Barrack, for Today’s Beautiful Sunrise” – but alas, it wasn’t to be.  This is partly my fault (I could’ve written one earlier in the primary season) but it’s also Barrack Obama’s, for his astonishingly poor choice of venue in giving an address on education on Wednesday, May 28.

Even as I write this, the Denver traditional media is tripping over itself with laudatory comments about the Mapleton School District and the school “reform” measures it undertook three years ago.  Regrettably, they’re not going to do much fact-checking beyond the talking point fed to them by District officials, because while it is indeed a fantastic success story that all 44 of this year’s Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts’ senior class have been accepted to college, the other numbers, not to mention the seamy history of the reform project itself, paint a far bleaker picture of the effectiveness of “small school reform” measures – and gives at least one voter cause for concern about the educational company Senator Obama is choosing to keep.

This diary is not meant to disparage anyone in the Mapleton School District – students, teachers, or parents – except for those specifically called out below.  I fully understand (really, I do) what an achievement it is for one of Mapleton’s “small schools” to have an entire class of seniors admitted to post-secondary institutions, but at the risk of bursting a few bubbles, I feel it an obligation to urge the progressive community in general, and the Barrack Obama campaign in particular, to use the strongest of caution when talking of school “reform” schemes – especially those implemented by Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio of the Mapleton School District.  

The recent canonization of Mapleton Expeditionary School for the Arts (MESA) Director Michael Johnston is similarly misguided.  The fact that he has enough pull with the Obama campaign to get the Senator to visit and celebrate a “small school” which is, by nearly all measurements of the annual Colorado School Accountability Report, actually performing worse than the large, comprehensive high school it replaced, is deeply troubling.  

Mapleton’s reform initiatives have wreaked havoc upon a district which was struggling in the first place, and have sacrificed a generations’ worth of students to half-baked experimentation and the egos and political ambitions of a handful of administrators.  Though the small victories won by the students along the way are worthy of praise and celebration, and the sacrifices of the teachers who strive for excellence under the most trying of conditions must always be honored, the kind of reform initiative foisted upon the people of Thornton, Colorado, must not be permitted to replicate – and the agents responsible for perpetrating it must not be rewarded with, say, high positions in the Department of Education, should Obama win the Presidency.

Meet Mapleton

Mapleton Public Schools (there have been many name changes in recent years; the district has also been known as Adams County #1, Mapleton, and now, Mapleton District 1) covers about 18 square miles of the northern suburbs of Denver.  Demographically, the district has shifted in the past two decades from the families of long-since-gentrified Italian farmers to more recent immigrants and blue-collar workers.  Currently Mapleton’s seven small high schools have an enrollment that is on average 50-60% Hispanic, around 40-45% white, and 5-10% black, Asian, and Native American.  40-49% qualify for free & reduced lunch – at the high school level, that number hovers just below 50%, or the point at which new teachers can become eligible for debt relief under the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program.

Mapleton is a district whose 5600 or so (the figures vary over the past eight years, with the most recent ones being the lowest) students face a great many challenges, from the economics of poverty to the social disorder of broken homes, and this often translates to a tough time in the classroom.  In the late 90s and early 2000s, retention rates were about 50% over the course of a four-year high school career, meaning that of a class of 400 freshmen, around 200 would actually graduate.  The reasons for this were many, and not at all as simple as “they dropped out”: some students said they were “going to live with my mom/dad in (insert state),” others that their families were moving back to Mexico, a few joined gangs, mothered children, or were lured away by the promise of a high-paying (considered to be around $15/hr in 2003) job.  A few left school due to family obligations – sometimes to care for a sick relative, sometimes to earn full-time wages to support their siblings – and for a tiny fraction, the possibility of a parentally-arranged marriage derailing a promising academic career was an ever-present Sword of Damocles.

Regardless of how or why they left school, to say nothing of the impossibility of tracking such a migrant population across state or international boundaries, all the students who left Skyview High School were lumped together, and in the numbers-oriented mind of the would-be school reformer, a figure like that screams “dropout!”  Digging a little deeper, these modern crusaders found more ammunition in the form of low test scores: In 2001, Skyview, the district’s only high school, reported a 10th Grade Reading score of 44% (of students achieving grades of “proficient” or above on Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) tests; the state average that year was 64%), a 10th Grade Writing score of 25% (state 44%), and 5% (state 14%) on the10th Grade Math CSAP.  It should be noted that these particular NCLB-spawned tests are only inflicted upon 9th and 10th graders; Skyview’s freshmen scores lagged behind the state averages at about the same rate as the sophomores.  In concert, this data gave Ciancio the impetus and the numerical rationale she needed to start throwing babies out with bathwater and implementing pell-mell “change.”

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

In Colorado, CSAP scores continue to be the measure for such No Child Left Behind Act-spawned “benchmarks” as “Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP),” which is defined in the Colorado School Accountability Report:

Adequate Yearly Progress is met when all sub-groups including 30 or more students by ethnicity, economic status, disabilities and limited English proficiency meet 100% of academic targets on CSAP and CSAPA set by federal law.

Well, that sure is some fair and balanced assessment criteria.  Note that while this “benchmark” mandates schools to educate the most challenged of its (and highly transient) sub-groups to the level of affluent suburban kids of the same age throughout the state each year, it doesn’t mention anything about where the funding for this admittedly laudable goal will come from.  Schools are thus forced to absorb the costs, diverting already-scant resources to programs and classes designed specifically to raise the scores of any at-risk subgroup numbering over 30 students.  This gives a numerical advantage to the school with the smaller number of at-risk students, or a smaller pool from which to draw – especially if that school has a means (applications, etc), as MESA does, of weeding out the “difficult” cases.  Public schools like Skyview were/are required to take in all comers.

The worst thing is, it all comes at the expense of the “mainstream” students, who derive little benefit from the increased classes sizes and harried teachers that inevitably result from NCLB-mandated scheduling priorities.  It also means that schools with large populations – like Skyview, with a student body of about 1400 – will naturally have more “target” groups than a school like MESA, with a population under 400.  In 2004/05, Skyview had 29 such groups identified, and met the targets for 18, or 62%.  The following year, MESA, with more than 1000 fewer students and 11 fewer target groups, achieved a rate of 66%.  Last year, MESA met 11 of 12 targets – commendable, but it’s also worth noting that the school suffered a 12.9% dropout rate that year.  Skyview’s dropout rate was 11.3% in 2003/04 (the year Superintendent Ciancio’s “visionary” approach began to be felt), and only 3.2% and 3.0%, respectively, in the two years prior to that.

The data from CSAP testing is similarly revealing – these charts show the results of Skyview’s test scores from the 2003/04 and 2004/05 school years, and MESA’s from 2005/06 and 2006/07.  The percentage represents the number of students scoring “proficient” or “advanced” on the statewide tests.

Skyview 03-04 04-05 MESA 05-06 06-07
9-10 Reading 46% 38% 9-10 Reading 37% 41%
9-10 Writing 21% 23% 9-10 Writing 22% 21%
9-10 Math 11% 12% 9-10 Math 10% 8%

That precipitous drop in the 04-05 Reading scores was Skyview’s kiss of death; it got the school labeled not only “low scoring,” but also “in decline.”  That scores rose in the other two categories was immaterial – failure to meet one benchmark in CSAP-world is the same as failing to meet them all.  MESA has, by contrast, remained “low and stable,” because its declines in Writing and Math are offset by the 4% climb in Reading scores (perhaps coincidentally, this rise came after nearly 13% of the student body 05/06 left, or was purged from, the school).  Ciancio has made some recent incisive statements about why these Math scores in particular have been in a 2%-per-year (the most recent data puts MESA scores a full 33% lower than they were in Skyview’s last reported year) free fall:

Kids don’t all get teeth at the same age, said Charlotte Ciancio, superintendent of the Mapleton school district in Adams County.

“Some kids get them when they’re 4 months old; some kids get them at 8 months. We’re cool with that when they’re little,” Ciancio said. “As soon as they get into first grade, we suddenly don’t care where they are developmentally.”

Deep changes are needed in the way schools operate for all kids to master math, Ciancio said.

Math drop a big test for schools Rocky Mountain News, 2/25/08

…including, one would hope, changes in the type of metaphor used to relate biological processes to knowledge acquisition.

Kobayashi Maru

Absurd assessment data like AYP and CSAP scores are used to rate schools – nowhere in a SAR pamphlet will you find information like “square footage of classroom space per student” – and to label their year-to-year “academic growth.”  Since the ratings of all schools statewide are placed on a bell curve, it is statistically requisite for a certain number of schools – inevitably those that were already behind the eight-ball when the testing regimen was imposed – to be listed as “failing” or “low-performing.”  Spend enough years at the narrow left end of that bell curve, and a school or district may find itself sanctioned by the state.  You read that right: Under NCLB, the most struggling schools are the ones stripped of funding.

In extreme examples, the state Department of Education actually seizes the school and hands it over to private, for-profit charter enterprises, as was the case at Cole Middle School, or imposes reforms from the top down through agencies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, like what happened at the shuttered-and-now-reopened Manual High School, a neighbor of Skyview’s.  In both cases, the “reforms” were dismal failures and monetary sinkholes.

The federals, whose onerous data-collection requirements force schools to divert even more resources to the single task of feeding the statistical ratings beast, are no help at all:

“I’m glad that there is consternation with it,” says Sandy Cress, senior adviser to President Bush on education and a consultant with school districts on NCLB. “It means that people are wrestling with it. Like Job wrestling with the angel, there’s good at the end of it.”

How school reform is altering classrooms, The Christian Science Monitor, July 15, 2004

Ms. Cress (just speculation, but…Regent University grad?) failed to identify who was playing the role of Job, and who is Satan, in her read on the dealings between the NCLB bureaucracy and the districts and schools subjected to its torments.  There is little doubt, however, that a school official trying to deal with a mandarin like this would have to have the patience of Job.

The flaws inherent in any system that relies so heavily on high-stakes standardized testing (as well as of the tests themselves) are another matter entirely – and yet another reason why Senator Obama needs to stop talking about “fixing” NCLB and start promising to abrogate it as one of his first acts in office.  Why?  Because it leads to situations like the one with which Mapleton schoolteachers found themselves confronted a little more than 5 years ago, and (even worse) to an educational morass like that in which Mapleton students are currently mired.  Critical to the understanding of the state of the reform effort in Mapleton (and thus MESA, its flagship small school – the others are, on balance, not faring as well; one was even forced to close after a single year in operation) came to this point is not the test scores, but the history of how the changes came about – in it, we find many components that parallel other notable bad ideas of our time which have been glossed over with propaganda.

The Road to Hell is Paved…

The plot to splinter Mapleton’s “failing” school district was hatched in 2001, with the ascension to the Superintendent’s office of Charlotte Ciancio (then surnamed Scarpella), a former teacher with deep roots in both the community and its educational establishment.  Backed by a compliant school board and a central administration that had many of the qualities of a self-licking ice cream cone, Ciancio began her quest to irrevocably alter the course of education for Mapleton’s students innocuously enough: with a survey.  According to Skyview High Schools’: Small by Design General Overview (from “Teacher’s Tool Kit Small Schools Backgrounder 11/03”):

As a critical first step, Mapleton Public Schools conducted a survey of voters and parents across the district.  Mapleton Public Schools worked with BK Research to design and orchestrate this valuable study.  

Overall, the study found nearly 75 percent of parents and 60 percent of voters have a positive impression of Mapleton Public Schools; however, they were all open to expanding and enhancing the education environment in the district.  Specifically the survey concluded:

  • High school parents wanted smaller class sizes
  • Parents and voters wanted to add more mentors and tutors for students
  • A vast majority strongly supported the concept of having hands-on, vocational training in the high school

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning here that Skyview had vocational training in place already, and that it included a award-winning auto shop and photography teachers, a drafting and computer graphics program, a partnership with Arapahoe Community College for credits in Criminal Justice, and outstanding veteran teachers in catering, fashion design, business, teen parenting, and keyboarding, and an incredibly dedicated, professional librarian (pdf).  It wasn’t everything that might be offered by a truly well-funded comprehensive high school, but Skyview’s vocational training programs were a bedrock of the local economy.

There are many ways that one could interpret data which states that 75% of people have a positive impression of a school district that publicly-released test scores show is a low-performer.  One conclusion would be that parents recognized teachers and staff were working hard against long odds to teach their children well – but that’s not the one Ciancio drew.  To her, affirmative responses to a sugar-coated question from a professional research outfit – something like “How much do you support the concept of having hands-on, vocational training in the high school?” – was a mandate to burn the entire place to the ground, then rebuild it according to personal whim and whatever funding sources she could secure.

With a set of “good” statistics in one hand and a set of “bad” ones in the other, Ciancio embarked on the next phase of her “collaborative” effort to reinvent Mapleton: the gathering of research to justify her positions.  At the high school level, department chairs were offered the opportunity to provide input on how best to effect change within the building, but their suggestions – reduced class sizes, uniforms, a closed campus, expanded team-teaching, deliberate, visible efforts to change the school’s climate and culture; basically, the stuff that’s worked before to rescue troubled districts – were relegated to the circular file in favor of a series of investigative visits to different small school models around the state and country.  Delegations of teachers, parents, and administrators were sent to Boston, Providence, New York, Chicago, San Diego, Napa Valley, and other locales while Ciancio and a tiny cabal of central administrators began attending (and later being invited to address) various conferences and working groups on the school-reform circuit.  As they observed reform efforts in action and/or hobnobbed with the money people, Mapleton fact-finders were guided by the following principles:

The criteria that the Mapleton Public School leadership team used to determine viable solutions for its students was an educational system characterized by:

  • An unyielding commitment to academic excellence
  • An enticing menu of learning opportunities that allows students to pursue their interest and gifts
  • A commitment that no obstacle shall impede a student’s success
  • An environment of integrity, encouragement and caring
  • A comprehensive community working collectively to ensure the success of each child


(I thought about commenting on each of these in turn, but decided it might be more fun to see what others make of this type of educationese.  Comment away.  – u.m.)

Divide and Conquer

Ciancio cherry-picked the voluminous reports of the school-visitation groups for vindication of the various school designs she had already determined to import – her talent lies not in innovation itself, but in channeling funding toward the various established innovative programs she invites to open schools within the district.  That the evidence she was gathering was being fixed around a conclusion already arrived at is attested to by her own hand – in this passage, she describes the genesis of her version of “open, collaborative effort at school reform:”

It was January 2002 as we came to the end of three very long days. Exhausted by the intensity and wound up by the activity, we gathered at the restaurant to debrief the events. We huddled around the table as if planning a covert operation or protecting a secret. Our mood was serious. Our expressions were intense. The hurried sounds of the restaurant were silenced by the frantic thoughts racing through my head. A wave of panic coursed through my body. What had I done? Why did I agree to do this?

Ciancio, on “Both Ways” Bob Beauprez’s Education blog, August 20, 2007

Why, indeed?  There was no public outcry  demanding change (though admittedly, there was some understandable, and correctable, dissatisfaction with the performance of most of the schools in the district), nor was there any reason other than the superintendent’s “vision thing” to go off the deep end experimenting on other people’s kids, yet that’s exactly what Ciancio did.  She justified her radical approach with a mixture of egoism, martyrdom, and self-righteousness:

“The reason we are moving as quickly as we are,” says Superintendent Charlotte Scarpella, “is that it’s unethical not to do it, if you know there’s a better way.”

Colorado Small Schools Initiative Fall Newsletter, November 17, 2004

To provide a veneer of “collaboration,” Mapleton adopted a multi-year, pre-packaged “strategic planning” regimen that split teachers into teams which met over the course of the school year to research and make recommendations for school improvement.  The diabolical brilliance of this approach – which has, regrettably, now cropped up in nearby districts – is that it results in each group making recommendations for increases in workload that are small individually (say, the “Academic Rigor” team advocating each teacher do an hour of Study Hall duty each week), but considerably more onerous when taken together.  When teachers raise concerns about the effect additional duties, mandatory meetings, etc., will have on their ability to plan and assess effective lessons, administrators have merely to point to the group of peers and say, “Hey, this recommendation comes from teachers (just like you) who spent months gathering all the latest data.  Who are you to complain about doing what needs to be done?  Do you hate kids, or something?”

The “strategic planning” farce armed Ciancio with as many “teacher recommendations” as she needed to move to the next phase of the debacle – selling the scheme to the public – but first there were a couple more potential hindrances to her “Small By Design” brand with which she would have to deal.  

One was the possibility of resistance from the teaching staff and their local NEA affiliate.  Unfortunately, Colorado is not the strongest of union states, and in 2004, the focus was on statewide elections (which went very well for us, by the way), not on restructuring efforts that would only impact a few hundred teachers in a single district.  Add to this a local president who came up through the bargaining ranks over a 20+-year career in Texas, where organized labor is dictated to by administrators as a government-backed matter of course, plus a UniServ (an NEA/state affiliate regional office usually responsible for several districts) director dealing with serious health issues, and it becomes very difficult to hold the line in bargaining sessions.

Teachers are quite susceptible to arguments that challenge their commitment to their craft and their students; a fact which is mercilessly exploited by school boards and district superintendents around the country.  It was also the tactic most favored by Ciancio and her School Board-backed negotiations team, and it was effective: after a couple of years of putting up at least a token resistance, the Mapleton Education Association eventually rolled over and accepted its lot without any strikes, job actions, or other means of expressing its displeasure – except that its members began attending job fairs and interviewing with other schools.  The full state of the emasculation of the once-strong (and award-winning, for its better-than-90% union membership rate) Mapleton Education Association can be seen in the contract language under which it is operating today:

6.8.2 Mapleton Public Schools and the Mapleton Education Association believe the teaching profession is demanding and rewarding, requiring time and commitments beyond contractual work hours. We further assert that the people involved in this profession are committed to the interests and lives of the students we serve. We

acknowledge that maintaining a balance in personal and professional lives is essential to the health and well being of all.

Mapleton Education Association/Mapleton School Board Negotiated Agreement, June 07

Yeah, you read that right: A union agreeing to give up the non-workday time of its members (one way of reading this would be that the District expects teachers to spend 12 hours a day on work-related duties) any time the Management asserts that to do otherwise would be to betray a lack of professional commitment to the job.


If it sounds like I have inside information for my muckraking, I do – from 2000 to 2005, I taught at Skyview, for most of that time serving as a department chair, as well.  I was also a member of the MEA’s bargaining team, and held a seat on the CEA Board of Directors in 2004/05 – in other words, I saw these restructuring efforts up-close, and from a lot of different angles.  I was opposed to the way things were headed back then, and I said so, but I also resolved not to interfere in any way with what Cicancio, Johnston, and the like were doing in Mapleton after I left the district for less-turbulent pastures before the 05/06 school year.

And lest that revelation makes the dear reader begin to think that this is an exercise in sour-grapeism, I’m happy to report that I landed on my feet.  I now teach in the International Baccalaureate program in one of the highest-scoring public schools in the state; it happens to be a full half-hour closer to my house (the commute to Thornton was an hour each way, but that was back when gas was only $2 per gallon).  Though deeply troubled by what I was hearing from Mapleton students and former colleagues, I made a conscious decision not to go public with my misgivings precisely because I didn’t want to seem like a disgruntled former employee.

For me, that all changed last week, when I saw Barrack Obama standing in the exact spot in Rosa Auditorium  where the former music teacher and I had once inaugurated and hosted a “Mr. Wolverine” (the school’s mascot) competition.  It was supposed to become a tradition, but within two years, both teachers were gone, the music department was in shambles, and MESA Director Johnston was using trash cans and teacher/bouncers to partition off his school’s portion of Skyview’s carcass.  It was on that same stage that the Senator on Wednesday said,

A truly historic commitment to education – a real commitment – will require new resources and new reforms. It will require a willingness to move beyond the stale debates that have paralyzed Washington for decades – Democrat versus Republican; vouchers versus the status quo; more money versus more accountability. It will require leaders in Washington who are willing to learn a lesson from students and teachers in Thornton or Denver about what actually works. That’s the kind of President I intend to be, and that’s the kind of education plan I’ve proposed in this campaign.

There are lessons to be learned from Mapleton’s students – they sure taught me a thing or two – but the only knowledge to carry away from those of the district’s administrators who were central to the dissolution of Skyview regards what not to do when reforming a school.  They are, in a very real sense, the last people from whom Senator Obama should be taking advice.

Tomorrow night’s conclusion will address how Ciancio secured the funds for her grand project, as well as a look at some of the personnel issues that attend school reform in general and in Mapleton in particular (here’s a hint: in Skyview’s last year of operation, 32 out of 80 teachers had tenure; last year, MESA had only 4 tenured teachers in a faculty of 37), and a brief examination of the school-reform industry, which now comes complete with in-the-pocket and outright-duped politicians.  Look for it around 7PM Mountain.


Skip to comment form

    • Robyn on June 2, 2008 at 6:35 am

    …that this won’t be popular?

    • Mu on June 2, 2008 at 7:05 am

    It’s late, must sleep, or else I’d go on and on about how incredibly “all that and a bag of chips” this diary is.  Post more here, please.

    Thanks. G’night.

    Mu . . .

    (you know me as another ‘alias’ at orange) . . . ooooh, mystery.

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