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Spellings’ praise for Colorado reforms a tad premature

Paul Teske is Dean and University of Colorado Distinguished Professor at the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. These views represent the personal opinions of the author and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.

It was nice to see former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, one of the bright lights in the George W. Bush administration, penning a cheerleading op-ed in the Denver Post for Colorado education reforms.

I’m not sure exactly what the political push was behind writing this now (I assume it was associated with her talk and visit to the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce last week), but it is always good to see national analysts paying attention to Colorado reforms.

I was, however, a bit surprised by the entirely fact- and trend-free nature of the commentary.

If Colorado is doing a great job with reforms, shouldn’t there be some strong evidence of student achievement, to back that up?  Especially from a key developer and implementer of No Child Left Behind, for which measurement was critical?

I don’t say that to be snarky – last week I attended an excellent A+ Denver presentation, where some very strong trends for DPS were presented – test score improvements over five years, for both lower income and higher income kids.  DPS is capturing a greater “market share” of kids living in Denver.   They provided lots of real data demonstrating welcome news in terms of trends (though baseline proficiency levels are still way too low).

For Colorado, the trend data are less clear. SAT scores are down, NAEP are up slightly over the past decade, but no more than the national averages, and our achievement gap is still one of the very worst in the nation. It is hard to document that the state is making great strides in producing educational outcomes (indeed, the past data trends portion of the  Race to the Top application was one reason we didn’t win – lots of other states did better).

I do believe that Colorado has put many solid reforms into legislation and there is great promise for them to interact well.  But, they need to be implemented well, and the combination of minimal resources for implementation and strong local control make the quality of implementation an open question.

Reform and resources are both needed to make real demonstrable strides.

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