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Commentary: Quality is the next phase in reform

(From Education News Colorado, March 12th 2012)

This commentary was submitted by the leaders of four education advocacy groups: Van Schoales, A+ Denver; Moira Cullen, Democrats for Education Reform, Paul Lhevine, Stand for Children Colorado and Chris Watney, Colorado Children's Campaign.

The future of our state lies directly with this generation of Colorado students. Always a trailblazer in education reform, Colorado is now entering a new phase in which school quality is paramount over both school type and educational program. As we move forward in our quest to provide a quality public education for our students, it is imperative that Colorado keeps a laser focus on school quality, which will drive student achievement for all kids.

Initially, education reform efforts focused on confronting an industrial school model, unchanged over almost a century, in which students were assigned to a single local school and tracked into groups: simple technical skills, a basic high school diploma, and an elite few bound for college.

What happened? Change. Jobs changed, as more positions require independent thought and analysis - skills learned in higher education. Students changed, as demographic shifts brought increased diversity to our public schools. Personnel changed, as professional opportunities widened for ambitious and talented women who previously had few options other than teaching. Families changed, as both the composition and roles in the home shifted.

What did not change was the one-size-fits-all school model. So, the initial phase of education reform ushered in a variety of public school options (traditional, magnet, charter, and innovation) that now provided various instructional programs, such as core knowledge and language immersion, and a changing environment that would eventually cultivate a focus on quality.

Colorado has also led the nation in creating an academic accountability system that allows schools to track the academic progress of individual students over time. This ability to measure the academic growth of students in conjunction with an increasing variety of public school models provided a new and valuable understanding of school quality across our state.

What has surfaced is that no single school type or program guarantees success. Student data shows that the top ranked schools in Colorado, the schools showing the most progress in driving student achievement, include schools of all shapes and sizes - urban, rural, and suburban, charter, magnet, and traditional, high poverty and affluent schools. We've learned that students can achieve in a multitude of school settings, and thus we must demand that all of our schools, regardless of structure, are providing a quality education.

So what does this all mean? It means that parents, school districts, boards of education, and community groups must base their actions regarding schools first, foremost, and fundamentally on quality.

A focus on school quality helps us to avoid the soft bigotry of low expectations by asking the best from all schools, regardless of their students' circumstances. The proof of student success allows us to sidestep the inherent personal biases of teachers, parents and communities who find it difficult to admit their schools are failing kids. And, when any school is not providing the quality education that leads to student success, we must demand change.

If we have learned anything, it is that there is no magic bullet of program or policy that will suddenly cause public education to flourish. We need the very best of all types of schools and educational programs, so that we no longer have the worst of any.

Quality first.