Examining the politics of public education: Values
By | Allan Tellis, Chief Writer, Denver
Getting to Values
Discussing what values are reflected in the educational system led community members into robust and intense conversations. Oftentimes, the values held by the community members that constitute an educational system do not align, and at times, those values conflict. The district strives for innovative solutions, the community calls for a return to tradition, some parents assert that choice is the only way for their children to receive the education they deserve, other community members say the lack of neighborhood schools is permanently fracturing their community.
Some community members suggested that the educational system should center the social and emotional needs of each child. Others emphasized the importance of creating schools that would allow children to produce strong outcomes in the familiar ways of test scores and other quantifiable metrics. Unsurprisingly, many community members wanted to have their local educational institutions to be deeply entrenched in the culture of their neighborhood. There was also much debate over the usefulness of the traditional hierarchies that exist within the metro area’s districts. Some valued the stability provided by the districts’ status quo, while others called for a fundamental overhaul over the current system.
While attempting to answer the question of what values they see reflected in their school system, and after reviewing several definitions Merriam-Webster provided, one group of discussion participants settled on the fourth definition listed, which defined a value as “something (such as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable or desirable.” After hearing that as a working definition, a recent graduate of Aurora Public Schools replied, “honestly, from like elementary to middle school, it was pretty ghetto, we had no values up in there… Honestly I don’t think they teach you any values.” As their conversation continued, however, they discovered what all the other groups eventually uncovered as well: the educational system does practice a sort of value system, although there are real variations between districts.
One common theme throughout the community discussions was that the rhetoric of each district rarely aligned with its actions. For instance, area districts claim to value community input and the implementation of equitable solutions, but according to community members, their behaviors show a different set of values. Despite the conflicting sets of values held by various community members, there was a shared longing for consistency in values throughout schools and districts. Many community members had grown tired of trying to decipher what is actually important to the leadership of their area’s educational institutions, and desired leadership that matched words and actions.
Longtime residents have become exasperated with the process of negotiation between themselves and the educational system saying they have fought to give rise to the collective community voice only to be met with resistance and at times flat out lies. While throughout the conversations it remained unclear what values are displayed by the educational system currently, and what values should guide the educational system going forward, it is clear that community members have grown tired of inconsistency and unclear standards.
Should Values Align
Given the diversity of Aurora and Denver, differences in values are easy to spot, whether between individuals or between various communities and their respective school districts. As parents and community members discussed values reflected in their local school districts, their language represented views of school systems grounded in radically different sets of values. For some, student well-being and mental health are the priority. As one mother put it, “I measure success based on are the kids happy?… If you have kids walking down the hall silently then there’s something wrong with that picture…that’s prison culture to me.” Others expressed frustration with less daily structure, noting that they send their children to school “not to play” but to learn.
Differences in life experiences also led some to see misalignment of values between school district leadership and many of the people they are hired or elected to serve. In Aurora, recent graduates held that the district should place a higher priority on preparing immigrant students for life after high school. Many of their families lacked the resources necessary to navigate the complications public schooling brings for undocumented people. One student stated that although she was made to feel valuable and was encouraged to explore her post high-school educational options, looking back on her experiences she felt “when you’re a first-generation immigrant, you’re just like fucking clueless.”
As residents discussed the values they perceived in public schooling, a discussion about schoolyard conflict demonstrated disconnected views of child development. An Aurora conversation revealed deep concerns about how teachers, who are mostly white, strip children of opportunities to learn to establish boundaries with their peers, going so far as to eliminate all conflict between children. Many parents were critical of what they perceived to be unreasonable differences in how student behavior is evaluated, describing differences in behavior expectations for children based on where the student is enrolled, combined with their race. The behaviors of children of color were frequently thought to be policed in schools, as described by one father’s surprise at how his nine-year-old understood the importance of his behavior in schools: “dad, like they care more about me behaving then they do about me learning.”
Conflict avoidance occurs, it seems, at other levels of the public schooling system as well. Parents’ decisions to no longer participate in school or district processes were discussed as a result of their experiences being harmed by their children’s school or district. Though some residents suggested that education change would require families to more heavily invest in their child’s education, it was clear from past experience that the burden to adjust most often fell to families, a burden that not all families are equipped to handle. Others noted that the system has been designed in a way that keeps parents on a treadmill which perpetually excludes them from being able to contribute in the ways that they would like to.
Some noted that area districts claim to value community input as a useful contribution to help them shape district direction and vision. However, one longtime Montbello resident says that this could not be true because district representatives always have an aggressive demeanor when it comes to community-district negotiations. As she put it “I really don’t see any real values because first of all if there were any real values there, even from DPS, the board, the president or anyone else, they would not have come to meetings the way they have, gangster type.”
A consistent question amongst those with experience in these urban school districts was how their experience compared to those from other communities throughout the metro area. One retired educator from Montbello noted that she has had the opportunity to visit schools in more affluent areas, saying, “I’m in these buildings, I’m looking at the differences, I’m looking at the way teacher student relationships are working out…our children are missing out, black children are missing out.” Parents in Montbello noted that innovative school models often created different educational experiences within the same building. One parent emphatically questioned why certain schools were responsible for raising their own funds while other schools were not subject to bearing a similar burden for sustainability.
Discussions of school choice processes in Denver and Aurora also revealed misalignment of values. Many residents expressed concern that school choice allows for housing mobility without the responsibility of investing in the surrounding community. As one parent put it “white people move into the inner city because they know they don’t have to send their kids to the school. They can choice their kids wherever they want to go.” Another parent responded saying, “they can live in the cheap house and go to the great school and then rob the resources from the local school…I want parents to send their kids to Colfax. Like you might not think this is the right choice for my individual child but I promise that is the best choice for the community.” If this sort of valuing of self-interest is so deeply held, how could there ever be consensus on an issue as contentious as enrollment through choice?
One father, from the Far Northeast part of the city, noted that despite repeated calls for a traditional high school in his neighborhood, innovative strategies like co-located schools have continued to dominate. Though he believes that supporting strong communities should be valued by the district, this support occurs only in some neighborhoods. As this father described it, “in the southeast area, at East High School, in those areas they have activities inside their school that bring people together…those things we don’t have.”
Interestingly, these inconsistencies were suggested to have not only shaped the educational experience of students, but also to have a hand in fundamentally altering the fabric of communities. For many, schools don’t simply exist to help students meet educational standards; they also should serve to establish and maintain communal values. Parents believed this difference in experience is a display of their district’s inability to promote a shared value system.
In several discussions about fairness as a signal of values, residents across the metro area were concerned that a gap existed between the purported values of their respective school districts and the practices of these same districts. Whether in making financial decisions or in measuring student learning, this sort of misalignment of words and actions is not simply an innocuous display of pandering but a practice that actually triggers significant consequences for parents, students and educators. More than once parents leaned on the old adage that if you want to know what someone values, check their financial records. One young mother put it this way: “the way that they measure success flows from their values even if they don’t realize it. When you look at an organization you can see their values in their budget.”
The gap between what the district says and what their actions reveal has led some to believe the districts are purposefully deceptive. Residents shared that local districts manipulate language to establish enough credibility to implement their agenda without having to take the desires of its constituents seriously. One of the ways this shows up most clearly is in the way that caring for teachers is routinely cited as a top priority of the district, while most parents, community members and teachers themselves see something altogether different in the actual treatment of teachers. One teacher suggested that DPS cannot have much respect for teachers as they have recently battled against teachers looking to make at least $45,000 yearly. As this educator noted, “payment shows there isn’t
value for it as a profession.” Not only do teachers struggle to make a livable salary, Colorado, according to at least one study, ranks 42nd in per pupil spending. As the same educator noted, to her, that indicates “there’s not value towards our students’ per pupil funding and the way that it’s distributed.”
Many found Denver’s School Performance Framework (SPF) to be an inadequate way of facilitating the district’s evaluation of schools. The SPF was described evidence of data-driven policy that forgoes conventional wisdom in favor of innovation. Quantifying school success has put the burden of producing results on the students and teachers in ways that typically don’t improve the conditions of educational institutions but do provide ample anxiety for parents, teachers, students and community members. The SPF was often described as the district placating to community members’ concerns about public schooling without taking the needed steps to improve schools. Residents expressed deep concern over the allegedly finicky nature of the assessment, which in the eyes of many, is subject to change on a whim. Some felt that this system of measurement was intentionally designed to be malleable so that it would consistently give the district statistical backing to treat marginalized communities differently. As one mother put it, “kids will meet the expectations one year and they change it, and that’s the most racist and biased system that you could ever expect for people to function under.”
Many of those involved with the district have become disillusioned with the local district rhetoric–progressive, uplifting language without any real intentions of change. One teacher claimed that a word like equity has, over the years, become a weapon, used to tantalize those who would like to see all students succeed. However, many felt that words like equity or justice are thrown around without a commitment to significant change, serving only to pacify community members, parents, and employees who take the district at their word. As the educator put it, “it’s been politicized, it’s been created as this weapon almost, as to where it’s so watered down that like, that like y’all [the district] don’t even have a working definition of what equity means.” DPS has communicated that it values the benefits of a diverse teaching force, while it has been unable to hire and retain many non-white teachers, and has historically had a particularly difficult time sustaining ample percentages of black teachers. One parent from Montbello says he’s attended job fairs where black teachers have purposefully avoided recruiters from DPS, opting to instead work in any other part of the metro area and oftentimes, even in other parts of Colorado. For him, this indicates that there is not simply a resistance of black teachers to work in the geographic area, but that there are systemic issues that go unaddressed inside of the district which repel this racial group from pursuing these positions. Based on his observations “if you look around we have
other school districts that are hiring black teachers and Denver can’t find black teachers, and if they do find them, they have to find them out of town or somewhere.” One young mother suggested that the district seems to be thoroughly invested in protecting the politics of whiteness as opposed to implementing changes that would make the district more comfortable for people of color at all levels of public education.
Many Denver residents shared concerns that the district prioritizes being considered a national, progressive leader in educational policy, evident in the influence of outside interests. Community members shared often feeling that they’ve been attempting to negotiate with a hostile administration. Many of them asserted that their desires have been flat out ignored in favor of policies that make the district appear to be on the cutting edge of educational policy. One educator claimed, “I think money is super important to them and they make a lot of decisions based on money and the power that comes along with that.” Another agreed responding, “they really like being seen as leaders in the country and doing these things that look good on the outside.” District aims to be a national leader has come with the insidious effect of making community members feel as though they are “lab rats” who are constantly being experimented on without their consent. They feel as though they are the subjects of unproven educational engineering which causes them to sacrifice their experience to see what tweaks improve educational outcomes. This was a point of tension amongst many community members because while there was consensus that there does need to substantial changes made to the city’s educational institutions, they felt those fundamental shifts should be made with the guidance of community members. As opposed to community guided decision making, many felt that the districts decisions have been guided by the invisible hand of “liberal policy makers,” who have little connection with the people most affected by their strategies.
It has not been lost amongst community members that the vast majority of charter schools and other innovative schooling solutions have been placed in low-income, minority communities. Many believe that they have been placed in these communities, not because they are an evolution in schooling that will improve the educational institutions in these communities, but because leaders are trying new models of schooling in communities perceived as not possessing enough power to push-back. One Far Northeast longtime educational advocate asked, “how many charter schools are in southeast Denver?” and answered “they’re all in Northeast Denver.” According to one mother, the proliferation of non-traditional schools “is one of the tenets of education reform.” Some educators who work in charter schools expressed that they were taken aback after learning about the ways charter school systems operate, especially by focusing on employing white, middle class, young teachers. One teacher observed that this process has been designed to create a circular pathway for these teachers to work their way to the top of the system. He compared it to the way nonprofits have become a complete industry unto themselves, noting that oftentimes, what gets lost in the pursuit of funding is the upliftment of the people these organizations were created to serve.
Many longtime community members noted that this is not the first time they’ve seen the implementation of well-intended policies producing negative consequences. Many pointed to forced bussing as the first experience they had with a policy agenda that was meant to overhaul the school system and create equity but became unpopular with the community due to its latent effects. The disconnect between policy makers’ ambitions and the lives of its constituents seems to have driven a wedge between the community and the administrative sides of these districts. One community member believes that “the district is making decisions, but they don’t really know the community.” Community members suggested that oftentimes there is an elitist bend to the decision-making group which DPS relies on. What this group often lacks is the representation of the experience of fledgling students or those who want to use the metro area’s educational institutions in ways that propel students in a different direction than towards a college degree. A recent graduate of Aurora Public Schools noted that “they just want you to go to college and they make you believe that’s what’s gonna make you successful but there’s so many other options.” A fellow product of Aurora Public Schools agreed saying “I hate them for that. They don’t give you the options. They make it seem like if you fail school you fail life.”
For some, especially employees and longtime community members, the high value placed on appeasing think tanks and innovation centers begs the question of who really wields power in the district. One parent from West Colfax summed up several comments noting, “they’re giving [the superintendent] the money to run this district but she’s a puppet.” Some suggest that in the metro area we often mistakenly look to local officials when trying to determine who has the biggest ability to influence change. One teacher suggested that community members begin to antagonize organizations like the Zuckerberg group and the Gates Foundation as they actually have the resources to manipulate school policy in a very forceful way. Another community member residing more than 15 miles away suggested that he noticed a similar trend, “DPS and Denver has gotten itself in a situation where because of its ties to education reform and because of the political scene… we have taken a very different path from the rest of the surrounding areas… most of the surrounding areas still have what you’re talking about. They still have communities where the schools are the center of their communities.”
Others spent time discussing the ways in which Denver’s political structure is unique and makes it ripe for the divestment of school control away from community members. For those who had more intimate knowledge of school setups in other metropolitan areas, Denver stood out as uniquely disjointed and unusually pliable. The school board members in Denver are unpaid, putting the role out of reach for most people who do not have access to major funding from outside sources. There was also a suspicion of the way in which Denver’s local government interacts with the school district, as the city has little formal power to influence the district. This unclear sense of where power is held in the district has led to competing views of the type of governance that would serve students and teachers best. Some called for a return to central authority which would help establish uniformity throughout the metro area. As one Far Northeast father suggested “when we had a central office that was a valuable resource.” Others claim DPS’s past use of centrality was at the heart of the problem and returning to that setup would reinforce colonial mentalities which perpetually lead to the exploitation of people of color. A Park Hill resident phrased it this way: “another value of DPS is centralization… part of that is also white saviorism- this idea that we know what the problem is, we’re going to get our little best minds together in a central office, and we’re gonna disseminate our little solutions and everybody is gonna be happy.” She says that logic directly “goes against the value that they say they want in the classroom which is cultural responsiveness and adapting to student’s needs.”
One point of agreement among all was that including community voices in decision making conversations should be a value of both Denver’s and Aurora’s districts. One recent DPS graduate said that in order for them to perceive the district as committed to this value they must see more voices at the decision-making table. Community members do not want to be handed plans that are seemingly already well underway under the guise of the district reaching out for community input. A Far Northeast mother angrily rebuked the district’s tactics exclaiming, “don’t come out here and disrespect our community! Don’t try to railroad people that have lived here for 35-40 years!”
Many community members were adamant that the district would only reasonably incorporate community input if they were compelled by something stronger than moral conviction. In Montbello, parents felt particularly cast aside by the administration who had seemingly ignored their requests year after year. No issue made this clearer than the community’s requests for a traditional neighborhood high school that have gone ignored since they lost their neighborhood’s flagship school over a decade ago. Pushing against the imposition of district policies over many years has left many parents feeling tired and deeply frustrated about the intentions of the leadership within the school system. One longtime advocate for the Far Northeast Area has concluded that the only way to hold the administration accountable for meeting community demands is through entering a contractual agreement. After years of hearing empty promises, she’s of the opinion that only a neighborhood agreement that clearly spells out the demands of community members in the metro area will allow the community to exercise power within the district. As she says “once you come up with the neighborhood plan and they sign off on it, if they don’t follow through with what the community wants… then they’re setting themselves up for a lawsuit.”
One mother says she takes a much more micro approach to making sure parents are aware of the power they wield to influence the value system seen throughout the district. She says parents must interact with leadership in the schools and make sure it is clear that the school’s function is to implement what parents want. “I say first and foremost, before you make any decisions, understand that I run this and if you understand that I run this, you understand that we make the final decisions, not y’all.”
However, it is clear that simply voicing concerns is not enough to deeply influence what the district sees as critical. Oftentimes, racial politics deeply influence how community concerns are prioritized. One white parent was appalled at the level in which her privilege as a white person allowed her to be taken seriously in comparison to her non-white peers: “I’ve seen a pattern of listening to white people and their complaints and what they want to see happening in schools and ignoring the complaints and demands and calls to actions of communities of color…here I come with my whiteness and all my privilege and we say the same thing and people are like what was that? What do you need?… I studied that, but to experience that first hand was so astounding to me.”
With disparities like this in interactions with the district between white parents and non-white parents it became clear to this young white mother that not all constituent groups were valued equally by the district. Parents in West Colfax and Park Hill noted similar trends, as they described how the racial shifts caused by gentrification have often led to significant changes in the material conditions in their neighborhood schools. Parents noted things like having been clamoring for air conditioning for many years, but seemingly seeing those conditions improve as soon as more white families began to appear in the neighborhood. One Montbello resident tried to describe “the ethnic breakdown of our community.” “What was 99 percent black is almost 70 percent Hispanic. When you look at the teachers in our community they are majority Latinos, there are very few black teachers.”
Some suggested that this disconnect between community values and the priorities of Denver and Aurora school districts have left other points of concern ignored which have served to diminish the quality of education within either district. For instance, there was an emphasis on building community as being one of the key principles of Denver Public Schools. However, there are underlying and untreated problems within the educational system which are splitting the communities, causing ruptures in neighborhoods. One parent noted that in the racially shifting Far Northeast community, racial tension is strong. Oftentimes, area districts are unable to see these growing tensions and lacks the nuance to see racial differences beyond the vague distinction between white people and people of color. According to parents, this unresolved tension has not only been a cause of concern for parents who feel like some group is being underserved, but also has led to acts of violence between students of different racial groups. Some parents have seen the shift towards supporting Hispanic students as a net benefit for the district, while others fear that the needs of black students have been neglected as there has been a decrease in their overall share of the student population. As one mother who has stewarded over ten children through DPS said “they’re not even owning the fact that there is racial tension and the school is perpetuating it. When I, as a black parent, walk into the school and everybody is speaking Spanish in the main office and I’m standing there waiting there to be recognized…you can cut the tension with a knife.
Allan Tellis is a journalist who is dedicated to uplifting voices in underrepresented communities in ways that give these voices their full depth. Allan has written for a variety of publications over the last seven years but has most prolifically written about marginalized communities in the city of Denver.