Some advice for the new superintendent of Denver Public Schools

by Bas Braams
July 1, 2005

The following is an email to columnist Linda Seebach of the Rocky Mountain News in response to a request she made for advice for the incoming DPS superintendent Michael Bennet. Ms. Seebach's column of July 2, 2005, An advice sampler for new DPS chief Bennet is based on this and similar emails. For related letters and articles, see the NYC HOLD page Watching Curriculum and Academics at DPS under Michael Bennet.

Dear Linda,

You asked what advice I might have for the new superintendent of Denver Public Schools, Michael Bennet, as he seeks to fill the critical position of chief academic officer. I'm going to reply in two separate emails, and I hope that you will share both of them with Michael Bennet. This first message concerns where to go and where not to go for advice. I'll write a separate email in which a bit more attention is paid to the present curriculum situation in Denver as I understand it; that second email will also have some more detail about mathematics curriculum issues generally.

I understand that Mr. Bennet comes from outside the education establishment and was selected for his management experience and because the school board felt a need to shake things up [0]. This brings to mind two other high profile school district leaders: New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and the just departed San Diego Superintendent Alan Bersin.

Of course Mr. Bennet should contact Joel Klein and Alan Bersin and seek to learn how they went through the first weeks and months in their new position. Where did they obtain their advice and how did they go about finding their own chief academic officer: the NYC deputy chancellor for curriculum Diana Lam and the San Diego chancellor of instruction Anthony Alvarado. And then Mr. Bennet should discount very deeply all those sources that advised Messrs. Klein and Bersin in their early days. (But if, on deep background and in strictest confidence, Mr. Klein or Mr. Bersin will explain how some things went badly wrong then Mr. Bennet should listen very closely.)

Presumably the same sources that advised the baby-fresh NYC and San Diego school leaders will already be on Michael Bennet's doorstep, and he will know who they are. I would guess the Carnegie Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation; of course the National Center on Education and the Economy, maybe the New Visions for Public Schools and the Bank Street College of Education (I don't know how much they extend beyond NYC), and there will be others.

Both in New York City and in San Diego the choice of a chief academic officer from the anti-academic, whole language, constructivist mathematics, and no science side of the curriculum wars set the district on a path from which it has not been able to recover even after the departure of the two curriculum chiefs. Diana Lam's own academic background was focussed on some romantic notion of bilingual education that she had spelled out in a breathtaking (in a negative way) vision statement: "A Two-Way Street to the 21st Century". It is almost incredible that Chancellor Klein wasn't able to recognize all the tell-tale warning signs, if he paid attention at all and didn't just blindly trust the advice from the wrong sources. And Anthony Alvarado's most recent background had been in that center of fuzzy reform: the New York City community school district 2, which also suffered from Lauren Resnick and the NCEE and the New Standards for the educational ideology.

So for advice, Michael Bennet should avoid those sources that will gladly fly out their staff to Denver (probably already have) to woo and flatter him for the anti-academic side of the curriculum wars; instead, he'll have to reach out himself and try to extract advice from people that have a busy life outside the education profession. Other people can give him better advice on who to talk with for the teaching of reading of writing, but obvious names would be found among the authors of the renowned NICHD report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read, and Mr. Bennet might also contact the signatories of a letter from reading experts to Chancellor Klein about one of the first major errors of the Klein/Lam team in New York, the adoption of a whole language, masked as balanced literacy, reading program [1]. For mathematics this observer knows no better source of names than the list of national advisors of New York City HOLD, Honest Open Logical Decisions on Mathematics Education Reform [2]. Besides talking with people such as these, focussed on reading or mathematics, there are prominent education professionals that are worth talking to; some names that come to mind are Sandra Stotsky (late of the MA department of education), Douglas Carnine (University of Oregon), Marion Joseph (late of the CA State Board of Education), Don Hirsch (Core Knowledge), Eric Smith (superintendent in Anne Arundel), Nancy Ichinaga (Los Angeles principal, retired), and also whoever is the leading light for curriculum in the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools.

In parallel to developing his own expert knowledge on curriculum issues, but hopefully not before that process is well along, Mr. Bennet will be advertising the position of the Chief Academic Officer. At a university we call this a Provost; and while the Denver Public Schools should not be likened to a research university, it does have a good deal in common with a large four-year teaching-oriented college. Mr. Bennet would do well to keep an open mind and to put some effort into attracting candidates that might also be plausible as provost or as dean of a department of arts and sciences of such a college. The crucial point is that one wants a person with a solid academic background, and preferably in science or engineering. (Degrees in education or educational administration should probably be held against the candidates.) Thus, one place to advertise this position would be the Chronicle of Higher Education. At the same time Mr. Bennet should keep in mind that a solid academic background is no guarantee of sound judgment; collectively this nation's Provosts and Deans must share in the blame for the garbage that is produced by colleges of education.

Probably most of the candidates for this CAO position will come from a position of responsibility for curriculum in some other school district, and then of course the most critical thing is to evaluate very carefully the candidate's record of choices. Did the candidate mandate a common curriculum? It is a thing of the times, but not necessarily wise in principle and certainly not wise if the choice of curriculum reflects current anti-educational "reform" ideology. If the candidate did not mandate a common curriculum, what were his or choices and programs?

It is apparent that superintendent Bennet will need to have his own solid understanding of curriculum issues before evaluating his choices for the CAO position -- or else he is likely to fall into the same trap that captured his NYC and San Diego colleagues. So, while the appointment of a Chief Academic Officer is the most important personnel decision that Mr. Bennet will have to make, his highest priority should be to learn as much as possible as fast as possible about the critical curriculum issues, especially in reading and mathematics.

I will write more about the Denver situation as I understand it in a separate email, which also will contain more extensive pointers to books and articles about curriculum issues.

Bas Braams

[0] Mayor's staff chief takes top job at DPS, Denver Post, front page, June 28, 2005

[1] Selection of a Systematic Phonics Program for NYC Students

[2] New York City HOLD: Who We Are

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