Michael Bennet remembers the moment the passion for education was ignited within him.
It was a decade ago. Then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper suggested Bennet, his chief of staff, should consider applying to be superintendent of the city’s troubled school system.
According to a 2007 New Yorker profile of Bennet, at the time he had aspired to hold public office someday and thought running an urban school district could end his political career rather than start it.
But Bennet dug in and learned as much as he could about what ails and works in public education.
“I can remember vividly sitting in my office reading about what was going on in urban systems across the country and finding myself going from the feeling that there is nothing I can contribute here to feeling desperately interested in it because it is the future,” Bennet said in a recent interview.
“Across this country, we have done such a bad job in so many ways. It’s no one’s fault, but it is all of us … this sort of obsolescence that we have allowed to creep in. That made me want to work on it.”
Bennet became superintendent in 2005. The rest is well-known Colorado history. Suffice to say, the experience didn’t snuff his political ambitions.
A decade later, Bennet is now the senior senator from Colorado, leading the push to rewrite the long-standing federal education law No Child Left Behind and borrowing on his experiences as an urban school superintendent to help craft the Senate’s bill.
The legislation that is still being debated in Congress has the former superintendent’s fingerprints all over it, and many of the reforms started in Denver could soon be part of a new federal law.
For Michael Bennet, the spark that ignited a decade ago over how to improve public education is still burning, and now it is a fire that could finally change the country’s poorly crafted education law.
Congress has for years attempted to rewrite No Child Left Behind, arguably a failed mandate — sweeping legislation from 2003 that started an era of high-stakes standardized testing.
Senate bills attempting to rewrite the law have twice failed under partisan bickering. This year, when public sentiment has turned against testing, both the House and Senate passed versions of a new education law, setting up a showdown for a final compromise.
Bennet will be a critical player in reaching that middle ground, according to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., ranking member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
As the first superintendent in the Senate since Strom Thurmond, Bennet has been a key member in helping the Senate figure out what the government should do, she said.
“He probably understood the ins and outs of this legislation better than anybody because he lived them,” Murray said. “His voice, his ideas, his thoughts were all absolutely key. The senators on the committee on both sides of the aisle really respected his expertise and thoughtfulness.”
When he was superintendent of Denver Public Schools from 2005 to 2009, Bennet shuttered empty schools, encouraged charters, and implemented a pay system that rewarded teachers who improved their students’ performances and provided them incentives to work in the neediest schools.
Under Bennet, DPS students scored higher in math, science, reading and writing.
Progress continues under Superintendent Tom Boasberg, who was Bennet’s childhood friend and his chief operating officer.
Enrollment has skyrocketed. The dropout rate has been cut in half. Last year, DPS sent 30 percent more kids to college than it did in 2005. And preschool and full-day kindergarten slots dramatically expanded.
While superintendent, Bennet always bristled at the federal education law.
“I used to wonder all the time why was everyone in Washington so mean to our teachers and to our kids?” Bennet said. “And why would you have an accountability system that makes no sense? What I figured out is they are not mean. They are well-intentioned. But they have no idea of what is going on in schools and classrooms. No idea.”
As an education writer for The Denver Post beginning in 2007, I was charged with following this dynamic, young superintendent who had captured the hearts of the reform movement. I was struck by how Bennet seemed to have a plan already developed in his mind on how to do the impossible — turn around an urban school district. Every few weeks, Bennet and his team introduced a new initiative.
First, the district would track individual student growth, then it would attach that growth to a school performance framework for every school in the district. It would offer bonuses to teachers who push that growth, choosing to work at hard-to-serve schools or a hard-to-teach subject.
Particularly incensed by the federal act’s accountability measure, Bennet worked with the state to develop a new way to measure academic growth. He sought and obtained a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education to use the new accountability method.
“It asked the wrong question: How did this year’s fourth grade do compared to last year’s fourth grade?” Bennet said. “It is an irrelevant question to the fourth-graders, to the teachers, and to the community.”
The new growth model would examine the test history of a child and compare it to the progress of peers with similar test histories. It made complete sense. Eighteen other states have gone to similar models, and the Senate bill would allow states and districts to opt for this type of measurement without having to obtain waivers.
Ideas from Denver reform
There are other signs of Denver’s reforms in the Senate’s rewrite, such as a revisions to the section of the law that addresses teacher training and recruitment — efforts that DPS has been working on for years.
Denver established a teacher residency program that allows people from different careers to become educators. It created a program that allows teachers to take on critical leadership roles within their schools and established the ProComp pay system that gives teachers bonuses for a variety of efforts.
The Senate bill allows districts and states the flexibility to put federal funds toward exactly these types of programs.
From the moment he came into the Senate, Bennet established himself as the go-to guy on education matters, said Frederick Hess, director at the American Enterprise Institute.
“No one else in the Senate has actually been on the ground in a school system,” Hess said. “Bennet is a guy who was absolutely up to speed on how federal rules affect school districts, what happens when federal testing gets handed off to states and a school district. For a lot of folks, this is all abstract stuff. But Bennet had the advantage.”
Bennet has repeatedly said much of No Child Left Behind is problematic and goes too far — yet he concedes the standardized tests did allow people to see how sets of students were performing.
Moreover, standardized tests revealed the ugly truth that the nation’s public school system was dramatically failing poorer, minority children in epidemic-like proportions.
After President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s passed the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act and after Congress created Title 1 funds to target students with the greatest need, the problems are still around, Bennet said in a speech on the
ate floor in March.
“Sadly, half a century later, the data reveals that these profound inequities persist and that our students need our help now more than ever,” he said. “But there is also reason for hope in this data. We now have evidence that sustained support can make the difference in closing the pernicious gaps that remain for low-income kids.”
No Child Left Behind was “an extraordinary federal overreach of epic proportions,” Bennet said in a recent interview. “It is kind of amazing that the Bush administration got away with it. It is absolutely essential that we don’t give up on the civil rights function of the federal government’s involvement in education. That is the only reason it should be involved, in my opinion.”
The Senate version would require states continue to use assessments for accountability, though the House’s version is much weaker. Both versions remove a requirement for a specific set of academic standards, like Common Core.
Bennet wants the final bill to require states to identify the bottom 5 percent of failing schools and come up with their own ways of fixing them. He also wants states to identify when groups of students are failing in high-performing schools.
“There is a balance of wanting to have Washington dictate less and be less prescriptive but to have kids who aren’t performing be visible,” he said.
No bill in Washington will solve the education struggles of the country.
“We have a duty to make sure kids get an education and that zip codes don’t determine the kind of education they get,” he said. We are a long way from being able to make that promise to the next generation. … But there are places in the country that are making progress. We just need to make more progress and we need to do it faster.”
Jeremy P. Meyer: jpmeyer@denverpost. com or twitter.com/jpmeyerdpost