He Says He Wants A Revolution
Michael Bennet wants to save democracy - and he's going to start with the Denver Public Schools system.
Days after these principals have waved good-bye to their kids and teachers and have finally started to relax, Michael Bennet and his chief academic officer, Jaime Aquino, have asked them to spend two valuable summer weeks inside Colorado Convention Center rooms for the first-ever Principals' Institute. This two-week-long seminar will focus on implementing aspects of Bennet's Denver Plan, a 92-page manifesto that outlines how in the next five years the district will increase student achievement by elevating the practice of teaching.
The Denver Plan, the first draft of which was released in mid-November 2005, makes Tolstoy's War and Peace look taciturn. It's dense, difficult to understand, and sometimes vague. Yet, this marks the first time in Denver Public Schools history that the mission of the district has been laid down on paper. "The plan is really important because I think one of the things that was getting in the way of the district was that there wasn't really a shared understanding," says Bennet, who wrote the document with input from teachers, parents, principals, educational experts, and others in the community. "If you're asking people to mobilize themselves to help support something, you better be pretty clear about what it is you're asking them to do."
And Bennet is asking them for nothing short of a revolution.
Bennet and his crew plan to execute this transformation by instating one research-backed mantra: Quality teaching is the No. 1 factor in student achievement. And in a district that sees 67 percent of its children qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, 23 percent qualifying as English-language learners, and a huge gap in achievement between white kids and kids of color, that statement alone demonstrates Bennet's intolerance for excuses. Urban districts across the United States are underachieving, but Bennet stresses this has nothing to do with the intellectual capacity of the kids. "Kids in our city, just as the kids in the suburbs, have the intellectual capacity to do the work," he says. "So then the question becomes, 'What's happening in between?' Socioeconomic conditions and racial differences cannot be an excuse for our not driving their achievement."
The "in between" looks something like this: At the flat rate of improvement over the past three years, it will take another 10 years before half of DPS' elementary students are proficient or better in math, 21 years before half are proficient in reading, and 43 years before half are proficient in writing, according to a 2005 report released by the Piton Foundation, an organization that implements programs to improve public education, expand economic opportunities for families, and strengthen low-income neighborhoods in Denver.
The 2005 CSAP test scores don't offer much more hope. The numbers reveal that 73 percent of white eighth graders are proficient in reading, while only 34 percent of African-Americans and 24 percent of Hispanic students are proficient. The stats also show that only 23 percent of African-Americans and 15 percent of Hispanics scored proficient in 10th grade writing, while white students scored 63 percent proficient. Nearly 31 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch score "unsatisfactory" in reading, while only 14.5 percent of those who do not qualify score "unsatisfactory."
Bennet believes his plan can change all that. Three fundamental concepts—professional development for teachers, better and more frequent use of data to assess and drive student achievement, strong leadership by principals—set the stage for Bennet's assault on underachievement. In quick succession of phrase, the ideas appear straightforward and uncomplicated; however, the education system notoriously resists change. Bennet wants professional development to mean teachers collaborate on teaching techniques, but teachers generally feel that when the classroom door closes it's their world. Bennet plans to increase assessments, quickly using the information to ascertain which students need extra attention along the way. But this concept faces the usual anti-standardized-testing, don't-teach-to-the-test criticisms. And most important, the superintendent wants his principals to be leaders. It's why all 144 principals are sitting at the convention center in early June. Bennet needs these people to understand his vision, believe in it, and be his forces on the ground. He wants them to bring the Denver Plan to life. He wants them to do this, of course, while still maintaining a building, dealing with parents, filling out paperwork, and managing a staff of employees.
But listening to Bennet explain these objectives and others in the plan makes everything seem wholly obtainable, simple even. He actually smiles as he talks about the way he's going to accomplish the impossible. Bennet doesn't fail, doesn't know how to. He's always been an all-out success—in school, in business, in life. Every gamble he's taken has panned out. Then again, he's never taken a risk like this.
It was 1996 and the only thing 31-year-old Bennet had to worry about was what to do on a Friday night. After all, what else does a Yalie with a beautiful fiancée and a good job in Washington, D.C., have to worry about? Making a living certainly wasn't a problem—$65,000 at the Justice Department adequately paid the bills. And D.C. was a bastion of upward mobility for hot young lawyers.
Bennet, unfortunately, quickly found that he didn't love the law. Hated it, actually, and couldn't wait to do something, anything else. So, when his fiancée, Susan, landed a job in Denver, Bennet decided it was time to leave both D.C. and the law behind. Fortune smiled; Bennet's resumé caught the eye of one of Denver's most influential businessmen.
Being a bit of a rainmaker himself, Philip Anschutz was able to read between the less-than-qualified lines of the young lawyer's resumé. Bennet had no business background. He couldn't read a balance sheet. He hadn't taken a single math class since his junior year in high school. But Anschutz saw something he liked: wicked intelligence and a blue-blood background.
Michael's father, Douglas Bennet, was a man of impeccable education and flawless connections. He kept friends like Chester Bowles, former governor of Connecticut and one-time U.S. ambassador to India. He worked with bigwigs like Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, and Sen. Abraham Ribicoff. He was also the first staff director for the Senate Budget Committee, assistant secretary for congressional relations in the Department of State, head of the Agency for International Development, and U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, a post he was appointed to by President Bill Clinton to streamline and improve relations with the United Nations. Doug Bennet also spent a decade as chief executive officer and president of National Public Radio.