The nation is watching Douglas County, former U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett told an audience of about 250 people at the Lone Tree Arts Center on Sept. 25.
Bennett’s 20-minute address was followed by a question-and-answer session during an event organized by the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce. It was paid for by the nonprofit Douglas County Educational Foundation through a consulting agreement with Bennett, a fact not disclosed until after the event.
“Let me just say this — in agreement or not, whether you like all the pieces or not — here’s a school district that is trying to go from good to great,” Bennett said. “What will happen, we shall see. It’s intensely a matter of focus here in Douglas County, and increasingly the focus for people around the country and indeed around the world.”
Regardless of his paid consultant status, Bennett didn’t give unilateral support to the Douglas County School District’s controversial education reform efforts. He questions the school board’s decision to oppose the national Common Core Standards in favor of its own curriculum, which it considers superior.
“I’m not sure whether I agree with this or not; I should say I’m pretty much a traditionalist when it comes to curriculum,” Bennett said. “But in this interestingly conservative district of Douglas County, the people who have decided to go after world-class education have taken a pretty radical, pretty progressive, you might say liberal, endorsed set of proposals on curriculum.
“Very reputable people have developed this theory. I still have some concerns about it.”
He cited a study written by the American Enterprise Institute’s Frederick Hess and Max Eden titled, “The most interesting school district in America? Douglas County’s pursuit of suburban reform.” Hess also is consultant paid through DCEF.
“There are a lot of us — left, right and center — who believe this is the most interesting set of reforms in the country, and that this is a laboratory worth watching,” Bennett said.
Bennett said he saw firsthand some of the controversy surrounding those reforms during a meeting with about 60 DCSD teachers. There was “a lot of disagreement in the room, particularly about some of the features of the compensation plan,” he said. “But there’s a sense of engagement I’ve rarely seen in a school district.”
Controversy aside, Bennett said DCSD’s effort to revamp teachers’ compensation is admirable.
He also credited DCSD for tackling the reforms at a “bargain basement price” of about $7,000 per student, significantly less than the $10,000 national average in per-pupil spending.
Bennett touched on education concerns nationwide, citing the United States’ 32nd-place math skills ranking. A total of 65 countries participated in the study of 2011 high school graduates.
“This is an embarrassment and it makes a great deal of difference in the lives of these young people,” Bennett said. “If we could just pull ourselves up to the level of Canada, we would have a 20 percent higher gross domestic product for each worker over the next 80 years.”
Bennett served as secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan, and as President George H.W. Bush’s director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He is co-founder of K12, a for-profit online education corporation that is publicly traded.