Reinventing American Education: Douglas County Schools Strives to Be the Best in the World

Game changer.  Risk taker.  Innovator.  Collaborator.  These are just a few of the desired traits sought by the nation’s largest employers. “Unfortunately, for the last 100 years the American education system has been geared toward outcomes suited more for the assembly lines of the Industrial Revolution rather than the economy of the future,” says Douglas County School District (DCSD) Superintendent, Dr. Elizabeth Fagen. “Our goal is to prepare our students to compete on the world stage for the college or career pathway of their choice.” Douglas County School District (DCSD) is located a short 20 minutes south of Denver, Colorado.  The 63,000-student district spans 900 square miles and is home to some of the highest ranking schools in the state. In fact, DCSD ranked #1 in reading achievement in the metro area, but maintaining the status quo is not enough for Dr. Fagen or the reform-minded school board.

“We want more for our students and our community, so we are transforming education,” says Fagen.  “We don’t want to be the best in the state or even the nation.  We want to be the best in the world.

Dr. Fagen’s passion for reform is evident in every aspect of her daily routine—from regular school visits, to parent communications, to teaching professional development classes for teachers and administrators.   With a goal of preparing students to compete on a global stage for any college or career path they choose, DCSD is implementing a systemic transformation plan.  The plan begins with focusing education on new outcomes aligned to what students will need to compete on the global stage, and continues with better approaches to measuring and teaching those outcomes.

Fagen explains the plan and the urgency to parents and the community with a simple comparison to the medical profession.  “Would you be satisfied if your doctor employed techniques from the year he graduated from medical school, or would you expect him to use the latest, less intrusive and safer techniques?” Fagen asks.  “Our challenge is to transform our classrooms and our teaching methods designed in the 1900s into a learning environment for the future.”

As the mother of two young daughters, Fagen also has a personal interest in making sure DCSD continues to be innovative.  “My 2-year-old can effectively navigate my iPad,” says Fagen.   “We know that students learn differently now, and we must employ new strategies to meet their needs and prepare them for the future workforce.”

Education is in her blood.  Fagen’s mother was a teacher, and she followed in her mother’s footsteps.  She started in the educational trenches as a high school science teacher in Iowa.  She served as a high school principal in two schools, and worked her way up the ranks in the Des Moines School District, as director of high schools and associate superintendent before being hired as the superintendent for the Tucson Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona.  The Douglas County School Board unanimously hired her as their superintendent in July 2010.  DCSD Board of Education President John Carson affirmed the board’s selection of her saying, “Dr. Fagen’s proven track record of success as a superintendent, her experience as a teacher and professional in the education field, her advocacy for parental choice and her demonstrated leadership in innovative reforms in public education make her an excellent choice to lead Douglas County School District.” 

Under Fagen’s leadership, DCSD developed a strategic plan based on four district traditions—excellence, innovation, efficiency and safety—and focused on three major priorities:  choice, world-class education and system performance.  The timeline for implementation of the plan is very aggressive.  “We can’t wait,” says Fagen. 


DCSD acknowledges that every child learns differently. Instead of offering students the one-size-fits-all education that most school districts provide, Fagen explains these focus areas below, in her own words. 

She says, we have been committed to providing our students and their families with the tools they need to find the learning environment that best meets their needs and provides them with the maximum opportunity for success.

With feedback from our community, the district created 27 different strategies to expand choice in Douglas County.  Strategies range from developing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and Artful Learning programs at our neighborhood schools, to supporting charter schools, to revising open-enrollment policy. Still, the single program that has dominated the headlines has been DCSD’s Choice Scholarship Program.

In 2011, the school board took an unprecedented vote to create the first district-authorized program of its kind in the United States. The Choice Scholarship Pilot Program was approved and launched for 500 students in the 2011–12 school year.  Under the program, eligible students can receive scholarships worth the lesser of private school tuition, or 75 percent of their per-pupil public revenue ($4,575 for 2011–12), and families are allowed to supplement the scholarships.  Unlike other voucher programs, the district remains accountable for the scholarship students by having them participate in the same state and district testing as every other student.  Each private school partner was fully vetted to ensure that scholarship students are in a stable, private school environment that has a track record of academic performance at least as strong the district schools.    

The program was placed on hold when then ACLU sued not only the district, but also the Colorado Department of Education, citing violations of the Colorado Constitution prohibiting the use of public monies for private and religious schools.  The case is currently awaiting a hearing at the Colorado Court of Appeals. 

“I think it’s pretty simple to understand that our goal is to guarantee that every single child who lives in Douglas County receives an educational experience that provides the maximum opportunity for success, or as sometimes we say ‘unleash the genius of every child.’ We know that you don’t unleash that genius by using a one-size-fits-all system, so opening the door for parents and allowing them to explore other options that we don’t have in the district allows a student to reach his or her full potential,” continues Fagen.  “For me, that’s what it’s all about.”

The Choice Scholarship Pilot Program was crafted following the model of other programs that have been upheld by state courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Like the federal Pell Grant, it is the parent, not the district, that chooses where state funding will be spent.

World-class education

“Terms like 21st-century and world-class have become somewhat cliché, but in Douglas County when we say ‘world-class,’ we mean it,” says Fagen.  “We have reviewed the research, data, literature and best practices to create a synthesis of the best-of-the-best in modern education.  We have reviewed the most desired attributes in a modern workforce from companies like Nike, Apple, Cisco, Intel and Google, and we have aligned our work to make the changes necessary to ensure that our students are the best prepared in the world.”

According to Fagen, most adults describe their educational experience as memorization of information and developing skills such as reading and writing.  “We have to remember that when we were starting our education system, we were preparing students to be assembly-line workers.  That’s not what we need today.”

She continues, “The first step for us is to rethink what we teach—even to really broaden the idea of the word ‘teach.’  Teachers are less dispellers of knowledge, and more facilitators of skill development.”  DCSD has created the Douglas County Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum, and according to Fagen, it is pushing the boundaries.  “Part of having a world-class education is having  world-class outcomes focused on the right things—developing highly creative kids that can collaborate with people around the world; children that can communicate through writing, speaking and listening; and children that can think critically, who understand how to collect research and synthesize it, evaluate it, and come out with something new.”   Assessing these outcomes is where Douglas County really earns the reputation of a pioneer.

System performance

DCSD is engaged in creating a cutting-edge system performance framework that will not only measure student performance, but also measure the performance of teachers, schools, administrators and the district overall.  Dr. Fagen and her team have been collaborating with teachers to develop new outcomes and measure what is important.  

“For the past 10 years, we have been obsessed with standardized testing, but we have neglected to pay attention to whether those tests measure what students really need to be successful,” says Fagen.  DCSD is creating a Balanced Assessment System that will authentically measure the most important outcomes for students.

The data collected in the new system will also inform the new pay for performance compensation system for DCSD employees.  “The goal of the system is to recruit and retain the very best teachers and employees.  We know that is what is going to be best for our students.  The research is clear: the quality of the teacher is the number-one factor impacting student success,” explains Fagen.

Once the transition is complete to the new system, teachers who are effective and highly effective will have opportunities for pay increases and bonuses.  Those who are not will receive feedback and training to improve their skills. Opportunities for professional development through coaching and training will, however, be available to all employees, ensuring that exemplary employees become models for others in their field.  

“We can’t give everyone flat raises year after year because that violates our belief that teachers should be paid like professionals—that great teachers should make more than good teachers, and good teachers should make more than fair teachers,” says Fagen   “Good teachers are not afraid of accountability, they are afraid of accountability gone wrong—the kind we have experienced for the past 10 years due to No Child Left Behind.  We are going to show the world that we can identify the most important outcomes for our students, measure them the right way, and use that data to reward our amazing employees.”

There is little argument that Douglas County is on the cutting edge of reform and has drawn the attention of leaders across the nation.  Ken Kay, CEO of EdLeader 21, an organization of education professionals, recognized the district as a beacon for the rest of the country.  “I am impressed with Douglas County Schools’ approach to 21st-century learning.  They have not only identified the important learning outcomes, but are committed to embedding them in key education strategies in the district such as incentives, compensation and technology,” Kay said.   

Transforming the district into a 21st-century model is not without challenges.  DCSD’s collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union expired June 30, 2012.  The district conducted public negotiations, which allowed Fagen and her cabinet to go out and talk to teachers.  Her team used the feedback to draft a budget and negotiations package with three major goals—maintain fiscal stability, improve employees’ quality of life through a raise and additional benefits, and prepare every student to compete on the world stage for any college or career of their choice.  “We had hoped to come to a consensus and were disappointed that we could not agree on what we believed would be best for our students,” says Fagen.

After the collective bargaining agreement expired, Fagen’s team put together a compensation and benefits program, which replaced the collective bargaining agreement, and the school board acted quickly on behalf of its employees.  “With the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, we wanted to provide our outstanding teachers and staff with assurance,” says Board President Carson.  “The raise and improved benefits package will be effective July 1,and employees will see the increased compensation on their next paycheck.” 

Changing education is a long, difficult process, but it must be done.  “We are going to continue down the path we started.  We are educating our future leaders and reinventing American education,” continues Fagen.  “We know that we can create the innovators, game-changers and risk-takers that the American workforce requires.”  Fagen recognizes that what is happening in Douglas County will have a broader effect.  “American education has always been a foundation of the American economy, and if we are successful, it can continue to be,” she says.  “Our students will be the best prepared in the world, and that will be good for our students, Douglas County, Colorado and our country.”

 For more information about Douglas County School District and their strategic plan, visit or contact the Community Relations Department at 303-387-0030.