By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Black and Hispanic community leaders--at each other's throats in recent months over the Gonzalez-Harden mess at DISD--are drawing together, very carefully, over a school issue that could really blow the roof off.
Both blacks and Hispanics think they may finally be onto the reason why kids of color come out of the Dallas public school system less well educated, on average, than white kids.
The evidence the new coalition is seeking would show conclusively, they hope, that it's not race. It's not the economic status of the kid's family, educational level of the parents, opportunity to belong to a country club, number of trips to Europe before age 16, any of that.
According to a growing body of statistical evidence, based mainly on research in Tennessee but supported by research done by DISD's own number-crunchers, individual teachers are far and away the most important single factor in a child's educational success or failure.
If that's true, it means the testing difference between minority kids and white kids is not based on some mysterious next-to-impossible problem about culture and socio-economic background.
It's completely fixable.
And the fault for its not being fixed lies at the door of education professionals.
That's explosive information. Everybody in public education knows it. None of them wants it out--even the guy in Tennessee who developed the initial research.
"It would just create chaos," says Dr. William Sanders, the University of Tennessee statistician who discovered the bad-teacher effect in the first place. "I do not support the public release of this information."
Sanders, who has worked with statewide public school test data in Tennessee for the last 10 years, has published articles in serious peer-reviewed academic journals showing that bad teachers are the single most important reason that some kids do poorly.
Some teachers are so bad, Sanders' research shows, they actually make the kids in their classes measurably dumber over the course of a school year.
And the damage is permanent. "Even if there are good teachers in intervening years, we can still measure the effect of the bad one in an individual child's test scores years later," Sanders says.
So the really bad teachers, whom Sanders estimates at 3 to 5 percent of the total teacher population, have an effect on kids equivalent to a partial lobotomy.
But that 3 to 5 percent is not evenly distributed, as in, say, South Dallas and Highland Park. Sanders' research shows that the kids who suffer most from the bad-teacher problem are minority kids in big-city school districts. Especially smart minority kids.
"In Tennessee, according to our data, the group of children being hammered the hardest are young above-average African-American children in urban school districts."
The findings are based on Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) results, which benchmark each kid each year against a national norm for that grade level. Tests like the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills don't work for these purposes, because they don't give a consistent year-to-year national benchmark comparison.
The push to get similar data for DISD started last October when Russell Fish, an education activist, sent DISD a letter demanding an array of data from the ITBS, which DISD kids have been taking since 1986.
Fish, a young white guy who was once chief executive officer of his own successful microprocessor company, wants to get the information and put it on the Internet in a format any parent or kid or interested person could get to and understand quickly.
"We will be able to show, down to the classroom level, exactly how a campus is performing and exactly what effect it is having on individual students," Fish says.
He says the public-education establishment doesn't want people to see that information not merely because it doesn't want people to know about the really bad teachers and schools. In his research across the state, Fish says, he has found extraordinarily high-performing minority schools that the public-ed gurus also find very embarrassing.
"The existence of these black and Hispanic schools, in places where they're not supposed to be, with kids testing just way off the charts [well], destroys the myth of inferiority," he says.
"Once you have a little group of minority kids that do well," he says, "that blows away the myth that black kids or Hispanic kids can't hack it. Once you have someone succeed, then the question becomes, why can't they all succeed?"
It's a question that's very interesting to black and Hispanic community leaders in Dallas right now--so interesting that some who have been most keenly at each other's throats in recent months are talking in terms that sound almost like peace.
"I have had major differences with the leadership of the NAACP in Dallas," says Alfred Carrizales, a longtime activist in the Hispanic community. "But at some point in time, big boys have to put their differences aside if it's going to be for the best of the community."
Carrizales says Fish's campaign is one of those occasions.
And local NAACP president Lee Alcorn--the guy Carrizales is talking about when he says he has had major differences--also says that the information Russell Fish is seeking is the kind of thing that might be worth burying the African-American and Mexican-American hatchets.