By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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.
"Some issues are common above both groups," Alcorn says. "I wouldn't have any problem meeting with Hispanic leaders over this."
What black and Hispanic leaders in Dallas are excited about is not a bunch of data dealing with kids in Tennessee. It's published reports in academic journals--written by DISD number-crunchers and based on Dallas teachers--showing the same effect here that Sanders found in Tennessee.
Fish got onto the situation here when he saw a confidential report that was being shown around within an elite circle of well-heeled movers and shakers, mainly associated with Texas Instruments and the Dallas Citizens Council. The report, Fish says, showed that there may be as many as 200 teachers in DISD who have a lobotomizing effect on their students.
The Citizens Council, a private fraternal organization of chief executive officers, as well as the people at T.I., knew about the problem because DISD had given them the data. But the same number-crunchers who gave it to top business leaders definitely don't want Fish to have it.
Robert Mendro, a statistician at DISD headquarters, says, "There is a strong possibility that what he is asking for could be used to identify individual kids and teachers. We do not want to be responsible for releasing any kid's score to outsiders."
And what about releasing it to the Citizens Council? Mendro says that was done under a "special contract."
Oh, that's right. They're not outsiders. They're insiders.
Fish, who has already worked out a World Wide Web page in cooperation with the Dallas Examiner, wants to do exactly what Mendro and other public-education professionals fear he will do. He wants to create their nightmare.
"That's the whole Internet strategy," he says. "You've got a question about your kid's education? Every possible question you could have, you are going to be able to see at the touch of your mouse. Just go to the page."
The information Fish would put up on the Web would include a precise, detailed analysis of your kid's school, classroom by classroom. The teachers would not be named, but Fish admits that interested parents "would be able to figure it out."
That's the part that is seen as explosive and leading to chaos by people with a major stake in the system and the status quo. It would create a huge political pressure to blow out the really bad teachers.
But Fish thinks that would be the opposite of chaos. He says what's going on now--people trying to cut each other's throats over Chinese office furniture and love-nests a la Yvonne Gonzalez and Matthew Harden--is chaos.
Being able to see just exactly how DISD under-serves black and Hispanic kids, Fish says, would give people something to fight over that makes sense.
When Fish first asked for the test data, Mendro and others said it was protected from open-records requirements because it was private student information. Fish pointed out immediately that he was asking for the data with the names of students blanked out.
Next, DISD said they could give it to him after all, but it would cost $4,000. He told them he was going to sue. They said they could give it to him for $2,040.
With the help of a nonprofit group called the Texas Justice Foundation, Fish says, he will probably sue anyway. He says that even if they ever agreed on a price, DISD would find other excuses to delay.
"Their pattern is delay, delay, delay on this sort of thing," he says. "The best thing is to put them in court and treat it like abusive-discovery."
"We represented Russell and a group of parents," Parker says. "We requested similar data. They gave us a similar runaround. We filed suit, and they gave us the material."
In Austin, the school system had only been giving the ITBS test for a few years. As soon as they realized they were going to have to give the results to Fish and company, Austin stopped giving the test.
But it's too late for that in Dallas. The test has been given for 11 years. DISD's own numbers gurus know and have said in their own published articles that the data here will confirm the results found in Tennessee.
The results, if Fish ever gets them, will show that it's not you. And it's not me.
And that's what DISD doesn't want out.