By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The $750,000 Ross Perot-funded survey of what's good and bad about the Dallas Independent School District has become a giant Rorschach test. Every conceivable group has found something about it that offends them.
The PTA governing board and two teachers' unions voted recently not to support the survey. Then last week, after several bootlegged copies of the questionnaire had begun circulating around the city, black and Hispanic activists voiced their own criticisms of the survey.
Distribution of the questionnaires--which were to be completed by all students, teachers, principals, administrators, and staff in the coming weeks--will now be delayed at least until fall.
The board of managers of the citywide PTA council initially opposed the survey because parents would not be privy to what questions their children were answering. But once the board of managers actually read several versions of the questionnaires, specifically the ones designed for 5th through 8th graders and separate surveys for upperclassmen, they voiced specific gripes.
"The survey is so generic, I don't see where the information is going to accomplish anything," says Ruth Houston, president of the PTA board of managers. "We're not saying kill the survey, just put something in it the district can utilize."
The PTA governing body was upset that the survey did not ask any questions about school libraries, cafeterias, and food, or after-school programs--major areas of concern to its members.
One question that particularly irked the PTA group asked fifth through eighth graders: "How good a job do you think is being done by your teacher--very good, good, so-so, poor, very poor, don't know/no opinion."
The PTA says this question poses several problems. First of all, students in these grades have more than one teacher. Furthermore, "Children are not qualified or capable of judging the quality of teachers," says Harley Hiscox, president of the 5,000-member Dallas Alliance of Educators. "And parents are not always qualified."
The teacher groups were also miffed that the questionnaires lack any questions about teacher salaries, a subject that came up in many of the focus groups used in preparing the survey.
The survey has also been criticized for presenting poorly written questions. For instance, parents are asked how they "feel about the quality of education" in individual subjects, including something called "world languages."
"I don't even know what that means," says John Fullinwider, who was voted DISD's teacher of the year this fall. "Nowhere does it ask, 'Would you like your child to learn a second language?'"
Critics say that the questions concerning textbooks, computers, and testing will elicit vague and useless information as well. Students, for example, are asked to rate the books and computer software and hardware they use in school from very good to very poor.
"The older students can tell you a lot more than something's good or poor," says Lois Walters-Ruiz, recording secretary for the PTA board of managers. "They should be asked, 'Does everyone in your class have a book, do you get to take them home or do you work from mimeographed sheets? Do you have a computer in your class, and does your teacher know how to use it?'"
Sirota Consulting of New York prepared the survey. Almost all of the company's previous work has been done in the corporate world.
At times, Sirota's inexperience in the public schools milieu is clearly evident. All of the surveys ask whether the schools are "striving for excellence in everything it does."
"This is a typical corporate booster-type question that doesn't yield any useful information," Fullinwider says. "Say you think your school strives for excellence in first-grade reading, but not in math. How do you answer that question?"
The teacher and parent groups, as well as black and Hispanic activists, fear that the survey results might be used for dubious purposes. Hispanics worry that the question about country of origin might be used to root out illegal aliens. Earlier this week, eight LULAC councils in the district banded together to protest the survey.
Blacks have pointed to other problems, which were aired at a recent meeting organized by County Commissioner John Wiley Price. "Those at the meeting were overwhelmingly opposed to the survey, because it is an opinion poll, not a comprehensive assessment of the needs of the district," says Richard C. Evans, head of the African-American Educational Network, a parent group dedicated to educational excellence for black children.
Many of the groups were also troubled by questions asked about the business community--such as whether the business leadership of Dallas has a genuine concern for the education of all Dallas children. No matter how that question is answered, survey critics believe, the result could be used as a mandate for the business community's control over the district.
Despite their varying agendas, all the groups are troubled by the prospect that the survey's results will be used as ammunition for the proponents of school vouchers and charter schools, which will take money away from public education. They point to the question put to parents that asks, "If you had a choice, would you continue to send your child to a DISD school?"