Some Fly, Some Die

How DISD betrays children of color

On his path to the White House, George W. Bush must pass by the Dallas Independent School District--the Bates Motel of local politics. (Think of school board meetings as the shower scene). Maybe that's what the Fates were thinking of when they created DISD. Maybe it's...

The test.
You can be president. But there's this detail. You have to spend just one night here first. (I'll be right up, Mother!)

One of the main planks in the platform being built under Bush--ostensibly in his campaign for re-election as governor but really in his reach for the White House--is a strong commitment to end "social promotion" in the public schools, the practice of passing kids from grade to grade when they can't read.

It sounds simple. If you can't read, you can't go on to the next grade.
It's not simple. Running through it are all the tangled and knotted issues, fears, and misconceptions of race and social class.

In that tangle, there is a core question: Can public schools take little black and Hispanic kids from the poorest inner-city neighborhoods and make them as smart as white kids from affluent suburbs? By the end of the first grade? With more or less the same money they have now?

Lost in the smoke and din is an intriguing benchmark of where we have come and where we are today as a people: Both sides say yes. And both sides argue from the same mountain of empirical data, recently summarized in a report of the National Academy of Sciences.

It can be done.
Gov. Bush says yes, it can be done, and we should pass laws to force school districts to make it happen.

His detractors say yes, it can be done, but the laws Bush wants to see passed won't make it happen and instead will punish children who are already victims. They say the Bush speeches and TV ads on the topic are couched in exploitative language designed to flatter the racist biases of social conservatives.

But why should Dallas and the Dallas Independent School District be any more the focus for this debate than any other place in Texas? For these reasons:

* Dallas is the most screwed-up place in the state racially.
* The Dallas Independent School District does one of the worst jobs of teaching poor and minority kids to read of any big-city district in the state.

* The Bush initiative hits town just as an alliance of minority leaders and education activists are about to get their hands on data they say will show a pattern of deliberate educational malfeasance by members of the Dallas school board over the last several decades.

In the last year there has been so much focus on sexual and financial escapades at DISD headquarters that we all may have lost sight of the real ball in this game--the ability of the Dallas school system to teach. The district may be better off having the public focus on embezzlement and office sex.

Last March, the National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, published a report on kids and reading that established, among other things, a principle many savvy inner-city educators had believed for decades: That reading is everything, more so than math, and you can't do math until after you can read, and you've got to have reading up and going--working, happening, clicking--by the end of first grade.

Second grade, some of third grade, maybe you can do a little catch-up.
The experts are depressingly unanimous on one point: If kids still can't read by the end of third grade, they may be lost. Maybe by a miracle somebody can help some of them, but for the most part the ones who can't read at the end of third grade will be housed in the public schools like inmates, passed up by social promotion to the 10th grade, where social promotion now ends and they have to pass the state exit test, and there they will drop out.

Unable to read.
Dallas does one of the worst jobs of teaching early reading of any big city in Texas. If there were a rule in place right now saying no student could pass the third grade without passing the reading portion of the TAAS (state achievement test), 41 percent of the African-American third-graders in DISD would flunk the year, according to TAAS data published by the Texas Education Agency. That's almost 2,200 black students held back.

For Hispanic students, it would be more than 38 percent, or 2,300 kids. For whites it would be 22 percent, or 300 kids.

Compare that with Houston: The same rule in Houston would flunk out only 24 percent of black students (roughly half the Dallas rate), 24 percent of Hispanics, and 6 percent of whites.

An interesting note is that the students in Dallas who do the very worst in comparison with their ethnic counterparts in Houston are the white kids. A strict no-TAAS, no pass rule would flunk out Dallas white kids at more than three times the rate of Houston white kids.

How could that be?

A group of minority parents think they know exactly how that could be. They believe it's the result of a deliberate betrayal of children to protect bad teachers and administrators, and they are in the process of suing DISD for the proof. They are not eager to see any kind of Bush initiative come to town if it's going to take focus away from what they believe is true culpability for the Dallas teaching gap.

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