Some Fly, Some Die

How DISD betrays children of color

An alliance of the NAACP, LULAC, and the Texas Justice Foundation (a generally conservative education reform group that has backed minority parents in lawsuits against Austin schools) is suing DISD for the release of several years' worth of test data from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, or ITBS. The ITBS is different from the TAAS test because it shows where kids stand in relation to children at their grade level nationwide.

In the last few years, research based on ITBS data has shown that far and away the most important factor in a child's success in school--more important than social class, race, or ethnicity--is quality of teaching. More to the point, ITBS-based research in Tennessee is beginning to show the broad outlines of a racial-ethnic pattern of bad-teacher dumping.

William Sanders, who has pioneered much of the ITBS research in Tennessee, says the results so far indicate that the worst teachers go to the poorest, most minority, most vulnerable schools, where the children who are most harmed by their presence are the smart ones.

"In Tennessee, according to our data," Sanders says, "the group of children being hammered the hardest are young, above-average African-American children in urban school districts."

Sanders' work in Tennessee has been partly reproduced in Dallas, using DISD data from the ITBS, in a study by Robert Mendro, DISD's executive director of institutional research. Mendro took the problem far enough to establish that teachers are the most important factor in success here, as elsewhere.

What the NAACP and LULAC want to know is, Which teachers? Where? For how long? And why?

It's a very bitter issue.
Russell Fish, an education activist and computer guru who is working with the NAACP and LULAC on their lawsuit, says lawyers from the Texas Justice Foundation are just about to begin taking depositions from all of the members of the current Dallas school board and some former members. He says the questions will be pointed.

"We will ask them, 'What did you know? When did you know it?'" Fish says. "Apparently the district has known since 1992 about the dramatic effect that bad teachers are having on these kids, and they have done nothing about it.

"This is malfeasance of the worst kind," he says. "There is no difference between people knowing this and allowing it to continue and someone knowingly allowing blood to be distributed with the AIDS virus in it."

Fish is a freelance education activist who happens to enjoy some independence because he made a fortune in Silicon Valley a long time ago. Few establishment education experts speak with quite his level of passion on this issue, but almost no one disputes his contention that kindergarten through third grade is the one window of opportunity that counts.

George Farkas, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Dallas, has achieved a national reputation for his research on reading instruction and for developing a much-heralded tutoring program for early readers. Farkas describes what happens if low-income kids don't master reading right away when they start school:

"Low-income kids begin kindergarten with tremendous disadvantages," he says. "They come to school with several thousand fewer hours of being read to and helped at succeeding in reading than middle-class kids.

"They are even spoken to directly by adults much less often, so they have a weaker oral vocabulary. They don't speak standard English, so they don't know the sounds that make up standard English. They don't know the names of the letters or the sounds the letters symbolize."

Farkas recently helped organize a national conference where early-reading experts were asked to write papers saying what needs to happen in order for poor kids to learn to read.

"They all said these kids are coming to school way behind the middle-class kids, so a lot more serious instruction has to take place in public kindergarten," he says. "First grade is bearing down on them like a freight train."

Farkas says the only way to help poor kids catch up and get going on reading is by working them hard in kindergarten.

"It's difficult for the teachers. Lower-income kids appear to be less mature than middle-class kids. They're harder to control. It's easy for a lot of pseudo-experts who run the schools and who run Head Start to say, 'Oh, the kids aren't developmentally ready.' The teachers say, 'It's just kindergarten; give us a break.' But there's no time."

Poor kids slip backward about three months every summer. Middle-class kids stay even over the summer.

"Poor kids gain six months during the school year and then lose three months every summer. There's continued erosion," Farkas says. "The first-grade teacher's job is to get the kid reading-ready by Christmas. But the first-grade teacher thinks it can't be done, so she aims for the average and figures with any luck, some percentage of them will be ready by the end of first grade.

"But second grade is considerably more demanding. Second grade assumes kids can already read and pushes them to read more and increase their vocabulary and learn punctuation."

A child won't be able to do any of that, Farkas says, if he comes to second grade unable to decode letters and words on a printed page.

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