By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
And what about no-TAAS, no-pass? Is Dallas ready to bite that bullet?
Acting Dallas schools superintendent James Hughey pushes back slightly from a small round conference table in his office and laughs uncomfortably.
"Man," he says, "that's a good question. I'm glad you asked that. They told me you were going to ask that.
"What I feel is that, out of pure honesty, if you did that with youngsters on an immediate basis, I think you'd set the whole school system up to fail."
He doesn't say he wouldn't do it. He mentions the year 2005 as maybe a nice time to bring something like that into effect. (What in the heck happened to 2001?) But he sounds mainly as if he would like for something like that to be someone else's idea.
"What I would have to do, much like we've done with the reading thing, is give a particular opportunity to all of our stakeholders and say, 'How do we do this?' I would like them to help us buy into the process of making sure our students are proficient."
We'll take that as a no.
As for the idea of making the Dallas Reading Plan mandatory, maybe using that three million bucks a year for teacher training the way Houston does--to hire subs and haul the teachers out of class and retrain them--Hughey has another somewhat lengthy answer:
"The difficulty is that, at the same time you are concentrating on this particular area, you are working it through the educational process, and at the same time you are taking existing staff members and allowing them to see how important it is to take a different approach."
Also a no? Probably.
Hughey sees the push for better reading instruction as a mandate not from minority families but from the business community.
"The Dallas business community has seen the problem of youngsters not being able to read as being the key to success in school," he says.
Later in the conversation, he says, "What they are looking for is someone who will show up for work on time and have a work ethic. The No. 1 factor employers tell us they are looking for is the ability to listen."
In Hughey's description, the Cooter reading plan emerges not as any sort of integral part of the district's work, certainly not as a core mission, but as a kind of froufrou add-on backed by the business community.
Cooter's reading plan, he explains, comes from the corporate community and is based on corporate models. "When you're in business, if you have a department that needs help, you set it aside, and you begin to focus on what you can do to fix that department. You throw money at it, fix the problem, fold it back in, and then you move on to the next problem."
Jim Hughey comes across as a nice man, wary of intrigue, a gray-haired survivor in a not very nice place. If the Bateses had been able to grow the family business into a national chain of motels, he would have made a good general manager. But when he talks about initiatives to bring every kid up to par, his shoulders slump and his face goes slack, like a man who has seen this stuff come and go far too many times.
"Several years ago they called it continuous progress. Then later they called it prescriptive learning. There have been a lot of different words for it," he says with an apologetic smile.
What one hears is that it's all the same old thing anyway. So why should people who have earned their tenure be disturbed and disrupted over it?
The important lesson--what we see in the TAAS scores for Dallas--is that efforts to bring DISD kids up to grade-level reading proficiency have never worked. And Jim Hughey clearly isn't eager to see another serious attempt anytime soon.
The theory that poor black and Hispanic kids are hopelessly hobbled by their environments has always had one big, gaping hole in it: Often in the most unlikely places, there have been scattered minority schools where somebody was teaching minority kids to read like wizards.
For years in Houston it was Wesley Elementary, where kindergartners were reading on a second-grade level, outperforming children in the nearby affluent West University neighborhood. In Dallas it was Joseph J. Rhoads Elementary in South Dallas. But these exceptional schools were always there, here and there, and they gave the lie to the doctrine that poor minority kids can't be just as smart as rich white kids.
The poor kids had to be taught differently. Harder, at first. They had to be taught well. But the exceptional schools proved it could be done.
J. Chrys Dougherty, who up until recently was on the faculty of the University of Texas, has devoted much of his career to finding those schools and figuring out what makes them tick. The answers seem to have a lot to do with using rigorous phonics drilling right away, early on, to bring disadvantaged kids to a state of "phonemic awareness" as fast as possible.