Some Fly, Some Die

How DISD betrays children of color

From that point on, Dougherty agrees with the recent report of the National Academy of Sciences that minority kids, like white kids, benefit from a so-called "text-rich environment"--in other words, lots of reading, being read to, and exposure to well-written books that hit home.

But they have to know how letters work first. The successful schools he has found are the ones that get in early, work them hard and fast, drill on phonics, and often maintain a strict disciplinary setting.

There are many variations, of course. But to Dougherty, the question is why anyone would continue to think it can't be done, when the exceptional schools do it every day.

"If there are schools out there that are effective," he says, "the hard question has always been, Why doesn't everybody do what the effective schools are doing?"

Dougherty doesn't think teachers and administrators fail to adopt effective teaching techniques because they're lazy or bad people. He thinks they don't use the techniques because they don't know about them.

"My take is that there is a very poor flow of information among educators," he says.

But another major piece of the puzzle, Dougherty says, is faith. Teachers, administrators, and even superintendents have to believe there is such a thing as effectiveness, that it can be done, that poor and minority kids can be taught to read well by the end of the third grade.

"The National Assessment of Educational Progress and other research has shown that there has already been real progress, that it's not all grade inflation and cheating on tests," he says. "It can be done."

And it can be done here. Kids can be taught better.
"Between 1992 and 1996 in 4th-grade math, Texas was the most improved state in the country," he says. "In fact, it was so dramatic, they reran the numbers, and they found that there isn't anybody else in the country who has done what Texas did."

Not only can it be done, but the ability of teachers to get kids to learn is not determined by the socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic background of the students. Their success is influenced by background but not determined by it.

"Looking at the school data, you see what appears to be kids coming from similar backgrounds, but with tremendous variation in how well those kids are doing," Dougherty says.

It was that variation--one group of kids from a certain background versus others from the same background--that led Sanders in Tennessee and then Mendro in Dallas to what both found was the most important factor: the teacher.

Quite apart from the debate on teaching techniques, Dougherty believes there is an inner factor that helps make one teacher a success and the next one a failure.

"I really think that self-confidence in educators themselves is a critical factor," he says. "The educators who really believe they can make a difference with these kids make a difference."

It takes so much one-on-one--staring into the kid's face and trying this and that until the light comes on. The ones who start out not believing in the light itself will try a few favorite tricks, shrug, give up, and pass on to the next one.

"They have to say to themselves, 'Yes, these kids face tremendous obstacles in their background, but we are going to make sure these kids learn, no matter what.

"Once you have that, once they have the confidence and the determination, these educators tend to look around and find methods that work."

Dougherty acknowledges--in fact knows too well--that there are school systems where there is no initial will or motivation or push to get the ball rolling in the first place. The key to changing those systems, he says, is setting a hard goal and holding the system to it.

"They need accountability systems that will push them to learn how to be effective," he says.

Dougherty is a supporter of the Bush initiative to end social promotion in the schools, because he thinks it will make school systems all over Texas feel the same urgency Phyllis Hunter feels under Houston's voluntary program to end social promotion: She has to get those kids to read and succeed or the school system can't pass them.

Retention--flunking kids, holding them back--is the one political bullet that school systems can't dodge. It costs more money to have students repeat grades. It contributes directly to the drop-out rate.

"Retention is not popular with educators," he says.
In his view, that's a good thing. It makes retention the goad, the prod, the push that moribund school systems need in order to get them off the dime.

"The people I know who are supporting the governor on an end to social promotion are doing it because they believe it will build a fire under everybody to put in the improvements that will get these kids up to speed."

It's a bit of social engineering--holding the kids' feet to the fire in order to hold the school system's feet to the fire--that begins to look a lot less clever when they're your kids.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price has just arrived this morning to begin a long day's work. His eyes are a little puffy, and he looks as if he could use a quiet hour, at least a quiet 45 minutes, before he has to get mad at somebody. But as I slowly unreel my long, unwieldy bird's nest of a question about ending social promotion at DISD, his eyes are already beginning to flame.

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