Some Fly, Some Die

How DISD betrays children of color

The problem and the solution do not really revolve around getting rid of bad teachers. There are only so many people out there willing to teach, only so much money to pay them. George Farkas, the UTD reading guru, asks, "How realistic is it to say, 'Just get us the best teachers'?"

At some point the district has to make do with what it has. But that does leave the very serious problem of bad teaching, if the district doesn't do anything effective to fix it.

According to the research that has been done on teachers and student achievement in Tennessee--research that has been reproduced in Dallas by DISD's own numbers people--there are teachers out there who do such a bad job that they move their students backward in their development year after year.

It's not that they get all the bad students. Other teachers get the same kids later and manage to move them ahead. The research shows that 3 to 5 percent of teachers in public schools today do such a terrible job that they actually decrease their students' knowledge in class after class, every year they teach.

In Dallas that percentage would yield between 275 and 460 terrible teachers.
The research also shows that the damage is more or less permanent. You never get your second-grade year back. You can do lots better in third grade. But the testers say they can still find traces of that terrible second-grade year in you when you're a senior.

This is the same research that shows the worst effects of terrible teaching hitting smart kids in minority inner-city schools. This is the data for which the NAACP and LULAC are suing in Dallas.

DISD is fighting to keep the data secret. It says it is using the data to find bad teachers and go help them teach better. But if that's true, then why are Dallas' early-education reading scores sliding while Houston's soar? And that, in turn, raises the deeper question of why anyone would trust DISD.

What makes it all the more poignant is that no child is ever irretrievably toast. No matter how damaged, they are all still human beings, endowed at creation with immeasurable potential.

And there are people who can get them to read later. John Fullinwider, a community organizer who went back to teaching a few years ago, teaches literature at the Metropolitan Educational Center, a school for drop-outs or students at risk of dropping out.

"The key is to put the right literature in front of them," Fullinwider says. "Then you draw them into it with small oral group readings where people aren't afraid to read out loud."

He gives them poet Luis Rodriguez, author of "Always Running," who writes from his years as an East L.A. gang member and deals with themes like sexual assault and losing family members to street violence. He gives them San Antonio novelist Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street. He gives them James Baldwin and the plays of August Wilson.

"But then I give them Shakespeare," he says.
Fullinwider told me how moved he was last June when he heard Harvard professor Lani Guinier (President Clinton's unsuccessful nominee to head the Civil Rights Division five years ago) speak in Dallas at a conference on ending racial divisions within DISD.

"She talked about the metaphor of the canary in the coal mine," he says. "She said the so-called at-risk kids or children of color are the canary.

"Instead of heeding the signal that something might be poisoned, we keep trying to fix the canary. We buy it a new cage or give it a little gas mask. But if you gag that canary so that you can no longer hear it, everyone else in the mine is going to die too."

According to the 1997 TAAS data, African-American third-grade students in Dallas failed the reading portion of the state test at about twice the rate of their ethnic counterparts in Houston. Hispanic students in Dallas failed at slightly less than twice the rate for Hispanic students in Houston.

White students in Dallas failed at more than three times the rate of white students in Houston.

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