Why Johnny's in the dumpster

DISD would rather protect itself and teachers than teach kids to read

After three years of hype about how the Dallas Independent School District was finally going to teach kids to read, the jury is now in.

It's thumbs-down.

According to a recently released evaluation of the "Dallas Reading Plan," it's a total bust. Kids in grades one through three have barely budged from their reading levels. The district's multimillion-dollar attempt to teach teachers how to teach reading apparently has had no effect.

Mark Lang

The Dallas Morning News did a story on the report last week, and if you knew how to read Morning News language ("Monongo"), you would have gathered that the results of the reading plan are awful and the program is in the ditch. The headline was "DISD stands behind '97 reading plan despite obstacles, criticism." In Monongo, that means, "Reading plan head-first in toilet; DISD says boots still dry."

But give them that: The Monongans managed to get across at least some of the truth in their report.

What you did not learn from the Morning News article, however, is that the recently released study overwhelmingly confirms the one thing DISD is fighting hardest to conceal -- that the reason kids still can't read in Dallas is bad teachers.

Not race. Not class. Not money. Not "parental involvement" (teacher union code for "You lookin' at me?").

Teach...ers.

The report shows that the reading program, launched in 1997 and now weighing in at $20 million in federal, local, and private dollars, has had virtually no effect at all on reading skills -- neither district-wide nor in the classrooms where it was selectively applied -- but that the difference between good teachers and bad teachers has everything to do with which kids wind up reading and which ones don't.

The conclusion is stated in another difficult language, Educratese, but it's right there, nonetheless, on the first page of the 318-page report: "The teacher's CEI was the only statistically significant predictor of students' test scores."

In English: "A teacher's personal effectiveness in the classroom is the only thing we can find that tells us whether a kid in that classroom will learn to read, and our reading plan has had no effect on teacher effectiveness."

Is any of this important? Yeah, it's important. It's important because we're talking about a bureaucratic system that calmly and methodically maims the lives of thousands of children every year by failing to teach them to read. It's our school system, and whether you and I have kids in it or not, this is our community, and those are all our communal children.

It's not important for a pragmatic reason or an economic reason or a social-engineering reason. It's important because those kids could all learn to read, and if they don't it's on our consciences. It goes on our tombstones.

Almost two years ago, the National Academy of Sciences published a long-awaited global study of reading based on all of the available scientifically respectable research. In that report, three core assertions were made:

··· All children, no matter what their social background, can be taught to read at the national grade level for their age group by the end of the first grade.

··· All learning, and in fact almost all socioeconomic attainment for the rest of their lives, will depend on their ability to read.

··· If they still can't read at grade-level by the end of the third grade, they're screwed. Permanently. They will never recover. They will always be socioeconomic cripples.

All of that was implicit in the announced purpose of the Dallas Reading Plan. The plan's backers in the business community and in the grassroots communities said their goal was to bring 90 percent of the city's third-graders to grade-level reading proficiency by 2001.

The findings in the recently released evaluation of the reading plan show that after three years of this well-intentioned special effort, fewer than half of DISD's third-graders go on to the fourth grade reading at grade level. That means the district is continuing to turn out more than 7,000 fourth-graders a year who don't have a shot at full social and economic citizenship.

What's especially galling about the report is that it confirms what the district has been in court trying to hide -- that the biggest reason kids can't read is bad teaching.

That's what the national data have shown for the last five years. Much of the Bush administration's push for reading reform in Texas is based on solid research arguing that there are teaching techniques to overcome any kind of social or verbal deficit a child may bring to school. If a child comes from a book-poor home, schools can use basic phonics drilling to teach that child how to decode printed pages. The child from the book-poor home can read at the same level as or better than the kid with Ph.D. parents by the end of the first grade if there is preschool intervention, and by the end of the third grade if there is not.

But if a district wants to make that happen, it must put trained, capable teachers in the classroom. And teachers -- good, bad, or ugly -- are the one thing DISD doesn't want the public looking at too closely. It's really at this seam that we find ourselves up against the lockstep professional armies of the educrat kingdom.

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