Why Johnny's in the dumpster

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

DISD has been in court for more than two years fighting a demand from the Open Records Project for all of the district's test data going back several years from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, or ITBS. The ITBS gives educators a broad benchmark, showing where a child falls in comparison to children of the same grade level nationwide. The Open Records Project is a statewide private organization based in Dallas that seeks to make public data available on the Internet. In this case, the ORP wants the specific kind of data that has been used in respected studies elsewhere, especially in Tennessee, to show how many teachers can teach and how many cannot.

The Dallas school district prevailed against the ORP in a local court, and the case is now on appeal, waiting for a hearing date. In the meantime, the Texas Attorney General has entered the case as an ally of the ORP, arguing that the data the ORP is seeking is clearly public and is information the public has a right and a need to know.

The school district argues that making the ITBS test data public would violate the privacy of students who took the test. The ORP and the state attorney general say there are all kinds of ways to blank out names and numbers so individual students would not be identifiable. The real reason DISD wants to keep the data secret, according to the ORP people, is that the data will show that Dallas regularly and in large numbers employs teachers so terrible that they actually make kids dumber at the end of a year of teaching than the kids were at the beginning.

Mark Lang

"We think the number of really bad teachers may be as high as one in five," says Russell Fish of the Open Records Project. Fish bases his estimate on DISD's own report three years ago, the "Mendro Report," in which nationally accepted statistical techniques were applied to DISD test data to find out how good or bad the district's teachers were.

Fish says the numbers in the Mendro report are so bad that they have to mean there are many classrooms in Dallas where the adult in the front of the room isn't even a real teacher. Instead, Fish facetiously says those classes are being taught by "street people" -- that is, people who walk in off the street and offer to substitute "teach" for $6.75 an hour.

The recently released report on the Dallas Reading Plan shows in table after table, chart after chart, that the teachers with low "CEIs" -- classroom effectiveness indexes -- produce students who do lousy on their TAAS and ITBS tests; the teachers who have high CEIs produce more students who do well.

The CEI is a statistical profile of a teacher's work over time. It measures where each of the teacher's students started out at the beginning of the year in order to tell whether the teacher has moved them ahead by the end of the year. Over several years, it's possible to tell how good or bad a teacher is at helping students learn, no matter what kind of students he or she gets.

According to the report, the Dallas Reading Plan doesn't make the bad teachers better. It doesn't make the good teachers better. It doesn't help the kids.

The centerpiece of the Dallas Reading Plan has been a voluntary training program for teachers, which they are expected to take part in after school and on weekends, on their own time, unpaid except for a $500 stipend if they complete the work. The full course of training, in order to get the stipend, involves 90 hours of classwork, so that's about $5.50 an hour for the classwork and nothing for the very heavy load of homework the teachers are given. The goal of the coursework is to teach teachers the new techniques for bringing all children to "phonemic awareness" by kindergarten, and hopefully teach them reading fluency by the end of first grade.

So far the Dallas reading program has managed to train about 800 teachers at a rate of 400 a year. According to information provided by the Texas Education Agency, there are about 3,500 teachers in DISD spread between the levels of preschool to third grade.

The Houston Independent School District, on the other hand, has been training about 2,000 teachers a year in its reading program. How does Houston do it? The Houston program takes place during regular work hours. Houston pays substitutes to take over the classes of teachers in training. And the Houston program is mandatory.

Clearly, Dallas has failed in an attempt to come up with a way to improve the teaching skills of the teachers it has on the payroll now. Just as clearly, according to the Mendro report and according to this new report, there are a whole lot of teachers out there who can't help children learn how to read.

Don't the parents have a right to know who those teachers are? Of course the district will continue whining about how it can't hire new teachers. So what? Maybe it's true. Maybe they can't. But if your mechanic said, "I just can't find people to do good brake jobs," would you send him your car anyway?

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