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.

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.

"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?

What the ORP wants to do is pull down the curtain of secrecy in Dallas and say to parents and taxpayers: "Here is how many really terrible teachers we have. Here is how many really great teachers."

Then let the chips fall where they may.

Instead, in Dallas' passion for euphemism and our horror of conflict, we sit by mumbling while 7,000 children a year fall into the cauldron of permanent social blightedness. Or, as I might say if I worked for a certain daily newspaper, "School chiefs call loss of 7,000 tykes per annum acceptable average."

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