Go Down, Moses

When the new super gets to town, Dallas will decide whether it really wants accountability

Explain this, then: The lawsuit seeking test data from the ITBS, the absolute state-of-the-art tool of educational accountability in America today, was filed by an alliance of the NAACP and LULAC. Meanwhile, the Dallas Citizens Council, the semi-secret downtown business group that says it is not descended from the old white citizens councils, has never taken any interest in the ITBS lawsuit.

This is the same test and the identical data being used in the nation's most talked-about educational accountability system, Tennessee's "Value-Added Analysis" developed by William Sanders of the University of Tennessee. It's in the nature of the ITBS test data and in the genius of Sanders' system that you can measure how well teachers are teaching kids, even allowing for all of the social factors like poverty, transience, and parental involvement. The system in Tennessee doesn't measure whether a teacher gets the same result from a poor kid as from a rich kid. It says that in the course of a school year, both the poor kid and the rich kid should move ahead by some amount--X,Y, or Z--from where they started. Then the value-added system looks to see if that happened.

Some minority leaders in Dallas have been convinced for years that the district's worst teachers are assigned to the poorest, most minority-populated, most politically defenseless schools.

Maybe the poorest schools do get the worst teachers. Maybe not. But if we can settle the point, we can clear an awful lot of smoke from the air.

The problem is that this issue just isn't on the radar of the Citizens Council types, probably because their kids aren't in the system. I spoke to Citizens Council Chairman Ron Steinhart about it again recently, and he said, "We've been concerned about getting a new superintendent, and we have not really gotten into the micro issues on education."

When I spoke with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, he talked as though he believes setting up something like Tennessee's value-added system would finally get to the heart of every wound and battle the district has suffered.

"They fear what the data proves," he said of the school district. "What it will show is what we have been arguing in my community from the beginning--that they are in fact assigning certain teachers to certain communities, and that there is a pattern here."

I don't think this is micro. It's more like the very heart and soul of things. The Dallas school system is a wreck and about to sink, while other major urban districts such as Houston and San Antonio are finding their way, because Dallas cannot resolve its heart racially and culturally.

Real accountability, not the armchair kind they huff and puff about in the silk-stocking clubs downtown, is probably the only thing that could cure us.

The minute the plaintiffs, including the Internet Open Records Project, get their hands on the data, they will put it all on the Web, just as TEA has done with TAAS data. Names of teachers and students will be blanked out as they are in Tennessee.

But you and I suddenly will be able to go to that Web site and see exactly how good or bad the instruction is in our kids' schools compared with other schools in Dallas and around the country. The district will be able to see exactly which teachers are moving the kids ahead and which are not--something that TAAS can't come close to showing fairly. This is very powerful stuff.

One of the tricks of figuring out LULAC and the NAACP in Dallas is understanding the underlying factions. There are, in fact, some straight pork-barrel factions. But there are other factions sternly determined to do what's best for kids. Another thing releasing this data might do is help shift power toward the pro-kid factions. And who knows? It might even help the rich white guys downtown sharpen up a little bit, too.

As dire as things may be in Dallas, the day Moses takes over there will measures he can take to build strong community support for change. Getting the district out of the ITBS lawsuit and handing out the data is a major one.

Then later, if he gets the ship righted, we'll do the Dallas thing--fire him and go hire somebody cheap to steer for us.

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