Go Down, Moses

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

Here is one way of looking at the fact that Dr. Mike Moses, when he takes over as Dallas schools superintendent on January 1, will be the highest-paid school superintendent in the country: How much do you figure it would have cost to get someone to take over as captain of the Titanic when the ship's rear end was sticking out of the ocean?

For jobs like this, most people demand cash in advance. In Switzerland.

If anything, Moses is coming to town knowing way more about how bad it is than even we in Dallas do. Wouldn't it have been nice, for example, for The Dallas Morning News to have let us know that the entire Dallas Independent School District is slated to be declared "academically unacceptable" by the state on March 1 if it fails to clean up a laundry list of violations?

The main mess is in special ed, but that's only one of several. The district was warned in a letter from Texas Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson dated October 10 that the special ed problem alone will earn the whole district the state's worst, most pejorative designation if it isn't fixed. Did anybody mention this to you? Maybe the News didn't know. I heard about it at the grocery store. Call me Sherlock.

And lest you think this is some bureaucratic tempest in a teapot, you should know that this issue grows out of a hugely botched mess in the special education department (reported in the Dallas Observer on September 28 in a column titled "They Walk by Night") that was left behind by former Superintendent Bill Rojas. And insiders in the special ed department say the mess can't possibly be fixed by the March 1 deadline. So this could really happen. In fact, it will really happen unless something dramatic is done to stop it.

The good news is that Moses, himself a former Texas education commissioner, will be coming in the door with his eye fixed right on the question of how Dallas does in the state measurements, according to what he told me in a recent phone conversation.

"I'm very interested in the 28 low-performing campuses [designated by the state]," he said. "I'm interested in why Dallas is not performing as well as the eight other major urban school districts in the state."

Moses gave me the impression that he wants to go straight to these overarching issues of state measurement and try to stay out of ancient blood feuds within the district. Of course, everybody says they're going to stay out of the blood feuds at DISD headquarters, kind of like showing up for your first day in prison and saying, "I shall not allow myself to be drawn into petty personal conflicts." Next thing we hear is a bloodcurdling scream.

But there is actually some modest indication that we might even indulge ourselves in an economical display of limited semi-optimism, in that Moses sounds as though he knows not only how to stay out of trouble but how to get out of it.

Dare we hope?

I was calling him to see what his temperature was on the 3-year-old lawsuit against the Dallas schools system seeking the public release of data from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The first thing he told me was that he hadn't seen any of the paper on the suit or been briefed on it. But he was willing to say, in a very general sense, that he is philosophically disposed toward releasing every shred of information he possibly can.

"As long as we don't violate any privacy requirements, we shouldn't be trying to hide the ball," he said. "I don't want to spend a lot of time scrimmaging over whether or not we release information."

He pointed out that it was under his régime that the Texas Education Agency started posting on the Web huge amounts of data from the statewide TAAS tests along with detailed financial data. If Moses came here and initiated a similar régime with regard to public disclosure and access to data, it would represent a sea change in the district's relationship with the community.

I'm not talking about the district's relationship with reporters. Forget reporters. Everyone has bad relations with reporters. Most of us joined the profession in order to have bad relations with people. I'm talking about the core community, the real people. If Mike Moses agreed to take the district out of the suit over ITBS data, for example, and turned that data over to the plaintiffs, he would signal a major shift toward responsiveness and accountability--a shift with a potential for profound repercussions in the community.

From the beginning when it was filed three years ago, the ITBS suit has demonstrated, among other things, how wrong and upside-down the prevailing media picture is of school issues in Dallas. Read the Morning News on any given Sunday in the last few years, and you would carry away this impression: that it's the downtown business leaders in Dallas who are all for "accountability"--stern bid'ness-like measurements, with lots of numbers, to show who is doing a good job and who isn't in the school district--and that it's the minority leaders who are against it, because they want to protect the pork barrel at school headquarters.

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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