Schoolhouse Dynamite

If Russell Fish ever wins his lawsuit, watch 'em blow

The school district claims, among other things, that it doesn't have the kind of data Fish is seeking. Fish says the report I'm reading in his apartment, by Robert L. Mendro, published in 1997, demonstrates clearly that the school district does have exactly the data Fish is seeking and knows exactly what the data implies: that lack of educational progress here and in the nation is primarily the result of bad teachers, not bad families.

To be sure, the Dallas school system has achieved some significant progress in certain areas since the Mendro report was published. In a successful quest last May to win release from court oversight in a decades-old desegregation suit, the district told a federal judge it had made significant strides in student achievement in many key areas ("Segregation Forever," by Jim Schutze, May 15).

But these kinds of focused achievements, usually the result of emergency-level efforts aimed at specific tests, seem to come and go, conveniently timed for someone's re-election or court pleading. If you and I push away from the work table and blur our eyes a bit, we can see two great constants hovering on the far horizon that never seem to shift: One is the stubbornly lousy national long-range test data reported every year by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The other is the huge sore thumb sticking up out of Sanders' research in Tennessee, replicated in Dallas and by now in many other places as well, I'm sure:

Education activist Russell Fish believes public education will move forward only when poor parents find out that some teachers make their kids dumber, not smarter.
Mark Graham
Education activist Russell Fish believes public education will move forward only when poor parents find out that some teachers make their kids dumber, not smarter.

It's the teachers, stupid.

As I say, my kid's in the Dallas schools, and all of the parents who are like us seem to know who the bad teachers are--the one who's crazy and scares the kids, the one who sleeps through all of his classes, the one who never speaks in class and doesn't even keep a grade book. We know how to avoid them. Our son has had teachers in the Dallas school system who could teach and have taught in the very best private schools or in college. We know--and, more to the point, he knows--how to play the game.

But on the days when our own genius forgets to take his lunch, his books and his swimsuit to school, we walk those halls and pass the rooms where rows and rows of children sleep at their desks, whisper and play cards while their "teacher" talks on his cell phone in the hallway.

Those kids are toast.

Dallas school Superintendent Mike Moses agreed to discuss these issues with me but couldn't schedule our meeting until after the deadline for this column. Eric Moyé, the attorney representing Dallas schools in the Fish suit, said the district wants to protect student privacy, not bad teachers. The privacy issue has to do with whether student identities can be masked or encrypted so that no one can ever figure out which kid goes with which score--a technical question that needs to be decided in court.

The reason the education establishment in general loathes the idea of releasing longitudinal teacher effectiveness data--even Dr. William Sanders opposes it--is the social and political chaos educators fear if someone like Russell Fish gets his hands on the data and gets the message to the parents who aren't wired.

That kind of pressure, even if it leads to some occasional chaos, is exactly what Fish believes is needed to change the education establishment, which he likens to Bell Telephone before the court-ordered breakup. Changing it, he says, "will take dynamite. This is dynamite."

When the effectiveness data is released and then carried to parents by firebrands like himself, Fish says, "two things happen. First of all, everybody wants to get his kid in with the star teacher, Miss Jones, who's teaching math to Mexican kids. And second, you have to pay Miss Jones about a hundred grand a year to keep her, which blows away the whole industrial labor concept" that has ruled public education for too long.

In other words, yes, it does create chaos and emergency for a while in the public school system. But why don't we see a much greater emergency and a more insidious slide to chaos in the horrific little numbers I see marching across the page before me--children, through no fault of their own, prodded like pigs down a chute to their own educational slaughter.

The jury is in on this stuff. We can make these kids smarter. Or we can make these kids dumber. No matter what the Dallas school district may have talked itself into believing it's doing, by paying lawyers to keep this information secret it is opting for the slaughter.

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