Schoolhouse Dynamite

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

I'm sitting at a makeshift work table in a down-at-the-heels apartment complex in Richardson, staring at a table of numbers on a page. These figures, grainy and warped from too many generations of photocopying, are a parade of hieroglyphic epitaphs scrolling before my eyes like war dead, whispering the answer to a national riddle.

The Dallas Independent School District is ready to fight in court to keep these numbers secret. I have a kid in the Dallas Public Schools. The bitterest irony for me is that all of the wired-up, plugged-in parents, the ones who know how to game the system, know this secret already without ever seeing the numbers. It's the parents who aren't wired up who need the truth.

Twenty years ago the White House released a report called "A Nation at Risk," telling Americans the national educational system was so bad, if a foreign power had imposed it on us, "we might well have viewed it as an act of war." Since then, partly in response to the report's shock value, Americans have tripled spending on K-12 education, from $129 billion to $400 billion.

For nothing.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, found in its 2002 "Nation's Report Card" that average reading scores for fourth-graders in America in 2002 were the same as results in 1992. Eighth-grade reading scores were the same as in 1998. Twelfth-graders did worse in 2002 than in 1992.

How can that be? This little apartment, with kids streaming in and out to play on the computer and get help with homework, with handmade rockets on the wall and jumbled science projects piled in corners: This is where the answer lies. Russell Fish, who lives here, knows why our attempts to reform education have hit the wall.

Fish, an engineer, once CEO of his own Silicon Valley start-up, lives by himself in Richardson and tutors the waifs and orphans of the new suburban flotsam and jetsam. That's a long story, and I will tell it some day.

But this story, about the numbers on the page before me, is urgent. Here, I will read you one row from the table: 57.2, 40.83, 33.26, 33.41. There. You have just witnessed the educational annihilation of a cohort of children.

These numbers are the mean math scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for a certain set of elementary students in the Dallas public school system, measured annually from third to sixth grades. In that four-year period, this set of students dropped from the 63.19 percentile to the 21.89 percentile, a plummet of 41.3 points. Like all the kids in Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, these children started out above average. But these real-life kids wound up in the toilet.

Now ask me why. Were these poor kids? Minority children? Country youngsters? Kids from broken homes? Children of drug abusers? Children with learning disabilities?

The correct answer is none of the above.These numbers are the human scar tissue of bad teachers. The kids in the group described above were the ones unlucky enough to draw the worst teachers in their schools for four years in a row.

Let's use the unkind word the world will use eventually when it describes them as adults unable to read proficiently, unable to do simple math, unfamiliar with the history of their nation or the culture of the Western world, because they can't read:

Dumb. Dumb and dumber. That's what the public school system made them. And the sole factor distinguishing the careers of these kids from others just like them was the influence of bad teachers.

Everyone in education knows this research and has been reading it in serious peer-reviewed journals for years. This is not a secret. The data I'm showing you was developed by DISD six years ago, replicating research already done in Tennessee, which has the nation's oldest, deepest pool of standardized test data.

Dr. William Sanders, a statistician at the University of Tennessee, spent the 1990s mining Tennessee's rich data trove searching for the common link among students whose academic performance was poor. He showed that the common link in student failure was not class or money or the educational level of parents. It was teachers.

Sanders' data showed that good and well-trained teachers can move most students, no matter their background, to a point farther along on the educational trail than where teachers found them originally. But bad teachers can't teach any kid.

Sanders' work shows that the effect of bad teachers on kids is permanent. Getting a good teacher later on does not erase the achievement gap left by a bad one.

Fish, an education activist who has clashed with school officials in Austin and Dallas for a decade, is suing DISD to force it to release all of this data--not just a sampling but all of it, for every teacher in the district. He says the information will allow parents to know if their children are being sent to the classrooms of the worst teachers. The much-postponed and delayed lawsuit, now five years old, was scheduled to go to trial last month but was put off again until later this year.

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:

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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