DISD Trustees Are Ready to Fight for Principals

Too bad they won’t do that for the students

What are we in for? Before we can understand the accountability wars heating up now in the Dallas school system, we have to see the battle from a statistical helicopter. First let's fly over the North and East Dallas high schools that still have significant remnant white student populations.

At W.T. White, where 11 percent of students are white, 13 percent of seniors get scores deemed "college ready" by the state on the SAT and ACT, the two big standardized college entrance exams. The state average is 25.7 percent.

At Woodrow Wilson, where 20 percent of students are white, 16.8 percent achieve college-ready scores on the SAT or ACT. At Hillcrest, where 21 percent are white, 22.8 percent of students get college-ready scores.

Now let's fly over some predominantly minority high schools. At Lincoln, where 84.5 percent of students are black, 1.1 percent get SAT or ACT scores deemed college-ready by the state. At Molina, where 91 percent of students are Latino, 2 percent win college-ready scores. At Pinkston, 70 percent of students are Latino, 30 percent black and zero percent white. Zero percent of Pinkston graduates earn college-ready scores.

If you believe that ethnicity and socioeconomic class are destiny, then we have just confirmed your worldview. We can let you off at the next helipad, or we could just push you out right now.

If, on the other hand, you think a major urban school district with a $1.8 billion budget ought to be able to find some way to get at least a decent number of poor and minority kids ready for college, then keep riding with me, and let's look at the money.

We'll helicopter on out and eyeball our close-by competition in the suburbs and then go way up high and toss in another big urban district. The Citizens Budget Review Commission, a volunteer body appointed by the school board, published a report a year ago comparing the Dallas Independent School District with a peer group made up of Garland, Houston, Mesquite, Richardson and Carrollton-Farmers Branch. It found that teacher salaries in Dallas are 8 percent higher than salaries in the peer group. Our salaries for teacher aides are 41 percent higher.

Our ratio of employees to students is higher. When the commission looked through all personnel positions, it concluded that Dallas schools pay a total premium of $110 million over what it would have to spend for the same number of employees if it paid them at the average rates in the peer group. That doesn't count the additional money we could save if we pulled back to the employee/student ratios in the peer group.

Are the pay rates higher here because we have to pay more to recruit teachers? No. The analysis shows that we pay less to recruit teachers than the peer group. We pay more for teachers in general — and for principals — because we have older staff members who have worked their ways up the pay ladder in both seniority and higher education credits. And we have more staff.

So it's not about more money. It's not about teacher qualifications. We're already ahead on all of that. And our results are hideous.

Hideous. Tell me, is it really true that the only kids this school district can prepare for college are white kids? Really? Is that outcome in any way acceptable to anybody?

Which brings us back to earth. Over the last six months, the new school superintendent, Mike Miles, and his executive team have been scouring the schools, looking in particular at principals in schools where student achievement is abysmal. They've been using a 24-page document called the "Principal Performance Rubric" to grade principals on 47 different criteria covering a gamut from management skills to instructional acumen. The process involves a lot of bean-counting but also a great deal of on-site observation and interviews.

The process isn't intended to be solely evaluative. It's also an intense and intimate exchange of information allowing district leadership to tell principals exactly what is expected of them and show them how to do it. But it's not show and tell forever. At some point the rubber must meet the road.

That point came a few weeks back for the principals whose evaluations did not show a reasonable likelihood of their being able to meet the standard any time soon. A certain number, still not known publicly, have been informed that their contracts will not be renewed at the end of the year.

Does that seem harsh? It's harsh if you are one of those principals. But you know what's even more harsh? Time. Time is brutal. Dallas takes in 14,000 kindergartners a year and spits out 8,000 high school graduates. Those dismal college readiness scores I cited above are only for the 8,000 kids who even make it to 12th grade.

There are a lot of ways to interpret that 6,000-student difference between the number of kids flowing into DISD and those getting their diplomas, but let's just call them MIAs. What do we suppose happens to those who don't make it to 12th grade every year? I think we're safe in assuming those results are even more dismal. I would bet on the side of way more dismal, as in sub-literate and unable to do arithmetic for the rest of their lives.

That's a lot of children going MIA every day. In a 180-day school year, that's a little more than 33 children per day whom we truck out to the social landfill. Wouldn't it be nice to slow that down just as fast as we possibly can?

In fact, given the wretched discrepancies by race and ethnicity in this picture, should we not expect leadership of the black and Latino communities to be out in the streets ahead of everybody else demanding whatever it takes to turn this picture around?

Latino leaders, in fact, may not be out in the streets yet, but so far they have been fairly united in supporting Miles and his reform efforts aimed at principals. Several of the targeted principals are Latino, and I am being told that Latino leadership will not oppose Miles on non-renewing them. They could change their minds, but Latino leaders so far seem to be taking a chips-fall-where-they-may approach.

But the picture is bleak in black southern Dallas, where school jobs have been an important currency of political patronage for decades. The leadership there, including some respected people with serious track records, is united in the defense of black principals no matter what their student achievement stats may be.

Last week on our news blog, I reported on a series of emails I received from the school district in response to a Public Information Act request. In those emails, a group of district employees at the mid-management level were complaining to their immediate boss that South Dallas District 9 school board trustee Bernadette Nuttall had been accosting them at school events and threatening them with retaliation from "the community" if certain black principals are non-renewed.

Also in the emails, Superintendent Miles was telling the mid-managers that he had their backs and they were to listen to him, not Nuttall. If nothing else, those of us whose careers have propelled us neither to the bottoms nor the tops of our professions must feel compassion for mid-levelers like these getting both ears tugged in opposite directions.

One of the emails is a long, very angry letter from Nuttall to Miles in which she defends herself from his accusation that she is trying to intimidate staff. But even in defending herself, she confesses to a serious infraction, one that is probably prohibited by law: She's not supposed to talk to staff at all about purely management prerogatives, especially in personnel areas where special laws for school employees expose the district to litigation.

In her letter to Miles she says, "I have requested [school effectiveness indices] of schools in District 9 and a breakdown of principals placed on growth plans. This is in no way to intimidate but to be informed about a process that should be fair, legal, consistent and absent of unethical and unfair targeting."

But the so-called "growth-plan" business is part of the paper-building process the district carries out in cases where it probably intends to sack somebody. It's way deep inside proprietary personnel practice and strategy. Handing something like that over to an elected official is just crazy. No one on the board has a right to get into that stuff, nor should they really even want to.

But here is the other piece. Nuttall has been a really good, smart board member up until this moment. She has taken tough, unpopular positions that served the interests of children, as on the closing of underutilized schools. I look at her in this and I wince, because I think she's getting tugged apart too. I tried to reach her for this column, of course, and she didn't call me back. She usually has called in the past, but I'm sure she's not happy about the blog piece on the emails.

The other board member who has been delving deep into the personnel issues around school principals is the board president, Lew Blackburn, who also represents black southern Dallas. I called him too but got no response. Like Nuttall, Blackburn has been a measured and moderate trustee for much of his long tenure.

Both Nuttall and Blackburn know better than this. They would never venture into this kind of assault on the superintendent unless they were getting overwhelming pressure from somewhere.

But pressure from whom? Not from the parents of all those black kids who get dumped out of school every year unable to read or write, so it has to be from the teachers and principals who didn't teach them to read or write.

I know. You want back in the helicopter now, don't you? No way. We're on the ground now, soldier. This is it for at least the year ahead. Dig a trench or move to Santa Fe.

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11 comments
hilllbillle
hilllbillle

you can lead a horse to water but you cain't make him drink. you can give a kid all the help in the world to learn but you can't make him learn. they come to pre k without any respect for anyone or themselves. a little kid hugs mrs white teacher, saying 'i hate all white people but i luvs you". and the teachers hands are tied. can't spank them. can't discipline them. can't do anything but ask the cop to write them a ticket for their parents to pay. go on, and blame the teachers and pricipals fer this shit. find some ex marines who thrive on the impossible. because that job is impossible. when they cain't so it either...then what?

URStupidBeyondBelief
URStupidBeyondBelief

So  you've had your little visit from Todd Williams, yes?

Well, as a result of Todd's impact on the budget, there is a compensation plan for new hires for Dallas teachers that contains the lowest beginning salaries in the metroplex. Thank you, Todd. And as Miles works on a compensation system, all teacher salaries will decrease while administrative pay will have no cap.

As far as your fly over, fly over the rest of the state, and you will find that where magnet schools are presented as choices, as well as Early Colleges and charters, many high achieving minority students flock to those choices.

If we were able to stick these students back in their neighborhood schools, the disparity on the SAT scores would smooth out quite a bit, but then many of these students would not continue to live in Dallas if these choices were no longer available. 

So it comes down to offering students choices and allowing minority flight to magnets and Early College while creating lower performing neighborhood schools.

There is a cadre of white kids at Woodrow, White, and Hillcrest who are middle to upper income. Their scores boost the average SAT scores at those schools. These are not poor, white kids. Remove those students and scores will moderate based on income. The SAT scores of mostly poor TJ look like those in the southern sector. It's concentrated poverty, not patronage.  

Your argument that patronage is behind the correlation of income to SAT scores is completely bogus. The creators of the SAT have admitted the bias. Decades of research proves the bias toward middle and upper income students.

And what happens to those minority students who didn't score 1100 on the math and reading portions of the SAT? Well, just like the MAJORITY of white kids in the same boat, they go on to state universities and graduate if they are motivated to do so. They don't get a mark of shame tattooed on their foreheads. Scoring 800 or 900 on the SAT isn't the death knell. It just means kids don't need to load up on 18 hours of coursework. These kids graduate from UT Austin when they enter in the back door of community colleges. When they go out into the world, no one can tell the difference.

As far as the dropout crisis, the high schools in the south are producing record numbers of grads, so your thesis there is totally inaccurate.

Jim, your articles on education have become simply tiresome. We know you're on Todd Williams' tit. So is half the city. We also know he spreads misinformation because he needs a purpose. He needs to feel important.

Since he's so concerned about these children, why doesn't he volunteer to teach in one of these low performing schools? Up close and personal, perspective changes. Maybe he would be so tired at the end of the day, he wouldn't have time to go around seeking a leadership role in areas where he has no expertise.

Lord knows Miles is making no effort to put teachers in these schools. Maybe Todd needs a real job.

Michael.MacNaughton
Michael.MacNaughton

"The District made large improvements in both finance and academics.  Dallas ISD in now in the 1st quartile in financial performance.",  according to the Education Resource Group who has helped the district in comparing itself to the chase group you mentioned.

I am a member of the Citizens Budget Review Commission. In my personal opinion the district has done well in getting more "bang for the buck" when student achievement versus cost per student is compared to our chase group.  But the financial impact has been a direct result of both increasing the student/teacher ratio and the district asking for waivers so that many, many high school classes now have 35 to 45 students apiece attending.  Dean Chard even said last week at the DMN "What makes an effective teacher?" event that these class sizes showed "a lack of commitment to educational excellence."  He's the expert.

It is logical, almost comically so, to say that a highly effective teacher (How is that measured again? By making sure the student responds to the teacher with a trained multiple response strategy of "thumbs up"?) will give a student a better education.  But that is also a comically insufficient assessment of the whole problem.

It's not about race, it's about lack of resources.  We are left, after white and middle-class black flight, with a whole lot of kids without resources.  But smart, dedicated and skilled teachers are not one of the missing pieces - well, at least not until next school year.

bealotcoolerifyoudid
bealotcoolerifyoudid

How wide is the "patronage" aspect of this?  I would think most DISD teachers and principals could get work elsewhere (granted there are some that would not keep their jobs in other districts if they continued the apathy that plagues pockets of DISD).  I suspect it really is just a few principals with the backing of a few power brokers in the southern section.

Jaborah
Jaborah

As long as I get my free birth control pills what difference does it make?

WhiteWhale
WhiteWhale

So basically does the minority community benefit more from education or the patronage looting of the DISD?

bealotcoolerifyoudid
bealotcoolerifyoudid

@Michael.MacNaughton So are you saying that there are zero long term subs or vacant teaching positions?  That seems to contradict the 144 current openings for teachers posted on the DISD website.  That number has remained kind of consistent all this year (and was similar back in 1999).

Or are you saying that the teachers that are in DISD are smart, dedicated, and skilled?

Michael.MacNaughton
Michael.MacNaughton

@bealotcoolerifyoudid

Yes, our teachers are smart, dedicated and skilled.  At least they match the standard bell curve with 5% that may need remediation or be shown the door and 5% that are the best in the nation.

No, I'm not saying we do not have a vacancy problem but it's more complicated than a blog post or news article.

Michael.MacNaughton
Michael.MacNaughton

@bealotcoolerifyoudid 

No, I'm not saying that at all!!!

The Trustees "should" find out today what the predicted shortfall is for next year but right now there are 164 existing teaching vacancies, 83 teaching assistant vacancies and 695 teachers moved into the reassignment pool.  The reassignment pool teachers may, or may not, be selected to fill those open transfer positions - they have to go through a job fair and be selected by the principals.  DISD usually has a churn of around 800 teachers yearly due to retirement and resignations and transfers, etc.  I would guess that the number of unfilled vacancies for next school year will be around the 1500 to 1600 mark but the majority of those should fill fairly quickly.  I'm guessing there will be about 400 to 600 vacancies that will be harder to fill.  The official line at DISD is that there are about the same number of subs this year as last year but anecdotal reports say that isn't the case.  There have been a number of subs that have been given permanent positions this year that may have been moved from the sub bucket to the teacher bucket that has skewed those numbers.  The Trustees have been asking for some straight-up answers but I do not believe they have all of the information they have requested yet. 

The other point of information is this...in order to adjust Title I comparability numbers the district must provide to the State (in June) a budget that shows the number of teachers assigned to each school.  These are called "budgeted vacancies".  There must be real dollar bills in the budget to back the number of budgeted vacancies.  However...this is an exercise in budgeting for Title I and NOT a reflection of actual teaching positions that will be required to operate the district.  Over the past 3 years there has been a surplus of around $20M that has gone back into the reserve fund precisely because there were 400 budgeted vacancies that were never intended to be filled....remember budgeted vacancies and "real" vacancies are two different things entirely.  The problem the district faces in the coming year or so is this...because of the State budget cuts, the number of dollars that is necessary to back the "budgeted vacancies" is shrinking.  So the difference in the number of  slots between "budgeted vacancies" and "real vacancies" is narrowing from 400 to perhaps 150 (depends on how much the Sate will give back to the schools next year).  Superintendent Alan King believed, as do I, that we should use "real" vacancies and quit playing games with "budgeted vacancies".  This becomes VERY important next year because Miles wants to add $8M - from the general fund - to three south Dallas schools.  This will really monkey around with Title I comparability, not to mention the political / parental ramifications of pouring money into a few schools at the expense of all of the rest.

Michael.MacNaughton
Michael.MacNaughton

@bealotcoolerifyoudid 

What is Miles on to?  The fact that HR couldn't put enough teachers, highly qualified and effective or not, in front of all the students?  That has been a problem with HR for years.  But Miles and Glover's "Human Capital Pipeline" experiment is dangerous. First, they will have a very difficult time recruiting enough highly qualified and effective teachers before the next school year starts just to make up the shortfall from this year and (2) at the rate Miles is purging good teachers from the district they will have a doubly hard time filing the necessary additional teacher slots.  San Antonio is raiding DISD for it's Master's level teachers to go to SA and teach PreK at a starting salary of $60K.  Miles thinks advanced degrees and any teacher in the "business" longer than 5 years is chaff. It will take the district 5 years after this superintendent is gone to repair the damage he has caused in the last 6 months.

bealotcoolerifyoudid
bealotcoolerifyoudid

@Michael.MacNaughton @bealotcoolerifyoudid  I get that it is much more complicated and I appreciate your clarification of my misunderstanding.  The lack of resources was appalling the lone year I taught at DISD.  We were out of paper for the copying machine in March. 

I am obviously out of the loop these days, but I recall that along with the lack of resources we had long term subs that would let the class play basketball on Fridays and teachers with 99% pass rates despite 10% of students never stepping foot in class.  It is that memory which makes me wonder if Miles is on to something. 

 
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