Some Fly, Some Die
On his path to the White House, George W. Bush must pass by the Dallas Independent School District--the Bates Motel of local politics. (Think of school board meetings as the shower scene). Maybe that's what the Fates were thinking of when they created DISD. Maybe it's...
You can be president. But there's this detail. You have to spend just one night here first. (I'll be right up, Mother!)
One of the main planks in the platform being built under Bush--ostensibly in his campaign for re-election as governor but really in his reach for the White House--is a strong commitment to end "social promotion" in the public schools, the practice of passing kids from grade to grade when they can't read.
It sounds simple. If you can't read, you can't go on to the next grade.
It's not simple. Running through it are all the tangled and knotted issues, fears, and misconceptions of race and social class.
In that tangle, there is a core question: Can public schools take little black and Hispanic kids from the poorest inner-city neighborhoods and make them as smart as white kids from affluent suburbs? By the end of the first grade? With more or less the same money they have now?
Lost in the smoke and din is an intriguing benchmark of where we have come and where we are today as a people: Both sides say yes. And both sides argue from the same mountain of empirical data, recently summarized in a report of the National Academy of Sciences.
It can be done.
Gov. Bush says yes, it can be done, and we should pass laws to force school districts to make it happen.
His detractors say yes, it can be done, but the laws Bush wants to see passed won't make it happen and instead will punish children who are already victims. They say the Bush speeches and TV ads on the topic are couched in exploitative language designed to flatter the racist biases of social conservatives.
But why should Dallas and the Dallas Independent School District be any more the focus for this debate than any other place in Texas? For these reasons:
* Dallas is the most screwed-up place in the state racially.
* The Dallas Independent School District does one of the worst jobs of teaching poor and minority kids to read of any big-city district in the state.
* The Bush initiative hits town just as an alliance of minority leaders and education activists are about to get their hands on data they say will show a pattern of deliberate educational malfeasance by members of the Dallas school board over the last several decades.
In the last year there has been so much focus on sexual and financial escapades at DISD headquarters that we all may have lost sight of the real ball in this game--the ability of the Dallas school system to teach. The district may be better off having the public focus on embezzlement and office sex.
Last March, the National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, published a report on kids and reading that established, among other things, a principle many savvy inner-city educators had believed for decades: That reading is everything, more so than math, and you can't do math until after you can read, and you've got to have reading up and going--working, happening, clicking--by the end of first grade.
Second grade, some of third grade, maybe you can do a little catch-up.
The experts are depressingly unanimous on one point: If kids still can't read by the end of third grade, they may be lost. Maybe by a miracle somebody can help some of them, but for the most part the ones who can't read at the end of third grade will be housed in the public schools like inmates, passed up by social promotion to the 10th grade, where social promotion now ends and they have to pass the state exit test, and there they will drop out.
Unable to read.
Dallas does one of the worst jobs of teaching early reading of any big city in Texas. If there were a rule in place right now saying no student could pass the third grade without passing the reading portion of the TAAS (state achievement test), 41 percent of the African-American third-graders in DISD would flunk the year, according to TAAS data published by the Texas Education Agency. That's almost 2,200 black students held back.
For Hispanic students, it would be more than 38 percent, or 2,300 kids. For whites it would be 22 percent, or 300 kids.
Compare that with Houston: The same rule in Houston would flunk out only 24 percent of black students (roughly half the Dallas rate), 24 percent of Hispanics, and 6 percent of whites.
An interesting note is that the students in Dallas who do the very worst in comparison with their ethnic counterparts in Houston are the white kids. A strict no-TAAS, no pass rule would flunk out Dallas white kids at more than three times the rate of Houston white kids.
How could that be?
A group of minority parents think they know exactly how that could be. They believe it's the result of a deliberate betrayal of children to protect bad teachers and administrators, and they are in the process of suing DISD for the proof. They are not eager to see any kind of Bush initiative come to town if it's going to take focus away from what they believe is true culpability for the Dallas teaching gap.
An alliance of the NAACP, LULAC, and the Texas Justice Foundation (a generally conservative education reform group that has backed minority parents in lawsuits against Austin schools) is suing DISD for the release of several years' worth of test data from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, or ITBS. The ITBS is different from the TAAS test because it shows where kids stand in relation to children at their grade level nationwide.
In the last few years, research based on ITBS data has shown that far and away the most important factor in a child's success in school--more important than social class, race, or ethnicity--is quality of teaching. More to the point, ITBS-based research in Tennessee is beginning to show the broad outlines of a racial-ethnic pattern of bad-teacher dumping.
William Sanders, who has pioneered much of the ITBS research in Tennessee, says the results so far indicate that the worst teachers go to the poorest, most minority, most vulnerable schools, where the children who are most harmed by their presence are the smart ones.
"In Tennessee, according to our data," Sanders says, "the group of children being hammered the hardest are young, above-average African-American children in urban school districts."
Sanders' work in Tennessee has been partly reproduced in Dallas, using DISD data from the ITBS, in a study by Robert Mendro, DISD's executive director of institutional research. Mendro took the problem far enough to establish that teachers are the most important factor in success here, as elsewhere.
What the NAACP and LULAC want to know is, Which teachers? Where? For how long? And why?
It's a very bitter issue.
Russell Fish, an education activist and computer guru who is working with the NAACP and LULAC on their lawsuit, says lawyers from the Texas Justice Foundation are just about to begin taking depositions from all of the members of the current Dallas school board and some former members. He says the questions will be pointed.
"We will ask them, 'What did you know? When did you know it?'" Fish says. "Apparently the district has known since 1992 about the dramatic effect that bad teachers are having on these kids, and they have done nothing about it.
"This is malfeasance of the worst kind," he says. "There is no difference between people knowing this and allowing it to continue and someone knowingly allowing blood to be distributed with the AIDS virus in it."
Fish is a freelance education activist who happens to enjoy some independence because he made a fortune in Silicon Valley a long time ago. Few establishment education experts speak with quite his level of passion on this issue, but almost no one disputes his contention that kindergarten through third grade is the one window of opportunity that counts.
George Farkas, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Dallas, has achieved a national reputation for his research on reading instruction and for developing a much-heralded tutoring program for early readers. Farkas describes what happens if low-income kids don't master reading right away when they start school:
"Low-income kids begin kindergarten with tremendous disadvantages," he says. "They come to school with several thousand fewer hours of being read to and helped at succeeding in reading than middle-class kids.
"They are even spoken to directly by adults much less often, so they have a weaker oral vocabulary. They don't speak standard English, so they don't know the sounds that make up standard English. They don't know the names of the letters or the sounds the letters symbolize."
Farkas recently helped organize a national conference where early-reading experts were asked to write papers saying what needs to happen in order for poor kids to learn to read.
"They all said these kids are coming to school way behind the middle-class kids, so a lot more serious instruction has to take place in public kindergarten," he says. "First grade is bearing down on them like a freight train."
Farkas says the only way to help poor kids catch up and get going on reading is by working them hard in kindergarten.
"It's difficult for the teachers. Lower-income kids appear to be less mature than middle-class kids. They're harder to control. It's easy for a lot of pseudo-experts who run the schools and who run Head Start to say, 'Oh, the kids aren't developmentally ready.' The teachers say, 'It's just kindergarten; give us a break.' But there's no time."
Poor kids slip backward about three months every summer. Middle-class kids stay even over the summer.
"Poor kids gain six months during the school year and then lose three months every summer. There's continued erosion," Farkas says. "The first-grade teacher's job is to get the kid reading-ready by Christmas. But the first-grade teacher thinks it can't be done, so she aims for the average and figures with any luck, some percentage of them will be ready by the end of first grade.
"But second grade is considerably more demanding. Second grade assumes kids can already read and pushes them to read more and increase their vocabulary and learn punctuation."
A child won't be able to do any of that, Farkas says, if he comes to second grade unable to decode letters and words on a printed page.
"By the end of third grade, it's over. The teachers in fourth through sixth grade are teaching social studies and math. There is stuff to memorize and be tested on. The teachers are not there to teach basic reading."
So what happens to the 41 percent of black students who can't pass the reading TAAS test in DISD at the end of third grade? The 38 percent of Hispanic students? The 22 percent of white students?
Russell Fish says, "They're toast."
They can't read. They can't understand any of their textbooks. They sit there. The way they avoid the humiliation of not being able to read is by being disruptive. They endure until they are old enough to drop out. They drop out.
So why can Houston teach them to read?
After the defeat of a major bond proposal in May 1996, Houston schools superintendent Rod Paige put into motion a number of reforms designed to show voters that his district was effective and responsible. A centerpiece of those reforms was Houston's own voluntary version of the rule George W. Bush wants to make state law--a no-TAAS, no-pass rule.
Paige's rule, like the Bush rule, is designed not to flunk kids, but to force teachers to get them ready for the third-grade TAAS reading test. A major component of no-TAAS, no-pass in Houston--as would be true with the Bush proposal--involves spending money to teach teachers of kindergarten and first and second grades how to teach reading, and specifically how to teach it to poor kids.
It's huge, and it's hugely expensive. The cost for teacher training in Houston this year alone will be almost $2.7 million.
Dallas also has a teacher-training plan, called the Dallas Reading Plan. It costs more than Houston's, $3 million a year, even though Dallas' pre-K through third-grade student population is only three-fourths the size of Houston's, and Dallas has more kids per teacher in elementary school classrooms than Houston.
In two years of emergency semi-seat-of-the-pants operation, Houston's reading program has taken HISD from the doldrums to the very pinnacle of major urban-market performance in Texas. Houston's pre-K through third-grade TAAS results are even crowding suburban school districts like Plano.
In one year of a districtwide reading program here, Dallas' overall pre-K through third-grade performance has dropped slightly.
It's not the programs. The man running the reading program in Dallas, Dr. Robert Cooter, is the author of one of the nation's most respected teacher-training texts. Cooter's program probably encompasses an even broader and deeper mix of all the available wisdom on early reading for poor kids than the Houston program, which relies heavily on phonics "drill and kill" techniques.
The issue isn't money--Dallas spends more--and it's probably not technique.
The Houston reading program for kids is massive and mandatory. Every single teacher, kindergarten through third grade--that's almost 4,000 teachers--has been required to take intensive training over the last two years. They attended two weeks of training the first year of the initiative, and one week this year after the reading staff was able to condense its program.
Phyllis C. Hunter, the reading czar in Houston, admits that her management style is tough and that her program taxes teachers heavily. "I'm hard, let me tell you that," she says. "But I have to be sure that the people we are training to teach reading are able to go out there and get the kids to read."
Hunter's sense of urgency is not merely personal. Beginning with this year's first-, second-, and third-grade students, a student in HISD will not be able to advance to the next level unless and until he has:
1. Passed reading tests in first and second grades and the TAAS reading test in third grade;
2. Scored within a year of his grade level on the Stanford Achievement Test or the Spanish language Aprenda test;
3. Achieved a 70 average in course grades.
Look at Dallas:
Cooter's reading program is voluntary. Teachers only take it if they want to. And they have to take it on their own time. After school. And they're not paid for their time.
Of the almost 3,000 teachers in the pre-K through third-grade levels, 500 are signed up for the program this year. Six elementary schools in Dallas have no teachers signed up for the program at all.
Cooter says that's how it is, and he says it is his goal to keep the program voluntary. "We want to have such a positive effect that eventually people who haven't gone through the reading academy will want to do it," he says.
And what particular deadline or gun to the head does DISD impose on itself in terms of when it needs to have everybody reading by the end of third grade?
Cooter says, "We are committed to have 90 percent of our children reading at grade-level by the year 2001."
But why 2001? Why not now? And why does it have to be voluntary? Why wouldn't Dallas just do what Houston has done--call those early-ed teachers in, line them up, and give them their marching orders? This is how you teach poor kids to be reading-ready by Christmas of the first-grade year.
And what about no-TAAS, no-pass? Is Dallas ready to bite that bullet?
Acting Dallas schools superintendent James Hughey pushes back slightly from a small round conference table in his office and laughs uncomfortably.
"Man," he says, "that's a good question. I'm glad you asked that. They told me you were going to ask that.
"What I feel is that, out of pure honesty, if you did that with youngsters on an immediate basis, I think you'd set the whole school system up to fail."
He doesn't say he wouldn't do it. He mentions the year 2005 as maybe a nice time to bring something like that into effect. (What in the heck happened to 2001?) But he sounds mainly as if he would like for something like that to be someone else's idea.
"What I would have to do, much like we've done with the reading thing, is give a particular opportunity to all of our stakeholders and say, 'How do we do this?' I would like them to help us buy into the process of making sure our students are proficient."
We'll take that as a no.
As for the idea of making the Dallas Reading Plan mandatory, maybe using that three million bucks a year for teacher training the way Houston does--to hire subs and haul the teachers out of class and retrain them--Hughey has another somewhat lengthy answer:
"The difficulty is that, at the same time you are concentrating on this particular area, you are working it through the educational process, and at the same time you are taking existing staff members and allowing them to see how important it is to take a different approach."
Also a no? Probably.
Hughey sees the push for better reading instruction as a mandate not from minority families but from the business community.
"The Dallas business community has seen the problem of youngsters not being able to read as being the key to success in school," he says.
Later in the conversation, he says, "What they are looking for is someone who will show up for work on time and have a work ethic. The No. 1 factor employers tell us they are looking for is the ability to listen."
In Hughey's description, the Cooter reading plan emerges not as any sort of integral part of the district's work, certainly not as a core mission, but as a kind of froufrou add-on backed by the business community.
Cooter's reading plan, he explains, comes from the corporate community and is based on corporate models. "When you're in business, if you have a department that needs help, you set it aside, and you begin to focus on what you can do to fix that department. You throw money at it, fix the problem, fold it back in, and then you move on to the next problem."
Jim Hughey comes across as a nice man, wary of intrigue, a gray-haired survivor in a not very nice place. If the Bateses had been able to grow the family business into a national chain of motels, he would have made a good general manager. But when he talks about initiatives to bring every kid up to par, his shoulders slump and his face goes slack, like a man who has seen this stuff come and go far too many times.
"Several years ago they called it continuous progress. Then later they called it prescriptive learning. There have been a lot of different words for it," he says with an apologetic smile.
What one hears is that it's all the same old thing anyway. So why should people who have earned their tenure be disturbed and disrupted over it?
The important lesson--what we see in the TAAS scores for Dallas--is that efforts to bring DISD kids up to grade-level reading proficiency have never worked. And Jim Hughey clearly isn't eager to see another serious attempt anytime soon.
The theory that poor black and Hispanic kids are hopelessly hobbled by their environments has always had one big, gaping hole in it: Often in the most unlikely places, there have been scattered minority schools where somebody was teaching minority kids to read like wizards.
For years in Houston it was Wesley Elementary, where kindergartners were reading on a second-grade level, outperforming children in the nearby affluent West University neighborhood. In Dallas it was Joseph J. Rhoads Elementary in South Dallas. But these exceptional schools were always there, here and there, and they gave the lie to the doctrine that poor minority kids can't be just as smart as rich white kids.
The poor kids had to be taught differently. Harder, at first. They had to be taught well. But the exceptional schools proved it could be done.
J. Chrys Dougherty, who up until recently was on the faculty of the University of Texas, has devoted much of his career to finding those schools and figuring out what makes them tick. The answers seem to have a lot to do with using rigorous phonics drilling right away, early on, to bring disadvantaged kids to a state of "phonemic awareness" as fast as possible.
From that point on, Dougherty agrees with the recent report of the National Academy of Sciences that minority kids, like white kids, benefit from a so-called "text-rich environment"--in other words, lots of reading, being read to, and exposure to well-written books that hit home.
But they have to know how letters work first. The successful schools he has found are the ones that get in early, work them hard and fast, drill on phonics, and often maintain a strict disciplinary setting.
There are many variations, of course. But to Dougherty, the question is why anyone would continue to think it can't be done, when the exceptional schools do it every day.
"If there are schools out there that are effective," he says, "the hard question has always been, Why doesn't everybody do what the effective schools are doing?"
Dougherty doesn't think teachers and administrators fail to adopt effective teaching techniques because they're lazy or bad people. He thinks they don't use the techniques because they don't know about them.
"My take is that there is a very poor flow of information among educators," he says.
But another major piece of the puzzle, Dougherty says, is faith. Teachers, administrators, and even superintendents have to believe there is such a thing as effectiveness, that it can be done, that poor and minority kids can be taught to read well by the end of the third grade.
"The National Assessment of Educational Progress and other research has shown that there has already been real progress, that it's not all grade inflation and cheating on tests," he says. "It can be done."
And it can be done here. Kids can be taught better.
"Between 1992 and 1996 in 4th-grade math, Texas was the most improved state in the country," he says. "In fact, it was so dramatic, they reran the numbers, and they found that there isn't anybody else in the country who has done what Texas did."
Not only can it be done, but the ability of teachers to get kids to learn is not determined by the socioeconomic, racial, or ethnic background of the students. Their success is influenced by background but not determined by it.
"Looking at the school data, you see what appears to be kids coming from similar backgrounds, but with tremendous variation in how well those kids are doing," Dougherty says.
It was that variation--one group of kids from a certain background versus others from the same background--that led Sanders in Tennessee and then Mendro in Dallas to what both found was the most important factor: the teacher.
Quite apart from the debate on teaching techniques, Dougherty believes there is an inner factor that helps make one teacher a success and the next one a failure.
"I really think that self-confidence in educators themselves is a critical factor," he says. "The educators who really believe they can make a difference with these kids make a difference."
It takes so much one-on-one--staring into the kid's face and trying this and that until the light comes on. The ones who start out not believing in the light itself will try a few favorite tricks, shrug, give up, and pass on to the next one.
"They have to say to themselves, 'Yes, these kids face tremendous obstacles in their background, but we are going to make sure these kids learn, no matter what.
"Once you have that, once they have the confidence and the determination, these educators tend to look around and find methods that work."
Dougherty acknowledges--in fact knows too well--that there are school systems where there is no initial will or motivation or push to get the ball rolling in the first place. The key to changing those systems, he says, is setting a hard goal and holding the system to it.
"They need accountability systems that will push them to learn how to be effective," he says.
Dougherty is a supporter of the Bush initiative to end social promotion in the schools, because he thinks it will make school systems all over Texas feel the same urgency Phyllis Hunter feels under Houston's voluntary program to end social promotion: She has to get those kids to read and succeed or the school system can't pass them.
Retention--flunking kids, holding them back--is the one political bullet that school systems can't dodge. It costs more money to have students repeat grades. It contributes directly to the drop-out rate.
"Retention is not popular with educators," he says.
In his view, that's a good thing. It makes retention the goad, the prod, the push that moribund school systems need in order to get them off the dime.
"The people I know who are supporting the governor on an end to social promotion are doing it because they believe it will build a fire under everybody to put in the improvements that will get these kids up to speed."
It's a bit of social engineering--holding the kids' feet to the fire in order to hold the school system's feet to the fire--that begins to look a lot less clever when they're your kids.
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price has just arrived this morning to begin a long day's work. His eyes are a little puffy, and he looks as if he could use a quiet hour, at least a quiet 45 minutes, before he has to get mad at somebody. But as I slowly unreel my long, unwieldy bird's nest of a question about ending social promotion at DISD, his eyes are already beginning to flame.
"George Bush comes from a culture that has never understood," he says at last. "We are not going to allow somebody to come in here and establish a system that blames the victim, that says, oh, it's your fault you got mugged, because you should have known better than to go to the 7-Eleven store late at night."
The experiment with no-TAAS, no-pass in Houston may be fine and well, but the one Price and other Dallas minority leaders are looking at more closely is in Waco, a city they think is closer to Dallas in more than a geographic sense.
Last year Waco instituted a hard-line no-TAAS, no-pass rule that incorporated none of the stair-stepped phasing of either the Houston plan or Bush's proposed plan for the state. The Waco district, whose students score better on the TAAS tests than DISD students, flunked nearly 2,000 of the 16,000 kids in its system.
Many of the students held back were kids who had received good grades--some of them A's and B's--and had excellent attendance. The vast majority were black and Hispanic. Their parents sued the district, saying what Price is saying in Dallas--that if you give our kids passing or even good grades all year and they can't pass the TAAS test, why isn't that your fault?
Lawyers for the parents had to fight hard to get Waco school officials to produce real numbers showing the ethnicity of the students who had been held back. When the superintendent finally brought the numbers to a deposition, they showed Waco had flunked 53.3 percent of its black students, 37.1 percent of its Hispanic students, and 9.6 percent of its white students.
Price is haunted by the Waco example because he believes the NAACP-LULAC lawsuit in Dallas is just about to show why, in a world where it is possible to teach black and Hispanic kids to the same level as white kids, it hasn't happened in Dallas.
"We're about to have that data," he says. "There is data available to show where the bad teachers are. We're not on a witch-hunt or a bad-teacher-hunt here. We are looking for evidence of how the system has been complicit in a pattern of teacher dumping."
There is little question that the NAACP and LULAC eventually will prevail in their suit and will finally get their hands on the ITBS data they are seeking. A similar suit for exactly the same information in Austin several years ago resulted in the Austin school system's surrendering the data.
DISD is not even questioning the plaintiffs' legal right to obtain the data. Instead, the district is trying to stave off releasing it by arguing that the plaintiffs should have to pay several thousand dollars for it, a demand that the plaintiffs believe flouts the state's open-records law.
Just when Price and others believe they are about to be able to show how DISD has knowingly betrayed black and brown children over the years, they see the Bush initiative coming down the pike and appearing to shift blame and focus back on the kids.
"We say no to that," Price says angrily. "We are not going to let you blame the victim."
Of course, the Bush initiative is still fairly new. He has outlined it in one major speech, but it must be formalized and sent to the Legislature next year before there will be specifics to fight over. In the meantime, his staff says the goal of the initiative is not to flunk people out or blame anybody, but to force school systems to teach effectively.
"The reason the governor has called for an end to social promotion," says Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes, "is that he refuses to accept the idea that every single child in Texas cannot be taught. He wants to get rid of the excuses."
The Bush proposal, like Houston and unlike Waco, is stair-stepped and brings with it serious money and commitment to the retraining of teachers, especially in the early grades, so that they will all know what works and what doesn't. It calls for a total of $203 million in state funds through the year 2001 for teacher academies, tutoring, summer school--almost a whatever-it-takes approach to making sure teachers can teach and kids can read in Texas.
"He's not interested in placing blame," Hughes says. "He says, 'Let's fix the problem.'"
If there is a standoff shaping up over the social-promotion issue between Bush and minority leaders, their disagreement masks a more interesting area of agreement between them. They are both saying that Texas school districts can and should teach all kids to read by the end of the third grade.
The man who shrugs and laughs and talks about protecting existing staff, who sounds as if he doesn't really believe it can be done--DISD superintendent Hughey--is not in this picture. But education activist Russell Fish says it is precisely the Hughey factor that both Bush and the minority leaders ought to be worried about.
What about school districts that don't mind failure?
The Waco parents finally got thrown out of court because a judge found they had no standing to sue. The reason they had no standing to sue is what worries Fish.
"There is no legal obligation in the Texas education code for a school district to teach anything," he says.
In fact, the Texas code contains reams of language about who must be taught and what and how and where and when. But Fish's point is that the law doesn't require school systems to bring students up to any minimal tested achievement level.
That's what Bush wants to do. But the remedy in his plan for districts that fail to bring a student to the mark is to flunk the kid.
Fish says, "In Waco, the superintendent threw up her arms and said, 'We did our best, that's all we know how to do,' and the judge told the parents, 'Get outta here. That's all they can do. You can't make them teach your kids.'"
If a kid is flunked, and if the parents believe the kid was flunked because of deliberate misfeasance by the school district--patterns of teacher dumping, an institutional disbelief that minority kids can be taught--the Bush plan leaves them nowhere. They can't bring the school district to task, because Texas law doesn't obligate the district to do a good job.
They can move to the suburbs, if they have the money. If they don't, they can stick their kid back in the same incompetent system that flunked him in the first place and just leave him there until he's really wiped out and finally drops out.
Fish thinks there is a patch or repair to the Bush initiative that might even bridge the gap between Bush's view of the issue and John Wiley Price's view. As long as everybody is in a mood to hold everybody else's feet to the fire, Fish thinks the Bush people need to support changes in the law that would help parents give their school district a nice little hot-foot too.
"We need language in the law that says that 'a school district shall use affirmative action to ensure that all students are effectively taught,'" he says. "That gives parents grounds to sue."
That way, he says, it's a two-way street. You want to flunk my kid, who's black, because he didn't pass the TAAS test? You better hope I can't go to court and prove that you have negligently failed to use proven, readily available techniques that have brought black children up to speed in other districts.
The idea is not without its own prickly set of controversies and problems. Fish says early response from the governor's staff has been that they're not going to support something that will plunge school districts all over the state into years of crippling litigation.
There are ways to work around that danger by wholesaling the remedies; that is, if you sue, the law provides that you just get your money back. Here's your tax money. Take it and go find a better school.
That's a voucher system. And vouchers are viewed with great distrust by many minority leaders, who see them as bleeding public education.
But that happens to be another thing Houston has done voluntarily. Last May the Houston school board approved a plan to allow HISD students who fail the TAAS test to attend private schools instead of returning to HISD. HISD gives them $3,575 a year per student--a little better than the money HISD collects for each kid in local taxes.
It was HISD superintendent Paige's idea. He said using the district-contracted private schools was the most cost-effective way to help kids who needed help. But some minority leaders in Houston, far from fearing vouchers, felt that hitting the bureaucracy in the money belt was a good way to goad it to do better.
And do better it does. Way better than Dallas. If nothing changes and the trends in both cities remain more or less what they are today, in 10 years Houston is going to be turning out better-performing students than Plano, and Dallas is going to be turning out more failures and drop-outs than San Antonio, where 44 percent of black kids and 43 percent of Hispanic kids flunked the third-grade reading portion of the TAAS test last year.
One of the great shames--especially given the numbers and the failure rates in Dallas--is that this issue always has to be framed in strictly racial and ethnic terms, as if it were a problem of black people and Hispanics. The students in Dallas who do worse than any others in comparison to their ethnic counterparts in Houston, are, after all, the white kids.
This was a difficult, unpleasant, painful story to report because of the stakes involved. Every year thousands of beautiful new children are presented to the Dallas Independent School District, exuberantly curious, adventurous, hungry for life, ready to rock and roll.
It's very difficult to hear some of the people who care about them most and who are most familiar with their fate describe them by saying things like, "They're toast."
Even though the issues we are talking about are intellectual and spiritual, not physical, the image is still of charring. The charring of children.
There are lots of people within the DISD structure who know what's wrong and how wrong it is. Some of them are there because they are committed to changing it. At one point a DISD administrator closed the door and said to me, absolutely off the record, "I believe that, if there is evidence out there of an effective way to teach these children, and if the district and the school board continue to ignore that evidence and continue to fail to teach them effectively, then what they are doing is deeply, deeply immoral."
The problem and the solution do not really revolve around getting rid of bad teachers. There are only so many people out there willing to teach, only so much money to pay them. George Farkas, the UTD reading guru, asks, "How realistic is it to say, 'Just get us the best teachers'?"
At some point the district has to make do with what it has. But that does leave the very serious problem of bad teaching, if the district doesn't do anything effective to fix it.
According to the research that has been done on teachers and student achievement in Tennessee--research that has been reproduced in Dallas by DISD's own numbers people--there are teachers out there who do such a bad job that they move their students backward in their development year after year.
It's not that they get all the bad students. Other teachers get the same kids later and manage to move them ahead. The research shows that 3 to 5 percent of teachers in public schools today do such a terrible job that they actually decrease their students' knowledge in class after class, every year they teach.
In Dallas that percentage would yield between 275 and 460 terrible teachers.
The research also shows that the damage is more or less permanent. You never get your second-grade year back. You can do lots better in third grade. But the testers say they can still find traces of that terrible second-grade year in you when you're a senior.
This is the same research that shows the worst effects of terrible teaching hitting smart kids in minority inner-city schools. This is the data for which the NAACP and LULAC are suing in Dallas.
DISD is fighting to keep the data secret. It says it is using the data to find bad teachers and go help them teach better. But if that's true, then why are Dallas' early-education reading scores sliding while Houston's soar? And that, in turn, raises the deeper question of why anyone would trust DISD.
What makes it all the more poignant is that no child is ever irretrievably toast. No matter how damaged, they are all still human beings, endowed at creation with immeasurable potential.
And there are people who can get them to read later. John Fullinwider, a community organizer who went back to teaching a few years ago, teaches literature at the Metropolitan Educational Center, a school for drop-outs or students at risk of dropping out.
"The key is to put the right literature in front of them," Fullinwider says. "Then you draw them into it with small oral group readings where people aren't afraid to read out loud."
He gives them poet Luis Rodriguez, author of "Always Running," who writes from his years as an East L.A. gang member and deals with themes like sexual assault and losing family members to street violence. He gives them San Antonio novelist Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street. He gives them James Baldwin and the plays of August Wilson.
"But then I give them Shakespeare," he says.
Fullinwider told me how moved he was last June when he heard Harvard professor Lani Guinier (President Clinton's unsuccessful nominee to head the Civil Rights Division five years ago) speak in Dallas at a conference on ending racial divisions within DISD.
"She talked about the metaphor of the canary in the coal mine," he says. "She said the so-called at-risk kids or children of color are the canary.
"Instead of heeding the signal that something might be poisoned, we keep trying to fix the canary. We buy it a new cage or give it a little gas mask. But if you gag that canary so that you can no longer hear it, everyone else in the mine is going to die too."
According to the 1997 TAAS data, African-American third-grade students in Dallas failed the reading portion of the state test at about twice the rate of their ethnic counterparts in Houston. Hispanic students in Dallas failed at slightly less than twice the rate for Hispanic students in Houston.
White students in Dallas failed at more than three times the rate of white students in Houston.
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