As the Dallas School Board Meets, Two Very Different Takes on What the Hell's Wrong

What a difference a Williams makes. This morning -- on the day Dallas school trustees are supposed to decide whether to pull the rug from under reform Superintendent Mike Miles -- I looked at two sets of reports on the school district, one from Don Williams, the retired real estate executive who wants Miles fired, and another from Todd Williams, the retired Goldman Sachs partner who says we can't afford to let him go.

The Don Williams reports are scathing and uniformly ideological, based on belief that school districts should be managed by cooperative committees and the only way to help students afflicted by poverty is to end poverty. These ideas, if we took them up now, would be a return to business as usual for the Dallas school system before Miles showed up a year and a half ago.

The Todd Williams reports, on the other hand, are uniformly data-driven and indicate the last thing Dallas should even think about now is business as usual. The Todd Williams data show Dallas schools lagging disastrously behind the other big Texas districts, offering strong evidence that Miles' tough reforms are just what the doctor ordered.

But first a word of context. Don Williams, the retired real estate guy, has been active in and committed to the betterment of minority neighborhoods in Southern Dallas for a decade. For whatever reason -- I really do not have a clue -- his primary vehicle for those efforts, the Foundation for Community Empowerment (FCE), seems to be dying on the vine.

In 2008, FCE had revenues of $4.7 million according to its available IRS declarations. In 2009 its income was $2.9 million; in 2010, $2 million; in 2011, $400,000. No reports are available yet online for last year, but the four-year arc is not good.

It's a decline so precipitous that one can't help wondering if that situation may be fueling some of Don Williams' very personal anger against Miles, who rebuffed Williams as a major adviser to the district soon after he arrived in town.

In recent weeks Don Williams, speaking from his estate in Santa Fe, has been calling for Miles' head. Three reports released this morning on the Day of Decapitation all echo the same battle cry -- Miles must go. All were all paid for by FCE, according to the footnotes.

The lead report published by Don Williams was authored by Decoteau J. Irby, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Matthew Birkhold, executive director of the Brecht Forum, operators of the New York Marxist School in New York City.

Their report equates reform efforts implemented by strong superintendents with several business-oriented terms they use as pejoratives: "With a focus almost solely on the importance of training school leaders to comply with business concepts such as Total Quality Management, many so-called 'transformational' and 'innovative reform strategies' fail," the report states.

"They reduce school improvement to raising test scores of enough individual students to ensure a passing rate for a respective school -- the students who are targeted for improvement are often those just below the line of passing but who show promise for helping tip the school to an acceptable pass rate."

In a tough conclusion that may reflect poorly on the authors' own grasp of grammar, they say, "Those students who do not show such promise, they are disposable." They don't say how the poor things are disposed of. One shudders to think.

The Todd Williams data argue for a very different conclusion -- that nobody in DISD right now is in a very good position to whine about change. It might be different if Dallas schools were not doing so poorly with the same kids and the same money that challenge other urban school districts in Texas where results are startlingly better.

Just about everybody in education agrees that grade-level proficiency in reading at the start of fourth grade is the tell-all indicator for how well a kid will do in the rest of his school career. From K through three, kids learn to read. From four on they must read to learn.

The Todd Williams data, drawn from National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) test results, show that 32 percent of kids in Austin and 43 percent of kids in Houston enter the fourth grade unable to read at grade-level. In Dallas 54 percent of kids starting fourth grade can't read at grade-level.

Of the four biggest Texas districts, Dallas has the lowest percentage of reading competency among fourth-graders who are poor enough to qualify for school lunches. Dallas also has the lowest level among students who are not poor enough for school lunch.

Dallas has the lowest level for black kids. It has the lowest level for Latino kids. It has the lowest level for white kids. Of the four biggest urban districts in Texas, Dallas does far and away the worst job of enrolling kids in preschool programs.

So, forgive me. I normally don't rail against Marxists. When I was a student in Ann Arbor in the '60s, I actually kept a copy of Marx's The Difference between the Democritean and the Epicurean Philosophy of Nature next to my water bed. I don't think I ever cracked it open, but in those strange and distant times girls actually went for stuff like that. Little did I know most of them would wind up marrying dentists.

But, yeah, if you're a teacher or a principal who has been around DISD for any significant period of time and you're looking at test results like the ones Todd Williams cites, then I guess you're going to have a big old Marxist hate on for test results.

Maybe it's not about Marx at all. Maybe it's more Shakespearean. Like, "Out, damned test result, out I say!"

And I guess you're also going to hate those damned top-down leaders who are at the top and they, you know, lead. Some day I need to remember to ask where the other leaders lead from.

But here's the big reality: The test results in Dallas are not arguable. They are not subject to a hell of a lot of interpretation. The Dallas school system, measured against its closest peers in Texas, is in need of urgent reform and change. And, no, it's probably not going to be pretty every day.

But this is Mike Miles' fault? Did Miles put DISD in this position? Do we think this is going to get fixed by putting a better salesman in charge?

I'm hearing that around town a little lately. Miles can't sell it. Miles isn't a good enough pitchman for it. It's such a Dallas thing to say, as if all of life and every single challenge could be reduced to salesmanship. If the same thinking had prevailed in World War II, we would have fired Ike and put a super salesman in charge of the invasion of Normandy. In fact I made that remark to somebody at lunch recently, and he said, "I think in that case the super salesman was on the other side."

I still think Don Williams means well. But when you look at the Todd Williams data, all of Don Williams' stuff starts sounding like the crew of the Hindenburg speaking out angrily against gravity. Me, I'm for making a landing. Super quick.