Attack of the suits

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In the mouths of some white educators, the family mantra becomes a doctrine of racial destiny, and in the mouths of black educators it can become an excuse: "Don't look at us. These kids come from bad families. Nobody can teach them."

Arm-in-arm with the belief that family is everything has been the education establishment's fervent belief in the religion of "Whole Language," by which you put kids in a so-called "text-rich" environment (leather-bound volumes in built-in bookcases), don't drill them on phonics, and then wait for reading skills to enter their heads by osmosis. Taken together, the doctrine of family destiny and the whole language approach are a lock-cinch guarantee that most poor kids will not learn to read by the end of the third grade and will drop out after the ninth grade.

Three years ago in a huge study based on a review of all of the available data, the National Research Council, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, said three things: 1) Reading is everything. If you can't read fluently by the end of the third grade, you're probably toast. 2) Reading is a code, not a culture. It's squiggles on a page that stand for stuff. 3) There are different ways to teach the code. You can prepare a baby for "phonemic awareness" (squiggles stand for stuff) by bouncing him on your knee and reading him Mother Goose from a leather-bound edition in a Laura Ashley-designed nursery while listening to chamber music. Or if that doesn't happen, you can sit him down later at a desk in kindergarten and drill his ears off on phonics.

Both work. Both kids get to the same place. Both read. That's what counts.

What this study and others have shown to be truly important is the teacher. Bad teachers do permanent damage. A shockingly high percentage of teachers in urban school districts, maybe as many as one in five, teach young children almost nothing, probably because the teachers have not been trained themselves to teach reading.

But it can be done. And in so-called anomalous elementary schools around the country (poor schools, high test scores), poor kids, including some from really bad families, have been taught to read better than rich kids from good families.

Houston's doing it. We're not.

You have to believe in this stuff. I have to believe that Albert Black does believe in it. So that makes him a major change from the old model of suits downtown.

In addition, Black told me over lunch that in the months ahead, several major business leaders will announce that they are going to run for the school board. I called Ron Steinhart, chairman of the Citizens Council, and asked him what he thought about that.

Steinhart was quick to say, "We're not going to run a slate." But he did say, "We've all got to get more involved, and I hope that will include civic leaders, business people, and other kinds of people who may be willing to run."

If you have been around Dallas long enough, then you realize that having these guys come out of the smoke-filled rooms downtown and actually run for office themselves--show up for the debates, walk the neighborhoods, take the guff--would be a sea-change. They have never been willing in the past to step out from behind the curtain of old-style Southern puppet-master politics.

None of this is easy, and everybody is at risk. The white guys downtown worry a lot about their dignity and about having people call them racists or picket in front of their businesses. Someone like Albert Black has even more at risk, it seems to me, because the racial atmosphere in Dallas is still one in which people will call him an Uncle Tom or a scam artist for being rich and successful. All that stuff really hurts.

I hope those guys understand how much hurt they can hand out, too, just by doing things without thinking. The Citizens Council types, for example, have never sat down and talked out the school issues with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who is the senior elected representative of the African-American community in Dallas.

The irony is that Price is a natural ally. The school district is being sued right now for test data that will show where all of the really bad teachers are. The Texas attorney general has joined the suit against DISD. The city's business leadership has been afraid of this issue because of a general fear, probably wrong, that most of the bad teachers will be black and that the issue will turn racial. Price continues to say that, even if the bad teachers are all black, he wants to know where they are, and he is willing to let the chips fall where they may.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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