Chicago's Teacher Quality Debate? Texas Republicans Built That. Thank God.

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The New York Times this morning has a piece arguing that the Chicago teachers strike is a window on the nation's heart over the last few years, where education is concerned. I would say it's been 15 years at least, and in a weird way a lot of it started right here in Dallas.

In the mid-'90s Dallas was one of a few places nationally where a few freelance education researchers and activists, including our own Russell Fish, were focusing on so-called "anomalous schools" -- schools where kids were testing way better than they should have been according to all the usual indicators of income, family structure, transience and so on.

One of the stand-outs was Joseph J. Rhoads Elementary in South Dallas, where kids who should have been educational toast by fourth grade were out-performing rich white kids -- and way-out-performing other poor minority kids in the rest of the Dallas school system.

We wrote about it at the Observer in 1998. A really intriguing aspect of what we found was the way the issue came down on the traditional liberal/conservative matrix. It was the opposite of what might have been expected.

Liberals like former Governor Ann Richards, with very strong support from the teachers unions, were still saying the anomalous schools were a fluke and the only way to effectively teach poor kids was to end poverty ... which, of course, was impossible. So, you know: forget about it. Just try to maintain partial order until you retire.

It was then-governor George W. Bush and his education team who were calling bullshit. Armed with a huge data trove, a lot of it from Tennessee, where systematic testing had been going on for a decade, the Bush administration in Austin was saying the data proved that poor kids could be brought up to crucial educational levels by fourth grade.

Those fourth-grade achievement levels either allow or disallow success from the fourth grade on. They determine everything about the rest of a kid's destiny as an adult. In our system, kids learn to read from K through third. From fourth grade on, they read to learn. If they can't read by fourth grade, they're toast.

Acting up is a way for them to preserve their dignity in a system that shoves evidence of their stupidity in their faces from fourth grade on until they get out. Some research indicates the smarter they are the worse they act.

That's where the Bush line came from about reading being the new civil right. I remember talking to these really bright people who were on Bush's education team, like Phyllis C. Hunter of Houston, his reading guru, and being sort of shocked out of my liberal skin. I thought, "No, wait, listen. I am willing to believe anything bad about a Republican you tell me." I grew up in a Roosevelt liberal house. We were taught as children that Republicans were things that would reach out from under our beds and grab us by the ankles if we got up during the night.

But these people -- these Republicans -- were the ones who believed in the dignity, equality and promise of infant human beings who suffered the totally undeserved bad luck of being born into terrible circumstances. It was a flip. A one-eighty. A bucket of ice water on my head. I'm the son of a union teacher, and I never stopped and will never stop listening to or respecting teachers when they talk about their work.

But I couldn't stop my ears to what the Bush people were saying. They were saying, and I paraphrase, "We know how to teach these kids. It takes teacher training, not money. If we know how to do it, it's a sin not to do it."

And here is what really stopped me cold. I remember when Hunter told me this, I literally got chills. She said the other thing you have to have, in addition to the training, is an absolute conviction in your soul -- the certain knowledge -- that no matter how screwed up they were when they showed for school, these kids have it in them to be just as smart and just as accomplished as rich white kids.

The Bush people talked about the "soft bigotry of lowered expectations." That forced me to think of a certain kind of liberal compassion as ... what? The last bastion of racism? No! Say it isn't so.

Is there a point at which liberal compassion says to the kids, "We believe in and are deeply personally committed to your fundamental inferiority, and just to prove it we're going to forgive you for it?"

Bush went to Washington. Then 9/11 happened. All of "no-child" got lost in the shuffle. Rod Paige, the former Houston superintendent, Bush's education secretary, was a business success as well as an educator and a brilliant advocate of change. But Paige was dissed by the national press because his speech was southern black. Let's talk someday about the soft bigotry of New York/Washington media.

Today The New York Times is right. The Chicago teacher strike is a window on the national heart. Dr. Schutze looks into that bloody cavity and he is tempted to give a prescription of "triple bypass operation, psychotropic drugs for life." But remember this: Dr. Schutze is not a real doctor. Sometimes he would rather do invasive half-assed surgery than face certain unwelcome but insistent realities.

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