Dallas Public Schools Are Going from Agonizingly Bad to Amazingly Great In a Hurry

DISD earns its apple.
DISD earns its apple. Kritchanut/iStock
Practice forgetfulness. Forget about the bitterness over the new statewide grading system for schools and school districts. Forget the whole debate over school reform in Dallas. For two seconds, do the good kind of forgetfulness.

Now ponder this: The overwhelming objective evidence is that the Dallas public school system has been making truly striking gains in student achievement in the last few years. And I only ask that we temporarily put aside the debate points — which I love — because they may blind us to the real elephant in the room. DISD, all of a sudden, is becoming amazing.

“This success is due in part to substantial improvement in low income student achievement, with DISD achievement now exceeding the state for this substantial population within the district.”— Todd Williams

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Sure, we can all pull out our samurai swords and our baseball bats again and jump into a wonderful bloody fray over who gets the credit. I would be the last guy to preach pacifism on that. But first we have to stop, take a deep breath, whisper our quiet words to ourselves and take an honest look at the evidence.

If we could choose only one benchmark to measure the direction things are going in a school district, it would be the number of children reading at the right level at the end of the third grade. That’s where the data and the research show the world dividing into two paths — the path to academic success and a shot at the good life versus a downhill path to failure and a shot at prison.

It’s stark, but that’s how it is, especially for poor kids. In American public schools, children learn to read from kindergarten through the end of the third grade. From fourth grade on, they read to learn. If they can’t read at grade level by the end of the third grade, the statistics show they will almost never be able to recoup that disadvantage.

Children who fail to achieve grade-level reading competence by the end of the third grade, especially poor kids, kids who don’t get second chances, will never really get what teachers are even talking about. For them, school becomes a preparatory academy for a lousy life.

In the last four years, the number of children reading at grade level by the end of third grade in DISD has increased 10 percent, the highest rate of improvement for any school district in Dallas County. It’s still a tough number – only 38 percent.

But in 2015, DISD was 11 percentage points below the state average. Now it’s within 3 points of the average. The district’s improvement in third-grade reading is the highest for all urban districts in the state.

Todd Williams, chairman and CEO of the education advocacy group Commit, points out that DISD is making these gains in spite of a 90 percent poverty rate for students, which is one and a half times the statewide rate, and in spite of having 40 percent of students considered English language learners, twice the statewide average.

“This success,” Williams says, “is due in part to substantial improvement in low income student achievement, with DISD achievement now exceeding the state for this substantial population within the district.”

DISD is doing the heavy lifting.

The improvement in third-grade reading is neither random nor mysterious. DISD can point directly to new intentional policies and programs that are producing this and other startling indexes of improvement.

For example, DISD is a state leader in recruiting more children for pre-K programs. DISD staff have presented statistics to the school board showing a direct link between attendance in pre-K and performance later on.

In the city’s poorest census tracts, the percentage of kids who test as ready for kindergarten at the appropriate age is almost twice as high for those who have attended pre-K as for those who have not.

Other major changes adopted under former Superintendent Mike Miles and continued under current Superintendent Michael Hinojosa have had time to prove themselves. Under the district’s 4-year-old system of merit pay for teachers, retention has improved dramatically among the very best teachers while more of those at the lowest end of the effectiveness scale have left to seek other work.

There is almost no turnover at all at the top of the competence scale — just over half of 1 percent — while turnover at the bottom of the scale is almost 40 percent. Under the old system of straight seniority pay, those numbers were almost flipped.

The merit pay system has been married to another program called Accelerating Campus Excellence, or ACE, in which teachers at the top of the scale are paid bonuses to teach in what were once the district’s worst-performing schools. The result is that the number of schools rated as failing and slated for forced closure by the state has dropped from 43 to four in five years — far and away the best rate of improvement in the state.

Some of those success stories are so startling they are beginning to stir a certain kind of astonishment. On a recent visit to Dallas, Gov. Greg Abbott spoke knowledgeably about Blanton Elementary, a school in the Pleasant Grove area where three years ago only 15 percent of fifth-graders were able to achieve a grade-level score on the state math test.

In the most recent round of tests, 82 percent of Blanton fifth-graders hit the grade-level mark. That’s higher than the rate of success at a parallel school in the wealthy Park Cities area.
click to enlarge Dallas has the highest percentage of A-rated schools of all urban districts in Texas. - COMMIT, FROM TEA DATA
Dallas has the highest percentage of A-rated schools of all urban districts in Texas.
Commit, from TEA data
At the distinct risk of calling out the swords and bats again, I have to pause nevertheless at this point and offer an observation that I think should be obvious to anybody thinking this through with an open mind. The debate on school reform and the changes made under previous Superintendent Miles is over. The reforms, from ACE schools to merit pay, are not just working, they’re working really well.

Another debate should be just about over by now as well. When Miles left and was succeeded by Hinojosa, there was a good deal of worry that Hinojosa would take an easy path, that he would bow to the teacher unions and to the element of black leadership dominated by County Commissioner John Wiley Price. The fear was that Hinojosa would allow school reform to wither and die.

It’s clear now that Hinojosa, though a very different style of leader from Miles, has not abandoned reform but sheltered it from the storms, enabling school reform to take solid root. The reforms may still be in place only because he has been here to see them through.

Now let’s go back to those new grades the state is passing out this year for districts and schools. Designed under Texas Education Commissioner (and former Dallas school trustee) Mike Morath, the intent of the grades is to give parents a clear picture of how good or bad the schools are from which they must choose.

At ground level, some of the results have been very counterintuitive for a lot of people. In North Oak Cliff, for example, a favored school among the mostly white middle-class populace has been Rosemont Elementary. But when the grades came out two months ago, Rosemont was close to the bottom of a list of Oak Cliff elementary schools. At the top was the less celebrated Margaret B. Henderson, showing that the most beloved schools may not really be the best.
click to enlarge With a high poverty rate and one of the highest English-learner percentages in Texas, Dallas now has one of the lowest rates of failing schools. - COMMIT, FROM TEA DATA
With a high poverty rate and one of the highest English-learner percentages in Texas, Dallas now has one of the lowest rates of failing schools.
Commit, from TEA data
DISD earned a B for the entire district, the same grade awarded to all the major urban school districts except San Antonio, which earned a C. But in Dallas 60 schools earned A ratings, the highest number in any district in the state. (The state isn't formally translating numerical scores into letter grades this year, but it's easy enough to see that a school making a 90 or better under the old system would get an A.)

When I talk to some of the soldiers who have fought the good fight for school reform from the beginning under Miles, I hear a certain edge in their voices. They are not merely proud of what is being accomplished at DISD. They are fiercely and emotionally proud.

Given the bitterness of some of the battles along the way, the level of invective and the brutal negativism hurled at DISD for decades, some fierce pride seems appropriate now that the tide is finally turning.

“Ray was facing state closure and had been on the improvement required list for four straight years. With one year of ACE resources, it became an A-rated campus."— Miguel Solis

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Dallas school board trustee Miguel Solis talked to me last week about the so-called “improvement required” schools, a bureaucratic/political euphemism meaning they were on a list of schools so bad that the state was about to force them to close. I talked to Solis some years ago after he had gone out to walk those neighborhoods during the hours when children were walking to and from school. With deep sadness in his voice, he told of children picking their ways through passed-out vagrants, drug dealers and scenes of violence.

Solis was an early champion, defender and advocate for the ACE schools program, which directed the very best teachers to those very worst schools. He told me last week: “Every one of those campuses that has received ACE resources has come off the improvement required list.”

He pointed to several specific examples: “One is J.W. Ray Learning Center (elementary), which unfortunately had to be consolidated into Cesar Chavez Learning Center this year (for lack of funding).

“Ray was facing state closure and had been on the improvement required list for four straight years. With one year of ACE resources, not only did it become an A-rated campus, but it also outperformed the charter school around the corner that had been poaching kids from J.W. Ray for years now and which barely got a B rating.”

For more samurai fights and baseball-bat bludgeoning, we could always plunge into the debate over charter schools, but I think I know Solis well enough by now to know where his pride comes from.

It’s not because somebody protected his school, Ray, from charters. It’s not because somebody used legislative clout to kill charters so they couldn’t compete with Ray.

I think Solis is so fiercely proud of what Ray achieved because Ray did compete, it did go toe-to-toe with the charter around the corner, and it won. What tastes better than a good clean fight and a straight-up win?

Clearly DISD has miles to go before it achieves true district-wide excellence, but it is already delivering educational equity to many of the kids who need it most, and it is already winning tough fights, one after another.

Those victories will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. DISD is already becoming the place to go if you want to get in on a good fight and get in on the side of a team that can win.

Almost every criticism, every doubt, every expression of skepticism is still valid and still has value but only if we stop first, say our quiet words and honestly acknowledge one overarching fact. DISD is on fire. (The good kind.)
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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