Can't Tell Liberals from Conservatives in Dallas School Reform Debate

The battle over school reform makes for some very odd allies and even stranger adversaries.
The battle over school reform makes for some very odd allies and even stranger adversaries.
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The school reform issue ought to split up conservatives as badly as it does liberals. But it doesn’t. I can’t figure that out.

No matter which side looks at it, school reform turns on the same fundamental question: Can a poor, minority kid from a chaotic background be as smart — as accomplished in school — as a rich, white kid from a nice home? If so, why aren’t public schools closing that gap?

Conservatives ought to have as much to fight about with each other over that question as liberals. But I don’t hear it. Not where I live.

In East Dallas, it’s almost always the liberals going after each other. Many of my neighbors and friends are teachers. They tend to be liberals, and you know how we are. We liberals agree wholeheartedly on a whole menu of issues, hyperlocal to intergalactic, but that stops at school reform. There, we split, often with drama.

And here in this space, the drama goes on: I get a lot of sincere questions from a certain kind of reader asking me how I can be so right on some issues yet be such a Trumpian, corporate lackey fool on school reform. I don’t know that I think the question about me is very interesting — if it’s inconsistency you want, I’ve got plenty more where that came from — but I’m beginning to think the way we all approach the topic is something for the whole city to ponder.

First of all, I bet we’re in for some long-overdue national attention on school reform. We’re pretty far away geographically and culturally from the coastal and Northeastern media beats where most big news happens, so it takes us a while to get noticed. But the fact is that Dallas is a national leader on many school reform issues. Recently The New York Times took note of some of the programs left behind by former Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles.

I wrote about the piece, mainly to point to the one thing the Times didn’t notice, probably because it was too local: Many of the programs the Times thought were cool in Dallas are in danger of retrenchment. The reforms here are in danger of being undermined because the anti-school reform forces are close to taking back the kingdom.

The Miles-era school reforms are protected by a razor-thin, one-vote margin on the school board. An anti-reform candidate came close to reversing that margin in the recent school board elections, only to be defeated in a runoff, an event greeted by huge sighs of relief from worried reformers.

We are about to get more national attention soon, especially for our merit pay reforms, which were designed to resolve mistakes made earlier in other cities, and for our Accelerating Campus Excellence schools, where the merit pay system is used to achieve increasingly stunning results in schools where kids supposedly are toughest to teach.

Those reforms, especially ACE, lie very close to the hot wires that seem to short-circuit whenever liberals get onto this topic. The ACE program takes me back to my reporting roots on this story, 20 years ago when George W. Bush was governor of Texas.

I was new at the Observer and set out to do a story about how the Bush Republicans were destroying the Dallas public school system. I don’t remember why that was my working thesis. Somebody I knew just told me they were.

I couldn’t get that story to make. Somewhat distressingly for me, Bush had all these really smart people around him on school issues, like future Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who I think was still Margaret La Montagne at that time, and a bunch of super-sharp people from the Houston school district.

Every time I tried to ask them why they wanted to destroy the Dallas public school system — what had the Dallas school system ever done to them? — they steered me to even smarter people they thought I needed to talk to, and that’s how I found my way to William S. Sanders in Tennessee. Sanders is a statistician who started out knowing not one thing about education, as he explained it to me. He discovered that Tennessee had amassed an enormous 10-year trove of data from statewide achievement tests that nobody had ever looked at. He asked for and got permission to mess around with the data.

Since, by his own admission, Sanders knew nothing about education and did not work in the field, I asked him why he wanted to work with the Tennessee school achievement data. He said, “Because it was a whole bunch of numbers.”

He and his colleagues churned up an explosively original insight out of those numbers. First of all, their findings took a cherished belief of liberals — so dearly and fiercely held that I have decided it may even be at the core of liberalism — and turned it on its head. I am talking about the belief that achievement in school and even performance later in life are driven and shaped mainly by external forces.

Until Sanders dove into those numbers, all of the numbers that anybody knew about tended to buttress the liberal belief that achievement in school and in life are driven almost entirely by social class, economic status, family status, vicissitudes of the economy and even the tax structure. When you married all of those factors to race, according to this view, you wound up with a bulletproof deterministic equation to predict everything. Demography became God.

The Sanders research reaffirmed that all of those factors are important in predicting achievement — so important as predictors that they must also be taken in some degree as causal, which was already known. Sanders’ discovery was that none of those things was the most important thing. Something else in the numbers could trump even demographics.

Margaret Spellings
Margaret Spellings
LBJ Library

The good teacher. A kid with all of the worst predictors going against him — the kid from the bottom of every barrel — learned significantly more in a year than he was supposed to learn if he wound up in the class of the good teacher. And the good teacher was consistently good. The kids always did better, no matter where they came from.

The opposite was true for the bad teachers. Their kids did worse than they were predicted to do, and they always did worse, year after year.

The people I talked to who were working for Bush on education issues were on fire with a single conviction: If you could find out what made the good teachers good and the bad teachers bad, and if you could distill only a portion of that into something teachers could be taught, then theoretically you ought to be able to come up with a way to teach kids that would have a shot at trumping demographics.

If you could teach poor kids to read as well as affluent kids, then you could change the nature of our society in profound and enduring ways. I sensed in those people back then a very intense conviction that I continue to find today in school reform activists: the belief that if such a thing can be done, it is a great social sin not to get it done.

They had a simpler, clearer way of saying it: “Reading is the new civil right.”

The school reform issue continues to divide us on a long, deep equator. It divides us between those people who think poor kids can be just as smart as affluent kids and those people who still believe demography is God.

Some of the people who maintain their faith in demography are liberals. They say poor outcomes in life are driven by poverty, and you can’t fix anything until you end poverty. Others who don’t believe in the reform movement believe that nonwhite children are born less smart than white children and nothing can change that. But the nonbelievers all wind up in the same vessel — the Good Ship Status Quo.

Among the reformers I have gotten to know, there is plenty of acknowledgement that mistakes have been made in the reform effort. But great victories are being achieved as well, like the programs The New York Times noticed recently in Dallas.

Those victories — ACE schools, for example — are proof that, absent some kind of damage, babies are born equal. Then it’s up to us what sort of chance we give them.

Is it liberal or conservative to recognize fundamental equality and the supreme importance of the individual? I don’t think I know any more. I know we liberals fight about it more, maybe because more of us get our paychecks from schools. But this much is sure: As Dallas moves farther down the path to reform, as it must, we who live here will all be forced to look deeper into our core beliefs.

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