DISD Trustees Are Ready to Fight for Principals

What are we in for? Before we can understand the accountability wars heating up now in the Dallas school system, we have to see the battle from a statistical helicopter. First let's fly over the North and East Dallas high schools that still have significant remnant white student populations.

At W.T. White, where 11 percent of students are white, 13 percent of seniors get scores deemed "college ready" by the state on the SAT and ACT, the two big standardized college entrance exams. The state average is 25.7 percent.

At Woodrow Wilson, where 20 percent of students are white, 16.8 percent achieve college-ready scores on the SAT or ACT. At Hillcrest, where 21 percent are white, 22.8 percent of students get college-ready scores.

Now let's fly over some predominantly minority high schools. At Lincoln, where 84.5 percent of students are black, 1.1 percent get SAT or ACT scores deemed college-ready by the state. At Molina, where 91 percent of students are Latino, 2 percent win college-ready scores. At Pinkston, 70 percent of students are Latino, 30 percent black and zero percent white. Zero percent of Pinkston graduates earn college-ready scores.

If you believe that ethnicity and socioeconomic class are destiny, then we have just confirmed your worldview. We can let you off at the next helipad, or we could just push you out right now.

If, on the other hand, you think a major urban school district with a $1.8 billion budget ought to be able to find some way to get at least a decent number of poor and minority kids ready for college, then keep riding with me, and let's look at the money.

We'll helicopter on out and eyeball our close-by competition in the suburbs and then go way up high and toss in another big urban district. The Citizens Budget Review Commission, a volunteer body appointed by the school board, published a report a year ago comparing the Dallas Independent School District with a peer group made up of Garland, Houston, Mesquite, Richardson and Carrollton-Farmers Branch. It found that teacher salaries in Dallas are 8 percent higher than salaries in the peer group. Our salaries for teacher aides are 41 percent higher.

Our ratio of employees to students is higher. When the commission looked through all personnel positions, it concluded that Dallas schools pay a total premium of $110 million over what it would have to spend for the same number of employees if it paid them at the average rates in the peer group. That doesn't count the additional money we could save if we pulled back to the employee/student ratios in the peer group.

Are the pay rates higher here because we have to pay more to recruit teachers? No. The analysis shows that we pay less to recruit teachers than the peer group. We pay more for teachers in general — and for principals — because we have older staff members who have worked their ways up the pay ladder in both seniority and higher education credits. And we have more staff.

So it's not about more money. It's not about teacher qualifications. We're already ahead on all of that. And our results are hideous.

Hideous. Tell me, is it really true that the only kids this school district can prepare for college are white kids? Really? Is that outcome in any way acceptable to anybody?

Which brings us back to earth. Over the last six months, the new school superintendent, Mike Miles, and his executive team have been scouring the schools, looking in particular at principals in schools where student achievement is abysmal. They've been using a 24-page document called the "Principal Performance Rubric" to grade principals on 47 different criteria covering a gamut from management skills to instructional acumen. The process involves a lot of bean-counting but also a great deal of on-site observation and interviews.

The process isn't intended to be solely evaluative. It's also an intense and intimate exchange of information allowing district leadership to tell principals exactly what is expected of them and show them how to do it. But it's not show and tell forever. At some point the rubber must meet the road.

That point came a few weeks back for the principals whose evaluations did not show a reasonable likelihood of their being able to meet the standard any time soon. A certain number, still not known publicly, have been informed that their contracts will not be renewed at the end of the year.

Does that seem harsh? It's harsh if you are one of those principals. But you know what's even more harsh? Time. Time is brutal. Dallas takes in 14,000 kindergartners a year and spits out 8,000 high school graduates. Those dismal college readiness scores I cited above are only for the 8,000 kids who even make it to 12th grade.

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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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