Great News from Dallas Schools, But Don't Let It Slip By You

Huge news just happened at the Dallas Independent School District. It’s a story that solves the riddle of school reform and ought to end the debate about former Superintendent Mike Miles, at least among people with any intellectual honesty. But it’s about to slide by us virtually unnoticed.

First, a thumbnail back-story. In a libertarian society where the schoolhouse is our only window for massive social intervention, the only thing and the best thing we can do to get kids out of the kindergarten-to-prison pipeline is teach them early to read on grade-level, especially to bring them to grade-level by the end of the third grade.

Miles, who resigned a year ago after three years as superintendent, insisted that the poorest kids from the toughest backgrounds can be brought to the same level as middle class kids by rigorously vetting and training their teachers. The teachers unions fought back hard, painting Miles as a disrespectful autocrat and insisting the only way to teach kids beset by poverty is to end poverty.

So here’s the story. After only one year of the full Miles experiment in a pilot program called “ACE schools” at seven of the district’s historically challenged schools, the results are in and they are already stunning. According to DISD, in one year the percentage of second-graders in the program who can read at grade-level increased by 30 percentage points, from 20 percent to 50 percent, putting them at just four percentage points below the district level of 54 percent.

Your eyes did not deceive you. Only 20 percent were at grade-level before.

A wealth of accumulated wisdom says that minority kids who can’t read at the end of the third grade are statistically destined to lives of poverty and even imprisonment. So teaching them to read is an enormous step.

At the core of Miles’ design for the ACE schools program is the intention to send the district’s very best teachers and principals to its most challenged schools. Teachers receive bonuses up to $12,000 a year to accept assignments at ACE schools, but in order to send the best, the district has to know who they are.

Most of the criticism of Miles’s merit-pay system, called TEI for teacher excellence initiative, took aim at whether or not TEI was a fair way to determine which teachers got raises. But as this early success with ACE schools demonstrates, the far more important aspect of TEI is its ability to determine which teachers can teach.

Teaching kids who come to school from literacy-deprived backgrounds is hard, but these enormously exciting early results from ACE schools demonstrate that it can be done.

Coming from way in the basement, the ACE schools after only one year now exceed district-wide percentages for kids reading at grade level from K through 2. When you think what this can mean to the adult lives these children eventually will lead, the accomplishment is a miracle.

It’s a miracle, too, for the school board, which we in the media usually paint as hopelessly but entertainingly divided and dysfunctional. And I would insist we are usually telling the truth, except for that one word — hopelessly. For all the battling and personal ugliness, the Dallas school board did get TEI passed, and it did adopt the ACE schools program. And now we see solid evidence that the school board did the right thing.

A personal note lingers in all this that I can’t help touching on. Almost set in stone now is a version of Mike Miles in which he was a stubborn, caustic martinet who bullied people for the fun of it and made terrible decisions about personnel. That version always stuck in my craw, in part because I knew him as a man of impeccable manners and broad social understanding. I also was aware that the bad-decisions meme was something stirred up as propaganda by the unions and their blood ally, the public employment patronage machine.

I always saw Miles and his top people as poorly armed but fiercely committed adventurers attacking the rock-bound fortress of the status quo. And, yes, sometimes when you get boiling oil poured on your head, you get testy.

But look at it this way: Every single person who has anything to do with the public school system says he’s in it for the kids. I swear even the plumbers say that. But who among them ever did anything for the kids?

This success with ACE schools is far from the end of anything, but it’s the first solid evidence I have seen of real success in doing something valuable for the kids — the battle to teach the little ones to read at grade-level, which is the battle to get the older ones to graduate at grade-level, so some of them will be college-ready, so all of them will be life-ready.

That is enormous almost beyond words. In fact, remember that one word I admitted we tend to get wrong in the media? Hopeless? That’s the one to ponder.
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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