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In the New School Reform Debate, Old Words Fail Us

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The school reform debate has a way of flipping the words liberal and conservative around like pinballs, but somewhere running deep beneath the surface is a new orientation that needs new words. North of the line are people united in the belief that children from the most brutal circumstances are just as smart as kids from privilege and their lives can be saved with teaching. South of the line are all kinds of people who have all kinds of reasons why there's no point trying.

The old words, liberal and conservative, just don't seem to work, and anyway they bring way more bad baggage with them than any value they may still carry. So we need new words, but I don't know what they are yet. Thoughts?

Yesterday, Dallas Morning News editorial writer William McKenzie had what I thought was a really interesting piece on the paper's op-ed page explaining what Dallas Superintendent Mike Miles' reform plan looks like and how it actually works in classrooms. McKenzie, as far as I can tell, spends more time out there in the schools than any other journalist in town.

I'm sure the News' education beat reporters would be out there in the classrooms more, too, if they didn't have such a big whip cracking over them to cover school headquarters all the time. I know I also would be out there more if I didn't have to spend so darned much time autographing photos of myself.

The thing about McKenzie's piece is that it really explained how and why the Miles reforms can work. That's what gets lost in all the bitter pay-scale battles between the teachers unions and school administration: There really is a way to turn the public schools around, and Miles' classroom reforms look like a better idea than anything else on the table at the moment.

The McKenzie piece also was a dramatic contrast with recent work by other editorialistos at the city's only daily newspaper, notably an essay by Tod Robberson about a month ago. He plunged gleefully into all the worst muck thrown at the superintendent by detractors, subscribing to the perverse doctrine that if the media publish enough bad stories about you, you must be bad, whether any of those stories is true or not.

But, wait, hit pause, help me pull that one apart. Media shmedia. Who cares about that? The McKenzie piece is about hope and faith in the innate potential of all human beings. The Robberson piece preaches failure -- the failure of this attempt at reform and our larger failure as a community to grasp the hands of tens of thousands of children who will drown in poverty without us.

Part of what the criticism of Miles has proven to me personally is that if you really try hard, if you work at it diligently and long enough, you can come up with an argument why anybody and everybody in the world sucks. On-line later today (go to our news page later) and in the newspaper tomorrow, I will have a column in which I examine arguments by critics who are skeptical of Miles' tenure in his last post as superintendent of a suburban school district on Colorado.

First of all, one of the lead proponents of the argument, retired Dallas school teacher Bill Betzen, makes the startling admission to me that his charges are based on second-hand allegations for which he admits he has no proof. In a perverse way, I guess Betzen deserves credit for candor. If I had made that much noise about it for this long, I think I'd go hide under a rock before I'd admit I had no proof for all my harping.

But more to the point: As far as I can tell or get them to tell me, Betzen and a University of Texas Education School associate professor named Juan Vasquez Heilig have offered tortured and unsubstantiated criticisms of Miles' tenure in Colorado without ever once consulting the basic state of Colorado school data on Miles' years there.

I did look at that data. It's remarkable. In the main, it shows that the school district he headed was a stunning success in teaching most categories of kids, especially minority kids, in both reading and math. Some categories lagged behind gains by kids statewide in Colorado in the same category, but many were dramatically ahead of the state averages.

The state test data is not utterly definitive -- there's always more to the story -- but it is primary. You have to start there, even if you want to disprove it. Everything else is derivative of that data. It's astonishing that an associate professor at an internationally distinguished university could simply skip that stage and rush ahead to publicly endorse criticisms by a local gadfly who admits he has no proof. I have to wonder if tenured faculty can get away with stuff like that anywhere else at UT but in the ed school.

The real data on Miles in Colorado, like the window McKenzie gives us on reform in the classroom, offer hope. The real evidence shows it can be done. Of course, then the heavy lifting begins.

If it can be done, then we must do it. I wonder if that may be the new divide, the one replacing liberal and conservative in the school reform debate. We all look at that big honking suitcase. Half of us can think of 100 reasons why there's no point in trying to lift it. The other half call home late for supper and roll up their sleeves. I think the word for that is will. Maybe we should call the other side won't.

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