This is a good time to reflect on the difficulty of finding truth in the battle over school reform in Dallas, because at this moment I don't seem to be able to get through the front door. I am standing on the parking lot at James Madison High School on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas, trying to get into a community meeting organized by school board member Bernadette Nutall to rally support for Marian Willard, principal of Madison. It's a cool breezy evening in March.
Apparently Willard is on a list of some 50 principals slated for replacement under the school reform campaign of the new superintendent, Mike Miles. Nutall is mad at Miles and doesn't want Willard removed. This rally is, among other things, an orchestrated media event to show how beloved Willard is and what a great job she's doing. My feelings are hurt since I'm supposed to be in the media, and I can't even get in the door. But there's a fight in the parking lot, right in front of the door.
One fighter slips off quickly when half a dozen school district cops materialize. The cops and some male school employees form a bear-baiting ring around the remaining combatant, a big male student who is waving fists, making little bluff-runs, retreating, trying to break out of the ring. The cops and faculty don't want to grapple, so they goad and herd from safe distances. They don't look bored exactly, but you can tell they've been down this road before.
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A dozen male students and a couple girls who had been walking away from the school have regrouped now in the parking lot to watch. The kid sees his public looking at him, and he starts John Wayne-ing a little more. The cops back off a pace. TV crews are about to show up. What to do with this?
The front door flies open and a long willowy figure appears, silhouetted in the aura of bright light spilling from the hallway. It's school trustee Nutall. She scopes the scene in a split-second. Her normally bulletproof composure explodes. She shouts angrily at the cops: "This does not need to be in front of the cameras! Y'all need to move this out of here!"
The cops exchange "do-it" looks, then make a serious run at the kid. It's enough to scare him away from the door. Like seasoned horse-trainers, the police dance the young man backward around a corner and out of view. One cop hangs back, menacing onlookers not to follow. Whatever happens to that kid, I do not hear a thing.
Half an hour later about 120 people are seated in the high school auditorium. They cheer and applaud as Nutall introduces speaker after speaker to sing praises of Principal Willard. (Willard declined to comment for this story.)
One speaker familiar to the crowd here tonight is Wilbur Williams, retired principal at Pearl C. Anderson Middle School. He's an orator. He tells the crowd: "I asked one of the people who work at this school, 'When's the last time you had a fight at this school?'" He affects an expression of puzzled bewilderment. "He said, 'I don't know.'"
From the audience, Juanita Wallace, head of the Dallas branch of the NAACP, shouts the response. "They don't have them."
Williams takes it up emphatically: "They don't have them!"
And there you have it. No fights at James Madison High School! So the one half an hour ago at the front door must have been a history-making first.
Something about the fight over school reform makes people on all sides say crazy stuff. It's about children, and children always make people crazy. It's about jobs and money. But perhaps even more crazy-making, school reform is also about a bitter half-century fight for racial justice in Dallas, the city that made Little Rock look reasonable. In that long war, one of the toughest struggles was to force the opening up of lucrative administrative jobs to black candidates. Call it fairness, call it political patronage, call it what you like: Those jobs are dearly coveted and tightly held by the people who have them now, and their removal will not be quiet.
That said, by the time this story appears, most of the real behind-the-scenes fighting will have been resolved. While partisans of all stripes have been duking it out for the cameras, most of the people slated for removal have been quietly negotiating severance packages, according to very reliable sources. To some extent, the public acrimony has served as pressure to sweeten some of those deals.
Another factor not visible to the public, according to sources outside the administration, is that a few of the principals to be replaced are not under the gun for reasons having anything to do with academics or the reform program. In two or three cases, principals have been targets of investigation by the district's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which looks into how money is handled and other forms of misfeasance.
All of which skirts a fundamental question: Why would black and Hispanic leaders not be on the other side of the battlements, shoulder-to-shoulder with Mike Miles fighting to close the egregious ethnic student achievement gap in the Dallas school system? Pointing to that gap, Miles says, "We have to ask ourselves, is it OK?" So is it? Is the achievement gap a fair trade-off for the jobs? Did anybody ask the kids?
The black and Hispanic communities are split. Hispanic leaders seem to have Miles' back. Rene Martinez, a former school district employee who is a leader in the Dallas chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, says support for Miles is strong in the Hispanic community because "he's trying to change this system that we have that's still full of cronyism, favoritism and good-old-girl, good-old-boy."
Black leaders, not so much. In fact not at all. Because he is threatening the jobs of black principals, Miles, who is black, is now routinely accused of anti-black racism by elected and community leaders in black Dallas. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, one of the city's most powerful black elected officials, has urged black churches to close their doors to him.
Joyce Foreman, community activist, political consultant and a former member of the board of the regional transit agency, calls Miles a fly-by-night opportunist. "This guy is a carpetbagger. He has no vested interest in this community," she says.
Foreman insists Miles will do much more harm than good before all is said and done. "He has a mind-set as a reformer," she says. "You come in, you shake it up, and then what? Once you shake it up, you are also pushing out the good. No teacher or principal worth their salt is going to stay around. They are going to go somewhere where they feel wanted and needed."
Grassroots sentiment in the traditional black community in southern Dallas seems to go hard against Miles. Charles Taylor, an officer of the alumni association at Lincoln High School, accuses him of sowing terror and intimidation among faculty and administrators. Taylor says, "Nobody does well under fear. Nobody."
And it gets worse. Wallace of the NAACP says Miles' reform strategy is a sham to camouflage a racist crusade against African-American administrators and teachers: "He does not like strong black women," she says. "He doesn't like black people period, but he particularly does not like strong black women."
Even though Miles is black, Wallace says Miles "thinks he is neutral. He and Tiger [Woods] are in the same basket."
Foreman expresses similar feelings: "Just because you're my color, that doesn't mean you're my kind. Miles is mixed race," she says.
That's rough stuff. But the notion that both African-American and Hispanic leadership should support Miles based on a program of reform aimed at all minority students probably ignores two overarching, conflicting, very important realities. Black people have a good slice of the jobs pie under the status quo. Hispanics have a skinny slice. Follow the pie?
Student enrollment in the district is now almost 70 percent Hispanic and 24 percent black, reflecting transitions in what used to be black neighborhoods, now rapidly trending majority Hispanic. But the lion's share of principals' jobs still go to African-Americans, a reflection of civil rights struggles in the past.
Personnel data released to the school board recently based on 2012 numbers showed 49 percent of principals' jobs occupied by African-Americans, 31 percent by Hispanics and 19 percent by whites.
Black personnel in 2012 occupied 45 percent of staff jobs at the middle of the salary range, from $39,000 to $79,000 a year. Hispanics held 30 percent of those jobs, and whites occupied 22 percent.
White people came back into their own at the fat end of the salary range, $80,000 and above, holding 49 percent of those jobs, while African-Americans held 30 percent and Hispanics 17 percent.
Numbers given to the board for recent hires show African-Americans in the lead generally. Approximately 60 percent of the replacement principals being trained in Miles' special training academy for principals are black, so the percentage of black principals in the district right now and in the near future probably should be put at above 50 percent, perhaps as high as 55 percent.
Black leaders, in other words, are trying to martial their diminished forces in the community to protect a slice of the DISD salary pie that is much bigger than what would strictly reflect black student enrollment or general population figures. Hispanic leaders are fighting to increase their slice of everything. While the other groups slug it out, white people, whose children make up 4.7 percent of the student enrollment, are drinking iced tea.
So we're back on jobs, money, grownups — everything but the children and that achievement gap. But what about Miles' argument? How badly does Dallas Independent School District really do at educating minority children? Let's look at high school seniors, since they are the district's final product.
At Madison, almost 90 percent of the class of 2011 took SAT "college board" tests. Of those tested, 1.3 percent achieved a score deemed "college-ready" by the Texas Education Agency. Given the size of the senior class, that would amount to one and one quarter of a student capable of hitting a college-ready score on the SAT.
Madison is not the worst in Dallas on that particular bottom line. Three high schools — Roosevelt, Pinkston and Samuell — produced zero test-takers in the class of 2011 capable of making a college-ready score. That would be zero of any ethnic category.
By that measurement alone — college-ready scores on the SAT — Dallas is not the worst in the state compared with the other three big urban districts in Texas. It's next to the worst. In Austin, 37.1 percent of 2011 SAT test-takers were college-ready. In Houston it was 20 percent. Dallas was at 10.1 percent districtwide. San Antonio was at 4.5 percent.
In response to pressure from local leaders, the Legislature and the Texas Education Agency have invented other measurements that tend to soften the blow, looking for "most improved" and so on. But some of the agency's less subjective measurements tend to put Dallas at solid rock-bottom among major urban districts in Texas.
In the four major Texas urban districts, the state now holds 25 high schools on a list called "academically unacceptable." Those are high schools so bad that parents of a student assigned to one of them have a legal right not to send the kid. Of those 25 bad schools, 15 are in Dallas.
The Dallas school system enrolls 31 percent of the total half million-plus students in those four districts, but Dallas operates 60 percent of the academically unacceptable high schools. Of high schools in major urban districts that produced 0 percent of college-ready SAT-takers in the class, 60 percent were in Dallas in the most recent ranking. In those four districts, Dallas spends the second highest amount per pupil, after Austin.
Not counting the magnet schools, the only general enrollment high schools in Dallas with decent SAT scores are the ones that have significant remnant white enrollments. Woodrow Wilson is a good example. At Woodrow, 41.5 percent of white kids who took the SATs scored at college-ready levels. Of black kids who took it, 4.3 percent were college-ready. For Hispanics it was 9.4 percent. Consistently and across the board in Dallas, the best thing a kid can do to gain a college-ready education is be white.
That discrepancy is a core focus for Miles, and early on after his arrival a year ago it seemed to earn him solid support from two of the three African-Americans on the school board: board President Lew Blackburn, who represents District 5 extending south of the city into the dissolved Wilmer-Hutchins school district, and Bernadette Nutall, who represents District 9 in old South Dallas. Miles never had much support from Carla Ranger, who represents District 6 in southwest Dallas, a bright person who tends to be unpredictable.
But Miles' Blackburn/Nutall support went up in smoke the minute they realized his list of 50 people to be replaced among the district's 225 principals included popular black principals like Willard, who are viewed as community leaders in their own right. As soon as Nutall saw Willard and a handful of others were slated for replacement, she began an aggressive campaign to protect their jobs, reaching around Miles to contact subordinates two levels down from him in regional positions called "executive director."
After Nutall buttonholed one regional executive director at a public event, the executive director wrote to her immediate superior complaining that Nutall "tried to engage me into conversation, but I did not. After she was complete in releasing her venom about the superintendent, she left."
Other executive directors reported to their boss that Nutall had sought them out. "We were encouraged by Ms. Nutall to not hold certain principals accountable for their performances," they said in a group letter.
When word of Nutall's attempts to get to his team reached Miles, he fired off an email to her: "Please stop this behavior, which serves only to intimidate the district's staff and does not serve the interests of either the district or its children," he wrote.
Soon enough, Blackburn joined the fray in Nutall's defense. He informed Miles he intended to carry out his own personal investigation of the matter and demanded that the complaining staff members appear before him. Miles refused to produce his staff members, telling Blackburn his interference "further serves to intimidate them."
Of course, none of that gets to what the Miles reform is really about. It's based on an overwhelming consensus in national research over the last two decades showing that teachers are the most important factor in the success or failure of a school system to effectively educate children. Other research has found there are good ways to identify good teachers and to train less able teachers to get better. But even the best teachers must be led by effective team leaders in the post of principal.
For the last year, Miles and his administration have been going after the principals piece first, scouring school leadership ranks according to measurements laid out in a 24-page document called the "Principal Performance Rubric." Principals are evaluated according to 47 different criteria, which are far from the measurements used in the past. In the old days, principals were judged almost entirely on the basis of basic administration and discipline. Miles is evaluating them on additional grounds, looking at team-building and teacher training, student achievement and parental involvement.
Ultimately it's about whether or not a principal has been successful at persuading teachers to teach their students the Mike Miles way. And if we listen to Leslie Williams, one of the regional executive directors who have been carrying out the plan, the Mike Miles plan couldn't sound more reasonable.
The first thing a principal must do, step one in a process called "aligning the curriculum," Williams says, is make sure each teacher knows what must be taught. The state of Texas, after all, requires by law that a certain body of knowledge be conveyed to each student in each year of that student's career. That required knowledge is what Williams calls "the standard."
"The teacher, herself or himself, must look at the standard and be able to do what we call 'unpack it' and be able to develop rigorous lessons on a daily basis to teach the students."
Teachers are free, he says, to figure out their own ways of getting it across. "They create their own lessons without depending on the curriculum and instruction departments to develop their lesson plans for them," he says. "They have more freedom this year than ever before, and I have been in this district for 37 years."
It is a core assumption of the reform effort that no teacher can accomplish these goals without engaging the students. In fact the word itself, engage, has become a kind of mantra.
He explains: "What we mean by engaging students, you have to develop lessons that get the kid excited about math, for example. You have to be able to sell math to students."
And then finally, the student is really supposed to get it. Really. Get it. The teacher must see that the student either really gets it or really does not — a process sometimes called "demonstration of learning" in district jargon, sometimes called "strategies to check for understanding."
"It can be something as simple as thumbs up, thumbs down," Williams says. "That way the teacher can scan that classroom and see that 90 percent of my students understood it, and 10 percent didn't. Now I know who that 10 percent are. I have a choice of going back and reteaching it or making sure that little Johnny comes to tutoring after school."
Williams says most of the elements of the Miles plan have actually been around forever, usually under different names and with varying levels of emphasis. A demonstration of learning, for example, used to be called an "exit ticket" by teachers, meaning a kid was ready to exit one lesson and move up to the next.
It sounds pretty hard to argue with in the abstract. But then, that's the abstract for you. How does it shake out in real life? Teachers and principals were extremely reluctant to talk for this article, even when promised anonymity, saying they feared reprisals during a time of turnover and turmoil. But a few did describe their experiences on the condition that they not be named.
One is a veteran elementary teacher. She says she must work under a not-very-bright principal who is constantly looking over his shoulder to an even less smart executive director. She says her principal has told teachers in the school that he will be out of a job if he fails to get them to toe the line. Toeing the line, she says, is all about what her principal nervously calls their "L.O.s and DOLs."
That would be "lesson objectives" and "demonstrations of learning." Her principal, she says, wants her to lay down an L.O., teach it for no more than two days, then do the DOL and move on to the next L.O. Oh, yeah, and do that engagement thing too.
"It's very anti-early-childhood," she says. As children's brains and thinking abilities develop, she says, they may need revisiting and repetition of lessons throughout a year in order to grasp them. She says she understands that plans initially conceived at headquarters may be smarter and more flexible than what she gets when her job-sweating principal starts nattering to her about L.O.s and DOLs. But that doesn't help her situation in her classroom.
"We have to rely on the principal's interpretation of his directions," she says. Based on what she hears from fellow teachers, she says there is pain and frustration districtwide where the rubber meets the road, in the classroom.
A principal who was willing to talk about it anonymously says he didn't necessarily disagree with either the call for change or the method of change, but he thinks the people carrying it out are basically being assholes about it. Schools of which he has been principal, by the way, have had top student achievement records.
"I just don't like the way they've implemented these things," he says. "They've come in with the attitude of basically, 'You all suck. We're going to change everything.'
"Really, there are a lot of schools in the district that do suck, and we do need to make changes, but there are some schools that just need to be helped whenever we can but not to the point where you want to make a lot of changes."
As he talks about the Miles team, it becomes obvious this principal despises them all because he thinks they all come from the other side of an important tribal line in education. On his side of the line are the doers, the ones who have been in the classroom, who have been assistant principals and principals, the education equivalent of people in the military who have seen battle. On the other side are those whom he labels with a term that drips with derision as it leaves his lips: They are "consultants."
"In public education if you can talk a good game, if you can talk the educational garbage, you can pretty well move up," he says. "There's a lot of people who can tell you how to do things, but when you ask them, 'Well, have you ever done it yourself?' they say, 'Well, no.'"
For him, the consultants and other voices from outside the district urging reform achieve the opposite of a morale boost. "Outside people, the mayor and all these people, trying to tell us how to do our jobs, that's why education is paid so bad. People feel like anybody can do this."
His ultimate verdict on Miles himself is the worst thing he can say: "The bottom line is, this guy, this superintendent, he's a consultant."
Donna Johnson retired from the district more than a decade ago as principal of Metropolitan High School, which drew students from all of the high schools in the city. She stays in touch socially with many working principals in the district, some of whom she sees and chats with during her daily visits to the gym. She says her impression is that almost all of them are suffering from battered morale at this point, including some whom she considers among the best.
"Good ones, let me tell you." She says many would leave tomorrow, "if they can get another job."
The main complaint she hears is micromanaging and an insistence that principals manage every second of every day according to the Mike Miles formula, stripping them of discretion and wriggle-room that they feel they need in order to cope with the demands of the positions.
"He has people coming out to require the principals to sit in the classroom and observe the teachers. I have no problem with that. But if you've got a tremendously outstanding teacher, you already know that. Why do you have to have a certain number of observations for that teacher? Why not spend that time with someone who needs help?"
She says some principals complain about the executive directors who are carrying out the plan. "From what I understand, the people that they send out are not the best people."
All of these objections to the reform sound reasonable and have a ring of truth or at least a certain familiarity for anyone who has ever worked in a large corporate or institutional setting. Sending instructions from the head office to the troops is always going to be the pass-it-on game, where the message gets more garbled the more people it passes through. Meanwhile, new instructions and changes in the chain of command will inevitably cause some level of consternation.
For his part, Miles says all of that is to be expected and none of it surprises him. "It is totally understandable that people have concerns about people," he says. "This is a people business, after all. That's what we do."
He says he is unfazed by the rough talk about him in the community. "It would be alarming to me if people didn't fight for other people's careers. They want me and the administration of the district to show that we're not insensitive. I think that's important."
Miles says many accommodations are being made behind the scenes in cases of principals who will be removed from their posts but not fired from the district. "One thing you probably don't know," he says, "is that anybody who's not under an OPR investigation — that's different — we are trying to offer a solution." Some principals, for example, may be offered assistant principal jobs at other schools in a kind of obliquely downward transfer not uncommon within the district in the past.
But on the reform itself, Miles stands fast, convinced that the need is urgent and his plan for meeting it is on solid ground supported by research. "Some people will say there is no way to know what an effective principal is, just like there is no way to know what an effective teacher is. That's not true."
He refers to a report called "Ensuring Fair and Reliable Measures of Effective Teaching," published in January by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Based in part on research done in Dallas, the report asks if there is a way to know which teachers will produce students who will be more successful than they would have been without that teacher. If you send really hard-to-teach kids to Teacher A and the same kind of kids to Teacher B, can you know ahead of time which teacher will be better able to help them learn?
The answer, according to the report, is yes. And further into the report when it begins to talk about how you know, the bone structure of the Miles reform plan appears. The frequent monitoring of classrooms by people from different parts of the hierarchy is one of the most effective predictors. Elements sometimes spoken as sneering buzzwords when people bitch about Miles — engagement, feedback, collaboration, leadership — emerge from the report as proven tools to turn education around.
One accusation does make him bridle — that he's a hopscotch consultant making a name for himself with a program of drastic change that shortchanges basic fairness.
"Another thing that people say that's incorrect," he says, "is that it's all about change. Nobody has said that, not even close. You go back to the question, what are the right metrics? They have to be designed as a fair evaluation process."
For board President Blackburn, that one consideration — fairness — is the real bottom line. "The key word is fair," Blackburn says. "I don't question the administration's decisions about hiring an employee or terminating an employee other than: Has that employee been treated fairly, especially when it comes to a termination or separation? Are we treating our employees fair across the board?"
Miles says he does not disagree with Blackburn on that score. The question is the definition of fairness. "This is what I define as fair," Miles says. "First thing with fairness is, have we outlined fair expectations? What does it mean to be an instructional leader? What does it mean when you have a student engagement? What does it mean to align the curriculum? Those are all expectations. You have to say, 'This is what that means and this is what it looks like.'
"Second, it's only fair if you professionally develop [train people in] the things that you most expect. So the bigger question is how much professional development do you do and instructional feedback? I didn't invent that. Principals have been giving instructional feedback to teachers since forever. Now we happen to be doing more training on it and monitoring."
And back once again to what was supposed to be the basic question: No matter whose ox gets gored, do we need school reform, and why? Last February the congressionally chartered Equity and Excellence Commission delivered a report on the American achievement gap to the secretary of education called "For Each and Every Child." The report opened with a stern admonition:
"Education is the key to a strong democracy, economic competitiveness and a world-class standard of living. In recent decades, however, America has lost its place as a global leader in educational attainment in ways that will lead to a decline in living standards for millions of our children and the loss of trillions of dollars of economic growth."
The second source of fuel for the reform movement is upbeat, however, based on decades of settled scientific research showing that all children, even the ones from the toughest, most deprived backgrounds, can be taught and that the secret to it all ultimately is the teacher. Good teachers led by good principals working from good plans can turn it all around for children and the nation.
There are different schools of thought on how to get there. Most give weight to teacher pay. The Equity and Excellence report points to a 2010 McKinsey and Co. study, which found that better pay would have a significant impact on the quality and supply of recruits.
The McKinsey report said hiking starting pay to $65,000 from today's $37,000 and top salaries to $150,000 from today's $70,000 "would lift the percentage of new teachers in high-poverty schools coming from the top third of their academic cohort from 14 percent today to 68 percent and would cost (at current teacher/student ratios) an estimated $30 billion a year, or about 5 percent of current K-12 spending."
The urgency for school reform in Dallas springs from a cascading sense of local crisis. At the beginning of this year when Education Week magazine and the Education Research Center issued their annual report card for the states, Texas ranked 36th in the category called "Chance for Success," measuring how well schools equip kids to get on in life.
The math here is pretty straightforward: America competes poorly with the rest of the developed world. Texas competes poorly with the rest of America. Dallas competes poorly with the rest of Texas. Minority kids in Dallas public schools compete poorly with the rest of Dallas. It shouldn't be hard to figure out which end of the barrel that puts them in.
But is turning that barrel over worth the pain? Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in southern Dallas, sees the minority kids who leave the Dallas schools still imbued with an eagerness to get ahead, ambitious kids who want to go to college and learn. He knows intimately how hard it will be for most of them. That knowledge, he says, forms his view of the Miles school reform effort.
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"The system is broken," he says. "As painful as it is for folks to sometimes admit, when things are as broken as this, given the miserable success rates of our students, I have to say that the schools are broken. Our students are not performing. They're not performing on tests. They aren't performing in the classroom. It's not going well."
Sorrell says he thinks there is broad awareness of the need for change in the community, tempered by pain and hesitation over the nature of the change. In his view the willingness of the community to fight for the jobs of individual principals and teachers is simply an expression of human nature.
"I haven't met anyone, even those people who don't agree with Mike Miles, who doesn't think something has to be done. But this is akin to folks who hate Congress but love their congressman. They separate the congressman from the body, because acknowledging that their congressman contributes to the issue is personally painful."
Sorrell believes the change ahead is absolutely necessary even though it will be painful for everyone from Miles to his most bitter detractor. "I am pulling for Miles," he says, "because I am pulling for this community. I am pulling for our kids, and as a person who gets the end result of DISD, I just don't know how you can't pull for the teachers, the principals and the superintendent. I pull for all of them."