Trump's Education Secretary Messes With Our Black Hat/White Hat System

Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, stumped The New York Times last week by appointing Democrats and minorities to her staff.
Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, stumped The New York Times last week by appointing Democrats and minorities to her staff.
U.S. Department of Education
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It's not fun, but it is interesting at times to watch the Washington press corps struggle with public education issues. I have empathy. If anything bollixes up our bookkeeping in the news business about who’s a black hat and who’s a white hat, it’s that damned education issue.

Last week, a New York Times story about Trump’s secretary of education ran under the headline, “Some Hires by Betsy DeVos Are a Stark Departure From Her Reputation,” and I thought to myself, “Reputation, really? Or just what we assumed?”

Last week, attorney and political activist Mark Melton took me to task on Facebook for messing up my hat collection in the coverage of two elections. In one, a contest between incumbent Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston and challenger Matt Wood, I sided with Kingston against Wood, in large part because of the out-of-district support Wood was getting from what I took to be a cabal of arrogant, interfering rich people.

But in the second race, the runoff election to be decided June 10 between incumbent Dallas school board trustee Dustin Marshall and challenger Lori Kirkpatrick, I have been on Marshall’s side, even though some of his support comes from some of the same cabal, whom I now view as altruists. And, you know, the two elections are only a few weeks apart, so it’s not like everybody’s been born again.

Melton wrote on Facebook: “Jim, I'm still not sure I understand how you can rationalize having opposing views — under what appear to me to be identical facts — when looking at DISD versus the city of Dallas. We have roughly the same folks, doing roughly the same things in both DISD and city politics. They're noble when it comes to schools, but nefarious when it comes to the city? I don't get it.”

No, Mark, neither do I. My hats are in a jumble. It’s a big hat pile. I do comfort myself somewhat when I see the much brighter and more sophisticated members of the Washington press corps with their white hats and black hats all messed up, too, on these questions.

The Times piece took a little mini-divot out of DeVos for having appointed a diverse crew to her staff but doing “little to highlight the diversity in her administration.”

The point is, I think, her staff is quite diverse, whether she brags about it or not, even on the litmus issue of party loyalty. One of her key appointments is Jason Botel, a Baltimore Democrat and Obama supporter who preaches that failed urban school districts are purveyors of white supremacy. That pinpoint place on the map, by the way — failed public education as an engine of racism — is pretty much where I think everybody’s hats pop off.

In the ongoing Dallas school board race, Kirkpatrick, the challenger, has adopted whole-cloth the line of the teachers unions as espoused by famous author Diane Ravitch — that school reform is a plot by Wall Street and 1-percenters to privatize public education. It’s the same line I heard many of my fellow Democrats hurling at DeVos when Trump chose her, mainly because she’s rich and likes charter schools and because of something about her brother being a Rambo.

Since then, the Democratic Party of Texas has jumped into our local race with a full-throated endorsement of Kirkpatrick, echoing her Occupy-sounding rhetoric like a Greek chorus. The main argument is that none of the school reformers' ideas really works, especially that thing the reformers call “merit pay.”

But merit pay does work. And so do many of the other reforms. Like a gum-ball machine. Last week, a set of numbers came out, some from the Dallas school district and some from analyses by the Williams Family Foundation, showing that the reforms put in place by former Dallas Superintendent Mike Miles are already having an exciting, positive effect, especially on the worst schools.

Dallas is reducing the number of students attending failed schools, which the state euphemistically calls “Improvement Required" campuses, at five times the rate achieved by other big, urban Texas districts. From 2012-16, the number of students who achieved a ready-for-college rating in Dallas increased at twice the statewide rate.

Maybe the most telling numbers, however, are the ones dealing with teachers. From Kirkpatrick in Dallas to Ravitch on the national scene, the mantra of the anti-school reform claque has been that merit pay and results-oriented assessment systems are a cold, corrosive, corporate-minded assault on teacher morale and that all the best teachers are leaving the profession because of them.

But the numbers here show exactly the opposite. Teachers who ranked at the top of the Dallas district’s teacher effectiveness index had a 0 percent rate of turnover in 2016. Zero. That means not one of them left the district.

Teachers at the other end of the rating scale, the ones ranked “unsatisfactory,” had a departure rate of more than 42 percent in 2016.

Was it pay? Most of the top teachers got 8 percent pay raises. The bottom ones got zero. Money is important to us all, and surely the pay raises had a lot to do with it.

But we humans also are more complicated creatures than that. I had a conversation recently with Miles, now a happy consultant in Colorado, in which he talked about a deeper message that the assessment system may send to teachers. It tells them what the district wants from them: results, kids learning at grade level.

Loyalty’s nice. Nothing wrong with seniority, necessarily. But what the school board wants is results.

Giving teachers salary bumps based on seniority mixes that message. It may give hope to someone who really is not well suited or equipped to teach. Cleaning up the message — using both the assessment system and the money to get the message across — may give people a more honest picture of where they fit and what they need to do about it.

Miles, who watches Dallas from afar and admits he doesn’t have a tight handle on things here, is worried, nevertheless, that a constant battering from the teachers unions and their converts in the community, like Kirkpatrick, threatens to erode the teacher effectiveness index in Dallas by remixing it with seniority.

“Don’t do TEI and then start tampering with it just to make it easier on people or because people want more money without really thinking about what you had in the first place. I mean, if we wanted a higher salary schedule with higher average salaries, we could have done that much more easily, right, than all the trouble we went through.”

For all the encouraging news of improvement, the overall picture remains stark for the Dallas school system, as it is for almost all of America’s big, urban districts. Big, urban districts, including our own, take in children from tough backgrounds. The poverty rate in Dallas schools is 88 percent. The argument from Ravitch and other opponents of school reform is that poverty is the whole story: Teachers can’t do anything for kids until somebody fixes poverty.

But the numbers provide two contradictions of that view, one of them wonderful and the other one awful. In Dallas’ experimental Accelerating Campus Excellence program, the district has achieved stunning results in what had been some of the its most intractably terrible schools. That’s the wonderful one. It can be done.

The terrible contradiction of the poverty-only argument is that the Dallas school system continues overall to take in kids from challenging backgrounds and then grind them down to even lower levels. Of all the kids who come straight from their homes and enter kindergarten in Dallas, 55 percent are at grade level when they walk in the door.

Four years later, only a third are at grade level. By the end of high school, 8 percent are prepared for college. Sure, poverty’s bad. But too many public school systems make it even worse.

Many of the core ideas at the heart of school reform came from Dallas in the 1980s and early '90s, when a group of activists associated with Texas Instruments and the UT Southwestern Medical School began looking systematically at so-called anomalous or outlier schools. These were schools in South Dallas, the Rio Grande Valley, East Texas and elsewhere where kids who should have been doomed to failure by their demographics were scoring up with rich, white kids from affluent communities.

The highest retention rates are among teachers rated most effective by the school district's merit pay assessment system. They also get paid more.
The highest retention rates are among teachers rated most effective by the school district's merit pay assessment system. They also get paid more.

Those studies were the beginning of a realization that kids, no matter how poor and disadvantaged, can be taught, and teaching them can change not only their destinies but also the destiny of our society.

It’s not a liberal/conservative realization. It is somehow post-liberal/conservative. It throws all our hats on the floor. Once you realize it can be done, once you see that we know how, once you accept that we already have the resources, then not doing it becomes a terrible sin. The issue is beyond politics. It is profound and moral.

The system we have now sends rich, white kids to college and poor, black and Hispanic kids to the pen. I don’t believe that the people who oppose school reform start from racism, but it’s pretty close to where they wind up.

Private message to Melton: I still can’t answer your question. What could I do for you to get you to stop asking?

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