There are things in the news these days to make us all cry inside. I’m thinking of the Roseanne story and what it really says about us. So I had to share this local story.
This is the opposite kind of story. It actually gave me a lump in the throat because it says something so wonderful about us — and I mean us, you and me, right here in Dallas, Texas.
The hard numbers finally are coming in for the Dallas public schools, giving us the first good glimpse of the ultimate outcomes for that long, terrible battle we fought in this city over basic school reform. And the news, once everybody gets it, will make us all jubilant.
There are two big outcomes, one just about us, the other about people. As for us, we have proven that our city is capable of real, meaningful reform and improvement of something that so many doomsayers were willing to write off as a lost cause. The Dallas Independent School District is achieving significant improvement that can be demonstrated with hard numbers.
It’s the other outcome, however, the bigger one about people, that has me all bleary-eyed and folding my hands in gratitude and relief. What the Dallas school system is proving is that babies are stronger, tougher and smarter than all the worst plagues society sets upon them at birth if we just give them an open road and a chance.
The very poorest kids from the very toughest circumstances, the ones who may not have good parents, who may not even have enough to eat at home, can attain levels of achievement in school right up there with the middle class and privileged kids if we know how to help them do it. And we do.
Way down the road and ultimately, what we are beginning to achieve here in Dallas with our public school system won’t just be the answer to education. It will be the answer to everything.
The Commit Partnership, a nonprofit education advocacy group headquartered in Dallas, has crunched local and statewide numbers produced by the Dallas school district and the Texas Education Agency, based on recent rounds of testing and evaluation. And just to make sure we get off on the right foot here, let’s start by acknowledging that in 2012, Dallas was near the bottom of the heap among major urban districts in Texas.
Then, only 24 percent of DISD’s total student body in all grades met the basic standard on statewide tests, compared with 39 percent in Austin, 33 percent in El Paso and 36 percent statewide. Only San Antonio was below us at 19 percent.
We are at mid-pack now among major Texas cities, with 35 percent of the Dallas student body at basic grade-level competence. But wait. That’s not the message.
The real message is that DISD is hiking up its scores faster than any other urban district in Texas. Dallas is the only city with double-digit improvement — 11 percentage points in the five years from 2012-17.
Austin is up by 8 percentage points. The statewide improvement is also 8 points. El Paso is up by 7 points, Houston 6 points, Fort Worth and San Antonio 5 points. So we are the leader in rate of improvement.
More to the point, the Dallas improvement can be seen most dramatically in what were the city’s worst-performing schools. Those also are the schools where the socioeconomic conditions are toughest and where the school reform effort has been most pointedly focused. And now we’re talking about only a three-year period.
At Blanton Elementary, where the state rates 92 percent of students as “economically disadvantaged," only 20 percent of fifth-graders could read at grade level in 2015. In 2018, it’s 58 percent. That’s almost triple.
Those numbers are reproduced consistently in the elementary schools that were targets of the special teaching enrichment reforms started under former Superintendent Mike Miles and supported now by his successor, Michael Hinojosa. Umphrey Lee Elementary, 92 percent economically disadvantaged, has gone from 20 percent of fifth-graders reading at grade level in 2015 to 39 percent now.
Mills Elementary, 91 percent disadvantaged, has gone from 16 percent to 56 percent in reading. Pease Elementary, 92 percent disadvantaged, has gone from 8 percent competence in 2015 to 19 percent in 2018.
Math is even more stunning. I won’t go through all of them, but the all-time winner is Blanton. In 2015, 15 percent of fifth-graders could do math at grade level. In 2018, it’s 82 percent.
These remarkable improvements — and this is only a thumbnail view — are not random miracles. They are tied directly to the reforms pushed through by Miles and continued under Hinojosa, especially the merit pay system for teachers and administrators.
Those reforms included a major element of systematic evaluation. After all, you can’t pay educators based on merit unless you have a reliable, defensible system for measuring merit.
The teachers unions fought hard against the merit pay reforms, defending the existing seniority-based pay system, and they had powerful historical reasons for doing so. Before merit pay, teacher pay raises and promotions were infused with heavy doses of favoritism and racism. It took the unions a long time to clean those stables, and their fear was that any erosion of seniority pay would plunge the district back into the bad old days.
But the merit pay reforms designed and implemented by Miles never were principally or initially about pay, anyway. They were always first about teaching and the ability to reach clearly stated goals.
Miles believed the school system had to tell teachers what it wanted them to do. Those goals included grade-level competence for all students, with special emphasis on reading and math at the end of the third grade and college readiness upon high school graduation.
The measurement system was designed in consultation with teachers and administrators. It also included a major element of student achievement testing. Students were surveyed to see what they had to say about their teachers.
The product was a protocol that gave people higher pay when they achieved the goals the district had set for them. And, look, it’s not as if the new system just racked up all of these measurements, handed out paychecks based on the scores and forgot about it.
Almost immediately, as soon as the district began to get a picture of who were the best teachers and principals, those people were dispatched to the schools where kids were struggling most. That’s exactly where these startling new achievement numbers are coming from.
School reform here has been a focused, disciplined, strategic mobilization, like a military assault on a beachhead, and the new numbers are beginning to shout victory. It’s a remarkable story within the context of education.
Robert Mundinger, the statistics guru behind TheMap, an urban statistical mapping tool, has been arguing for some time that the measurement of a school district shouldn’t be how well it plays the game with a bunch of baseball players born on third base. The real test, he says, is how well a district does with kids coming from way behind. On that basis, DISD may be en route to becoming the Harvard of public school systems.
But there is an even more wonderful larger context here, and that takes me back to the story of Roseanne Barr, the actress whose television sitcom ABC just canceled after she described Obama White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, who is black, as a product of the Planet of the Apes.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who is black, made a passionate speech on CNN on Wednesday morning about what it means when white people describe black people as apes or monkeys. It’s not about race, he said, and there is never anything innocent or accidental about it. Those remarks betray an unhinged white uncertainty about species.
The ape jokes are a way of saying, “They are not us. They are the other.” It’s an ancient theme. Seventeenth-century English sporting art paintings depicted fox-hunt scenes in which the Irish groom was often distinctly monkey-like, with simian facial features and dragging knuckles. It’s what people see when they don’t accept the full humanity of other people. And yes, it’s a very extreme expression of racism.
But defeatism in the approach to the education of children is only a subtler and maybe even more pernicious expression of the same thing. It asks why we should even try. It says that those kids are toast anyway. They don’t have good parents. There are too many bad influences on them. They aren’t us. They are the other.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Eventually, the kind of success that Dallas is beginning to build in its public school system is going to put the lie to all of that, and Dallas is leading the way. Between 2014 and 2017, the percentage of DISD students enrolled in schools designated as failing campuses by the state decreased from 19 percent to 5 percent.
In other words, in 2014, a fifth of all DISD students were going to schools the state had found were no good. In four years, the district was able to reduce that number to 5 percent. No other urban district in Texas came close. The total number of kids Dallas rescued from bad schools in that time period is now 23,003 per year.
No, those 23,003 kids didn’t have much chance when every single factor was set against them — money, health, culture, physical safety and, on top of all those, school. Of those, school was the one we were able to change most actively and directly. And that one factor, when we did address it, was enough to bring all of those 23,003 children home.
Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that a much better thing for us to spend our time thinking about than Roseanne Barr?