Teachers Leaving DISD: How Do We Know When That's a Bad Thing?

Odd little contretemps in recent weeks on the pages of our city's only daily newspaper: On December 4, education writer Matt Haag had a story in the The Dallas Morning News under the headline, "Dallas ISD teachers left at high rate in Superintendent Mike Miles' first year," purporting to show that Dallas teachers have been fleeing the district en masse to escape Miles' tyranny.

The anti-Miles claque has been aggressively peddling the teacher turnover story for at least three months with no success, and they seemed thrilled to have found a taker in Haag. Gadfly Bill Betzen rushed forward with online compliments, saying, "...the record-setting loss of teachers during the first year Miles was in Dallas was a true disaster."

In all, the story and the comments conjured images of World War II refugees fleeing on foot and by bicycle with their belongings stuffed in pillowcases and their grandmothers in wheelbarrows, cowering beneath the shrubbery every time they think they hear the overhead roar of Mad Mike coming back for another strafing run.

But a week later The Morning News editorial page came back with its own headline: "DISD's teacher turnover rate needs deeper study." The editorial page pointed out that the turnover rates cited in Haag's story actually were pretty close to rates of other big districts around the state.

And, wait a minute: Why is turnover automatically a disaster? "A turnover rate that looks high isn't bad if it consists of a sizable number of underperforming teachers," the editorial page said.

Well, yeah. Think about it. Turnover is only bad if you're losing people you don't want to lose. It's good if you are losing people you do want to lose. At the end of October I told you about some new research into the merit pay system in place in the Washington, D.C., public school system in which researchers found that merit pay is doing an excellent job getting the worst teachers to quit. That's a good thing.

No, you don't want your good teacher, the top 20 percent sometimes called "the irreplaceables," to abandon ship. But you absolutely do want the worst teachers to take a hike. Some research suggests American public schools could catch up with Canada and Finland if we just replaced the bottom 8 to 12 percent of really bad teachers with teachers who only meet the Lake Wobegone standard of barely above average.

Imagine, just for grins, that you had a very high number of driver's education teachers who were addicted to meth and had no teeth. And Matt Haag did a story in The Morning News saying "Toothless meth-head driver's ed teachers left at high rate in Superintendent Mike Mile first year." Well, that should be sufficient cause for us to all go downtown and pin a medal on Miles' chest, right?

The Morning News editorial ended on what seemed like a very solid and sober note: "... the question is who is leaving and why," the editorial writers said. "It's hard to know the answers without more analysis of the data. And until we know the answers, it's impossible to tell whether the turnover rate is a sign of progress or a symptom of failure."

Here here! But, uh, where where were these questions when Haag was penning his story? Why does the editorial page have to ask all the Reporting 101 questions, and wouldn't it be more seemly to get this stuff done earlier in the process, before the actual publishing part?

Look, Haag's a great reporter, kicking ass right now with his stories about slimy land deals at the district, although I think he could expend a little more effort making it clear to readers that the deals in question did not occur on the watch of or have anything to do with the current superintendent. If anything, the cronyism uncovered by Haag illustrates the kind of rat's nest Miles walked into when he took the job in April 2012.

I'm just saying next time the Betzens and the teachers unions come calling with one of these birthday cakes in hand, it might be wise for Haag and Tawnell Hobbs, the other reporter on the schools beat, to pause before biting and maybe ask themselves a couple devil's advocate questions.

I think Haag is great. I just hate watching him take a hiding from the editorial page. In newspaper terms, it doesn't get much more ignominious than that, like being spanked by the school nurse. It's a circumstance worth avoiding at almost any cost.

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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