Thankful is what I am. But being thankful always worries me. Maybe something terrible is about to happen. I am truly thankful that Dallas right now is pretty much at the forefront of the national school reform movement because of its comprehensive merit-pay system for teachers.
The Dallas Independent School District’s “teacher excellence initiative” (TEI) adopted two years ago was a hard-fought reform, a truly serious step toward restoring dignity and respect to the one profession that may have more to do with our destiny as a nation than any other.
Because TEI is based on a much more sophisticated evaluation process than earlier attempts at merit pay elsewhere, it is slowly garnering interest from around the country. School board trustee Miguel Solis told me last week he has received expressions of interest from Harvard faculty, and he said he knows of interest from other major urban school districts around the country.
So, look, we beat up on ourselves a lot about public schools in Dallas, with good reason. Maybe now is a fair moment to pause and notice that we seem to be doing something right for a change.
Oh, but, the minute I say that, I peek around the next corner and see a big old piano dangling from a high building, just waiting to drop on our heads if we get cocky. Right after Thanksgiving, Congress apparently is going to pass a new elementary and secondary education act that will gut key provisions of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, specifically making it easier for states and school districts to conceal their worst schools from public view.
So, yeah, we may be way out ahead on school reform in Dallas right now, but black storm clouds are headed this way from Washington.
NCLB enabled the federal government to withhold important funding from states that refused to identify schools with terrible outcomes for kids. And here’s a thing to remember about the act, just as an index of how far away from it we have strayed today: NCLB was an initiative of President George W. Bush passed in 2001 in a bill co-authored by John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts).
Today in Massachusetts, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, has linked arms with the Pioneer Institute, an ultra-right think tank supported by the Koch brothers and the Wal-Mart Walton family, to battle against key accountability provisions in NCLB and the national “Common Core” curriculum, especially the linking of teacher pay to student outcomes measured by achievement tests.
I recommend you stop and ponder that one for a full couple seconds. I had to ponder it for about an hour when I first came across it. Let me tell it to you again:
The biggest union representing teachers in this country has joined arm-in-arm with the Koch brothers and the Waltons, who have an Ayn-Randian political philosophy that basically predates the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, to fight against teacher accountability measures.
The union hates tests because tests get bad teachers fired, and the union’s role is to keep everybody’s job. The Koch/Waltons hate Common Core and teacher accountability because Obama.
OK. But somewhere here in the weave, do we need to look for threads that may help us understand what’s happening to us nationally? As a national community? Your kid comes home and says everybody’s doing it — the teacher, the Koch brothers, the Waltons. If that’s actually true, at some point don’t you have to stop and wonder what’s going on?
Amanda Ripley, an investigative reporter for TIME, The Atlantic and other magazines, wrote a book three years ago called The Smartest Kids in the World, in which she tracked American high school exchange students who studied in countries where public school kids vastly outperform Americans. She put those profiles in a larger context, basically disproving most of the common assumptions we have about why United States achievement levels are so ignominiously subpar on international measurements like the PISA test, where we rank way down in the middle just beneath the Slovak Republic.
Ripley takes two of the most popular excuses we give ourselves — diversity and poverty — and tests them by looking at states that are homogeneously white and also by looking at affluent and private school students. And guess what? They’re subpar, too, on an international scale. Everybody is subpar.
Ripley’s interviews with her exchange student subjects in Finland, South Korea and Poland are fascinating mainly for the strong common themes they offer from these seemingly disparate societies: Each kid tells her that the students in the country where that student is living take school more seriously than American students. They think of what happens to them in school and what they do or do not achieve in school as closely linked to what will happen to them in the rest of their lives.
This strong sense of a need to prepare for life by studying equips students in these countries with a quality Ripley calls “resilience.” It’s the ability to soldier through, even with an unlikable or uninspiring teacher, because what’s important is less the teacher than the student’s future.
Life. Is. Serious.
Of course this is not a concept unknown to Americans. But it does seem to be a concept encountered more commonly among some types of Americans than others.
Dallas school trustee Solis was the youngest person ever elected to the Dallas school board when he took office in 2013. He holds a master's degree in education management from Harvard. I asked him last week if he took school seriously when he was a kid.
“I grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, in the '90s,” he said. “It had one of the highest crime rates in the nation. I grew up on a street, Tenth Avenue, and I can point to houses where the kids I grew up with are in the system right now. One of my best friends, his name is Luke, went to juvie and has been in the system since the age of 13.
“My parents, first off, realized that that was a very real trajectory I could go down, were they not to play a role.”
His parents, especially his school teacher father, did play a role, he said, a huge role in which they taught him that every single day in school was serious — life and death, in fact.
Solis told me his parents taught him to believe in the American dream. Hard work. In that sense his story is not unlike those of countless determined and upwardly mobile immigrant families all around us in the Dallas area. Life is good. Because life is serious.
Now let me go back to the new education act that Congress is about to enact and that key issue of identifying failing schools. American schools in general may be subpar when compared with schools worldwide, but some are way more sub than others, and those schools are the moral worm in the apple. How could a society that took life seriously allow its poorest and most socially handicapped children to rot in terrible schools, even if luckier kids did better? You either take the lives and destinies of children seriously, or you don’t really. If you can let some kids rot, you can let anything rot, including your country.
I remember back before NCLB, before Bush went to the White House, when he was governor of Texas and his top education people were talking about “reading as the new civil right.” Maybe it was a bit of hyperbole, but it was one damned exciting hyperbole.
You had a lot of really smart, ferociously committed people from a wide variety of political persuasions, all absolutely united, forged into one steel by the realization that poor kids could be brought to full literacy by the end of the third grade.
But here was the other side of the coin: If we knew it could be done, if we knew how to do it, if we had the resources to do it and yet failed to do it anyway, then we committed a great national sin.
The idea behind forcing states and districts to identify their most miserably failed schools was that there was no excuse for miserable failure. We needed to know where that footstep fell, because knowing would increase our urgency — our seriousness, our resilience — and push us to get out there to fix it.
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I don’t think the Massachusetts common law marriage of the Koch brothers and the NEA is entirely the mystery it may appear at first blush. The determination of the teachers unions to preserve the status quo is a closer cousin than it might first appear to the reactionary Obamaphobia of the far right.
It’s all a retreat from tough issues. The NEA doesn’t want its troops discomfited with a lot of radical change in their workday, certainly not including possible loss of employment, so they will get in bed and make common cause with anybody who can help them stave off change.
And what is all this Koch/Walton/Trump stuff about, after all? Give up on climate change: too much trouble. Give up on Middle East diplomacy: too complicated. Just bomb somebody and make it go away. And give up on kids. Nobody wants to try that hard.
That shared culture of slackery, in fact, is the real worm in the apple. It’s a culture of give up, as opposed to a culture of resilience. We’re not giving up in Dallas right now. We’re on the leading edge of taking life seriously. But here come those clouds.