When They Write About the Schools, Morning News Reporters Have Apples Issue

James Ragland is back writing a metro column for the city's only daily newspaper, and that's a good thing. But Ragland, who took a sabbatical from columnizing to do actual journalism, may need to give himself some catch-up time before launching too many more opinion epistles.

He wrote a piece yesterday in which he basically said Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles had kind of indulged in an inappropriate relationship with the pooch over the last year but now maybe Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings can help get things back on track.


It's more like Miles accomplished every goal he set for himself since coming here from Colorado, and Rawlings has helped some, so let's hope for more of the same.

Ragland summarized Miles' tenure: "In short his first 14 months on the job were a mess. Trustees threatened to fire him, and Miles' family even loaded up the U-Haul and headed back to Colorado."

Yeah. I guess I could summarize the same stretch of history: Miles was able to completely rewire the selection process for school leadership, decoupling it from a decades-old system of political patronage, and is charging ahead toward a merit pay system for teachers in spite of blow-back so nasty that he had to send his family out of town.

Glass half empty, glass half full? I don't know. I think there's a bit of agenda at work here, some of it at Ragland's own shop, something he might want to weigh a bit more carefully before weighing in again. For example, we have the ever-morphing Morning News teacher turnover story, which changes on-line every day, making less and less sense as the paper tries to get it right.

As originally published, Matthew Haag's story purported to show that teachers have been bailing from the Dallas school system at a rate higher than in previous years and higher than rates in comparable-size and nearby school districts. In response to some sharp-eyed on-line commenters, however, Haag had to admit he was comparing apples to ... Greek love poetry or something.

The first problem with Haag's data was that he was comparing numbers from the wrong years. But then it turned out he was also using different methodologies to assess turnover in different districts, taking numbers for other districts whole-cloth from state reports but ginning up numbers for Dallas in his own quite different way.

At some point along the way, the invidious comparisons with other districts -- Houston, for example -- disappeared from the on-line copy, presumably because they no longer worked on an apple-to-apple basis. The latest data I can see from the Texas Education Agency shows Dallas with a teacher turnover rate of 17.8 percent, against a rate of 18.7 percent in Houston. Houston does a little better than us on student achievement (30 percent passing the STAAR tests for all subjects at final Level II, compared with 25 percent here), so maybe we could argue that Miles isn't firing enough teachers.

Or not. Who even knows what causes teacher turnover? The way Haag got himself into a tangle was by trying to make a certain narrative about turnover come true -- the one the anti-school reform claque has been banging on all year. That's the story I wrote about Monday: The anti-reform crowd have been pushing the idea that teachers are thronging the borders with their possessions in wheelbarrows to escape the tyranny of Miles.

Haag came up with a turnover rate, 20.5 percent, that barely made that story come true. Only it turns out that Haag never went back and applied the same methodology to other districts in order to get apples all the way around. So the 20.5 percent rate is left sort of hanging out there without any particular relevance to anything.

Back to Ragland. He knows this city. Certainly he knows that no one was ever going to come in here and accomplish anything meaningful without igniting a ferocious backlash from the old and entrenched church-based black leadership and from the teachers organizations. The black resistance is against management reforms instituted early on by Miles cutting out ministers from their traditional role as school principal and teacher pickers for schools in their neighborhoods. The blow-back from the teachers groups has everything to do with Miles' obvious determination to get rid of seniority pay.

That Miles is even still here, let alone still standing with his program intact, is an unalloyed success. The rest of it is predictable chaff. Why the education beat reporters at the News are such suckers for chaff, nobody knows. But Ragland needs to figure it out before he rides to this particular hunt again.

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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