The African proverb about the best way to eat an elephant in your path—answer: one bite at a time—was somehow unknown to the groups trying to establish a Dallas ISD home-rule school charter. They came out of nowhere in March, announced their plans to fix the entire problem at once, and set about trying to do just that.
It should have been simpler. On its face, the home-rule effort to radically reform the district was welcome. DISD is broken, and with about 25,000 signatures, state law would allow a panel of experts to figure out the best way to fix it. Then voters would decide whether to implement the plan. The alternative: leave broke what’s broken. Easy decision, right?
Except it hasn’t been. Support Our Public Schools—the well-meaning but inept organization backing the home-rule effort—offered no coherent campaign plan at the start, allowing the reform discussion to be irrevocably warped. Instead of arguing about how to fix DISD, status quo self-interests have filled the vacuum with silliness about how the home-rule charter is really about millionaires trying to take over our school system. By the time you read this, the home-rule effort could be stumbling along, wounded and disfigured, or it could be flat-out dead.
And the more I think about it, its death wouldn’t be the worst thing. For all its good intentions, the home-rule effort is still a political battle between education special-interest groups. And its death doesn’t mean all reform efforts are dead. In fact, there are plenty going on right now, under the media’s radar—which is just fine with those involved day-to-day with trying to reform DISD.
You have to understand something about the district: it is filled with a lot of smart people. Not enough, but there are plenty who know what needs to change, and who are working hard to change it. (And if you think the answers are as simple as “better teachers” or “a different superintendent,” your thinking is as superficial as that of the special-interest groups.) The smart reformers roll their eyes at the whole-elephant idea. They’ll tell you, in world-weary tones, that the school board has always been a dysfunctional, micromanaging mess; that business leaders get steamrolled when they parachute into a school district they’re not a part of; and that hard work is being done outside the media–politico–activist triangle.
An example: early childhood development. There is a ton of data that shows high-quality pre-K half-day programs make a huge difference in educational outcomes. DISD recently hired someone to oversee implementing best practices into current programs and finding ways to get more kids into the program—mainly because the money is already there for more pre-K classes, but also because, for a number of reasons, not enough students are in the program.
This is a tremendously important reform, one undertaken by DISD itself. Educating principals and teachers on pre-K structure (more tactile learning, fewer tiny butts in seats), finding space for classes, finding transportation for the poor kids in the district (most of them)—this is happening right now. It’s the sort of roll-up-your-sleeves work that doesn’t generate headlines but can help remake the district.
Because the elephant is so large, though, there aren’t enough resources for even the best and brightest within DISD. This is where those evil business leaders and millionaires come in, not individually but in groups like Commit. (They spell it “Commit!” I refuse.) Commit is a local data-driven research and reform group composed of more than 115 partner organizations. More than 125 people sit on Commit’s seven committees. They try to gather useful data to help schools identify what works and what doesn’t, and then find resources that are already available to implement meaningful change.
In February, Commit put out a report that gave district leaders a blueprint for action in everything from increasing early-childhood and pre-K readiness to upping third-grade reading scores (the earliest point at which the state measures reading proficiency). The early-childhood data are surely being taken to heart within the walls of DISD as you read this, if only because the person hired to oversee its implementation, Alan Cohen, was hired from Commit. But a chart that accompanied the third-grade reading scores is perhaps the clearest indication of what smart, committed business leaders, educators, and district officials can manage when they drop the politics and let the data drive.
“We call it our ‘Hope Chart,’ ” says Tarik Ward, Commit’s chief strategy officer and co-chief operating officer. Ward, a former rocket scientist, proudly displays the chart, which shows standardized test scores for each Dallas County school plotted against the percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch (a proxy for high poverty level). In DISD, it is 89 percent.
The data show two things: one, as poverty increases, test scores decrease. This is what one would assume. But the second lesson learned was that as poverty increased, the test scores greatly dispersed, by a variance as high as 50 percent. In other words: schools with equally high poverty had wildly divergent results in testing. “This was huge,” Ward says. “We had a whole group of very poor schools just crushing it, doing extraordinary things.”
But how were those schools achieving success? To find out, Commit talked to administrators, principals, and teachers directly. They picked the elementary schools within two feeder patterns, South Oak Cliff and Molina high schools, to examine, because they had high poverty and were large enough to provide meaningful answers. (Together, those two feeder patterns have about 8,500 students in 14 elementary schools, or more than 90 percent of school districts in the state.)
The DISD administrators over those feeder patterns welcomed Commit’s help in identifying what differentiated great schools from average ones. (Such magnanimity is uncommon in a corporate culture and should not go unnoticed.) After they surveyed each school, they looked at what good schools had that the others didn’t. One answer stood out: leveled libraries.
If you’ve seen an elementary school library where books are separated by alphabetical labels, chances are it was leveled. Students identified as C-level readers read C books, M-level readers read M books (or N books, but never B books). The system matches comprehension level with an appropriate book. Commit found that none of the schools doing poorly had leveled libraries. They went to the district, which found money to fix the problem.
Granted, no one knows how much the library adjustment alone will help. “It’s not a silver bullet,” Ward says. “But it was such an obvious thing, we had to make it happen.” For which his group of business leaders and millionaires should be commended, as should the often-maligned DISD administrators.
The group is now trying to conduct the same exercise with elementary-grade math scores. Commit doesn’t know where its research will lead, but it is hopeful the data will help direct the reformers who are already doing good work in the district.
One bite at a time.