DMN’s 30K-foot Look at DISD is Very Good; But Let’s Drop Down to 10K Feet

DISD does have pockets of progress, but it may not be as rosy as DMN suggests


Holly Hacker’s piece yesterday in the DMN about DISD (part of the paper’s “Future Dallas” package) is great. Please read it now so I don’t have to summarize it. (While we’re waiting, I’ll give you the shorter version of Future Dallas — pretty much everything the DMN trumpeted before 2004 was dumb.) You’re back! Good. Because Hacker’s piece does a few crucial things right (like adjusting for poverty), it can be discussed seriously. The DMN needs to continue doing this sort of analysis so we can have wide-ranging, substantive discussions about the current state of DISD and what it needs to do to improve.

That said, when we look a little deeper, we see some of the things that will give you pause if you come away from her piece thinking, “Hey, maybe DISD doesn’t need reform!” Again, I want to stress I can only argue these things because the paper did such a good job at laying the groundwork. But that doesn’t mean we need to confuse progress in DISD (which Hacker documents) with acceptable quality.

The first problem is that the DMN, like many people (myself included) gets caught up in stats that aren’t the best ones to evaluate. College readiness is an example. I’ve harped on DISD’s college-readiness numbers, but the more education experts I talk to, I see this may be a faulty measurement, simply because the idea of college-readiness is so nebulous. There are many different measures of this, and taking a measure that isn’t concrete is always a bad way to look at outcomes.

What is a less-nebulous measure? College completion. See pages 25 to 28 of this report. This gives us numbers about the graduation rate for high school seniors after six years. Is this the best number to look at? Well, it’s the best one we have, although many education experts say what we REALLY need to be measuring is the 10-year 8th-grader completion rate. In other words, a decade after graduating 8th grade, how many of those kids have a college degree? (This is because of the importance of getting kids on-track by the end of 8th grade; otherwise, there is much less hope for them to succeed in higher ed.) So even though this is a guestimate, we can use the above link to back into the 10-year 8th-grader college completion rate for DISD’s most recent numbers: about 15 percent for the high school class of 2006.

Now, a few things about this measure, which we see as go down from the DMN’s 30k feet to our 10k-foot look:

By either college-completion or college-readiness measures, DISD’s magnets are exclusively carrying the load on these aggregate stats for the district.

Does this mean the only good instruction of poor kids (which make up 90 percent of DISD students) is happening at magnets? Not at all. Remember this vitally important chart we got from the data-education group Commit. There is still massive variation, caused largely by teacher quality, for schools of identical poverty levels within DISD (and everywhere else, for that matter).

So the question is not “Is DISD broken?” or “Is DISD doing better than we think it is?” or “Is reform necessary?” The answer to all those are yes. The question for DISD today (and tomorrow, aka Near Future Dallas) is, “How do you increase performance to acceptable levels even for poor kids?” In other words, just because you’re doing pretty well teaching poor kids in a few select schools doesn’t mean you’re doing well enough so that they (and certainly the other poor kids in the district) can make it as an adult. As concerned citizens, it’s also important we ask the correct sub-questions to this: How do I make sure DISD is doing the things that successful schools are doing to teach poor kids? This includes high-quality early childhood service, training of parents, more instructional time in K-12 (longer days, years … hello, home rule discussion), all combined with an demand from the administration for a relentless commitment to excellence that includes a curriculum emphasizing social-emotional strength as much as academic achievement.

Sounds like a tall order? Well (and charter school opponents hate hearing this), it’s been proven it can work, with the poorest kids among us. KIPP charter schools don’t focus on early childhood, but they do the rest of these things. And — we’ve come full circle now — KIPP’s college completion rate from 8th grade is 44 percent, compared to DISD’s of about 15 percent. And KIPP’s kids are just as poor and non-white as DISD’s.

Now, a lot of people dismiss KIPP’s results (and all charter results) because of the opt-in nature of enrollment. There are plenty of studies to refute this, but research doesn’t replace your gut, right? Fine, let’s just use a bit of logic: Anybody who thinks charters “skim” kids and therefore DISD isn’t dealing with a level playing field needs to understand that DISD’s magnets are SUPER charters. Magnets not only require parents to opt-in (like a charter), but they only let already-proven smart kids opt-in (which is vastly more restrictive than charters). AND you can get kicked out of a DISD magnet back to your home school for failure to perform (unlike charters in law, although many people say charters do this in practice). Now, if you remove these DISD selective-admissions-charter schools, then DISD is not the middle-of-the-road district you see in the DMN analysis, but is arguably one of the worst in the U.S.

This is why we need more reform in the district — to take the best practices that work at restrictive charters (like magnets), traditional charters (like KIPP), and the high-performing poor schools within DISD and apply them system-wide. This is why progress is slow and complicated, but possible.

One last note: The idea that Hacker hints at, that the mayor SHOULD take responsibility for overseeing a city with so much poverty (which makes teaching kids extraordinarily difficult) in relation to DISD’s challenge, is an excellent point. One I wish I would have made first. Has made me rethink the role of the city in fixing DISD.


  • Beth

    I agree the measuer for school success should not be “college ready”.
    By any objective measure my daughter (DISD grad) was not “college ready” but she completed her associates degree with honors in 2 years and is now enrolled at UNT. So obviously she was well prepared for college, she just didn’t test well. Focusing on test scores to determine college readiness and school effectiveness is not the best way.
    Looking at completion of some post-secondary training (trade school, business certification, etc) is a better measure but still not perfect. Many good jobs don’t require a college degree of any sort. We have kids graduating from high school with trade certifications (from auto mechanic to computer programmer) who are ready for the workforce, and kids with 4 year degrees who aren’t fit for any job.
    there is probably no one right answer, but at least it is good folks are trying to look at more variables.

  • Los_Politico

    I think you leave one stat out of your comparison to KIPP– the 10 year 8th grader completion rate for DISD magnets. That is the number comparable to KIPP, not the district level number. Are DISD magnets better than KIPP? If so, why are we building more schools like KIPP and fewer like the Business Magnet?

    I read this blog and am frustrated because of your focus on poor kids and black males going to prison. Rawlings is right; Dallas needs DISD to attract more middle class people. By having the conversation focus completely on the composite scores we are scaring people off. The average SAT score for middle class white DISD students is higher than almost all of their suburban peers. How many people know this? Not very many judging by how quickly the Uptown crowd moves to Frisco after a first born.

    Let’s explore our successes too. Why is the average black SAT score at TJ so high? Why are the black women at Irma Rangel beating the black students at every suburban school on the SAT? Why do whites at Booker T– not an academically focused school– have the same average SAT score as Southlake and Plano West?

    And when we are talking about our failures let’s talk about them in less of an abstract why. Considering how comparable the Hispanic populations are at WT White and RL Turner, why do the RL Turner kids score so much higher on the SAT? Is that because of a district level policy? What could that policy be?

    Too many middle class parents casually dismiss even the most successful DISD campuses because they think it doesn’t apply to them. Show them how it does. And that has to be done through more than liberal guilt.

    • Beth

      one problem with comparing SAT scores is that DISD has more students who do not intend to go to college take the test. That is not a bad thing, but it skews the scores.
      At WT White, it has been a graduation requirement for many years that students take either the SAT or ACT.
      This past year ALL DISD 11th graders took the SAT.
      What is the policy at RL Turner and other schools you mention? Do only students considering college take the test, or ALL students?
      Can’t compare scores til we know more about the population who takes them.

  • Todd Williams

    Eric, you can also look at the percentage of students who attend a public college in Texas who are required to take remedial work. That information is publicly available as is the percent of students who enroll in a public higher ed institution and who persist after one year. Those are also publicly available statistics for every high school in Texas.

  • EastDallasDad

    Longer school days and a longer school day must be voluntary or we’ll see the few remaining middle class families flee DISD. We want our kids to attend DISD but don’t want or need longer days or a longer year. Keep in mind DISD could reclaim several weeks of instructional time by eliminating excess testing. ACPs, benchmarks and field testing are not required yet consume vast amounts of instructional time.