What Dan Micciche Gets Right — and Wrong — in His DMN Essay

He's right that poverty is the biggest problem, but it can be addressed now

Dallas ISD trustee Dan Micciche wrote a column last week that appeared somewhere in the Dallas Morning News‘ suite of websites/papers that deserves discussion. (Sorry I don’t know where it appeared exactly. I think it ran in something called “Neighbors Go East Dallas-White Rock,” but I don’t really know what that is; sounds like a Dad’s Club festival, or perhaps it’s a targeted news product in the form of several rolled sheets of thin paper still used to litter lawns. All I know is that it’s on the Internet.) Ostensibly, the column is about why a plan to break up DISD is a bad idea, and, oh by the way, why the current home rule process is also a bad idea. But it’s really NOT about that — which is good, because his latter argument is really silly.

Let’s first deal with what the column is really about: haranguing state legislators for not properly funding education in Texas. Tomorrow I’ll have a post about state education that will show you how confusing our education funding system is — one reason it’s recently again been declared unconstitutional/inequitable —  but all you need to do is read Micciche’s conclusion (and listen to his recent comments) to understand his target here:

Our Dallas-area state legislators from both parties need to be united in supporting these efforts. The best ways the Texas Legislature can help improve the education and lives of DISD students are to support the expansion of early childhood education, restore the 2011 school funding cuts, and fix the Texas school finance system that was first declared by a court to violate the Texas Constitution 10 years ago and was again declared unconstitutional last month.

This is, to me, inarguable. There are a lot of people who haven’t looked closely at education metrics the past decade who still believe that money doesn’t matter in education. (Until recently, I was one of them, so I know well of the ignorance I speak.) This is wrong in a many different ways, including the efforts Micciche mentions above. What he’s asking for his absolutely right.

The problem is in how we arrived at that concluding paragraph.

First, Micciche lists a string of facts that are important and that provide context for any serious discussion about DISD. I’m going to list them here because you should probably memorize them:

  1. Dallas has the highest rate of child poverty among cities with 1 million or more residents.
  2. Today in DISD, 90 percent of our students are from economically disadvantaged families, up from 74 percent 10 years ago —*3000 of whom are homeless.
  3. Forty percent of DISD students are English language learners.
  4. More than half of the children who enter kindergarten in DISD are not kindergarten ready.
  5. Research shows that children who do not read at grade level by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.
  6. The Texas school finance system created by the Texas Legislature was again declared unconstitutional by a court last month on the grounds that it fails to meet the Texas Constitutional requirement that the state provide an adequate and equitable education to all children.
  7. Texas is among the bottom 10 states in funding for public schools.
  8. In 2011, The Texas Legislature cut $5.4 billion in state funding for education and restored only $3.9 of that amount in 2013.
  9. Research tells us that 85 percent of a child’s brain development happens before the age of 5.

(*Added by me, because I always find that number astonishing.)

This is all a set up to tell you that what we need to address are these facts, and for Micciche to make these two conclusions. Here they are, taken directly from his column:

When I look at these facts, I don’t see how dividing up one large, high-poverty school district into four or five smaller districts — each with all of the same high poverty challenges— would improve student outcomes.

Nor do I think that the answer is a home-rule charter. Changing school board election dates or school start dates, which a home-rule charter could provide, doesn’t address the challenges that our schools face when children who live in poverty start out school behind their middle-class peers.

Now, there is a tremendous logic problem here that we can dismiss pretty quickly. Yes, it’s true that these two efforts he’s against — breaking up the district, and a new home rule charter — don’t specifically address any of his nine points listed above. That being said, aren’t there other possible merits to these two efforts? Can’t they possibly raise educational outcomes, even given — maybe especially given — the environment we’re operating in (an environment that is undeniably and greatly affected by these nine points)? Saying these two efforts don’t address the education problems presented by poverty/inequitable funding is like saying competent referees don’t address the scoring problem in soccer one finds when the stadium lights short-circuit. Well, sure. But assuming the game continues, that governance change can still have a positive impact while we search for an electrician, even though of course it won’t have as big an effect on our outcome. (In fact, it becomes even more important in our game played by moonlight, doesn’t it?)

I’m obviously for the home rule process, or I wouldn’t be spending so much time offering suggestions for charter consideration. But even though I laid out both pros and cons of the district break-up idea, I noted that overall I’m against the effort, because I think it would do more harm than good. But that doesn’t mean Micciche’s argument against the idea has solid footing.

A larger point should be made about this debate. His comments get at the heart of a fundamental divide in education reform. In one category are those who believe we must fix poverty before education reform can occur (and who suggest fixing poverty will itself fix most of what’s wrong with our current public school model), and those who think we should simultaneously try to fix poverty and find better ways to teach poor kids.

If you think poverty first must be eliminated to improve educational outcomes, you are likely to conclude that outcomes can’t really move in the campuses unless broader issues are dealt with first. The logical extreme of this position is that governance and management don’t matter, that teachers should be left alone, and that we should give up on seeing outcomes materially change unless we’re prepared to address childhood poverty. Generally speaking, it’s the Diane Ravitch position, albeit with fewer made-up narratives about monetizing children and corporate bogeymen. If you are a poverty-plus-schools reformer, you will focus on improving management and the way the system works today, and you’ll also try to get more resources to address poverty as well. This is the Geoffrey Canada position, who notes in the above TED talk we’ve known nearly 40 years that poor kids lose ground because of spending summers away from school. So, yes, shrinking their summer DOES help poor kids learn. (Which refutes a half-raised argument in Micciche’s column.)

I obviously believe the data on the whole favor the latter position. If you take a Commit-style “hope chart” (so-named because it gives us hope that better teaching can produce better results in poor kids), you want to see changes in individual campus performance on the far right side of the chart over time, as under-performers become over-performers. That happens because of good management. If that happened systemically, the line would flatten a bit, but there would still be a downward slope. Hence the need not only to improve management but to also tackle broader issues of poverty.

Personally, I think Micciche wants heat on the legislature to do something about school funding, and he feels home rule and a potential break-up discussion detract from that effort. Politically, that could be true. I’m not sure. Or maybe he just thinks Mike Miles is doing all the administration reform we need, and now it’s time for the state to step up. I think that’s a binary way of looking at a complex-system problem, one that has many, many issues to address, with many potential solutions, and that we should be testing them all.

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