Last Week’s Board Briefing Was Damn Good Because of Achievement Gap Discussion

Hoping this is the first of many substantive discussions

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s true: Last week’s Dallas ISD board briefing was a pretty damn good meeting.

That’s because at said briefing an actual policy discussion broke out. In fact, much of the discussion was just the sort a school board should engage in every week: trustees looking at the biggest challenges faced by a large urban district, and debating the best ways to tackle the problem. (Which is far better than the board spending most of its time micromanaging procurement, in other words, debating how much it the district should or shouldn’t spend on contracts and second-guessing decisions that have already been made.)

I’d like to say this is going to be a regular occurrence, but the cynic in me says this was a fortunate byproduct of a pre-meeting decision: the district deciding to limit the number of tests young students have to take each year (the results of which counted toward teacher evaluations). I’m glad the board did this not because I necessarily agree with the decision — I’m of two minds on the matter, but it’s done with, let’s move on — but because it took the steam out of what was likely to be a very contentious board briefing. And, lo, when the matter that everyone thinks they’re going to argue about gets resolved, the board was able to focus on its policy updates. If you ignore the sniping and the pettiness — not sure this will ever go away — it was pretty glorious.

There were several interesting policies/issues discussed in the first few hours of the briefing, but I’m going to focus on one, because it’s the most important: the efforts of DISD’s African American Success Initiative to close the achievement gap between black and white students. I want to talk only about this because, as I said, it’s incredibly important, but also because it’s so complicated that we need to give the issue some space to breathe, even if I’m only going to give you a surface-level summation of the issues involved.

(I implore you to watch as much of the two hours or so as you can from the video snippet above. It will give you a good overview of the where DISD stands in its efforts to close the achievement gaps and where certain board members’ concerns lie in regards to the strategy going foreword.)

Before the meeting, it was announced that the board is putting together a task force to analyze ways to close the black-white achievement gap in DISD. Why? One reason is because of poor performance (in comparison to DISD whites) from black students in recent statewide STAAR exams. This is from a Tawnell story in November:


Black students trail white students an average 30-plus percentage points in most key subjects, and they lost ground in social studies, science, reading and writing, according to an analysis of the district’s results on statewide exams.

The gap is larger than those seen statewide and in Houston ISD, the state’s largest district and the one most comparable to Dallas.

The latest STAAR results for spring show that passing rates for black students in third through eighth grades fell in reading, writing, science and social studies by 5 to 7 percentage points. The passing rate in math stayed flat, with 47 percent of students passing.

Black students taking the high school end-of-course tests made improvements in biology and algebra 1.

The results show that Hispanic students, too, in third through eighth grades dropped in every subject except math, although they outperformed black students.

Terrible, unacceptable results. As we’ll see, the picture is actually more complicated than this, but no matter: This poor performance is why the folks from the administration’s AA Success Initiative Program came before the board last week to explain what the district was doing to address the problem. The program director explains that they’re adding boots on the ground to do a better job mentoring and supporting black students, and Mike Miles showed that they’ve been pouring more resources into predominantly African American schools to fix any resource inequity that may have been/be contributing to this problem. Board members then grilled both of them while they expressed their desires to be on the task force (Foreman, Morath) to be chaired by Lew Blackburn, and debated various causes and effects each one thought were/could be contributing to this problem.

There’s your background. A worthwhile discussion to be sure. So let’s dive into it a bit, since if you’re reading this, I suspect you believe a) DISD needs to fix this problem, and b) you’re curious as to how best to go about doing so. That is the discussion that occurred. (Yay team!) Problem is, if we’re to be serious about changing these outcomes, we have to admit that, like all things in education, the battle is far more complicated than a lot of these folks care to admit.

Okay, where to start? How about defining our terms? The achievement gap in DISD means minority outcomes in the district are terrible across the board, yes? Not really. Just as when you talk about success in schools, it depends on what metrics you use (SAT/ACT scores, STAAR test scores, graduation rates, college readiness rates, college completion rates, etc.). For example, hasn’t DISD been trumpeting that its minority students are more than twice as likely to earn a qualifying score on an AP exam than any other large urban (read: poor) district? It has. But DISD still lags the rest of the state in trying to close its black-white achievement gap.

But is that indicative of recent years? That gap was for STAAR exams from last year. But if you look at state testing back to 1998, I count eight times in those 17 years that DISD closed the gap by a greater percentage than the state closed its black-white gap, including as recently as 2008, 2011, and 2013. (It mirrored the state gap twice in that time.) And given that the district is *severely* poorer than it was then — almost 90 percent poor versus about 70 percent poor in 2000 — that’s a pretty good achievement.

Sub-question: Should we even use state exams as our defining measure? After all, the state exam of choice has changed several times — TAAS to TAKS to STAAR. And they have not proven nearly as good a predictor of college success as SAT and ACT exams. AND if the statewide test gaps show such variance — sometimes DISD is doing better than the state at closing the gap, just as often not — do ACT/SAT scores show a more stable trend?

Unfortunately, yes — it shows that the gap has grown fairly consistently, albeit not greatly, over the last decade or so no matter how you look at it. (This is true of other data, like national 4th grade and 8th grade tests.)

How does this compare to the nation? Well, it’s not really fair to compare a very high-poverty district to ones that are not so, but since you asked: Nationally, the gap remains, although minority students are closing the gap faster than we are locally by certain measures. Consider this silver-lining news from a recent, excellent report:

While the overall math averages for 9-year-olds grew by 25 points between 1978 and 2012, average scores among black and Hispanic students increased by 34 and 31 points, respectively.

Among 13-year-olds, math scores for white students increased by 21 points, while results for blacks and Hispanics increased by 34 points and 33 points, respectively. Overall, 13-year-olds improved by 26 points in math.

Seventeen-year-olds, many of whom are one year away from enrolling in college, nudged upward by six points overall between 1978 and 2012 on the math portion of NAEP, but scores for black and Hispanic students increased by 20 and 18 points, respectively.

Overall, scores for 9-year-olds taking the reading assessment grew by 11 points between 1975 and 2012; the scores for black and Hispanic students each rose by 25 points in that same period.

(Note: see the charts on that link for a good visual picture of how the national achievement gap at these grade levels on these tests is closing, but is still far too wide.)

Now, given this scenario — a complicated but ultimately unacceptable gap in achievement in Dallas ISD, one that is possibly worse than that statewide and definitely worse than that nationally — what should the district do?

The board discussion was enlightening not just in examining answers to this question, but also in seeing how trustees’ worldviews influenced their talking points.

First, there are those who see the achievement gap as a) almost entirely explained by resource inequity, and b) use this worldview to conveniently spout traditional teacher union rhetoric. This would be a) Joyce Foreman and b) Elizabeth Jones. Foreman in general is more comfortable focusing on numbers and allocation, so this is where most of her discussion lands. Where are spending the money, why don’t we have more high-quality programs at majority-black schools, etc. The thing is, she is right about this. Inequity of resources can be a contributing factor to the achievement gap, and this has been a problem in DISD’s past, but it’s just not anymore. Miles in fact gave a presentation showing that spending per pupil in DISD is now highest at schools that are majority-black — so it’s not monetary inequity, at least not in terms of spending. As well, the program director told the board that they were putting more boots on the ground in terms of mentors and special services to help black students at all grade levels. So it’s not a number of people problem (or, at least it won’t be).

Maybe it’s a quality teaching problem, then? A quality inequity, if you will. That’s certainly what Miles says, and there’s a ton of research out there to back him up, showing that quality of teaching makes a huge difference with poor kids, and that too often poor schools were seen as dumping grounds for crap teachers.

(This is when Elizabeth Jones threw out the old teachers union assertion that stability and tenure matter. Miles quickly shot that down, saying that he knows of no reputable research that ties improved poor-kid outcomes to teaching tenure, only to quality.)

A relevant digression: The education experts in Dallas have been bending my ears for months on the issue of teacher quality. The district’s alt-certification program has been pretty bad for a long time, and it’s important that Miles and the state do better in finding and training excellent teachers. (The district’s good relationship with TFA is a nice start.) How important could improved teaching quality across the board be to closing the achievement gap, here and statewide? I’m just now reading The Smartest Kids in the World, and this small excerpt gives a clue:

In Finland, all education schools were selective. Getting into a teacher-training program there was as prestigious as getting into medical school in the United States. The rigor started in the beginning, where it belonged, not years into a teacher’s career with complex evaluation schemes designed to weed out the worst performers, and destined to demoralize everyone else.

A teacher union advertisement from the late 1980s began with this breathtaking boast: “A Finnish teacher has received the highest level of education in the world.” Such a claim could never have been made in the United States, or in most countries in the world.

Norway, for example, shares a border with Finland and spends more on education. But Norway is not choosy about who gets to become a teacher, and the quality of preparation varies wildly, just as it does in the United States. Norwegians have fretted about the quality of their teacher-training colleges for decades, and the government routinely interferes in the training to try to make it better. As in many countries, teachers are made to attain ever more amounts of training and education, without much regard for quality. Partly as a result, Norwegian fifteen-year-olds perform at about the same middling levels as teenagers in the United States on PISA, and even the most privileged among them perform poorly in math, compared to advantaged teenagers worldwide.


Now, Mike Morath — rightly, I think — seemed less interested in the boots on the ground, more mentors, more support programs approach and quizzed the administration on how much it’s using the latest race-and-education research to influence its approach. He wanted to know if the task force or the administration, in devising a workable plan to close the achievement gap, was going to take into account brain science research, or the very real effects of stereotype threat — when people confirm stereotypes about their group when fed information that re-inforces those stereotypes. This occurs very simply, like if you simply tell someone a test measures intelligence versus mastery of the material. (This is a fascinating area of research that has many applications, but especially in poor public school settings when you’re dealing with easily influenced and vulnerable poor kids and adults who are probably not well-versed in how stereotype threats can greatly influence test taking environments. Read this to get an understanding of what stereotype threat is, then read this to see how pervasive the phenomenon is, and then spend about two days on this site. Really great, important stuff.)

As I said, this high-level stuff should be taken into account, because if this research is not considered by the task force/school board when coming up with a strategy to combat the achievement gap, the strategy will not work. As well, if Morath thinks you can solve this problem without equitable resources in every area — in fact, perhaps GREATER resources to make up for inequities of the past — he’s a dead-wrong pointy-head. It is going to take a comprehensive plan involving both tactics and strategy to lessen the gap.

It’s going to take one other thing, too: Overcoming the crushing burden that poverty puts on a student. Jones and other teacher advocates often say this is at its root a poverty problem, and of course that’s one enormous element. Our poverty rate has risen over 40 percent in Dallas over the past decade-plus, and we all know how much poverty plays a role in educational development, especially in birth-to-5 development (which is why only 38 percent of kids enter DISD kindergarten ready). So these solutions MUST be tied to programs designed to overcome, or at least lesson, poverty’s stranglehold on educational failure. Programs like the district’s early education plan being proposed by Alan Cohen. And, fair play to you Ms. Jones (who mentioned this during the discussion), this is part of the wraparound model of schools working in Austin and elsewhere, a model in which the schools themselves become a part of a community healing process in multiple ways.

Because, ultimately, we can’t fail at this. We as a community and a district must better the achievement gap in DISD and hope that we help our state catch up to the improving achievement gap nationwide. So, let’s not bother ourselves with the gap between our kids and other nations right now and whether that’s still widening. (Too depressing.) Let’s just fix what we can fix, one step at a time. It starts with discussions like the board had last week. Here’s to many more.


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