The DMN is Starting to Tackle the ’16-Dimensional Chess’ of School Reform

Why the paper is wrong and right in its no-meddling editorial

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I’m going to ask that you put off reading this post for at least a half hour, as I’d like you to first find time to read the fantastic New Yorker article “Schooled,” which describes what is happening in Newark as it attempts the “16-dimensional chess” of radical public school reform. It gives you a first-rate look at the many vested interests leading the current school reform debate around the country. It shows how and why administrators, reformers, teachers, and politicians clash when reform efforts are undertaken.

As I noted, the big quote for me that sums this up is when school reform is called “16-dimensional chess.” Every move made affects play at several other levels. As well, reform efforts at one level may prove useless if the strategy isn’t carried out at many other levels. Here, let the New Yorker explain:

[Superintendent Cami] Anderson spent much of the fall working with data analysts from the Parthenon Group, an international consulting firm that received roughly three million dollars over two years from Newark philanthropy. She wanted to come up with a plan that would resolve the overlapping complexities of urban schooling. How could she insure that charters, as they expanded, enrolled a representative share of Newark’s neediest children? How could district schools be improved fast enough to persuade families to stick with them? How could she close schools without devastating effects on the neighborhoods? How could she retain the best teachers, given that, by her estimate, she would have to lay off a thousand teachers in the next three years? “This is sixteen-dimensional chess,” she said.

Sound familiar? If you’ve been following Mike Miles’ reform efforts, it should.

Which brings us to the point of this post: I’m really glad that the Dallas Morning News — at least in its editorial pages — is trying to tackle the many dimensions of the reform efforts going on here in Dallas. It’s complicated stuff. Nuance is often drowned out because of tone deaf reporting (I’m sure I’m guilty of this as well, but I’m trying to get better at it), personal disputes overshadowing policy discussions, and school board meddling. The paper has been running several blog posts and editorials — most of them penned by Rudy Bush or Sharon Grigsby, both of whom are pretty dialed in to this issue right now — and the city is better for it.

That said, I have some very mixed feelings about the editorial that ran today decrying school board meddling, this time in discussing efforts Miles is making to address testing concerns by parents at two schools. Read it here, but the takeaway can be found in this excerpt:

This district is like the movie Groundhog Day on steroids. The board hires a superintendent who it believes can lift the district over the bar of academic excellence. Foundational reforms begin. Parents, teachers or behind-the-scenes players squawk. Alliances are made. Tinkering and criticism grow. Finally, the superintendent gives up — or gets run off.

Is that plotline, created time and time again by feuding adults, what is best for the kids in DISD classrooms? The time has come for trustees to have the courage to write a different ending.

If you’re a reader of this blog, you know that I completely agree with these statements. I just don’t know if this is the best time to make that point. I don’t know that it’s not, either. I just think, after weeks of talking to people and studying this testing issue, that this subject and the outrage surrounding it are very indicative of the multilevel chess problems hinted at above.

Let’s channel Zac Crain and break down the two main issues here like a fraction:


Board meddling:

Of course this is a problem. I’ve written about it often. Board meddling — really, we’re talking about what is the proper definition of board governance — gets to the heart of many of our issues, from wasting money on short-sightedness to board members inappropriately inserting themselves into day-to-day school operations. I admonish the board often for this. Heck, entire studies have been published examining what is and what is not proper/effective school board governance.

That said, I don’t know that I really have a problem with the board discussing this issue tomorrow. Well, to be more accurate — I have less of a problem than I do with about 80 percent of the other meddling the board does. Yes, the DMN is absolutely right that it’s unfair to chastise Miles before he has had a chance to address the issue. But I think the board will realize this and keep this to a policy discussion only — and that’s okay. I mean, the WAY they go about it will make my head explode, as will the grandstanding and the snide, shitty behavior by the usual suspects. But discussing it is at least okay in theory.

Now, look, I don’t want to add fuel to those who use confusion on governance to, say, pop into a school unannounced and start telling people what to do. That’s clearly a governance no-no, if not outright against the law. Governance is about setting major strategic directions, and about monitoring outcomes along the way. It’s not about second guessing specific managerial decisions. That’s where the DMN is spot-on in this editorial. The board telling the administration NO YOU CAN’T on this item or that item is micromanagement, especially when board members are likely trying to pick which assessments are okay and which aren’t — which is obviously WAY outside their areas of expertise. But debating testing policies doesn’t seem inappropriate for a public body whose powers include setting policies. Governance is complicated. If you don’t believe me, read that study on the subject I linked to above. Sixteen-dimensional chess, remember?

Here’s my guess: The paper wanted to be on record again saying the board shouldn’t be undermining Miles because they’re hearing the same things I’m hearing: That we’re “holding onto Miles by a thread.” They want to make a case that he needs school board and community support right now. And they’re right. I just think he and the sane board members will be able to have a meaningful policy discussion about this without it devolving into a referendum on TEI or his reforms. A majority of board members want to talk about this because they have to deal with pissed off constituents, but they won’t — I don’t think — actually undermine Miles or TEI with a policy change tomorrow. If I’m wrong, I’ll issue a mea culpa and join the paper in blasting the board.

School testing:

This is a tricky subject. A lot of well-meaning parents say there is too much testing going on. I’ve said this myself, back in the early aughts, when my daughter was going through DISD. Because, frankly, I was a typical, self-absorbed parent who didn’t care if a policy was good for the (overwhelmingly poor) district as a whole. I just didn’t want my baby puttin’ on her sad face! (Not at all joking.)

But now my job (ish) is to form an opinion not solely based on my personal experience but also try to take the district’s challenges as a whole into consideration. To that end, I’ve spent the past few weeks reading every story or study about testing school age children I can get my hands on. Here are some of the better ones:

Critics who say standardized testing only helps us determine what students test well are dead wrong.

Why are we getting our ass kicked by other countries in producing high-achieving students, especially in math?

The debate about testing and TEKS in Texas has been going on for a long time. (Many useful links.)

These TEKS tests seem pretty straightforward and sensible. Any problems in them do seem to be, as Miles has noted, in implementation and testing procedure, not the act of testing kids themselves.

• A meta-analysis of student achievement studies shows that strong centralized testing is one component of improved student outcomes — in addition to things like a) weak teachers unions (!), b) a strong private-school environment nearby (!!), c) and school-based control over hiring and salaries (one outta two).

Why it’s important to test students and compare that data to students in other countries.

This amazing, must-read story about how important testing is to students in China — ESPECIALLY its poor students.

In addition, I’ve talked to teachers, students, and board members about ACP testing and the idea DISD tests too much.

What then is my now-super-informed takeaway on the subject of ACP tests in DISD? On the overall debate of testing young kids?

Man, I don’t know. I’m terrible at 16-dimensional chess.

This is really, really complicated stuff. That’s why it was a subject of legitimate policy debate in the legislature last session, and why it’s the subject of legit policy debate by the Dallas ISD board.

If you catch me on the right day, I’d tell you that these parents who are complaining about over-testing are being short-sighted and blinded by their self interests. I’d ask the parents at Rosemont Elementary why their school is under-performing in terms of student outcomes in relation to its poverty level. I’d say that the middle-class parents there and at other select schools in Dallas need to understand how important the drill-and-kill testing method is to kids who don’t have one educated parent, let alone two.

But if you catch me on another day, I’d say, sure, kids need to breathe. Teacher input is vital in terms of course-correcting curriculum. And the administration has had communications problems in properly explaining and training its workforce in how to conduct and prepare for these tests. I get it.

Okay, I’m weirdly ANXIOUS now to see if the board or Miles can give me clarity on this. I want to see if a real policy debate, one that finds middle and sensible ground, can be accomplished here. Because the DMN is right that the status quo crowd really wants to enter into a war-time alliance with these parents complaining about too much testing, simply because it furthers their goal to weaken Miles. But maybe we can get beyond that. Maybe we can rework the testing policy to address legitimate concerns and still maintain the rigor and benchmarking we need to help the overwhelming number of poor kids in our district. Maybe. The new year gives me a foolish sense of hope.

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