A businessman told me about a young man who applied recently for a job as a mechanic. The personnel director thought he was good material, so he was given a standard application to fill out. In the space for recommendations, the applicant wrote down “A. Lade.” No street address, no phone number. When the personnel director went over the form with the applicant, he asked who A. Lade was and how he and the applicant knew one another. The applicant answered, “Oh, I meant that’s a lady who lives down the street and she knows me.”

The man who told the story ended it by shaking his head and commenting, “Here was a kid who seemed to be smart. And the only job he’ll ever get is sweeping up behind a construction crew.” The young man was a 1977 graduate of Lincoln High School.

How does this happen? There’s no single answer to that question, but in our examination of the Dallas public schools we’ve uncovered a few clues.

One is a program called exam exemption that applies to students in the 9th through 12th grades. The idea behind this program is to reduce absenteeism. A student with no more than three excused absences per quarter, and no unexcused absences, takes a final only if he wants to. The result of the exam can only improve the final grade. That is, if the student gets a lower grade on his exam than his average, the exam doesn’t count. If it’s higher, it’s applied to his average and does count. There’s no risk, only reward.

The DISD says that it does not keep a record of how many students don’t take exams. The DISD also says it doesn’t know how many of the 8,244 students who graduated this year haven’t taken an exam since they entered the 9th grade. The three high school principals we called said they didn’t know either. Their guesses averaged about fifty percent. The DISD says this policy has improved attendance by 3 to 5 percent.

Exams won’t teach kids to read or write – or reason. But exams will do a lot more than attendance records in telling the school district whether or not it’s doing its job.

The school district apparently doesn’t know what kind of job it’s doing. Last fall Superintendent Nolan Estes announced to a meeting of Texas’ top school administrators, “We must simply halt the perception of the middle class that they’ve been betrayed by public education.” You hear that kind of talk from Dallas civic leaders, too: If we could only clean up the image of the public schools, we could get more parents to send their kids back into the district.

That is nonsense. The district doesn’t have a “perception” problem or an “image” problem, it has a real problem. Until parents see that Dallas intends to confront the problem, rather than whitewash it, those who can afford to will stay away. And the expensive, nicely produced television spots the district is running on local stations won’t bring them back.

But whitewashing is the best we can expect from Nolan Estes and his administration on Ross Avenue. Recently the district announced that by next school year it plans to establish minimum competence tests at the third, sixth, and eighth grade levels. That was a welcome breath of fresh air. But Times Herald reporter Leonard Reed decided to ask some simple questions about this latest Estes innovation. What happens if a kid flunks the last test, called the Functional Literacy Test, in the eighth grade? Well, he’ll take it again in the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades until he passes. Does that mean an illiterate can still graduate from DISD? I’ll quote the answer directly from Reed’s article: ” ’Yes, as long as he passes the Functional Literacy Test,’ said B. J. Stamps, assistant superintendent in charge of instruction, who explained that there are no longer 12 grades of learning but rather 12 years.”

What does that mean? It means that when a 12th grade student finally passes an 8th grade test, he’s had his 12 years of learning, and that’s that. The DISD has done its job.

But of course, that’s not what it means. It means that the professional educationalists who run the DISD don’t know what they’re doing. It means that a crime is being committed in the Dallas public schools. The crime is fraud. The victims are the children, mostly black, who attend our public schools with some expectation that a degree from a Dallas high school means something. It doesn’t. That’s the real problem that Dallas civic leaders ought to be worried about. Until they are, and until they act on it, there is a clear danger to the future of our inner city and Dallas as a whole. That danger lies in the kids, high school diplomas in hand, who are now being told that they aren’t good for anything better than sweeping up behind construction crews.

The people I’ve talked with about the Dallas public schools fall into two types: those who make excuses about why our schools aren’t any good, and those who despair that our schools can ever be good. The first group includes teachers and administrators; the second includes most Dallas business leaders and a lot of parents.

Both cite the same reasons: white flight, the federal appeals court’s rejection of our desegregation plan, black parents’ lack of involvement in helping their kids learn, and – of course – television. The chaos in our schools, their litany goes, only reflects the change and upheaval in our society.

I refuse to accept that. It seems to me little more than surrender.

My refusal is based on more than wishful thinking. It’s based on the experience of a man I know. His name is Sam Owens, and he works in the small town of Em-poria, Virginia. He has started a revolution that could radically change American education.

Sam is an unlikely revolutionary. At 54, he is the superintendent of the Greenville County School System. The county is one of the poorest in Virginia; when Sam took over in 1973 its students, 65 percent of whom were black, ranked in the bottom third on national achievement tests. Sam had been a teacher, principal, and administrator in the area for nearly 30 years, and he knew that many of the system’s high school graduates could barely read or write. That made Sam angry.

In his first year as superintendent, he announced that henceforth no student could be promoted from one grade to the next unless he passed a standardized test. In the first year, in a system of 3,700 students, Sam flunked 1,300 kids. Many of these students had been coasting along with A”s and B’s; the result was an uproar from parents. That first year, Sam relented and gave parents their choice: Let your kid be promoted even though he isn’t ready to be or let him stay where he belongs until he gets it right. Eight hundred kids stayed flunked. The next year, there was no option: 1,100 kids were flunked.

It’s such a simple idea. And it works. When I met Sam two years ago, he had only preliminary results. While they were encouraging, they were by no means definitive. But now the results are in: The system’s students, who ranked in the mid-20 and low-30 percentile range in 1973, have jumped to the high-50 and mid-60 percentile range. It has been the most dramatic turnaround in American education.

Does it harm children to hold them back while fellow students are being promoted? A lot less than passing them on, according to Sam. “When you take your son to the hospital, do you want the doctor to pat him on the back and say he’s a good boy? Or do you want the doctor to do everything he can to cure your child?

“Those who need more instruction to master particular skills deserve an extension of time to try again. To pass them on when they lack requisite skills is to deny them the opportunity to achieve. It is, in effect, a cynical denial that they can learn.”

Sam points out that an 11th-grade student who has only 8th-grade skills “just gets discouraged and stops trying. He may drop out. I wouldn’t blame him.

“Basic skills are basic skills: two plus three equals five in anybody’s language. One either knows it or one doesn’t. There is no substitute for achievement. A diploma represents, or should represent, solid achievement at the I2th-grade level. If we are not concerned with what a child can do when he completes his education, why have schools?”

That’s a question we ought to ask in Dallas. If a poor county in Virginia with a population of 16,000 can make that kind of radical change, what about us? Should we give in to the professional educationalists and watch our school district continue to decline? Or should we send a clear message: Our schools have a job to perform, and we intend to make them do it.


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