AN EDITORIAL: This Chaos Must End

IN NEW YORK CITY, A TEACHER ASKS A STUDENT TO spell “relief,” and the student responds “R-o-l-ad-s.” In Mobile, Alabama, a teacher with a master’s degree sends the following note home to a parent: “Scott wont pass in his assignment at all, he has a poem to learn and he fell tu do it.” And in the Dallas Independent School District, a factionalized school board is spending more money to buy more illiteracy than any other large district in the state.

If the DISD were run like any other business, it would be out of business. Its products, in this case students, would be declared defective and recalled. Its board of directors, in this case the school board, would be sued by its stockholders for misfeasance and replaced. If the DISD were producing defective Pintos, the outcry would be uproarious.

But, in fact, the DISD is producing something far more dangerous than defective automobiles. It is producing defective children.

And where has the community’s voice, especially the business community’s, been while the news has poured out almost daily of rampant illiteracy among students and blatant criminality among some administrators? Largely silent.

If Dallas is, in fact, collectively skilled in business, why hasn’t it done even the most cursory return-on-investment analysis of what this school district is buying for its educational dollars? Consider this: The DISD ranks first in per pupil expenditures in Texas and last in statewide achievement test scores. Almost seven out of ten eighth graders cannot read at eighth grade level, and nearly nine out of ten cannot write at their grade level.

Or this: In 1970-71, the DISD spent $131.8 million to educate 175,843 students. Today it’s spending two and a half times that much to educate 33,500 fewer students. That’s $328.5 million. (By contrast, the entire city of Dallas this year will spend only $289 million for all municipal services, including fire and police protection, street repair, etc.)

But if the dollar costs are high, the social costs are much higher. As Detroit, Newark, and New York City have learned, an illiterate generation is an unemployable generation, and an unemployable generation is a welfare generation. Seeds of social unrest are sown in the classroom but flower in the street.

What is surprising in all of this is the out-of-character non-response of the community. We have

elected an incredibly petty and fractious school board, given it hundreds of millions of dollars to play with, given it our children to experiment with, and then turned it loose to raise our taxes still higher and to make our children’s achievement scores still lower. Where is the accountability?

It is undeniably true that problems of public education are enormous. For the first time in history, the generation now graduating from our nation’s schools is less skilled than its parents. But what sets Dallas apart from other large cities is that it has traditionally believed in its ability to meet head on, and solve, its urban problems.

Dallas’ civic, business, and political leaders have never turned their heads when confronted with a difficult task, and we are asking them not to turn them now. Our diverse city must speak but one message with one voice, and that message is that no longer will we tolerate second-class education in our first-class city. We want our schools back.

What follows then, is a positive prescription for change, an action plan which, if engaged, will begin to reverse damage done by a school board and administration that has put petty bickering, self-perpetuation, and social experimentation above the education of our children.

The prescription:

‧ Replace our current school board.

Not even current board members would contend that the board is operating effectively as a body. Rather than looking for individual culpability, the board, in a collective display of putting the interests of our children above their own, should resign.

If the board refuses to do so, then the citizenry should pursue every legal means to hold school board elections in April 1981. In the last legislative session, the board got through a bill extending its term until 1982. That bill, HB 1990, must be repealed. The elections must be held on schedule.

Chris V. Semos, state representative and dean of the Dallas legislative delegation, has indicated that if there is public support for the measure, he would not only co-sponsor such an elections bill but would hand-carry it to the governor to obtain the necessary “emergency status,” making it eligible to be voted on early in the January session and become law upon the signature of the governor. Semos believes that the bill could pass early enough in the session to conduct the elections in April. Harley Hiscox, president of the Dallas Federation of Teachers has also told D Magazine he would support such a bill. Even a majority of the board now seems to favor repeal. Also, State Rep. Fred J. Agnich has said that with school board support he too would support such a measure.

‧ Eliminate “social promotion.’’

“Social promotion” is nothing more than a euphemism for promoting failure. If a student cannot do fourth grade work, he should not be passed to the fifth grade. When a student is promoted beyond his ability, not only does he almost never “catch up,” he often becomes disruptive in class. Ultimately he devalues the diplomas or degrees of the entire graduating class. In other words, everybody loses.

The notion of eliminating social promotion is not a new one. Former Superintendent Nolan Estes talked about it years ago and present Superintendent Linus Wright is talking about it now. There are times when less talking and more doing is in order. This is one of those times.

Resolve our court-ordered desegregation case.

While the DISD has dawdled away 25 years and dwindled away millions of dollars in defending itself in interminable desegregation litigation, upper- and middle-class whites have either moved their children into private schools or moved their families out of the DISD into North Dallas suburbs. White flight has left a 68 per cent minority school system serving a 75 per cent Anglo community. It has contributed to the unbalanced north/south growth patterns which are unlikely to be reversed until our school system is improved. It is time to end this case and focus both our attention and our resources on improving our schools so that quality, not court orders, will attract whites, blacks, and Mexican-Americans to our school

‧ Dismantle the Accountability and Development Division of the DISD.

Among the departments included in this division, headed up by Associate Superintendent William J. Webster, are research and evaluation; special funds, acquisition and monitoring; and curriculum development. It has become the growth area of the DISD and now employs an army of 382 people with a war chest of $9.37 million. These divisions should be severely cut back in size, budget, and influence. Aside from the misnomer in the division’s title (there is little apparent “Accountability”), teachers we talked to nearly universally criticized the “creative curricula,” faddish theories, the plethora of federal programs, and the omnipresent testing and evaluation materials turned out by these divisions. If Mr. Webster isn’t temperamentally capable of putting his department in the proper perspective and relating its work to the real work of the classroom, Superintendent Wright should replace him with someone who is.

‧ Review regularly the performance of teachers.

Illiterate or ill-informed teachers multiply their ignorance by the size of their classes. These teachers must be identified through regular competency testing and weeded out of the school system.

‧ Support publicly and privately the ac tions of Superintendent Linus Wright and demand the school board do the same.

Although we as journalists recognize that uncritical public support of a public official is always a mistake-and we intend to remain vigilant not only in our scrutiny of the superintendent but of the entire DISD as well -we have carefully watched Supt. Wright’s performance since his arrival in Dallas, and we are convinced that he is the man best suited to lead this district through the tumultuous turnaround ahead. He is thoughtful. He is a manager. Perhaps most important, given the state of the DISD, he is tough. He believes he can turn this school system around, and we ought to give him the administrative freedom and financial resources to do it. It is little exaggeration to say that if we lose Dr. Wright at this juncture, we will be close to losing the entire system.

While the above agenda is by no means complete, it is indicative of what must be done. One item towers over the others in importance and, therefore, is worth underlining in closing: The school board must go. Individually, each board member appears as concerned about the dismal state of education as we are, but as a group they are unable to effect the needed change. One reporter recently likened them to a group of chemicals -harmless or even beneficial when alone, but dynamite when combined.

If the board were to resign en masse, it could truly be said that nothing became them more in office than the manner in which they left it. The citizens of Dallas would be forever in their debt.

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