THE SUPERINTENDENT: The View From the Top

On July 3I.D Magazine Publisher Wick Allison, Editor David R. Legge, and Senior Writer Rowland Stiteler met with School Supt. Linus Wright at his office for a wide-ranging, two and one half hour interview. Excerpts from that interview follow.

D MAGAZINE: Given the turmoil in Dallas public education, why would you want to stay on in this job?

WRIGHT: I don’t share the gloom other people have about public education. I really think it can work. But it can only work with a change in attitude at the school board level and the community level. I feel I know how to do it, and I feel like I can do it with the support of the board. I really believe the future of the community, the future of the state, and the future of the whole nation still lies with success of public education.

D MAGAZINE: Well, what in your view are the major obstacles between our kids and their coming out of our schools literate and able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide?

WRIGHT: Number one, if I had to rank them, is really the teacher having time to teach students-without all kinds of interference. We have research paper after research paper showing the average teacher is only really getting in about 50 to 55 per cent of the instructional day in actual instruction. But the way we’re structured now-with the kinds of interruptions and with federal programs and with paperwork coming in at the teachers- they just don’t have time to teach. The principals are in the same situation because they get it from all directions. Any administrator can give the principals direction plus everything has to funnel through the principals in all directions.

D MAGAZINE: Does the Research and Evaluation Division, Associate Supt. William Webster’s Division, communicate directly with the principals?

WRIGHT: No, they’re not supposed to, but they’ve been trying to. Again, part of the structure is to try to prevent that from happening. R & E will communicate to the area administrators who will communicate with the principals. The area administrators (not R & E people) will be there together to set priorities on the things to be implemented so that they won’t flood the principal with 200 things when he can really only carry out 10 of them. And that’s what’s happening now.

D MAGAZINE: Do you see the role of the principal as being one of the major keys to improving education?

WRIGHT: Yes. Research shows over and over that whatever happens in the school is going to be almost directly influenced by the principal’s attitude, by the principal’s competence, by the principal’s ability to understand the instruction program and by his ability to motivate teachers to carry it out. I can give the direction, but unless the principal can interpret it and carry it out-and has the commitment-it’s not likely to happen. We’ve proven that over and over.

D MAGAZINE: How would you grade the performance, collectively, of your principals?

WRIGHT: Everyone looks at an outstanding principal and assumes that all 200 could be outstanding. They run through the same bell curve as everyone else. You have 15 per cent at the top, 15 per cent at the bottom, and the rest in the middle. They are not of equal ability and equal competence but, generally, the principals we have moved in in recent years all are competent enough to handle their jobs.

D MAGAZINE: How do you evaluate a principal’s performance?

WRIGHT: Both teacher evaluation and principal evaluation are touchy things because they see me coming down hard, and this is what I try to tell them: There’s something wrong when we had the lowest achievement scores in large city schools on this TABS test, yet all our teachers were rated satisfactory in evaluation. Those two items are incompatible. The same thing with the administrators.

Although Dallas has had an evaluation program for some time, they have just played games with it. For example, last year out of 7000 teachers, there were less than 10 even rated marginal and only two rated unsuccessful. Now that just doesn’t add up. Out of 900 administrators, we had one rated unsatisfactory and one marginal.

D MAGAZINE: Are you going to hold individual principals and teachers responsible for their results?

WRIGHT: Yes. I’m going to look at every aspect of education with them. I’m going to look at what’s happening in the school and at what their performance indicates. Evaluation will be based on several people’s judgments, not just mine, all looking at the same information. Then, if they can’t produce the results, we’ll be ready to make a change.

D MAGAZINE: Don’t you think that a few principals seeing this in print will be concerned?

WRIGHT: They’ve read it before and, besides, you’re not going to get anywhere being bashful on this subject.

D MAGAZINE: It seems to us that recently you’ve been getting more vocal and tougher in your public comments on the school system. What kind of response are you getting from the community?

WRIGHT: The support has been overwhelming, including from the black community. They seem to be saying: “The system’s not working for us. If you’re going to continue to yield to us, then we’ll continue to be incompetent. …”

The first real, bright hope I’ve had is in working lately with Yvonne Ewell (Associate Superintendent of East Oak Cliff), and we certainly have had some heart-to-heart discussions. She does hold high standards, and she knows that unless we quit capitulating, blacks will always be at a low academic level. Now that I’ve got her support, as well as some others like her, I think we’re ready to turn this thing around.

D MAGAZINE: Do you feel there’s been a lack of participation on the part of the business community?

WRIGHT: The business community has been super-supportive on an individual basis, but maybe not collectively.

D MAGAZINE: We get the impression that members of the business community, especially after the scandals, may have decided that the school system was too dirty a subject and they didn’t want to get their hands messed up.

WRIGHT: I really don’t know that to be a fact other than, personally and privately, everybody has said, “We’re here to help and support you in any way. Just let us know.”

D MAGAZINE: On another subject, is the DISD smothering in federal paperwork and programs?

WRIGHT: Well, you’re going to see a reduction in those.

D MAGAZINE: Will the school board go along with that? We were talking with one board member who was saying he couldn’t recall one of these programs being voted down by the board. They just sail on through with 6-3 votes, 7-2 votes. . . .

WRIGHT: That’s probably true, but the thing about federal programs is that all but two are now on a competitive basis. What this means is that if you have a very creative staff, like we have, that can write good program proposals, then you’re going to get more than your share of federal programs.

And it’s like competing for as many of them as you can get without realizing their impact. Most of them are pilot programs with the purpose of trying to prove or disprove a concept or a way of teaching. What people overlook is that the program has to be implemented at the same school, with the same students, and it displaces something else when it is put in.

The people in Research and Evaluation and Federal Programs are the ones who are writing the proposals and almost have override authority. And then here’s the poor principal and teacher saying, well, we had to do it, but we didn’t want to because it takes us away from our purpose. That’s what I’m putting a stop to.

D MAGAZINE: In terms of outside influences in the classroom, DISD teachers have complained to us about a plethora of what you call “facilitators” who, in fact, obstruct the learning process. Why has this extra layer of personnel been added?

WRIGHT: Since 1976, the number of administrators has doubled, and they are all in the area of facilitators, “master teachers” who are supposed to be out there working with principals and teachers to improve instruction. I’ve been saying all along that too many are just as harmful as too few, and I finally got some research that supported me. A large part of those have been cut this year, but we still have an abundance. I’m sure you’ll see more going by the wayside. By the way, we’ve changed the name to “instructional specialist,” which is more descriptive.

D MAGAZINE: Why can’t you stop “social promotion” just by edict, by saying “Starting tomorrow, this is not going to happen in my district. Period. No debate.”?

WRIGHT: Well, at the high school level you have a legal problem. You know that for any policy you put in, you have to give the students long enough to overcome the deficiencies.

D MAGAZINE: The courts have said that?

WRIGHT: Yes. Let’s assume you have a ninth grader reading at the second grade level and you’re going to fail him and force him into a ninth grade curriculum, programming him, in effect, for failure. We can’t do it. We’ve been giving him a second grade curriculum and passing him on that.

D MAGAZINE: Into the tenth grade?

WRIGHT: Right. We are going to have to face up to the fact that we’re still going to have, regardless of what we do, 20 to 30 per cent of our high school students that aren’t going to succeed in any kind of academic program. We’re still working on the philosophy that we’re going to run them through and give them diplomas. I don’t know of a country in the world that graduates 75 per cent of its students through the twelfth grade achieving at the twelfth grade level. It’s just not possible.

But we haven’t yet accepted the fact that we’re going to have 20 to 30 per cent fail. We’re going to have to do something else with those. And maybe give them a different kind of diploma, too.

D MAGAZINE: What kind of time frame do you see?

WRIGHT: We’re looking at five years to give us time to solve this high school situation-what we are going to do with those 20 to 30 per cent that can make it through ninth grade, but will never make it through twelfth.

D MAGAZINE: Have the magnet schools failed in their basic purpose, which is integration?

WRIGHT: Business-Management Center and Transportation Institute are largely black, and that shouldn’t have happened. We had quotas. The people operating the trans-portation magnet in its early days, and also the business magnet, allowed those slots to fill with blacks, and exceed set percentages, and then it was all black. The more blacks you get, the more whites drop out. So we’re going to have to start all over again because it has defeated its purpose.

D MAGAZINE: What about the arts magnet?

WRIGHT: The arts magnet is one of the most successful programs. It’s as tri-ethni-cally balanced as you can have according to the ratio of the student body. Everything that I have shows that it’s successful by any standard.

D MAGAZINE: On that note, Dr. Wright, do you believe that positive change can be made in this system?

WRIGHT: I’m more optimistic now than I’ve ever been. We have all the resources we need, all the money we need and enough competent people to make this education system work. We need to weed out some of the incompetence-we will always have some- but what we need is a system that will allow us to monitor our performance frequently enough to make adjustments, rather than our waiting until the end of the year and finding out we’ve been unsuccessful. And we’ve allowed departments to spring up like barley, doing their own thing with little coordination with the rest of the district. I think we’re right on the threshold of marrying all those together and, of turning this educational system around.

D MAGAZINE: In the last analysis, how would you expect to be judged in your job?

WRIGHT: That’s easy. Performance- and results.

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