Improving Education-One School At A Time

Everyone in this community who cares about public education knows that no matter what DISD does, one huge obstacle lies in the way of progress: public perception. People aren’t patient enough to wait decades for the results of reform. People don’t understand the enormity of the task, the subtlety of the improvements, the delicacy of the issues.

Ergo, D offers, free of charge, Step One in a Perception-Shat-tering Plan. Listen up, DISD. We envision this as one in a series of full-page advertisements:

Get a husky-looking, middle-aged, muscle-bound white male with a flat top. Sit him with his feet up at an old wooden desk. Give him a Ban-Lon shirt, a toothpick to chew, and a football to toss in the air with one hand.

Print these words underneath: “Remember when he was the principal? He doesn’t work here anymore.”

That should help alert Dallas to some good news. The happy truth is that to a large extent, the vapid, good-ol-boy coach-principal is extinct at DISD. And the truth is that stereotypical principal had to go because principals are the key to the future of the Dallas schools.

Former Secretary of Education William Bennett said it in so many words when he declared in a speech here last year that the key to excellence is in the individual, neighborhood school. Universities like California’s Stanford say it in studies like the one that seeks to elevate educationally disadvantaged kids by offering them an accelerated- not a remedial-program of academics. The key to the program, according to its founder, is “centering on the single school as the basic unit of change.”

And DISD’s new superintendent Dr. Marvin Edwards has said it, though with a good deal more grace and diplomacy than does our Perception-Shatterer. He says it when he declares that we must “empower the principals” of the Dallas schools to allow them to create instructional environments appropriate to their communities. Edwards is adamant when he asserts that this is his single-minded goal: “In order for a school to be successful there must be ownership on the part of the principal and the teachers for that success. Learning doesn’t get delivered pat and dictated from a central office.”

That sounds so logical. but the trend over the past two decades in large school districts like Dallas’s is just the opposite. Centralization has all but removed decision-making from those who are in a position to best understand the needs of the students. Principals are hamstrung by state tenure laws that make it almost impossible to fire an incompetent teacher. Principals are often left out in the cold on the hiring end as well, forced to accept teachers that are sent to them by district personnel with little attention to the chemistry between principal and teacher or to how that individual fits into the school instructional team. Principals have little latitude over curriculum, or the purchasing of equipment, or even building repairs. The smart ones know how to dodge the barriers that a centralized system sets up. The lucky ones are surrounded by caring communities that help share the load.

It is encouraging that Edwards recognizes that accountability in education must rest with the principal, and by extension, the teachers who report to her. And it is encouraging that the superintendent’s “ideal principal” is one who has risen from the district’s instructional ranks, not its coaching track. Teachers must also have more of a voice in plotting educational strategy, Edwards believes. “For too long, we’ve been fearful of teachers having too great a voice in education,” he says. ’Actually, they ought to have more.”

If Dallas schools are to stop hemorrhaging wasted potential, we must reverse this trend. We must look at our schools from the bottom up, not the top down. We must admit that all the legislative reforms and the refined testing methods, all the mandated ratios and school hours in the world mean nothing if the school in your neighborhood, the one where your children should go. operates on a one-system-fits-all methodology, administered by demoralized teachers and a principal who has failed to win their respect.

The underlying philosophy here, of course, is that children ought to go to school where they live. And that means turning away from some of the strategies that have been employed to achieve racial integration. It seems fairly obvious that, in spite of the newfound racial harmony at many Dallas schools-and it does exist- we continue to fail to educate minority kids. It’s time to look beyond those solutions-even if it means gutting up to a system that contains a number of one-race schools. “If segregation occurs because of segregated housing patterns, then I can live with that.” Edwards says. “As long as it’s not the district itself fostering it.’ Edwards would siphon funds currently spent on busing, for example, into high-quality educational programs that help reduce the learning “deficit” in disadvantaged kids.

Of course we are still entangled in litigation that hinders-but doesn’t cripple-our ability to commit all our resources to the cause of learning. Edwards offers reassurance that we will barrel ahead in that direction, with or without court involvement. The school board’s recent decision to back off of its quest for unitary status (which would have ended the district’s long court struggle over desegregation) was probably a wise one, though it is sure to be misunderstood. The issue had become a hot potato singed by the politics of race. It was quietly determined that now was not the time to toss the potato into an already emotional crowd.

It is up to us as a community to offer Edwards our wholehearted support. And even with that support, there are formidable roadblocks. There are neighborhoods where no schools exist, and neighborhoods where school buildings stand empty. Erecting new facilities where the majority of DISD students live will require enormous capital investments over the next decade and beyond. And we will still be faced with that task of altering perceptions, of winning back those thousands of families who bailed out of the system because they feared its mediocrity.

If we want better schools, we have to admit that past strategies have failed-and rebuild them, one school at a time.


Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.