Education

Everything You Thought You Knew About DISD Is Wrong

It is actually a model of reform. But that may soon change.

Everything you think you know about the Dallas Independent School District is probably wrong. You probably believe, as most people do, that DISD is the educational equivalent of a tire fire. Not true. While it has many problems, on the whole, when it comes to kids who face big life challenges, DISD is run better than almost every district in North Texas.

Let’s take one recent example. You may have heard that the state of Texas might take over DISD because it’s in such bad shape (Dallas Morning News headline: “State Rejects Dallas ISD’s Plans to Fix Eight Failing Schools”). That sounds awful, right? Not when you understand what’s really happening. Here’s the story: a letter was sent by the Texas Education Agency to 11 districts, including Dallas, that face some level of takeover by Austin. Dallas was included because the TEA said the district’s turnaround plan was insufficient for eight of its 13 campuses that for multiple years have been labeled “improvement required” (or IR, typically called “failing schools”). The letter laid out two conditions to keep full local control in Dallas. DISD trustees have to undergo leadership training, and the district must fully fund its turnaround program for failing schools (called ACE, for Accelerating Campus Excellence, which puts the best teachers at the worst schools, where kids need them most).

While it has many problems, on the whole, when it comes to kids who face big life challenges, DISD is run better than almost every district in North Texas.

Whoa, you say. The state has to train trustees how to do their jobs? And the TEA is telling the district how to spend its money? Those DISD folks are clowns!

But there’s more than meets the eye in the TEA’s missive. On one level, it’s a bit of a bluff, as the TEA has the tools but not the capacity to take over DISD. On another, it reflects the sincere belief of the TEA commissioner, former DISD trustee Mike Morath, that governance training is necessary and helpful to districts. He himself was trained by the letter’s author, whom Morath hired once he got to Austin. But the letter’s primary purpose was tactical. It is meant to give the DISD board political air cover to continue doing what it has been doing the past four or five years: enact programs that make it one of the most reform-minded urban districts in the country.

“People don’t realize the good work we’ve done, but that’s because of the media’s focus on the sensational, which is expected,” one trustee told me. “But the media coverage is getting fairer, and more people are realizing what Dallas has going for it. But no one truly understands the fragility of this. All these reforms, the great results we’re seeing—they could be seriously undermined if we don’t fund and support them properly. And kids would suffer for it.”

The list of innovative initiatives passed by DISD (or in discussion) under former superintendent Mike Miles, initiatives that are continuing under superintendent Michael Hinojosa, read like a school reformer’s shopping list: putting the best teachers in the neediest schools, teacher merit pay, principal training and evaluation, school choice, socioeconomic integration, pre-K education, social-emotional learning, personalized learning, career and technical education, and others. It’s important to understand that each one of these initiatives had to overcome opposition from parts of the administration, from interest groups, and from fringe board members. In other words, these reforms emerged from the political will of the board itself.

The list of innovative initiatives passed by DISD (or in discussion) under former superintendent Mike Miles, initiatives that are continuing under superintendent Michael Hinojosa, read like a school reformer’s shopping list.

This is a crucial point. The status quo naysayers on the school board are the ones you see quoted on TV, complaining about home-rule takeovers, small-scale procurement concerns, and other made-up nonsense. But ultimately, this DISD board has gotten its business squared away over the past four years. This stands in contrast to other well-covered governing bodies in North Texas where we see progressive members spouting common sense on the news, but their groups—Dallas City Council, DART board, Park and Recreation board, you name it—too often stymie or water down innovative solutions.

Not only are DISD’s reforms passed, they’re measured and found to be helping kids. Take Accelerating Campus Excellence, the TEA-lauded program designed to provide a more equitable distribution of teachers. Two years ago, Dallas and Houston ISDs each had 43 failing schools, accounting for about 30,000 students in each district. Today, Houston has 40 schools with about 32,000 students still found by the state to be failing. Dallas, largely because of ACE, has reduced its number to 22 schools, with about 16,000 students. In those failing schools, third through eighth-grade students improved by double-digit percentages in 13 of 14 state measures in just one year (e.g., 35 percent in fifth-grade math and 33 percent in eighth-grade science).

How did DISD produce these astonishing gains in some of its most impoverished schools? By getting the best teachers in front of those kids. Which means it had to do two things: fund the ACE program (teachers were given $8,000 to $10,000 bonuses to move schools) and identify the best teachers. The Teacher Excellence Initiative in fact showed that, before ACE, students at magnet schools—the best students—were 3.5 times more likely to have a distinguished teacher than kids who needed them most, the students at failing schools.

See how these reforms build on each other? The headline-grabbing reforms  would now have the district change how it disciplines students, another crucial building block to a successful turnaround. The DISD board is looking to eliminate most suspensions for its youngest students, as districts like Houston have done. Data show suspensions at young ages largely don’t work to correct behavior. They instead damage children and are disproportionately meted out to black and disabled kids. It’s part of a larger social-emotional and equity reform effort being undertaken in the country’s most progressive districts. That’s DISD.

How did DISD produce these astonishing gains in some of its most impoverished schools? By getting the best teachers in front of those kids. Which means it had to do two things: fund the ACE program and identify the best teachers.

Remember, though, that it was not a cohesive, well-informed board that produced these policies. It was the political will of a slim majority. That will has been noticeably shaky since this past May’s election. In August, the board—in an inexcusable, disgusting dereliction of duty—decided not to send to voters the question of whether DISD could raise its tax rate to pay for all these reforms. To implement new suspension policies, for example, the district would need to give teachers other tools to deal with kids who misbehave, like hiring more mental health professionals to coach teachers and provide support to students. It all costs more money.

Not putting a tax hike to voters was a huge warning sign that the will of the board has changed. This discipline discussion will be another assessment. But the stability of the board will be most crucially tested come the end of the school year, with the May elections. Trustee Joyce Foreman will be re-elected, because the forces of good cannot exist without an enemy. There are private bets being taken for whether outstanding trustee Miguel Solis moves on, but I fancy him staying one more term to do what he can to make sure these reforms have taken firm root. But trustee Dustin Marshall barely won a close race last time, and the East Dallas portion of his district is rife with status-quo Democrats whose best intentions would severely damage reform. He will face a tough battle.

That is problematic. If even one reform-minded candidate is replaced in this May’s election, we could see all these important DISD programs weakened or replaced. Too many crucial votes these days barely pass with stitched-together 5-4 majorities. If the board loses its ability to vote for tough reforms—or to keep in place the ones already working—forget the threats in that TEA letter. If the state were to take over DISD at that point, the reform train will have already run off its tracks. The only people aboard who’ll get hurt are the kids.

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