DMN’s 30K-foot Look at DISD is Very Good; But Let’s Drop Down to 10K Feet

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Holly Hacker’s piece yesterday in the DMN about DISD (part of the paper’s “Future Dallas” package) is great. Please read it now so I don’t have to summarize it. (While we’re waiting, I’ll give you the shorter version of Future Dallas — pretty much everything the DMN trumpeted before 2004 was dumb.) You’re back! Good. Because Hacker’s piece does a few crucial things right (like adjusting for poverty), it can be discussed seriously. The DMN needs to continue doing this sort of analysis so we can have wide-ranging, substantive discussions about the current state of DISD and what it needs to do to improve.

That said, when we look a little deeper, we see some of the things that will give you pause if you come away from her piece thinking, “Hey, maybe DISD doesn’t need reform!” Again, I want to stress I can only argue these things because the paper did such a good job at laying the groundwork. But that doesn’t mean we need to confuse progress in DISD (which Hacker documents) with acceptable quality.

The first problem is that the DMN, like many people (myself included) gets caught up in stats that aren’t the best ones to evaluate. College readiness is an example. I’ve harped on DISD’s college-readiness numbers, but the more education experts I talk to, I see this may be a faulty measurement, simply because the idea of college-readiness is so nebulous. There are many different measures of this, and taking a measure that isn’t concrete is always a bad way to look at outcomes.

What is a less-nebulous measure? College completion. See pages 25 to 28 of this report. This gives us numbers about the graduation rate for high school seniors after six years. Is this the best number to look at? Well, it’s the best one we have, although many education experts say what we REALLY need to be measuring is the 10-year 8th-grader completion rate. In other words, a decade after graduating 8th grade, how many of those kids have a college degree? (This is because of the importance of getting kids on-track by the end of 8th grade; otherwise, there is much less hope for them to succeed in higher ed.) So even though this is a guestimate, we can use the above link to back into the 10-year 8th-grader college completion rate for DISD’s most recent numbers: about 15 percent for the high school class of 2006.

Now, a few things about this measure, which we see as go down from the DMN’s 30k feet to our 10k-foot look:

By either college-completion or college-readiness measures, DISD’s magnets are exclusively carrying the load on these aggregate stats for the district.

Does this mean the only good instruction of poor kids (which make up 90 percent of DISD students) is happening at magnets? Not at all. Remember this vitally important chart we got from the data-education group Commit. There is still massive variation, caused largely by teacher quality, for schools of identical poverty levels within DISD (and everywhere else, for that matter).

So the question is not “Is DISD broken?” or “Is DISD doing better than we think it is?” or “Is reform necessary?” The answer to all those are yes. The question for DISD today (and tomorrow, aka Near Future Dallas) is, “How do you increase performance to acceptable levels even for poor kids?” In other words, just because you’re doing pretty well teaching poor kids in a few select schools doesn’t mean you’re doing well enough so that they (and certainly the other poor kids in the district) can make it as an adult. As concerned citizens, it’s also important we ask the correct sub-questions to this: How do I make sure DISD is doing the things that successful schools are doing to teach poor kids? This includes high-quality early childhood service, training of parents, more instructional time in K-12 (longer days, years … hello, home rule discussion), all combined with an demand from the administration for a relentless commitment to excellence that includes a curriculum emphasizing social-emotional strength as much as academic achievement.

Sounds like a tall order? Well (and charter school opponents hate hearing this), it’s been proven it can work, with the poorest kids among us. KIPP charter schools don’t focus on early childhood, but they do the rest of these things. And — we’ve come full circle now — KIPP’s college completion rate from 8th grade is 44 percent, compared to DISD’s of about 15 percent. And KIPP’s kids are just as poor and non-white as DISD’s.

Now, a lot of people dismiss KIPP’s results (and all charter results) because of the opt-in nature of enrollment. There are plenty of studies to refute this, but research doesn’t replace your gut, right? Fine, let’s just use a bit of logic: Anybody who thinks charters “skim” kids and therefore DISD isn’t dealing with a level playing field needs to understand that DISD’s magnets are SUPER charters. Magnets not only require parents to opt-in (like a charter), but they only let already-proven smart kids opt-in (which is vastly more restrictive than charters). AND you can get kicked out of a DISD magnet back to your home school for failure to perform (unlike charters in law, although many people say charters do this in practice). Now, if you remove these DISD selective-admissions-charter schools, then DISD is not the middle-of-the-road district you see in the DMN analysis, but is arguably one of the worst in the U.S.

This is why we need more reform in the district — to take the best practices that work at restrictive charters (like magnets), traditional charters (like KIPP), and the high-performing poor schools within DISD and apply them system-wide. This is why progress is slow and complicated, but possible.

One last note: The idea that Hacker hints at, that the mayor SHOULD take responsibility for overseeing a city with so much poverty (which makes teaching kids extraordinarily difficult) in relation to DISD’s challenge, is an excellent point. One I wish I would have made first. Has made me rethink the role of the city in fixing DISD.