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DISD Board Recap: How to Undermine Your District and Run Off Good People

The first board briefing of the 2014-15 school year was pretty great for a lot of reasons I’ll outline below, but the bottom line is there was a lot of data and strategy discussed that should have been catnip for any edu-wonk. The concerns from the recent state report card for the district were analyzed; ERG Analytics went over some of the surprising (in a good way) DISD data we told you about back in June; Superintendent Mike Miles addressed the new key programs, as well as the funding concerns, I wrote about yesterday; and an HR plan to accelerate new teacher hires (which Miles mentioned in his end-of-the-year speech back in May) was proven successful. In all, there was a lot of high-level, big-picture, where-are-we-and-where-are-we-headed data and analysis for the board to consider.

And many of them did just that. Then again, a few of them — the same ones as always, of course — did everything they could to undermine any suggestion that the administrators in charge could possibly know what they’re doing. In that way, they continued their textbook example of how to be horrible board members who do active harm to the district, and thereby hurt the very children they bring up at every turn. And I’m going to go about it at length, because it is important you know how this particular evil manifests itself.

To the bullet points:

• A new seating chart for briefings it appears, with the polar opposites — Joyce Foreman and Mike Morath — seated on either end, as far away from each other as possible. This cannot be a coinky-dink. As well, Solis put suggested time limits on each portion of the briefing to keep things moving. This was much appreciated by all in attendance, although a few of the big-time pontificators (Foreman, Jones, Nutall) would get a little agitated when they were asked to wrap it up. This is not surprising: DISD used to keep records of how long each trustee spoke at meetings, and those trustees (substituting Carla Ranger for Foreman) were BY FAR the three who most loved to hear the sound of their own voice. It should be no surprise, then, that many of their questions during staff Q&A time are really just opportunities to grandstand. This was in evidence yesterday.

• The first portion of the meeting was a look at student achievement and state accountability from the standpoint of TEA, which showed some big concerns in student test scores, especially in reading areas. (Side note: I had a long talk this summer with a teacher about the many problems with the STAAR reading exams that told me why lots of schools in the state had problems with this portion of the exam; that’s for a later post.) But in general, despite some promising increases in math results, the accountability results need improvement, a point upon which everyone agreed.

At the same time, ERG presented its data, which gave a somewhat contrasting view. As we talked about in June, ERG does a much better job than the state does of putting a district in context: showing how well it is doing given the poverty of its students, its funding levels, and in relation to everyone other district in the state. Unlike the picture painted by the STAAR test results, ERG’s data showed DISD in the 92nd percentile statewide in terms of effectiveness. That improvement was characterized by the ERG rep as “the biggest story in Texas, if not the country.”

Dan Micciche was befuddled by the mix of good news and worrisome news. “This is a lot of data to look at all at once,” he said. “And it seems to be inconsistent.” Two points on this: One, although it was a lot of stuff to digest at once, the disparity in the presentations make sense. One is raw test scores. They are static. Now, we shouldn’t dismiss them as meaningless. We should ask our administrators to do everything possible to ensure our kids show improvement on them. At the same time, we have to look at the data in context, and that’s why ERG’s data suggests the district improved (albeit in 2012-13 school year; their 2013-14 data won’t be out until December). It simply said the district showed great improvement even though state testing scores don’t always reflect this, because the affecting factors — funding, poverty, and the performance of other districts — are constantly changing. Dirk Nowitzki scoring 22 points against San Antonio is more impressive than Dirk scoring 40 points against Minnesota. Context matters.

• It will not surprise you that not everyone on the board agrees with me. When Nancy Bingham asked for context about the accountability and was told that reading scores with STAAR went down across the state (compared to TAKS results), she said, okay, that’s good information, it helps us understand our performance in context. But such reasonable suggestions were spun by the anti-Miles crowd as somehow accepting failure. As well, DISD staff simply PROVIDING that context is spun by those same people as making excuses, which is the most demeaning, chickenshit aspect of their behavior. Foreman, it will also not surprise you to know, is the absolute worst (best?) at this, because she does so in a slow, condescending, demeaning manner — you know, because that’s the best way to make your point and get the best out of people. Foreman said she had just listened to Deputy Superintendent Ann Smisko “eloquently explain” away the increase in campuses rated “Improvement Required” (IR) by the state. Smisko rightly and patiently pointed out that, no, she had just answered Bingham’s question about whether there was context to the DISD reading results, and had given her that context. Foreman said, Well, didn’t you say the STAAR test is more rigorous (in reading)? Yes, Smisko replied. “I saw that as an excuse.”

Of course you did, even thought that’s ridiculous. It’s divorced from reality, but it fits your destructive agenda.

Sub-point: AYFKM?

Foreman went on to ask if there was a comprehensive reading plan for the district. (Even though Lew Blackburn had already asked the same question and gotten the same answer.) Yes, she was told, the “Balanced Literacy” initiative. Smisko told her she would be happy to go over the plan with Foreman in detail. Foreman said she would do so. I will be checking in throughout the year to find out when that takes place.

•Foreman also spent a lot of time saying the district doesn’t do enough for African American students. She said there was no comprehensive plan in place to help poor-performing African American kids. Miles — because he was asked — explained very patiently that the African American achievement gap has persisted for decades across the nation, and gave specific examples of how his reform plans are and will address the issue. (Recruiting and retaining better teachers and administrators, including African American principals at schools that are predominantly black, better evaluation and reward of teachers through TEI, which will also help them guide the best teachers to the most struggling schools, more early childhood plans, etc.)

Foreman’s response was absurd. “I’ll just say that consistently we get the rhetoric,” she replied. “I am sitting on this board saying we’re going to pay attention to the student. I’m not going to just take the rhetoric of trying to put an effective teacher and principal in front of [kids]. … The fact is, we are not a poor district. We should be able to put resources where we need to put resources, and I expect to see that.”

Almost everything about that statement is either a) wrong, or b) batshit insane. Also, regarding her use of the word “rhetoric”: I’ll let Inigo Montoya reply for me.

• In contrast, Lew Blackburn was just great. I’m a big fan of his when he’s not going after Miles for silly things. When Blackburn asks big-picture questions, they’re the sort the board should concern itself with. When he asks specific questions — this data point on this page deep in your presentation — it’s usually relevant. He’s direct but usually not condescending. For example, he wanted to know how the DISD central office reacts at the campus level when a school is rated IR. Excellent question, and there was some meaningful back and forth on this. Also, he’s funny. He takes his job as trustee seriously but not himself too seriously. Always a good sign.

• Nutall and Jones, however, were very Nutall-y and Jones-y all afternoon. Every time the discussion came to Nutall, for example, her voice would raise, she would start talking roundabout nonsense about looking at the data, pulling disparate facts together together to weave a web of confusion. Jones meanwhile is just as confusing in her own way, positioning herself as a data wiz (drinking game: do a shot every time she says something along the lines of “I’ve done the analysis myself”). If the briefing videos were on YouTube instead of that gawd-awful system it’s currently on, I would show you some clips. I type quickly, and I tried to type fast enough to get down some of her (and Jones’) grandstanding stump speeches, but my fingers just give out eventually. Here’s one Nutall example from my notes that is incomplete and not verbatim, but it gives you the flavor:

“I think that it’s very interesting how we say it takes time to turn a district around, how the tests have changed, and how we need to get adjusted to the new tests. Now, two years later [after Miles started], let’s look at the data. Now we have many excuses [ed note: that’s a lie; see context discussion above] as to why the data looks the way it looks. I think it is very interesting and very concerning when you look at the data. When you go through here, it’s red [showing regression in scores]. [We want to know] there’s a curriculum. Not just tools in the tool box. We need great curriculum and training supporting kids and our teachers. I know we had 48 new principals. We have a lot of work to do, Superintendent Miles. We have a lot of work to do. A lot of work to do.”

Let me help her, because I think this is the relevant points worth making that are lost in all that noise:

We all know reforming a huge urban district is a tremendous challenge. The data suggests we’re making strides in some areas, but not in others. I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but it’s our jobas a board to give you team guidance. With that in mind, I’d say, yes, please continue to give us a picture of the nature of our most-pressing challenges, and continue to tell us how we’re working to overcome them. And let’s all be sure that we don’t allow that context to serve as an excuse — for teachers, administrators, or board members — from being self-critical when we need to be.

• Miles then gave his update we told you about yesterday, wherein he laid out just what he’s going to need to get early learning, school choice, and teacher recruitment/retention initiatives off the ground. Morath hinted at the funding concerns I mentioned, but then Bingham just flat out asked Miles, “Where are we going to get this money?” Miles: “We are going to have to come to the board, say this makes sense, and we’ll have to ask the board to ask the public for money, either for a TRE or a bond.” (Celeste prediction: ON TARGET!) So, yes, watch this story. DISD hasn’t asked for more cash since 2008, and these are big plans that could have a tremendous impact on teaching poor kids. But despite what you’ve heard, quality ain’t cheap. I’m sure this will be a big, ugly fight over the next year.

• It will not surprise you that I have about 500 more words about Foreman’s actions/words here that I just cut, because fatigue. Like, at one point, she said that she was against the suggestion we should cut programs to find the money but Bingham just said that in a complete hypothetical as she was asking Miles how will he pay for these programs. So even though she made that up, she still used it to launch an attack on the administration, saying we should cut its “layers and layers and layer and layers and layers” of fat. Which is the sort of simple-minded critique one expects from online comment trolls, but not from a trustee. Just know it was very “same as it ever was [forehead smack].”

• The news of the day was the teacher vacancy presentation, where super-smart, new-ish HR head  Carmen Darville told the board about the department’s efforts to get teachers in place before the school year begins. From Tawnell’s story on Dallasnews.com:

Dallas ISD has filled nearly all of its teaching positions, a big improvement compared to around this time in recent years.

The district has 60 teaching positions open, which is less than one percent of its more than 10,000-member teaching force.

Around the start of last school year, DISD had about 300 teaching vacancies, officials said. And the amount of vacancies was more than double that the previous year.

“Kudos to you and your team; this is a major milestone,” trustee Mike Morath told human resources chief Carmen Darville at Thursday’s board briefings.

Much of what came next was a microcosm of everything wrong with Nutall, Jones, and Foreman as trustees. This is unquestionably great news. But in praising Darville and her team, Morath made the mistake of closing his remarks with a throwaway comment, saying that while it doesn’t tell us about the quality of the teachers, it at least tells us we’re addressing the quantity issue. That was like feeding steak to a hungry dog. Because those three immediately started saying versions of the following: Quantity is not good enough! We care about quality!

Understand how stupid that is on two levels: One, Morath was of course not saying he didn’t care about quality. That’s asinine. He was pointing out that HE DOES care about quality by saying, rightly, that this is a welcome first step in solving one aspect of DISD teacher concerns. You can’t worry about having high-quality teachers UNTIL YOU HAVE A GODDAMNED TEACHER IN THE CLASSROOM. This is so basic it makes me insane I even have to type it. Two, it’s stupid because a very important part of your job as a trustee is to support the people your superintendent hires. Do you ask for results? Of course! If the results aren’t there, do you bring in another superintendent and then ask her or him to get the right people in place to achieve those results? Of course! But you don’t publicly undermine mid-stream by suggesting that these aren’t quality teachers, especially BECAUSE YOU HAVE NO IDEA. Pro tip: No matter how many times you invoke “the children,” all you are doing is cutting away at the efforts real educators are making at helping kids.

Of course, most of the trustees are not insane, realized this was good news, and did not undermine the district. Blackburn asked some good questions about substitute teachers and whether the district was addressing schools with high teacher absenteeism. Others offered mostly praise. And maybe that’s just hard for some of these trustees I’ve mentioned above. Let me help them. In case you come across a time travel machine and can go back to yesterday, try saying this:

Ms. Darville, this is outstanding news. This proves leadership matters. You’ve been able to take a problem that hurts children every year, and you fixed it in one year. In fact, you and your team give the city hope that our long-standing challenges can be overcome. It’s just a first step. We all know that. We’re all hopeful everyone of these teachers is of the highest quality, and they push our district in the right direction. When you get that data, we’ll need to look closely at it. But until then, this is wonderful news, and we thank you.

Instead, the anti-Miles crew got what it wanted: a story of unqualified success is filled with skeptical quotes from trustees. The public, thinking that trustees of course have honorable intentions, will of course greet the story with skepticism, too. I’m a gambling man, and I’d like to wager that yet another administrator went home yesterday asking herself, “AYFKM?” It’s the only logical response.