Thursday, September 29, 2011

Spreading the Gospel of Bill+Eli throughout the land: LESSONS FROM L.A.

By Keven Ann Willey, Vice president and editorial page editor -THe Dallas Morning News |

12:20 PM on Tue., Sep. 27, 2011 | We had an interesting Editorial Board meeting this morning with the president of the Los Angeles Unified School District board and the district's new superintendent. (Well, semi-new. He's been there about a year.) They are in town for a conference sponsored by the Dallas Chamber later today to talk about education reform. What an inspirational confab we had!

I would like to pluck President Monica Garcia and/or John Deasy and transplant them to Dallas. They both exude positive energy, plus an aura of order, accountability and a real inner core dedicated to change.

Our very own Bill McKenzie has written a good bit on our blogs and on our newspaper Editorial and op-ed pages about some of the successes in LA. For me, meeting these people and conversing with them about their challenges, ideas and vision really drove home many of the points Bill has made in print about lessons for Dallas from this district.

Among the most interesting headlines from this meeting that left a lasting impression on me:

  • Both Garcia and Deasy had warm praise for LA Mayor Villaraigosa, who has grabbed the issue of education reform by the scruff of the neck and really shaken it to attention. They report that the majority of the school board and administration welcome the mayor's intervention in education even though it's not technically part of a mayor's charter power. They see him seeking the same goals - better education for kids in a long-underperforming district - and welcome his elbow grease and bully pulpit leadership.
  • This district is governed by seven board members and oversees something like 650,000 kids. (Is that even possible?) By comparison, DISD is governed by a nine-member board and oversees something closer to 150,000 kids. (And I use the word "governed" loosely since the board of trustees historically has had a tough time showing sustained leadership of any sort.) Interestingly, Garcia said her board splits roughly along 5-2 lines (the five being helped to election by Mayor Villaraigosa and the two not). It sounds as though they are still able to make considerable progress on really tough issues.
  • One of those tough issues is performance evaluations for teachers and principals, which is made even more complex by California's labor union protections. Still, the district is on track to make "student achievement over time" a "significant" component of its performance evaluations.

Currently, student achievement plays zero role in the evaluations. We asked what "significant" meant. It seems as though ongoing negotiations may settle out at "no more than 30 percent", meaning that up to 30 percent of a principal's annual evaluation will be based on mulitple student achievement measures. I'd like to think there are lessons for DISD here!

Deasy sounded a decidedly upbeat DISD note when he observed that DISD is currently in crucible moment. The district has pockets of demonstrable successes, which can be used as a basis for scaling to greater success, he said; it is about to begin interviewing for a new superintendent and it is building meaningful external partners with Commit! with the support of the Dallas Chamber.

I agree - if only the DISD Board of Trustees properly exploits this opportunity....

…But wait – there’s more!

DISD's defensive posture

By Keven Ann Willey/Editor | | Bio

8:14 AM on Thu., Sep. 29, 2011 | Permalink

Careful readers of this blog might remember my post from earlier this week expressing enthusiasm for the ideas and reform energy shared with our Editorial Board by the president the Los Angeles Unified School District, Monica Garcia, and its superintendent, John Deasy. Here's a link to the full post, in which I noted there are lessons for DISD from the LAUSD experiences.

That post elicited an email from a DISD official that was worded very carefully to acknowledge the exciting leadership in LA but continued:

Just wanted to give you a couple figures as food for thought: LA Unified's most recent, self-reported (2009) 4-year cohort graduation rate is 52%.


Dallas ISD's most recent 4-year cohort graduation rate (2010) is 74.6%, with gains each of the last 3 years.
I am not suggesting in any way that Ms. Garcia and Mr. Deasy are responsible for their numbers nor am I in any position to say that they are not up to the task because, by all accounts, it looks like they are. All I'm saying is that, while Dallas ISD still has plenty of room for improvement - and we all know it, particularly in the area of college readiness - more progress has been made in the last few years than our community seems to acknowledge.

This email troubled me on a number of levels. I tried to explain to the writer my concerns. Here's how I responded. See what you think.

Thank you for your email commenting on my blog post yesterday.

I can understand that you sometimes feel as though the pockets of success within DISD get overlooked by critics. And there are times when I'd agree with you. (In our editorials, we are careful to reflect this nuance; i.e. we even predicated our invitation to the writers for our special Points section last Sunday with a recognition that test scores and graduation rates in some areas of the district are rising and that the focus on teacher quality seems to be increasing.)

But really, this isn't the issue. The issue is scalability. The fact is DISD has had a difficult time taking those successes and scaling them in a sustainable way across the district. That is the challenge for DISD. It is the challenge for many other urban districts as well.

When administration officials keep zeroing in on pockets of success you perpetuate the image - inadvertently, I'm sure - of a district in a defensive posture.Seeking more attention for those pockets of success diverts attention and energy from the real task at hand: How to scale those successes across a district that is still under serving so many of its students. It has the effect of diluting the sense of urgency around the need to change, improve, reinvent, innovate.

To you, I'm sure it feels like you're simply seeking recognition of good. But to those outside the DISD bubble, it feels like a district blind to the forest for the trees.

Frankly, I believe much of DISD's challenge starts with the school board. The fact that the three most recent seats up for election went unchallenged is simply outrageous. The district's external partners share responsibility here - both in failing to field candidates and, in previous elections, for the types of candidates they did field.

But that's another issue we can discuss another time. In the meantime, I hope you'll think about my points above. I offer them constructively. I am a product of public schools and a DISD supporter.

PS: One of the things I like about the LAUSD website is how clearly the district states its five goals and then displays tracking information in an easily understandable manner to show progress toward those goals. (Again, you've plucked one measurement out of that panoply of information which compares unfavorably to Dallas to bolster DISD's position.)

The LAUSD link you provided is to data from a year ago; Deasy spoke of the same goals/measurements yesterday.

My point is that I'm not sure if you asked DISD's leaders what the district's top five goals are that you'd get the same five goals from everybody, never mind any sort of shared understanding about performance against them.

No wonder scalability is an issue.

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9:07 AM on 9/29/2011

For the people in government, rather than the people who pester it, DISD is an early-rising, hard-working bureaucracy. It is a popular delusion that the District wastes vast amounts of money through inefficiency and sloth. Enormous effort and elaborate planning are required to waste this much money.

Redacted from P. J. O'Rourke (b. 1947), U.S. journalist."The Winners Go to Washington, D.C."
he was talking about Washington D.C.

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