An optimistic view of public education in Dallas
From the outside, the history of education in Dallas is simple and familiar.
This is a city where a relatively small number of affluent people enjoy an array of options for their children, ranging from excellent but expensive private schools to some of the best magnet schools in the country. Meanwhile, a far greater number of low-income residents are sending their children to a struggling school district where the majority of children are performing poorly in school.
If you don’t dig into the details, this assessment holds up. But look closely and a different picture emerges – one that shows that Dallas is actually a city undergoing and even leading a significant transformation in educational opportunities for all of its residents, a transformation that promises to provide more choice and better outcomes for residents, regardless of their wealth. .
This transformation is still in its infancy, and it relies on political reforms and political decisions that are fragile and must be protected to ensure that we maintain the gains and build on them for a better future.
First, the choice of education has become deeply rooted in Dallas. The days of going to your neighborhood school or choosing a private school are well behind us, and we are doing better.
Some 36,000 students, mostly black and Hispanic, are now enrolled in charter schools across the city, and 4 in 5 of them are economically disadvantaged. Meanwhile, Dallas ISD has expanded its choice of schools from 11 in 2015 to 45 in the current school year.
Parents who don’t have the income to choose a private school have the advantage they traditionally didn’t have in choosing the best school for their child. It’s empowering and we believe over time it will improve outcomes for children as parents gain more control.
As charter schools grew, Dallas ISD contracted. Since 2015, the district’s enrollment has fallen about 8.5%, and it now has some 145,000 students.
This should not be seen as a terrible development. DISD retains significant resources from a growing tax base, and its low enrollment means increased flexibility to focus on innovation.
And although its reach is no longer as great as it once was, the neighborhood remains the center of gravity for education in the city. His performance matters as much as any other factor for our future.
Looking at the raw numbers of DISD student performance in the age of COVID-19, it would be easy to be pessimistic. STAAR failure rates were shocking across the board, approaching 50% in many categories. Some 70% of seventh graders failed the STAAR math test.
But again, we need to pause and take a hard look at the situation. The loss of learning during COVID-19 has been profound in major school districts across the country, and few were prepared for the sudden shift to online learning that has proven deeply unsuccessful almost everywhere it has been implemented. . It’s not just a DISD problem.
Before the pandemic, the district was on a strong upward trajectory. By the 2018-19 school year, it had reduced the number of failing schools to eight. During the 2013-2014 school year, 43 schools were listed as failing.
Pre-K enrollment, meanwhile, was increasing sharply. In 2015, DISD enrolled 10,413 pre-K students. In 2018-19, that number hit 13,000. It dipped slightly the following year before crashing when COVID-19 hit.
All this to say that judging DISD by its pandemic performance is short sighted.
A better assessment is this: DISD has a lot of work to do to address COVID-19-related learning loss, but it may be in a stronger position than many large school districts nationwide.
To understand why, we need to look at the hard-won reforms that DISD has supported for much of the past decade – reforms that we believe position the district to recoup those losses and return to an upward trajectory faster than others.
The main reforms
The first of these to focus on is the Accelerating Campus Excellence, or ACE, plan. Under ACE, implemented in 2015, DISD provides additional resources to schools that are not succeeding. The money pays for longer school days and tutoring. And, most importantly, it offers salary incentives for experienced teachers to work in schools that need them. Market forces of more money for the best teachers have shown this to pay off.
ACE is expensive, and because of the pandemic, there are many more schools in need. But DISD will have about $700 million in federal funds to use to expand the program, at least in the short term. Imagine if the district hadn’t already implemented the tried and tested ACE model. He would be in a worse position to spend federal funds wisely to make up for what was lost in COVID-19.
Let us now look at a second reform. If you just take a look at DISD’s teacher retention numbers, it doesn’t seem like the needle has moved much. In 2015, the district retained 81.6% of its teachers. Last year, it retained 83.2%.
But here is the difference. DISD does a much better job of retaining its best teachers through its Teacher Excellence Initiative, or TEI. This program upended a seniority pay model that did nothing to reward teachers based on performance. TEI does this and, surprisingly, the best teachers stay while the worst leave. TEI was designed to prevent top teachers from leaving for other districts, without ensuring that they teach in underperforming schools. But, since its implementation, it has also increased the chances of highly qualified teachers working in the schools that need them most. Its adoption in 2014 corresponded to a 15% increase, from 25% to 40%, in the number of economically disadvantaged students meeting STAAR standards.
Established seven years ago under former Superintendent Mike Miles, the program has become a national model that Superintendent Michael Hinojosa wisely protected. It continues to be a favorite target of teachers’ unions and progressive politicians, despite evidence of its effectiveness for children and teachers.
We reported earlier this year that DISD retention for teachers ranked as masters or exemplary is in the high 90% range. We need these master and exemplary teachers in the district to help turn around schools where learning loss is deep.
There is more to be said about attracting and retaining teachers. Overall, the DISD pays its teachers better. Over the past six years, the average teacher salary has risen from $54,965 to $63,145 in the district.
A new investment
The district also invests in its schools. Since 2015, DISD has built 17 new schools and carried out minor or major renovations on almost all of its campuses. Last year, the district passed the largest bond in state history at $3.7 billion, with hopes of building 10 new schools, replacing 14 others, improving sports facilities, upgrade technology and establish four career institutes for vocational training programs.
This massive public investment has been strongly supported by Dallas taxpayers who believe the district is embracing a flexible education model that includes expanded choice inside and outside of DISD. The plan recognizes that not all DISD students seek a traditional four-year college. Many need and want vocational skills to enter the job market. The DISD that we hope will emerge from the implementation of the link will provide students and families with more schools and more programs.
Dallas needs this flexibility at all levels of education. We are fortunate to have excellent universities throughout the region. And we are also fortunate to have Dallas College, a rejuvenated community college system that is going from strength to strength under Chancellor Joe May.
To continue to grow, the region needs a diverse workforce, from skilled labor to thought leaders. DISD’s planning gives us confidence that it will be able to send its students back and forth. Dallas College is similarly positioned and partners with DISD as well as other schools to help students achieve next-level education.
The challenges ahead of us are daunting. Dallas is good now and has long been good at providing elite private education. But making sure public education, whether provided by DISD or charter schools, provides great options for families at all income levels is much harder.
The good news is that officials here have made important choices that position us to do just that. There is an expanded choice both inside and outside the DISD. Taxpayers have demonstrated that they support public education and want to invest heavily in it. DISD leaders devised and implemented difficult but valuable reforms that paid off for students.
The way forward will not be easy. Setbacks are certain. The results, sometimes, will disappoint. But we are moving in the right direction and we have to keep working hard and making the hard choices necessary to keep going.
Note: This article is part of our State of the City Projectin which The Dallas Morning News explores the most critical issues facing our communities.