Why Does Dallas ISD Resist Data for Improvement?

Dustin Marshall has served as a Dallas Independent School District trustee since 2016. The businessman is known for using data to drive decisions and determine strategies that will help students succeed.In an interview with the George W. Bush Institute's Anne Wicks and William McKenzie, Marshall spoke about the pressure to preserve the status quo. He remains hopeful, though, that reform groups and forward-looking educators will succeed in using data and the principles of school accountability to improve student achievement. As he sees it, nothing less than North Texas' economic success is at stake.How do you define accountability?Accountability is about using data to track outcomes and the inputs that go into outcomes. It means using that data to make more informed decisions at all levels in the organization. Has that changed for you over time?As a definition, accountability probably hasn't changed. The practical reality of how to implement accountability has changed. Since serving on the Dallas school board, I've been enlightened a little bit that it's not as easy as I'd like it to be. What is accomplishable within the political context is probably what has changed.What has enlightened you?It's easy to underestimate the fervor with which some people will protect the status quo. They're vocal, and they support the current power structure. And they will protect the status quo at any cost. That makes it difficult for folks that want to use data to make decisions to make progress.Why do you think they work so hard to protect the status quo?I've stayed up nights thinking about that. I don't have a silver-bullet answer. It's some combination of things. One is racial politics. In DISD's case, there's a general opposition to anything that is being pushed by anyone who's perceived as too white, too Republican, and too associated with business.Second, teacher unions or teacher associations influence elections. There's an effort to protect all teachers, whether they're underperforming or not. Finally, a lot of this is cronyism. School board members know many teachers in the schools in their districts, and they like them as people, whether they think they're effectively educating kids or not.Is it worse than you thought?Way worse.How so?I come from a management consulting background. Every decision is supposed to include data, and data is not thought of as a bad word. It was shocking to me, and fairly appalling, that there are actually arguments made in education that data is bad, that you need not talk about data because data's misleading.What about DISD educators who are willing to use data at the classroom level?Many teachers want to be supported and improve their practice. But there are also teachers who say, "Leave me alone. I know what I'm doing. Don't talk to me. I'm an expert." In my district, quite a few teachers are eager for assessment, coaching and professional development. How do you see the Dallas school board using accountability practices? The principal-effectiveness evaluation system and the teacher evaluation system are the centerpieces.We've also been evaluating early childhood education and looking at ways to expand access to quality pre-K for three- and four-year-olds. We're tracking everything you can track. For example, we are studying whether a student's participation in three- and four-year-old pre-K improves that student's kindergarten-readiness rate and then, in turn, third-grade literacy rate. Our ACE program [Accelerating Campus Excellence] is another great example. We're identifying our best-performing teachers and then paying them a stipend to go into our worst-performing schools. We've seen tremendous success in reducing the number of improvement-required campuses in DISD largely as a result of that program. Unfortunately, not every board member is interested in that decision-making philosophy. We've got a group of five that get most things passed five-to-four. But we didn't pass the Tax Ratification Election [TRE] because we needed six votes.Other North Texas districts passed their own TRE so they could raise more funds. Why does something that sparks so little controversy elsewhere become so controversial in Dallas?Some DISD board members derive their power largely from being seen as oppositional. If you look at the number of items that are pulled off the consent agenda at our DISD board meetings, 99.9 percent are pulled by two people. And, if you look at the amount of time spent speaking at our board meetings, it's 90-plus percent those same two people.The great irony is that we often have unanimous votes on the items they pulled off the consent agenda and then spent 20 minutes talking about. In my opinion, those members need to be perceived by their constituents as yelling about something. And I literally do mean yelling, raising their voices, and banging the table.Their constituents, unfortunately, don't have — or don't take — the time to be well-versed about the issues. Instead, they have the perception that their board members are down there fighting, so they must be fighting for us. The terrible reality is they're actually voting to undermine their own constituents' best interest.You mentioned teachers unions or associations. How do they come into play?Their biggest impact is in DISD elections. Most teachers live in the same districts as many of our struggling schools because the real estate is more affordable. We don't, unfortunately, pay teachers enough to live in other parts of the district. There's extreme voter apathy in DISD elections in those areas, so teachers make up a significant number of the people that vote. And they hear from their association whom they should vote for. In fairness, the teachers would say business-related groups also invest in races.There aren't any voters in those business groups, though. They mostly live outside the district. The business groups invest money, but they don't get voters.What initiatives would you prioritize now?The teacher pipeline is the biggest problem we're confronting, and we're dancing around it. We ought to ban crummy, alternative-certification programs and never hire any teachers from them. We ought to grow our own teacher training process — like a scholarship program for DISD graduates where we pay for their college and then they come back and teach for four or five years.We need to get creative in how we solve that teacher pipeline problem. No more of this stuff where you see "Want to teach? When can you start?" on billboards. Every time I see that, I swear I drive 30 miles per hour faster. It makes me angry.I would also like to tackle a principal training program. Teaching Trust is a world-class program [in North Texas], and I would love to put every DISD principal through it. This year, Teaching Trust will be working with approximately 50 school leaders, both principals and assistant principals. Eighty-six percent of Teaching Trust leadership teams are closing academic gaps faster than in peer schools. How can you argue that doesn't work? Of course it works. The way we're handling early childhood education is too politicized. We're doing it but not in an authentic or ideal way. We ought to offer full-day, free pre-K for all three- and four-year-olds, whether they're covered by the state or not. What about TEI, Dallas' Teacher Excellence Initiative? Is that driving results?In the last couple of years, DISD has gone from the 24thperformance percentile among districts in the state to above the 80th. I credit that improvement — if not most of it — to the teacher evaluation system and managing out teachers that need to be in a different career.How do you respond when critics claim TEI is chasing teachers out of DISD?We've got nine educator performance bands. Last year we retained 100 percent of the teachers in the highest two bands of performance. Not a single teacher in the district in the top two bands left, and all the ones that are leaving are in the bottom couple of performance bands. That means the design is working.What's at stake for Dallas to get these education issues right?We don't have the labor force to fill current jobs, let alone the jobs that are coming at Dallas' growth rate. The North Texas economic miracle of the last 20 years will dissipate quickly if we can't fill those jobs. And we're not on a trajectory to fill them.It's challenging to get people to care about a few years out, let alone 20 years, but the Commit! Partnership has shown the correlation between key indicators at different moments along the school pipeline. That has been helpful.This interview was conducted, condensed, and edited by Anne Wicks, director of the Bush Institute's Education Reform Initiative, and William McKenzie, editorial director of the Bush Institute. To read a longer version of this interview, go to www.bushcenter.org/theawordDustin Marshall is a Dallas ISD trustee. What's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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