Diane Ravitch: 20 years later, debunking the ‘Texas Miracle’
The current national school reform was born in Texas, probably hatched in Dallas. During the presidential campaign of 2000, the nation learned about “the Texas miracle.” The achievement gap would close, we were told, by testing and accountability. Test every student every year, and post the results. Public exposure would encourage successful schools and humiliate the low performers into improving. Throw merit pay into the mix to push even bigger gains.
About the same time, the research department at the [ http://topics.dallasnews.com/topic/Dallas_Independent_School_District ]Dallas Independent School District discovered that children who had three great teachers in a row would see dramatic test-score gains. This is now the battle cry of the national school reform movement, which says schools will get better if we test more, award merit pay for higher scores and fire teachers whose students don’t get higher scores.
Dallas knew this 20 years ago. How come it still struggles with a daunting achievement gap and low (but rising) graduation rates? We now know there was no “Texas miracle,” and yet No Child Left Behind is still the law of the land. Across the nation, schools are being closed and educators fired because they couldn’t meet the law’s utopian goals. Neither Dallas nor any other school district has figured out how to deliver on that claim about “three great teachers in a row.” It turns out to be a wishful slogan, not a policy proposal. And merit pay, wherever it has been tried, has failed.
If Dallas wants to see success for its children, it must improve both schools and social conditions.
Every child needs a great education, one that includes the arts, history, civics, foreign languages and other studies. DISD should hire teachers who are well-educated and who understand how to address the needs of children who are learning English and children with disabilities. Once hired, they should have the community’s respect and support, as well as opportunities to improve their teaching.
Dallas has superb cultural resources. They should be utilized to encourage students, teachers and principals to love learning. No cultural institution in the nation [ http://topics.dallasnews.com/topic/Equals_%28musician%29 ]equals the Dallas Institute of Culture and the Humanities. It literally changes teachers’ and principals’ lives by immersing them in the joys of great literature. The [ http://topics.dallasnews.com/topic/Dallas_Symphony_Orchestra ]Dallas Symphony Orchestra has an exemplary program for young musicians called Young Strings. More programs like these will support genuine learning, not just rote preparation for the next state tests.
But that is not enough. Poverty matters. Eighty-five percent of DISD students live in poverty. City leaders should ensure that these students and their families have access to nutrition and medical care. Healthy children are better prepared to learn than children who suffer from preventable illnesses. Every pregnant woman should receive good prenatal care; those who don’t are apt to have low-birth-weight babies, who are at risk of learning disabilities.
The achievement gap begins long before children enter school. Schools and community groups must collaborate to provide excellent early-childhood education for every child, not just daycare. When children regularly engage in healthy play and interact with educated adults, their vocabulary and their social skills increase. Parent education is important, too, so that parents learn how they can provide positive support for their child’s development.
None of this is cost-free. But none of it is beyond the reach of Dallas, which is rich with ideas, rich with entrepreneurs and rich with philanthropists.
As Dallas seeks a new superintendent, I have this advice: Find an experienced educator, someone who was a master teacher and then a highly successful principal. Don’t recruit a corporate leader who knows nothing about teaching and learning. Find a man or woman who knows how children learn, who knows how to encourage teachers and principals, who knows how to reach out to all parts of the community and bring them together to support Dallas’ children. Above all, look for someone who has a compelling vision of what a great education is and the energy to make it happen for all the children.
Diane Ravitch is the author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Her website is www.dianeravitch.com.