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Richard Whitmire

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Learning From D.C. in Dallas

Posted: 09/26/11 03:34 PM ET

Experts who study urban schools districts that are severely challenged by problems of poverty and non-English-speaking students agree that these districts sort out into roughly four groupings. Let's call them pre-basic, basic, intermediate and advanced.

The good news for Dallas is that it has escaped the lowest category, pre-basic. These districts, such as St. Louis, seem only barely aware of how much damage they are inflicting on students. The bad news for Dallas is that researchers place the district firmly in the basic category. No higher.

At least Dallas, a district that isn't hiding from its problems and is showing signs of progress, such as test scores rising, graduation rates improving, and a focus on teacher quality, has moved beyond pre-basic. In fact, Dallas may be poised to move up. But how?

What kind of superintendent could take the district to the intermediate step, to become a school district on part with Fresno, Austin or Seattle? And then, with enough hard work, on to the advanced level to join the elites such as Long Beach, CA. Aldine, TX -- districts that year after year hit doubles and sometimes triples with schools chock full of high poverty kids.
Most, but not all, of the districts moving up from the lowest category have an inspirational leader, full of you-know-what and vinegar, more than willing to generate controversy. Michelle Rhee is an obvious mention here, as she took the schools in Washington, D.C., from pre-basic to basic and got them lined up for further progress.

Inspirational leaders who moved their districts from mid-level to advanced include Peter Gorman in Charlotte and Jerry Weast in Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools. There are exceptions to the charisma rule, however. James Notter boosted Florida's Broward County Public Schools into the elite top employing more business skills than charisma.

So while charisma might be nice-but-optional, other qualities are mandatory:

-- Hire someone committed to retain the teacher quality focus already underway in Dallas. No question, that's the right priority. Hiring smart, motivated teachers convinced that poverty is not necessarily destiny isn't the only step that matters, but it's a pretty big step. Too many urban districts have evolved into little more than job banks where teachers blame poverty for all academic shortcomings.

-- Don't hire someone for their get-along skills. Rhee made progress only by stiffing the city council. Schools that year after year fail to infuse a learning culture may be incapable of reform, which should trigger reforms ranging from closures to bringing in top charter schools. Those actions roil lots of waters, so don't ask your superintendent to win popularity contests.

-- Hire someone determined to give teachers the tools they need to succeed. Here's where Rhee fell short. While she was right to force out teachers who were never going to cut it, she never got around to giving teachers the kind of curriculum-related supports they need to make sure their students master the standards. Teachers need quick turnaround data tools to know exactly which student failed to master exactly which skills. And they need it stat!

For Dallas, moving from basic to intermediate is possible, but not easy. It will only happen with inspired, persistent and consistent leadership ... which isn't easy to find.
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Richard Whitmire is the author of The Bee Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes On The Nation's Worst School District.

(A version of this commentary appeared in the Dallas Morning News.)