See George Educate

A Texas journalist gives George W. Bush his due

A growing body of academic research argues that whenever you do what Texas has done -- offer cash rewards to educators who can get their kids' test scores up, and slap penalties on those whose scores go down -- you get dumbing-down and test cheating.

Indeed, people can be very naughty.

But there are many other measures -- the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, for example -- that ought to be independent of whatever system of incentives may be in place in Texas, and those results tend to show real and substantial outcomes in the state.

According to a 1998 study issued by National Education Goals Panel, Texas and North Carolina have shown the greatest improvement of all states on all of the national tests taken together.

And anyway, the real debate on this issue is driven by much deeper causes and attitudes than quibbles over testing techniques. In Dallas, where I live, the school district is still in federal court fighting a desegregation order from the early 1960s. On any given Wednesday evening, the school board looks like a black-and-white newsreel scene from Little Rock in 1958. Last year San Francisco bequeathed to us its superintendent, Waldemar Rojas; we're wondering if our next present from the Bay Area will be smallpox blankets.

Dallas has spent $20 million in state and federal subsidies and private grants in the last two years trying to improve its abominable record in teaching children how to read in the critical first three grades. A recently released report revealed the Dallas "reading plan" to be a complete, unequivocal failure. More than half of third graders are sent on to the fourth grade unable to read -- the same rate as before the $20 million was disbursed.

This is in the wake of a National Academy of Sciences report two years ago that said two things: 1) The right combination of instructional techniques and discipline can produce very high reading results, even in the poorest schools, and 2) If you don't get those results, and kids still can't read by the end of the third grade, they're screwed. They will never make it up. They will never know what's going on in class. As soon as they can, they will drop out in droves.

The Dallas Independent School District delivers 7,000 children a year to just such a fate.

What the Texas reforms are saying to cities like Dallas -- especially the Bush part of the reforms, especially in the last two years -- is direct: "Get it together. Teach those children. Get the little ones reading on national grade-level by the end of the first grade. Or else."

Bush is now championing what could be the most revolutionary reform yet -- the end of "social promotion" by 2003. That means school districts like Dallas -- districts that for years have passed kids up the grade ladder and out the door, regardless of whether they had acquired even rudimentary skills -- won't be able to ignore their failures any longer. For once, the districts will be screwed, instead of the children. If their kids don't make passing grades on the TAAS reading test at the end of the third grade, the districts will have to try, try again.

Inside Bush's insistence that public schools teach children to read and do arithmetic, there is a core moral assertion -- that all kids can read and do arithmetic, and that there is no excuse for not getting them there. The sight before my very eyes in Dallas is of 7,000 children per year condemned to lives of half-literacy and second-class economic citizenship by a school district that's always got an excuse.

I'm afraid that may make Bush right. And I really hate that.

Jim Schutze is a columnist for theDallas Observer.

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