Saturday, April 14, 2012

Changing School Culture: Three Steps

Three steps to make monumental changes within the school culture have been in process for years within Dallas ISD. The progress is painfully slow, but happening. The three steps are transparency, parental involvement, and a move toward a more developmentally appropriate grade configuration by closing middle schools.   All three steps are in process to some extent but need much more attention and research.

1) Transparency

The old cowboy insult of “all hat and no cattle” is an all too accurate description of educational history in Texas. Twelve years ago such reporting became so bold that Houston actually claimed "zero dropout rates."  The reality was that far less than 50% of any 9th grade enrollment were receiving diplomas within 4 years.  The dropout rate was very far from zero, thus "no cattle!"

Fortunately many school districts are slowly moving away from such “all hat and no cattle” claims, but TEA recently made some of the boldest "all hat and no cattle" claims in the history of school accountability in Texas.  TEA claimed graduation rates that amounted to placing Texas among the group of states having the 4th higest graduation rates in the nation!  Fortunately business leaders in Texas, as well as academic leaders, were both vigilant and publically challenged these unrealistic graduation rates.

In spite of what TEA is trying to do, absolute transparency, exposing exactly what is happening in our schools, especially when it is painful, is slowly being understood as the best alternative. Texas has led the way with the raw data about our schools and our students being placed online and annually updated at  Almost all the reports posted in this blog come from that web site. With more such transparency Dallas is making more very real progress than at any time in the past 20 years! 

Admitting and sharing the painful truths in our public schools is the only way to have a strong foundation for progress.

The most accurate, easy to audit measurements for a credible transparency are the number of students who enroll each year in each grade, combined with the number who graduate annually, and how many of those annual graduates are ready for college. Simple spreadsheets for each school and school district should include enrollment by grade and year, covering 10 years or more of such annual enrollments.  Each years numbers should include graduation numbers and percentages of those graduates who are college ready.  It would quickly show if progress is happening. 

Finally, such a TEA spreadsheet for all of Texas would be a powerful summary of what is happening in Texas education over time.

The Internet allows the accumulation and availablity of such data to explode. Dallas ISD is constantly taking advantage of that availability with results that are improving, and constantly need to improve. DISD does not yet have such a multi-year spreadsheet online and in a prominent place on the DISD web site.  Such a spreadsheet could look like the chart at the end of the post at

Such a prominent spreadsheet on the DISD web site would make Dallas a national leader in educational transparency. No other major US City has such longitudinal, multi-year, transparency. DallasISD can lead the way!

Such a lack of more complete transparency also hides good news.

Significantly positive changes within DISD started 6 years ago, but received no publicity. Those positive changes happened when the 9th grade bubble began to disappear. The 9th grade bubble is caused when the 9th grade is larger than the 8th grade the year before. That is caused by large numbers of 9th grade students failing and repeating the 9th grade. Too many middle school students were not prepared for the 9th grade. As they fail the 9th grade enrollment grows due to students taking the 9th grade two or more times.

From 1996 through 2006 the average 9th grade enrollment in Dallas ISD was 33% larger than the 8th grade enrollment due to such failures. For the decade between 1996/1997 to 2005/2006 the average 8th grade enrollment was just over 11,025, and the average 9th grade enrollment was 14,727. That 33% 9th grade bubble began to disappear in 2006.  It is now only a 9.27% bubble for the current 2011/2012 9th grade class!

The 9th grade shrinking means more students are passing on to the 10th grade. In spite in the fact that DISD is now has the smallest enrollment it has had in over 15 years, it now has the largest 10th, 11th and 12th grade enrollments in over 15 years!! Fewer students are dropping out in the 9th grade! (See enrollment by grade numbers going back to 1996/97 at

Good things are happening in DISD. These DISD cultural changes must continue!  They must be known! More complete transparency will expose all sides of DISD, the good and the bad.

2) Parental Involvement!

Parental involvement is the foundation for any cultural change within DISD. A project that has evolved to center on parents was started several years ago in one Dallas ISD middle school. This School Archive Project started as a focus by students on their own futures in letters they write to themselves for a time-capsule. Then in 2009 the most critical component was added: letters by parents to their child about their own dreams for their child. It is reinforcing parental involvement as never before.

Now entering middle school students start the year receiving a letter from their parents about their parental dreams for them in life. Yes, those dreams include education. These new students bring these letters to their Language Arts Class. They spend a week writing a letter to themselves about their own history and goals for themselves in middle school. Then both letters are placed into a self-addressed envelope and into the 500-pound vault bolted to the floor in the school lobby.

This vault is in a prominent place and under spotlights. Students pass it several times a day. At times they may be reminded of what their parent's letter says that is inside the vault. Imagine the conversations that the writing of these letters may have provoked between parent and child. This helps to make such priceless, private conversations more common. It documents them and saves them for history.

The last month of middle school this almost three year old letter is returned to students and to their parents. Everyone sees how things have changed since these letters were written. Parents and students write new letters, this time looking 10-years into the future. This time the letters are placed into the vault for the next decade. Photos are made on the day the letters are placed into the vault. Students and parents receive copies of those photos with details on the back for the 10-year class reunion. Everyone is reminded that at that 10-year reunion the returning students will be asked to speak with decade younger students in the school about their recommendations for success. They are warned to prepare for questions such as "What would you do differently if you were 13 again?"

This School Archive Project started in 2005. The graduation rate for Sunset High School, Class of 2006, was below 33%. Sunset received most of these students. Their graduation rate slowly started to rise due to this project, and many other positive changes in the high school including a dynamic principal. In 2009 they installed their own vault at Sunset, and that same year the other middle school feeding into Sunset installed their own vault. The graduation rate for the Class of 2011 was 62%. It is expected to be near 66% for the Class of 2012. It will probably be 70% or better for the Class of 2013. No other high school in Dallas has improved even half as many percentage points over the same period as Sunset!

The many changes at Sunset made a very real difference. But Sunset is the only high school that has almost all incoming students already exposed to the School Archive Project before they arrive, and ready to do it again. That difference may be what has helped to make Sunset the most improved graduation rate high school in all of DISD for the past decade.

Sunset High School Progress in Dallas ISD
Right-click on above image to enlarge and/or print.
It is the power of personal letters focused on history and the future, placed in a secure location of respect usually reserved for diamonds, gold, and money. It's a message about the value of history, the passage of time, hard work, and planning for the future.  See .

The value of the mentoring component is yet to be realized when the 10-year reunions start in November of 2014. The reunions will add to the cultural change. They may evolve into the largest single contributor to an ongoing, educationally focused, cultural change. The message former students bring back to decade younger students may become the most priceless factor in the improvement of our schools.

What would you do differently if you were 13 again?

This project starts with parents documenting their dreams for their children. This then helps their children, our students, to then focus on a more realistic future in a way that is easier to embrace, and change as needed. Such conversations need to be more common by parents and children.

3) Developmentally Appropriate Grade Configuration: change to k-8 schools
(Yes, close all middle schools!)

Debates over grade configurations surrounding middle school have gone on for as long as middle schools have existed. Research has now pushed that issue well beyond the debate stage.

A July 2011 Harvard University study has emphasized the urgency of an improvement for our public schools that parents need to study. This detailed and extensive research concluded (page 23): "Taken as a whole, these results suggest that structural school transitions lower student achievement but that middle schools in particular have adverse consequences for American students." If parents agree, they must demand changes in grade configuration, especially here in Dallas due to the publicly acknowledged issues with our DISD middle schools.

The Harvard study showed that in virtually all subjects the scores on standardized test were lower in middle schools than in K-8 elementary schools. Parents and teachers familiar with both settings will rarely be surprised by these findings.

This past November a powerful editorial was published by CNN giving a simple message: "By all accounts, middle schools are a weak link in the chain of public education."

The K-8 response to this "weak link" is gaining momentum. The number of  K-8 schools has almost doubled in the US since 2000 as over 1,000 middle schools have disappeared, or been re-purposed as K-8. Google news for K-8 and middle school.  You will find reports of school districts closing middle schools and changing them to K-8 elementary schools with very few exceptions. The reason is as simple as the statement a decade ago by William Moloney, then the Education Commissioner of Colorado: "K-8s are the place where everybody knows your name."

What better place to endure the uncertainties of puberty? Instead DISD is now forcing students entering the changes of puberty to move to a strange school with hundreds of other students from other schools also struggling to regain their self image as they change. It is no wonder that we have behavioral issues! Student performance then falls in DISD middle schools.

This past April the National Middle School Association changed it's name to the Association for Middle Level Education. They saw middle schools being closed in the US, and realized such separate institutions do not exist in the highest achieving school systems in the world, such as Finland. In such countries the elimination of the middle school transfer trauma appears to help in far exceeding US academic achievement while at the same time investing significantly fewer classroom hours. The name change reflected a more authentic focus on educating students ages 10 to 15. Will Texas public schools see what is happening? (See more links to articles on this issue here.)

Parents can study these factors and be the driving force behind helping DISD to slowly move to k-8 schools systemwide That process has already happened in one school, Rosemont Elementary in DISD, which is leading the way. Parents studied the issues and demanded the change. More schools will follow as quickly as parents can study the issues and continue to demand the change.

Such change will also strengthen PTA memberships as parents will be with the same PTA for three more years. There will be more of an investment in each k-8 school. They must be the best schools for the sake of the neighborhood!

As to costs for these three changes, only the last one for a movement to k-8 configurations would involve any signficant costs due to potential building modifications.  This process could go slowly, as quickly as parental groups form and request such changes.  It could be worked into the normal building budget for DISD. Also, since Dallas County has seen a constant drop in birth numbers since 2007 there may not be the normal pressure for building new schools.  Such k-8 transitions could happen more easily.

These three ongoing changes within Dallas ISD, if accelerated and reinforced, will create an urban public school system that truly becomes a national model.  Someday DISD will receive that evasive Broad Prize for Urban Education that everyone was working for 5 years ago.