The Miseducation of Dallas County: Test Scores and Trampolines
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Let’s just get the bad news out of the way right off the bat.
Derek Little: So, the results, kinder, first, and second grade we do see again a year-over-year drop from last year to this year. These are not the same kids, these are different kids, but obviously we wanna see the trend moving upwards.
This is Dallas Independent School District Assistant Superintendent of Early Learning Derek Little, stating the obvious. And the trend he’s describing is year-end iStation test results, an assessment that’s meant to track grade-level readiness in reading, writing, and math.
Now, this trend is not what many would consider to be statistically significant. The difference across each grade level is within five percent. Second grade, in particular, saw only eight fewer students ready for the next level.(1) Still, any child’s life is more significant than a statistic. So what happened?
Derek: We made some direct program changes last school year which are factors in the data. We also continue to see enrollment impacts to the data, and we’re gonna share something which is gonna be new to all of us which is teacher mobility data in kinder, first, and second grade, which is having an impact here as well.
And much like I’ll try to do over the next half hour, this data tells a pretty clear story.
Derek: There’s typically about half of our teachers in first grade this year, according to this data, would not be teaching first grade in the district the next year. We see a really high mobility rate of our teachers when we compare whether they stay within the same grade level year over year. I’ve shared class data with you that show teachers that were in the pre-K classroom for two years had higher class scores than pre-K teachers who were in the classroom one year, which was the first indication that this may matter, but this is the first time we’ve really been able to dig in and look at this mobility data by grade level.
The irony of these findings is that often this teacher mobility can be traced to a preoccupation with testing. Teachers that are identified as effective quickly get moved up to 3rd grade, where the state administered STAAR tests begin. But it proves to be a shortsighted strategy when even one year of experience in Kindergarten accounted for a nine percent difference in iStation scores, which means a greater readiness for the primary grades.(2)
Derek: So what does this mean moving forward?
Great question, Derek. For Commit, identifying best practices and spreading what works are two key elements of our mission. In other words, I’m not here to criticize the incredibly difficult work that Assistant Superintendent Little and his colleagues do.
That’s why we’re getting the bad news out of the way first. You just have to go a few minutes further into this same board briefing to catch a glimpse of something to be truly excited about.
Derek: What we’re also seeing, however, year-over-year, is the places where we have strict adherence to the early learning model, we’re actually seeing year-over-year improvements in Kindergarten readiness.
And nowhere is that improvement greater than at N.W. Harllee Early Education Center in the historic Tenth Street neighborhood of Oak Cliff. From last year to this one, the number of students considered Kindergarten ready at the end of the pre-K program increased by 14 percent. That is statistically significant. It’s also 23 kids. (3) Which is why the school was a popular topic of conversation around the DISD Board of Trustees.
Chief Academic Officer Yvonne Durant: Harllee
School Board Trustee Audrey: Harllee
School Board Trustee Joyce: Harllee… what makes it so special?
Another excellent question, this time from school board trustee Joyce Foreman. What is so special about this school? Certainly there’s a great data set out there somewhere that I can spend the rest of this episode explaining…
Principal Brown: We have trampolines in the hallway if anybody feels busy or needs to bounce or do anything like that in the classroom, just come out and bounce, burn some energy out, and then come back in.
Then again, maybe this is about more than just test scores. I’m Joshua Kumler, and this is the Miseducation of Dallas County, powered by Commit.
This is the Miseducation of Dallas County.
“I’m at a place for such a time as this, and so whatever that place is that’s why I’m there.”
This is Onjaleke Brown, principal of N.W. Harllee.
I always knew I was going to teach. At three. If you asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I was gonna teach. I would line my dolls up in my room and get textbooks or books and read and try and show them. And, all the way through, if you get my high school yearbook from Kimball, my paragraph is about “I’m gonna change the world, I’m gonna teach.”
She studied education at the University of Texas, and then came back to the school district she was raised in to teach third grade at the Paul Dunbar Learning Center.
Never anticipated coming into this principal chair, always wanting to do the education side. But right around that time, an interesting thing started happening with the principalship. It started shifting from paperwork and bureaucracy and discipline to more instruction. And so I started saying “wait a minute, I might kinda like to do that.”
So she took an opportunity offered to her by the school district to intern as an assistant principal while completing a master’s program… even though she already had one graduate degree under her belt. For Principal Brown, the term “lifelong learner” is an understatement. And her eventual assignment was yet another chance to grow.
When it got time for my assistant principalship to come, they put me in middle school! I was like, “uh, middle what?” I haven’t been in middle school since I was in middle school! I don’t know anything about middle school. But it was the first year that the district was transitioning sixth graders to middle school. And so they said they needed somebody with elementary background to help, because the sixth graders were running the middle school. The eighth graders were like “get these little things away from me!” And all the middle school teachers didn’t know what to do, they were just like “we need somebody with an elementary background to come and help!”
AP Brown spent a few years getting the sixth graders in check, and then spent one year as the senior class administrator at Sunset High School, at the time the second largest school in the district. But all these experiences only reinforced her desire to return to early learning.
I’d seen the holes and the gaps from middle and high school and so I began to wanna make my transition back down and so after that year I went into my official principalship.
This school I’d been following the reopening of it, that it closed down and then it was gonna reopen as an early childhood center and I remember reading the paper and I said “That’s my job, that’s a dream job for me, I love that.”
It was a dream job not only because of her passion for early childhood education. It also happened to be the same school her mother was principal of years ago.
A lot of my college time, a lot the classes you had to observe teaching and learning, I observed right here in this building. And so when the opportunity arose to be able to come and lead and create a vision from scratch, I jumped at it. To shape something, I mean it’s any principal’s dream job to be able to shape it from the beginning and shape it from the start. And that’s how I ended up here at Harllee.
So what did Principal Brown do with her newfound freedom to shape a school from scratch?
As it turns out, she allowed it to shape her.
We had a lot of misconceptions about early learning and early childhood that we weren’t willing to let go. We knew these things were tried and true and we were master’s at this, I had a master’s degree in reading, and I just knew everything, and we got in here and we had to pump the brakes. And kind of the evolution of the vision started with our psychologist, her name is Veva Lane.
Veva: So this is actually my forty second year in public mental health in Dallas County.
This is Veva Lane.
Veva: And I’m a licensed specialist in school psychology with the department of psychological and social services with Dallas ISD.
Principal Brown: And she started going into the classrooms and visiting in there, and I started seeing kids breathing. And I was like “what are these kids doing, we got work to do, why are y’all breathing, we don’t have time for that, no one has time for that!” And so I started listening to her a little more. And she started telling me about the brain.
Veva: If you tuck in your thumb into your palm and close your fingers over it and put your two hands together, that mass is about the size of your brain.
Feel free to try this at home if you’re more a kinesthetic than an auditory learner.
I add the brain stem to it,
which has two responses, a sympathetic response where it speeds up your heart and your breathing to prepare you to fight, run away, or freeze; and a parasympathetic system, that calms the body and calms the physiological responses. Deep in the middle of the brain are two important players: amygdala,
the brain’s security guard, because it’s directing the traffic in the brain up to the thinking mind or down to the brain’s parasympathetic or sympathetic, depending on whether it perceives that it is safe and loved. Right next to it, the brain’s hippocampus
The other thumb.
tends to remember all that. And then of course it’s all covered up with the cortex.
Your other fingers.
The prefrontal cortex is what we think is responsible for most of our thinking. So, when something frightens us, our thinking mind is knocked offline because our amygdala is pouring the neurotransmitters of stress (cortisol, adrenaline, glucocorticoids) to the sympathetic system saying “Run for your life! Fight the beast!” or “Freeze and hope they don’t see you.” And the prefrontal cortex is offline by some measurements for about a minute and a half. But breathing deep into the belly is what calms that prefrontal cortex down and the amygdala and the whole brain, and then you can start thinking again. So, you know, if we’re feeling a lot of emotion, we’re not thinking.
PB: So, I said, ah, okay, so when a child is crawling under the table, me yelling “get out from under the table,” is not the best solution, because they’re not really paying me too much attention. Really understanding that I can’t get to the content until I’ve captured that heart.
Veva: We all come to life every morning with am I safe, am I loved, (in school we can call it respect) what can I learn? So the reverse of that is if I’m not feeling safe, and I’m not feeling respected, I am so stirred up inside that I can’t learn.
PB: And I sat in there and shifted everything. And really wanted to come out and apologize to some of my former students. I was like “this is amazing!” And so we kind of started shifting our thinking and realizing that the word “discipline” comes from the same word as “teach,” and so that’s what discipline is, it means to teach, it’s not to punish. And so it is our role and responsibility to teach those things.
Veva: There is an enormous amount of research out there on mindfulness practices specifically breathing and what it benefits. I mean, who knew that we carried on board such a powerful resource to calm our mind, when we’re mad or sad or scared.
PB: We didn’t have referrals. We didn’t have suspensions. We still had, you know, kids being kids, but they were being kids. And I started saying she might be onto something.
Veva: I have to say principal Brown has taken it and run with it. She has gotten more training for her staff, more resources, to get everybody on board with children knowing that they can help themselves, and they do have agency, and the ability to be amazed by their own learning.
PB: What we notice, our kids outperform the district. I believe our reading was at 86 percent of them were at the 40th percentile in Terranova. So we’re on to something right. When you go in rooms, is it the kid’s room or is it the teacher’s room? I wanna go in and I want it to be the kid’s room. So you’re not gonna find teacher desks, but just this kind of flexible area that allows learning to take place and we allow the kids to kind of guide and lead the direction that we wanna go.
Classroom sounds fade up
Teacher: They just wanted to ask you a quick question.
Principal Brown: Okay, sure!
Kids: Can we go to the aquarium?
Principal Brown: You guys wanna go visit the aquarium?
Principal Brown: Okay, Ms. Brown is going to find funds so that we can- the downtown aquarium, Miss Mason?
Miss Mason: We were talking about Dallas and some of the things you can see in Dallas…
Principal Brown: Okay, we’re gonna figure out how to get to the aquarium, okay guys?
Josh: I’ll help out. We’ll make it happen.
Principal Brown: We’re gonna figure out how to get there.
Kid: And who’s that?
It’s me again. I got the amazing opportunity to tour the school alongside Principal Brown to really see this thinking in action. And get an important lesson in hallway etiquette.
Teacher: Oh, Savannah’s telling you…
Pricipal Brown: Supposed to be quiet in the hallway Josh.
So yeah, if I had any question about these kids ability to self-regulate, it was promptly shushed. But well-behaved children and the occasional trampoline aren’t the only things you’ll find in Harllee’s hallways. Outside of each classroom, you’ll find rows of data binders, one for each student.
We start at the beginning of the year. That’s little Amahri. And so she only knew five letters at the start of school. Now she’s got twenty-six of her uppercase and twenty three at her last progress monitoring. So, you know, there’s learning and teaching taking place through the play, through the fun, we still do all of those things, but we track it. So you see by October, she’d gotten to there.
What had once simply been an A and some circles was now a beautiful, handwritten name: Amahri. And that’s just September to October.
All through the year, we’re tracking this kind of data. We’re looking to see how the kids are doing and watching it. So yeah, it is playing, but it truly is the learning through play because we’re getting that data.
Having that data helps Principal Brown lead her students and staff to the best of her ability. But, then again, so does having a sense of humor.
Principal Brown: I know you’re eating, don’t worry about us.
Principal Brown: This is her lunch.
Josh: She’s gotta eat somewhere.
Principal Brown: No, they don’t get to eat here! No! No! No! No eating! No fun!
First grade teacher Elizabeth Pizzurro didn’t seem phased. I still felt terrible. Luckily she was still willing to talk to me.
Ms. Pizzurro: I would say social and emotion is huge here. Last year, my class didn’t get along, no cooperation, arguing, tattle-taling. Here you really don’t have that, at all. This class is just kind of running on autopilot right now. And it’s because of them. They know exactly what to do, if they get upset they know to breathe, how to stay calm. We do a settle your glitter curriculum that’s really helping, so it’s a lot different.
Josh: No kidding. And I think there’s naturally a fear of removing discipline measures as tools at your disposal to deal with these things.
(Knowing laughter from Principal Brown)
Ms. Pizzurro: I mean, a little yeah. No, I was very big on a behavior chart. And so when I came here, it’s like “You can’t,” and I’m like “what? How do they know they’re in trouble then? Like what do you-” They’re like “no, you don’t do behavior charts.” And I actually haven’t used one at all this year. And you don’t need to. You really don’t. So I’m a believer now.
Principal Brown: You’re a believer?
Ms. Pizzurro: …almost a believer.
Principal Brown: We’re gonna wait on her first round of ACP’s, when her first round of ACP’s come in that’s when she’ll really start being a believer.
An ACP is an Assessment of Course Performance. It’s the standardized test for each grade level in the school. Most principals aren’t so cheery when discussing the biggest means by which their school is studied. But then again, Principal Brown is not most principals.
And they were. They were more ready, in fact, than any other school in their feeder pattern, and had the test scores to show for it.
I’ve had to learn, and trust the teachers. And the teachers that are new here have had to learn and evolve and trust the kids. And so it’s been a very interesting process of growing. The teachers call this the rehabilitation center. For them. Because they have to shed so much of things that they thought were best practices to work here. And so it’s been a very interesting process even for my new teachers.
It was an even more difficult process convincing one of her most experienced colleagues to start implementing these new strategies: her mother, the former principal of the same school.
Because remember my mama’s old school. Quite literally the old school. There was an article that came out in the paper, it was called “This Principal Is Not Normal” about me, and so when she read it she was like “yeah, great article, but, uh, it makes it seem like you don’t have any structure, the way they say the kids walk in the halls,” and I said “Mama, you know I have structure at the school.” And she said “Yeah, I know but the way it reads, it reads no structure.” But this fall, she’s been work at one of the IR campuses in the intensive support network, helping them out. And she came by, and she was like “hey hey hey, I had this first grader, and he was totally out of control. And so then I told him to, you know, do that, you know, that thing you showed me, I couldn’t do it right, but we just had our arms there like this and I told him to breathe and breathe, and do you know what?” And I just knew she was gonna say it didn’t work, and I was like, “Oh my god, she’ll never listen to me again.” And she said “It worked.” And she was so excited because it actually worked and she actually got him calm. But the sad part was, when she took him back to the room, the teacher didn’t want him back. Because no consequence had happened.
It’s the same sort of misconception Principal Brown once held herself. But luckily for us, she wants to spread her newfound awareness beyond just her immediate family. And the community that brought Harllee back from obsolescence had just that sort of education in mind.
The interesting thing was the community members who wanted to build a school built it to be a demonstration center. And so, we really believed in that and were like, “We gotta demonstrate the best practices, we gotta demonstrate what the district is doing, we gotta demonstrate the district’s early learning model with fidelity so that other people can see that it can work.”
It’s probably the most exciting aspect of this amazing school’s story: It doesn’t end with this handful of classes. Principal Brown and her teachers are spreading the good news, and their message is clear: You want great test scores? Great. Stop teaching to the test. Start breathing. See what happens.
The assessment is kind of your show off piece, it’s your showcase. So if you’re a musician, you have your recital that’s at the end, and that’s what the assessment is, it’s the recital for all the hard work and preparation that you’ve done up until that point. But the problem is, we’ve made the recital into the preparation and the hard work. So we’re like “everything we do has to look that way, all our questions in class have to use the question stems,” instead of letting that be the showcase.
But even that wasn’t as surprising to me as what I learned next: This revolutionary approach that Principal Brown had discovered, was actually neither revolutionary nor a discovery. In fact, it’s almost exactly as old as she is. Which is not that old, of course. I mean, it’s not old at all, I just- look, my point is Principal Brown used to be a DISD pre-schooler herself, at the first early education center the district ever created. And she had some very similar experiences.
I remember center time, I remember rest time, I remember that whole bit. And so, to me, this does remind me a lot of my hands-on experience. Now we didn’t computers or technology, but I remember really wanting to go to the water center, or the different centers during that day. And the seasoned early childhood educators of Dallas have come through the new Harllee and have been so ecstatic because they a see a return to a passion for early learning that we hadn’t seen for a little while. That’s the sad part, not a lot of remember it, or know it.
So what happened?
Principal Brown cites the onset of testing as what shifted our focus away from the social and emotional health of our early learners. Which is ironic, considering that’s exactly what has allowed her students to do so well on their own assessments.
History is cyclical, and pedagogy reflects its era. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the desire for measurable data that drove the standardized testing epoch we find ourselves fitfully growing out of. Commit can tell you all about just how helpful test scores can be. But the lesson of Harllee is that there are ways of collecting that data that are still developmentally appropriate. Let them draw in their binders. Allow for a handwritten name to emerge. It will come quicker than you think. And if it all feels foreign to you, rest assured it takes time. But keep in mind, we’ve been here before.
Norman W. Harllee: I came here not to speak of the past nor yet the future, but of the living present,
Norman W. Harllee was born in 1852 in Robeson County, North Carolina.
not what we have been,
He was born a slave,
nor what we shall be,
to a Methodist preacher passionate about educating his fellow plantation workers.
The present concerns us.
He taught himself to read and write and eventually put himself through school at Biddle University. (4)
It’s conditions confront us. (5)
In 1885, he came to Dallas to teach, and began an impressively active civic life. He was one of the first teachers hired for Colored Ward School No. 2, and when the Colored High School opened seven years later, he was the obvious choice for the principalship. (6) He was the first person to have a Dallas school named for them while still living. He was also on the board of the Freedman’s Hospital, (7) a writer for the Dallas Express, and the chair of the “Colored Department” at the Texas State Fair (the only thing that got him any press in the white newspapers). (8)
But most importantly for our story, N.W. Harllee was passionate about instructing his fellow teachers. He served as president and secretary for the Teachers State Association of Texas, and for decades, lead a “Colored Teacher’s Normal” in different major cities across the state. (9) Effectively, it was summer school for educators seeking to normalize their instruction to that of research-based best practices. And looking at the topics of Harllee’s talks, their not all that different from the ones we’re talking about today.
One of his speeches was called “Co-Relation in Teaching,” (10) and an outline that appeared in the Morning News describes it as arguing that “primary methods must be based upon the psychology of the child; condition of child upon entering school; and physical and bodily growth.” (11) Sound familiar?
Unfortunately, this speech, along with the many other lectures, curricula, and textbooks that N.W. Harllee developed, no longer exists. But we do have his articles for the Dallas Express, many of which are spent lavishing praise upon the teachers who work at his school. And by piecing together parts of these writings, we can get a sense of his educational philosophy, and how it still reverberates through the halls of his namesake school.
Today, there are those who have been thrown prone and supine by the faults of the times through which they have passed, through the house of bondage, through that other house of prolix slavery, the house of stern necessity, more implacable, if possible, than chattel servitude. But the hour has struck, the day has come, bringing new duties, new responsibilities, all of which are to demand our attention. (12)
Education is of the first prerequisites that must count in the final analysis of any people. No amount of legislation can make me stand the test if we fail to educate. The schoolhouse is the greatest legislature in which we are to legislate against ignorance, against dishonesty. Then let us educate the head, heart, and hand. The day for more superficial training has passed, for the community wants the best. (13)
What education is of most value? Does it pay to prepare along special lines? Shall we have trained teachers or persons teaching til they secure something better? Shall a woman teach till she finds a husband, or shall she teach because her soul and mind are in the work and in the direction of the children entrusted to her care? Who is a teacher, and how do we know a teacher, and who is able to tell? (14) Is it the quiet person who gets results in the methods of teaching, or is it the fussy and loud teacher clamoring for order and there is no order? What is teaching anyway? Is a teacher an artist or a scientist? (15) The answer is, it is owing to who is doing the teaching. There is a difference in hearing recitations, and that of real teaching. (16) It pays to take time and prepare for the stern duties of life. A thing worth doing at all is worth doing well. (17)
When we consider those who are building up society, we are called to consider the efforts put forth in the education of their children, and the sacrifice they are making to accomplish that purpose. The work performed in this line of art is praiseworthy. We would call it heart power, (18) expressed in a deep knowledge of recognized principles, psychological principles along the line of research and as evinced through years of experience in teaching. (19)
There is nothing new under the sun. New forms are not new creations, but new methods or methods made over, in which we pride ourselves the wisest and the highest cultured people that ever lived, when the prevailing facts are that we, the people of modern times, are just beginning to learn how to live, with many things to unlearn and to undo, while many things once known are perhaps forgotten. Love is not new. (20) Gentle means will succeed where force will not. Do right though the heavens fall. We gain power by doing right. (21) Kindness, if rightly applied, is the ruling principle in childhood and in old age. Try it, if you have not. (22)
My heart over flows for the genial love for all children regardless of race, and wherever I see a bevy of young children at play and full of sunshine and mirth, there my heart is also. (23)
Acknowledgments and Footnotes
The Miseducation of Dallas County is powered by the Commit Partnership and produced by Joshua Kumler. It is executive produced by John Kumler, John Hill and Rob Shearer. N.W. Harllee text read by John Hill. Mixed and mastered by Will Short. Music by Trevor Yokochi. Web and digital support by Kathryn Mikeska. Special thanks to Principal Brown and everyone at N.W. Harllee, as well as Veva Lane and everyone at the DISD department of psychological and social services. Thanks also to Swagit, the streaming video service on which you, too, can watch and download DISD School Board meeting footage. They’ll even answer and respond to support calls, which is why they’re getting this shout out. We’re also taking a cue from Mr. Harllee and using the blog on our site to highlight the amazing work of educators across the county, so be sure to check that out once you’re there. This podcast is dedicated to educators everywhere. The future is in your hands. We’ll be back next month with more Miseducation.
Oh, and if you want to help Miss Mason’s class get to the Dallas Aquarium, you can call the school at 972-925-6500 to set up a donation. Happy holidays, everyone.
(1) “Progress Monitoring | Student Outcome Goal 2 | December 2017” Board Docs, Dallas Independent School District, https://www.boarddocs.com/tx/d... ,P. 6
(2) Ibid. Pg. 11
(3) Ibid. Pg. 12
(4) Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “Prof. N. W. Harllee [verso].” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1902. http://digitalcollections.nypl...
(5) Dallas Morning News. (Dallas) 20 June 1901
(6) Schiebel, Walter J. E. Education in Dallas.
(7) Dallas Morning News. (Dallas) 2 August 1903.
(8) Dallas Morning News. (Dallas) 24 October 1897
(9) Dallas Morning News. (Dallas) 23 February 1902
(10) Dallas Morning News. (Dallas) 27 June 1901
(11) Dallas Morning News. (Dallas) 2 July 1901
(12) Dallas Express. (Dallas) 12 July 1919
(13) Dallas Express. (Dallas) 30 August 1919
(14) Dallas Express. (Dallas) 3 May 1919
(15) Dallas Express. (Dallas) 15 March 1919
(16) Dallas Express. (Dallas) 2 April 1921
(17) Dallas Express. (Dallas) 3 May 1919
(18) Dallas Express. (Dallas) 12 April 1919
(19) Dallas Morning News. (Dallas) 19 May 1901
(20) Dallas Express. (Dallas) 10 May 1919
(21) Dallas Express. (Dallas) 11 December 1920
(22) Dallas Express. (Dallas) 17 April 1920
(23) Dallas Express. (Dallas) 12 April 1919
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