School Leadership in Big D

Where exactly is the intersection between effective school district management (particularly on the financial side) and student improvement?  It’s a question that many have been asking for quite some time, particularly in this era of mayoral and state takeovers of school districts.  Usually, these takeovers happen when both the financial and the academic are failing, when community leaders see no choice but to step in and protect both taxpayer dollars and the students are public schools are intended to serve.
And then you have places like Dallas, Texas.  Over the weekend, Dallas’ mayor, Tom Leppert, indicated he is considering a mayoral takeover of Dallas ISD.  Anyone who has watched the financial “challenges” in the district, knows that something different must happen in the Big D.  And those who have watched cities such as New York and Washington, DC cede control of the schools to the mayor can point to the benefit a new outlook, new attention, and, most often, new leadership, can have on a struggling school district.
The full story of the mayor’s intentions can be found in this past Sunday’s Dallas Morning News — <a href="http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/022209dnmetmayordisd.3ebacba.html.
What”>www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/022209dnmetmayordisd.3ebacba.html.
What makes this exploratory takeover so interesting, or at least newsworthy outside of Texas?  Nothing, until the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution released its latest report yesterday.  Lots of great information in the report (particularly the issue of PISA being used as an international benchmark, but I digress), but two important nuggets for us to consider.
First, Dallas ISD ranked second among nearly 40 large-city school districts when it comes to academic gains.  While Dallas still has significant work to do, particularly compared to suburban and rural districts across the state, it is making progress.  To say that Dallas’ improvement efforts are outperforming districts like Miami, New York, and Chicago is saying something.  (Of course, critics would say Dallas was so far behind these other districts to start that they had no option but to outperform other districts, at least in terms of growth.)
Equally important, the Brown Center looked at mayoral takeovers and found the data “inconclusive” when it came mayoral control’s impact on school improvement.  Yes, there are significant benefits to mayoral takeover, including higher per-pupil expenditures, more focused leadership, and a broader “community” helping to lead the schools.  But for every NYC success story, we have the potential of Detroit, where mayoral control didn’t work, and they are now returning to the old model.    
The full story on DISD and the Brown Center is in this morning’s Dallas Morning News — <a href="http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/022509dneduurbanschools.f1d859.html
So”>www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/latestnews/stories/022509dneduurbanschools.f1d859.html
So what do we take from all of this?  First and foremost, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to fixing struggling schools.  Mayoral control can be a benefit, or it can be a burden for city leadership.  It all depends on the personalities involved, the commitment from the city, and the buy-in from teachers and administrators across the district.
Second, it demonstrates how difficult it can be to measure school effectiveness with one ruler.  The Brown Center data shows real gains, though they started from a tough spot.  The state assessment — TAKS — shows a district in need of much help.  The Newsweek rankings of the top high schools put the top secondary school (or one of them) squarely in DISD.  Layer on top of that financial mismanagement and leadership chasms, and you can see why there is a growing drumbeat for a new approach to school leadership.
It’s funny.  When Eduflack was living in Dallas (2005 and 2006), there was a citywide plan for DISD to win the Broad Prize in the coming years.  It was a bold and ambitious plan, bringing the schools and the community together to improve instruction, support teachers, and raise student achievement.  Guess the wheels fell off that bus once I left town.
Regardless, the Dallas education community is facing a serious discussion on the future of their public schools.  Mayoral control may be the answer, but it works better in cities with a strong mayor.  That’s not the Dallas model.  The improvements documented by the Brown Center are good, but they must be sustained and demonstrated over the long term.
As Robert Frost would say, Dallas has many miles to go before it can sleep.  The community is definitely aware of the need for improvement and the challenges before it.  But it takes a strong leader to move that awareness into action.  Is Superintendent Michael Hinojosa up to the challenge?  Is Mayor Leppert?  Only time will tell.  The winner will be whomever can win over the hearts and minds of the teachers, parents, and business community in Big D.  Effective change can only occur when stakeholders are buying into the plan, and so far, neither Hinojosa nor Leppert seem to have fully “sold” their vision to the audiences they need to see it through.  But change is coming …

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