Let’s face it: Realtors fly a school district’s accolades like a flag because good schools drive buyers to neighborhoods. I don’t talk about schools enough here on CandysDirt, partly because there is so much real estate news to cover. And truth be told, my kids, both products of private schools, are grown. I am admittedly biased. But that’s short-sighted, as a reader recently (and rightfully) admonished. For twenty years real estate agents have steered buyers to Park Cities, Plano, Frisco and Southlake because of poor schools in Dallas. Couple weeks ago in Benbrook, the developers and builders were bragging about the Aledo School District as if it were Harvard. This editorial by  Diane Ravitch (pictured above left), author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Research Professor of Education at New York University, an educational historian and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., was in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News (subscription required). She offers Dallas advice in hiring a new superintendent: find someone who first and foremost knows how to TEACH!

“Don’t recruit a corporate leader who knows nothing about teaching and learning. Find a man or woman who knows how children learn, who knows how to encourage teachers and principals, who knows how to reach out to all parts of the community and bring them together to support Dallas’ children. Above all, look for someone who has a compelling vision of what a great education is and the energy to make it happen for all the children.”

Her words are such jewels, I’m tempted to cut and paste. Her point: current national school reform was born in Texas, and likely hatched here in Dallas. The nation is obsessed with results-oriented education — testing testing testing and merit pay, firing the teachers whose students are not getting higher scores. As a parent who flogged myself whenever my child didn’t get a straight A, I understand this. We simply want to put our children in the best possible place so they can get into the best possible college and lead the best possible life.

Test scores! Bah! I am someone who has never tested well, unlike my husband, who is a much more linear thinker. I am a creative soul whose neurons jump ahead of and all over the line; I over analyze answers. So what Ms. Ravitch wrote really hit home to me, and is worth putting on your listening ears to hear:

“During the presidential campaign of 2000, the nation learned about “the Texas miracle.” The achievement gap would close, we were told, by testing and accountability. Test every student every year, and post the results. Public exposure would encourage successful schools and humiliate the low performers into improving. Throw merit pay into the mix to push even bigger gains.

About the same time, the research department at the Dallas Independent School District discovered that children who had three great teachers in a row would see dramatic test-score gains. This is now the battle cry of the national school reform movement, which says schools will get better if we test more, award merit pay for higher scores and fire teachers whose students don’t get higher scores.”

Dallas, says Diane, knew this knew this 20 years ago yet still struggles with “a daunting achievement gap and low (but rising) graduation rates” . I say it like this: 25 years ago I was not impressed enough with the Dallas public schools to send my children to them, and I am still not impressed.

“We now know there was no “Texas miracle,” and yet No Child Left Behind is still the law of the land. Across the nation, schools are being closed and educators fired because they couldn’t meet the law’s utopian goals. Neither Dallas nor any other school district has figured out how to deliver on that claim about “three great teachers in a row.” It turns out to be a wishful slogan, not a policy proposal. And merit pay, wherever it has been tried, has failed.”

Diane says that in order for Dallas schools to improve, social conditions must improve: and that is a hard hand to be dealt. If Dallas wants to see success for its children, it must improve both schools and social conditions. “Eighty-five percent of DISD students live in poverty,” she says; these youngsters need access to nutrition and medical care. Pregnant woman, she says,  should receive good prenatal care lest they deliver malnourished, low-birth-weight babies, at risk of learning disabilities. Do not even get me (wife of obstetrician who believes parents ought to be licensed) started on this! Nutrition and vitamins and zero exposure to smoking and alcohol are vital during pregnancy to give that child the very best brain!

She advises DISD to hire teachers who are well-educated and can work with ESL children and children with disabilities.

Teachers should engage in continuing education, utilizing our city’s vast cultural resources such as the Dallas Institute of Culture and the Humanities, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and soon the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. And then, surprise surprise, it takes a vilage but most vitally, it takes parents:

“But that is not enough. The achievement gap begins long before children enter school. Schools and community groups must collaborate to provide excellent early-childhood education for every child, not just daycare. When children regularly engage in healthy play and interact with educated adults, their vocabulary and their social skills increase. Parent education is important, too, so that parents learn how they can provide positive support for their child’s development.”