Is DISD a better school district than Highland Park?

First, I want to define what a ‘school’ is. It’s the teachers, the principal, the curriculum, the building. Most people see a good ‘school’ as a school with a bunch of high achieving kids. But this is a bit like judging the quality of the food in a restaurant based on who’s eating it. It’s a little like judging the quality of head coach in sports based solely on the players on their team. I could probably coach the Golden State Warriors right now and we’d at least make it to the Western Conference finals (my days riding the basketball bench growing up would at least have me in a familiar spot).

I’m not saying kids in HP are more talented than kids in DISD. But poverty is the single greatest indicator of student achievement at a district level and HP has zero poor kids, literally (0% economically disadvantaged as defined by free & reduced lunch federal government program — the only district in the state like that — whereas DISD is 88% poor (defining ‘poor’):

Poverty has all sorts of implications for kids and their academic achievement. 90% of child’s brain develops before the age of 5, and during those years nutrition, trauma, access to mind stimulating environments (including full day Pre-K) and simply the number of words spoken around them profoundly affect their future achievement:

The “30 million word gap” refers to a research study conducted by psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley. Their study showed that children from lower-income families hear a staggering 30 million fewer words than children from higher-income families by the time they are 4 years old.

In his book ‘How Children Succeed’ Paul Tough tackles issue of poverty and wealth in childhood and their affects on success later in life. He relates something he calls Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) and the allostatic load (fancy term for built up stress in the brain) with success later in life. Lack of stability during childhood — losing family members, parent getting laid off, single parent working all the time, not knowing where your next meal is coming from, constant movement from district to district — lead to this type of stress ‘plaque’ building up in the brain, much like playing football and constantly hitting your head leads to a build up of CTE which affects mental function later in life.

Kids who have this type of childhood often have more trouble controlling impulses impulses, focusing and relaxing — all of which are tied to academic success. As Tough explains:

It wasn’t poverty itself that was compromising the executive function abilities of the poor kids. It was the stress that went along with it.

This is one reason why social emotional curriculum is so incredibly important — something being done here in Dallas at the Momentous Institute (a true leader in this field across the country) and currently being implemented at DISD.

So…how do you compare districts with poverty levels that are so vastly different?

We have to pick similar kids in both districts to figure out how the same kid would do in either situation. HP also has very little diversity. It’s .7% black. Not 7%, but ‘point’ 7% — that’s 7 black kids per 1000 students for those counting at home. And we already saw they have 0% poverty.

So we have to look for white, ‘non-poor’ kids in DISD as comparison points and ask the question:

How do white, non-poor kids do in DISD?

Turns out, they do just about the same as they do in HPISD —there are 17 tests given between 3rd through 8th grade (see end for the charts) and HP scores higher in 9 of them, while DISD outperforms HP in 8 of them.

Given the median household income for the zip codes in HPISD of 75205 and 75225 are $125,269 and $158,418 respectively, while the zip codes where the majority of white students come from in DISD — 75206 and 75214 are $58,943 and $82,876 and you can understand the wealth disparities between the districts, even among the most affluent students. Yet the students perform about the same.

In other words, your same kid could very well do better if you sent them to DISD than to HPISD.

Perception vs. Reality

But this is not the reputation. HPISD is the greatest place in the world. Business Insider voted it the 6th best school district in the entire country last year!

DISD often gets destroyed in the media and panned by the public. It’s an easy target. It’s huge, bureaucratic and often a mess politically. But it must serve thousands of students of many different backgrounds across a giant swath of geographies and incomes. And if you look deeper into the actual statistics, it is on par with basically every other district in our area if not better (again, see bottom charts). They’re doing many great things there. They have an innovative teacher evaluation and payment system, increasing Pre-K enrollment (something HP doesn’t even have to offer because all parents go private), several great magnet schools and the top high school in the country. They are now offering many schools of choice including the idea school for Innovation, Design, and Entrepreneurship Academy and Solar Prep, the new all girls academy.

Solar Prep

Yet people spend millions of dollars on homes to get their kids into the Highland Park school district. The reality of the situation is — if you are a parent who is able to provide a stable environment for your child, they are likely going to do well based on that fact alone.

This isn’t to say that some schools aren’t better than others. But when parents pick schools, they are like baseball executives picking players before the year 2000 — they basically looked at batting average and a player’s physical stature. But with more data and analysis, they’ve found that batting average is actually a really terrible statistic to measure a players’ value. The baseball world is now run on the basis of much deeper analytics in context. How does a batter do in certain situations that can lead to more wins? An entirely new language of statistics and strategy has sprung from this insight.

There is perhaps hope in education to bring about the same thing — a better understanding of which schools are actually performing well. This is not a small undertaking and not an easy political one. It is hard to build a data model which accurately gauges a teacher’s value, for instance. Same with schools overall. But there is a push to make this happen both in the K-12 and college space because an imperfect model (that will be improved with time) is far better than none at all. The new A-F accountability system in Texas for instance, while not perfect, is a much better system for identifying and comparing schools based on socioeconomic factors than the current ‘Improvement Required’ metric. And across the country, researchers are poring over more and more data to find out what’s really working. A recent New York Times article looked at research out of Stanford:

based on some 300 million elementary-school test scores across more than 11,000 school districts, tweaks conventional wisdom in many ways. Some urban and Southern districts are doing better than data typically suggests. Some wealthy ones don’t look that effective. Many poor school systems do. This picture, and Chicago’s place in it, defy how we typically think about wealth and education in America.

But that perception hasn’t shifted to the masses who still largely view a school’s quality based solely on the students within them. From the NYT article:

parents who rely on publicly available test scores to identify what they believe are the best school districts — and so the best places to live…are using the wrong metric.

You shouldn’t be embarrassed to send your kid to DISD and you shouldn’t feel like King Arthur for sending your kid to Highland Park.


Toyota recently moved their headquarters to DFW and apparently went to Plano because of the ‘schools.’ Well DISD beat Plano ISD 14–3 in these same tests.

Amazon is apparently considering creating their HQ2 in Dallas. Likely a large part of this discussion will be about the schools, and a large part of the discussion will center around the lack of quality education in the city of Dallas. And that’s a garbage argument. Look at the data at the bottom of the article and see how DISD compares not only to HP, but other districts like McKinney, Plano, Allen, Frisco, Prosper, Grapevine, Coppell and all the other districts up north where new headquarters are being built. DISD consistently scores better.

My guess is there aren’t going to be many Amazon employees whose children qualify as ‘poor’ and Amazon CEO has stressed the importance of diversity and inclusion in his company philosophy:

“It’s not only that diversity and inclusion are good for our business. It’s more fundamental than that — it’s simply right.” — Jeff Bezos

I hope a data savvy company like Amazon who also holds beliefs of diversity and inclusion don’t succumb to the lazy geographic selection that only exacerbates segregation by race and income which, deepens divides and grows both concentrated poverty and concentrated wealth — both of which have many negative downsides.

Kids growing up in concentrated poverty see fewer examples of adult success and thus lower expectations. Kids with poor parents do better in schools when mixed into schools with more wealthy peers . And kids growing up in concentrated wealth get a warped perception of how the world really works in their bubble.

Amazon is constantly giving me recommendations. I have a recommendation for them. If you come to Dallas, you don’t need to go to the suburbs…don’t judge a book by its cover.

Scores (appendix)

Scores for white, non-economically disadvantaged kids

3rd Grade

4th Grade

5th Grade

6th Grade

7th Grade

8th Grade