As the funds dry up, Dallas ISD campuses benefiting from big investments slide backward

Texas AFT
Texas AFT
Feb 21 · 5 min read

But will new state money for flawed ACE program really make it sustainable?

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(Photo: Louis DeLuca / Houston Chronicle)

As I’ve stated before, the Accelerated Campus Excellence (ACE) initiative pioneered out of Dallas ISD starts with a good premise — pumping a lot of additional money into struggling campuses and the educators serving at them to raise achievement results. Even before you get to some of the more problematic foundations of the program (pay for test scores, which I’ll address below), you’re left with an obvious question: If ACE supposedly produces outstanding results and is heralded as a model for the state, why aren’t we doing the same thing for just about every campus?

Well, the short answer is money — not enough of it. Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said previously and repeatedly that ACE was unsustainable, and he was right. But it took a Houston Chronicle reporter to point out some of the unintended consequences of the unsustainability in: Dallas ISD’s struggling schools made major gains. Then the money went away. Carpenter writes:

After three straight years of remarkable academic growth at Billy Earl Dade Middle School, the long-struggling Dallas ISD campus tumbled back to the bottom of the district in 2018–19.

Dade’s fall came after its principal received a promotion, more than half of its teaching staff left and Dallas leaders pulled money spent on the campus through the district’s school turnaround program, Accelerating Campus Excellence, ACE for short.

….Dade and six other chronically low-rated Dallas schools mostly sparkled during their three years under ACE, with test scores rising and student discipline rates falling. In turn, state lawmakers and education leaders heralded Dallas’ model as evidence that all students from poverty can perform at high levels when taught by strong educators in well-funded schools.

An analysis of academic and staffing data, however, shows the first schools weaned off ACE investments posted mixed results in 2018–19, their first year without the added support…..While three of Dallas’ initial ACE schools maintained relatively strong academic performance, three campuses received D or F grades under the state’s academic accountability system and grappled with significant staff turnover. Dallas invested nearly $1 million per year in some of its first ACE campuses, part of which paid for financial incentives given to high-performing educators.

“New teachers came in, and you didn’t have the same leadership and guidance and discipline that had been set for all those years,” [Dallas Education Advocate Edwin] Turner said. “As a community member, I didn’t like it because I knew if (ACE) became inconsistent, the school had the opportunity to become unstable.”

The Houston Chronicle piece actually followed a Dallas Morning News article from a week prior — Millions more from the state will allow Dallas ISD to give more teacher stipends at needy schools: A landmark Texas school finance bill created a teacher pay allotment that could provide Dallas with $28 million in additional funding for teachers.

The article took a less critical approach, somewhat mirroring that newspapers rabid advocacy for ACE on its editorial pages.

Millions more in state funding will be headed to Dallas ISD next school year, money that the district will funnel to its most effective teachers at its high-need schools.

The district is in the final steps of qualifying for money made available by the state’s landmark school finance bill, House Bill 3. The new source of funding, called the Teacher Incentive Allotment, was created in the last legislative session, encouraging school districts to provide differentiated pay for high-performing teachers in high-poverty and rural areas of Texas.

As one of the few school districts poised to receive funding next year because of its existing teacher merit pay and evaluation system, DISD expects around $28 million from the allotment for 2020–21, said the district’s chief of school leadership, Stephanie Elizalde.

….Elizalde pointed to high-performing, high-poverty South Dallas elementary Charles Rice Learning Center as an example, saying that the district will be able to provide extra stipend payments for that school’s effective teachers. Currently, stipends are reserved for certain teachers at turnaround campuses in the ACE program.

“The teachers at Rice have done well, but we haven’t paid them a stipend for doing that work,” Elizalde said. “We’re finally able to reward them for doing what they are already doing,”

I added the emphasis on that last quote, because it rather bluntly reveals one of the key — and fatally flawed — components of ACE: trying to identify “high-performing” teachers to put on these campuses by using the district’s faulty Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI), which ranks teachers to a large part on their students gains on the STAAR test.

I’ve written a lot criticizing TEI, and our local union in Dallas, Alliance-AFT, has been highlighting how the system unfairly ranks teachers and denies additional compensation to them. (I’ll include some links below.)

But lawmakers, many of them tied to the notion that we only need to reward “good” teachers, were enamored with ACE and decided that they needed a funding mechanism to ensure pay-for-test scores could be expanded. So, under the school finance bill HB 3, they developed a “Teacher Incentive Allotment” with millions of dollars to fund programs in districts for “merit pay.” Districts must develop an evaluation system to designate Recognized, Exemplary, and Master teachers to receive stipends based on the pool of state money received, along these lines:

Recognized: $3,000 — $9,000
Exemplary: $6,000 — $18,000
Master: $12,000 — $32,000

Texas AFT was successful in getting legislators to prohibit a “requirement” that districts use student test scores on determining these designations. But that obviously doesn’t prohibit them from doing so, and the handful of districts that already have merit pay plans based on test scores will be the first recipients of the allotment. Meanwhile, the allure of the incentive money has many other districts around the state (Richardson, Garland, Fort Worth, Lubbock, Aldine, Pflugerville, Crowley, and Frisco to name a few) looking to add merit pay to get in on the action.

I previously wrote how the Richardson superintendent told legislators that to determine the top teachers all she had to do was take a bunch of test-score data, hand it to a third-party consultant, and it was “like magic,” you would have a list of the best teachers. And that is the problem here, ACE continues to be the darling of legislators and districts seeking more funding, while the guts of the program put even more emphasis on the misuse of standardized test scores. Let’s let the Dallas ISD official — who pointed out the absurdity of the ACE program’s incentives to teachers already doing good work — get in a feel-good quote at the end. As the Morning News reported:

“I’m trying to say, as long as the funding’s there, why not do it forever,” Elizalde said [of ACE] in August. “Why wouldn’t we do it for these schools? We’ve had places where nobody wanted to go teach there, and now we’re starting to see success and have built a cadre of teachers that want to stay there.

“At the end of the day, I want every single school to have those types of results — and be able to sustain them.”

By Rob D’Amico, Texas AFT Communications Director
(Follow on Twitter @damicoaustin and @TexasAFT)

#TxEd in the Media

A look at the news surrounding Texas Education, with…

Texas AFT

Written by

Texas AFT

Texas AFT: a union representing all non-administrative certified/classified public school employees. Affiliated with American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO.

#TxEd in the Media

A look at the news surrounding Texas Education, with analysis of how the media cover public education issues

Texas AFT

Written by

Texas AFT

Texas AFT: a union representing all non-administrative certified/classified public school employees. Affiliated with American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO.

#TxEd in the Media

A look at the news surrounding Texas Education, with analysis of how the media cover public education issues

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