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Tale of two campuses: why an open records request proves Dallas ISD's ACE program is unsustainable.

Dallas ISD's ACE, or Accelerating Campus Excellence, initiative has received a ton of attention in the media, and our representatives have not been discreet about how impressed they are with Dallas ISD and the success they've had so far with the ACE program:

There is no doubt that DISD and their ACE initiative is being held up as the "gold standard" because everyone loves quick results, and there is no arguing that for some campuses, an ACE designation made quick work of improving the performance of students on those campuses.


However, in the interest of truly understanding exactly what factor compensation actually played in some of these transformations, I submitted an open records request to Dallas ISD asking for a very limited set of information:

- The base salary of every teacher at every campus in Dallas ISD since 2015-2016

- Every stipend for every teacher at every campus in Dallas ISD since 2015-2016


My hope was that by limiting myself to just this information I could attempt to isolate just how much of an impact the compensation changes had on the designated campuses.


And oh man...


This request did not disappoint.


By pairing this information with the accountability data from 2016, 2017, and 2018, I was able to learn quite a bit about Dallas ISD's ACE initiative.


While I could probably write a dissertation or two using the data I've now compiled (and no doubt I'll get at least a few blog posts out of it), for this post I want to focus solely on why I think this model is not sustainable.


Not for Dallas.


Not for anyone.


To do that, I'm going to share a few tidbits from two ACE campuses: Pease Elementary and Titche Elementary.



1) While both Pease and Titche are ACE campuses, Pease started the program in the 2015-2016 school year while Titche started in 2017-2018. Even with the later start, however, Titche has by far outperformed Pease.


If you look at the overall campus ratings for both campuses from 2015-2016 through 2017-2018, you get a pretty clear picture of how much faster Titche responded to the ACE initiative:

Pease, even with three years under the ACE initiative, regressed to Improvement Required under the state's accountability system.


Titche moved from Improvement Required for two years to meeting standard after only one year as an ACE campus.


But the ratings really don't paint a clear picture of the drastic difference between the changes that happened with these two campuses. To see that, you can look at the number of distinctions these campuses earned during these three school years:

Titche: one year as an ACE campus and they moved from an IR campus to having six distinctions.


You can only get six distinctions as an elementary campus.


(For the non-educators out there that might be reading this, here's a quick explanation from TEA on what the distinction designations mean. The short answer if you don't want to read TEA's FAQ: "outstanding performance in relation to 40 other similar campuses of similar type, size, grade span, and student demographics.")


Regardless of who you are and what kind of money you're making, moving a campus from IR to six distinctions is difficult and deserves to be applauded.


However, the question I wanted to answer is, "Why the difference between Pease and Titche?"


I mean, they're both ACE campuses, and Pease has been at it longer.


Something seemed off.


My first guess was that it might have something to do with salaries...



2) After the ACE stipends, the average teacher salary at Titche increased to over $68,000. Pease, however, had already had a similar average salary for three years.


There is no denying that the ACE stipends are pretty significant. Dallas is supporting this initiative with a serious chunk of cash.


After stipends and the newly adjusted salaries thanks to DISD's TEI evaluation system, both campuses had multiple teachers making $70,000 or more, with one teacher at Pease making just over $87,000 and one at Titche almost at $92,000.


However, even with those numbers, you can't attribute the differences in performance at each campus to salaries because Pease has had a significant average salary for three years and Titche for only one year, yet Titche is the campus with six distinctions:


So, since the salaries weren't the main cause in the academic differences between these two campuses, I decided to look at the specific staffing trends.


DISD indicates that the ACE plan "incentivizes top teachers and principals to work at the district’s highest-need schools."


I wanted to know if that actually happened.


3) Under the ACE plan, Pease has slowly replaced large portions of their staff, but almost a third of the staff is still the original teaching staff from 2015-2016. At Titche, the implementation of ACE meant the removal of all but three of the 2016-2017 teachers.


The easiest way to see just how drastically different these two staffing plans truly are is to see the changes visually. Below are two images that show the year-to-year turnover at Pease and Titche. I've highlighted all of the original 2015-2016 teachers in green, teachers that came in 2016-2017 in blue, and teachers from 2017-2018 in yellow:



By their third year as an ACE campus, Pease still had eight teachers from their original thirty in 2015-2016 and five teachers from 2016-2017. So, in other words, only 50% of the Pease teaching staff was new to the campus in 2017-2018.


Compare that with Titche and during it's first year as an ACE campus, 46 of the 49 teachers at Titche were new to the campus.


While both are ACE campuses, the staffing plan used by DISD was very different with these two campuses.


So is that it? Take a low-performing campus and start fresh and all is solved?


Not quite.


Who you bring in with that fresh start matters.


4) Under ACE, the teachers brought in at Titche were experienced and mostly from successful campuses within Dallas ISD.


Here's a little before/after data on the teaching staff at Titche after they implemented ACE:

While I know someone out there will make the argument that more degrees and more experience doesn't necessarily equate to a better teacher, let's just approach this table logically: if you take any struggling campus and increase the percentage of teachers with masters degrees by 30%, increase the percentage of teachers with 11-20 years of experience by 27%, and hire a staff that is more reflective of the community it serves...


...anyone willing to put money on that campus actually regressing?


Add to this the fact that the teachers that came to Titche in 2017-2018 were pulled from 27 campuses across Dallas ISD, several of which were multi-distinction campuses.


More specifically, six of the forty-six new teachers were from Gill Elementary, a campus that earned five distinctions in 2017. Gill Elementary was also home to the principal that took over Titche in 2017-2018.


It is most definitely a convenient starting point to have an already successful principal start the year with 13% of his new staff coming from his former (already successful) campus.



 

Let me be very clear for a minute.


I do not want to belittle anything that the staff at Titche Elementary accomplished in 2017-2018.


To move a campus from IR to six distinctions is crazy impressive.


However, let's just be really honest about what it took:

- A complete wipe (almost) of the existing staff

- An average salary increase of just under $14,000 for every teacher

- A new principal from an already established and successful campus

- A drastic increase in the experience level and pedigree of the staff

- A staff that was selected from within the current district, allowing for a much clearer picture of each staff member's strengths and evaluation history


If you just look at the price tag on the salary increase alone, it's pretty mind-boggling:


Total funds for Titche teacher salaries in 2016-2017: $2,633,592.


Total funds for Titche teacher salaries in 2017-2018: $3,335,505.


That's an increase of just over $700,000.


If you took any superintendent in any district across the state and told them they could spend an extra $700,000 on staffing to help improve one of their struggling campuses, you'd be met with something like this:

Happy, happy. Joy, joy.


But therein lies the premise I stated at the beginning of this post: the ACE program, and anything that looks like it, is not sustainable.


At some point you run out of two things:

- the "best" teachers to move to struggling campuses, and

- money.


Stop and think about Titche in two or three years?


What happens when the ACE stipend is taken away and transferred to a campus that is struggling more than Titche?


What happens when the all-star team of teachers breaks up or the principal moves on?


We don't have to guess at the possible outcome.


Remember that I mentioned that the principal and six of the new teachers at Titche all came from Gill Elementary, a campus that earned five distinctions in 2017.


Well, in 2018...


You can't just remove an all-star set of teachers from a campus and there not be consequences.


And of course all of this is based on the assumption that a district even has the size to justify moving staff around in the same way DISD has done with it's ACE plan.


I work for a district that has roughly 4,750 students. We have one high school and one middle school.


Of the 1197 districts in Texas, 1000 of the districts, or 83%, are the size of my district or smaller.


We already have our best teachers in our areas of greatest need.


ACE wouldn't make sense in the vast majority of the districts across the state, and to be honest, it doesn't really make sense in Dallas either.


It's just a band-aid.

 

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6 Comments


Micah, I am glad someone is doing some research regarding ACE schools. I wanted to share my point of view. I was once a teacher at one of the non-ACE schools and we were invited to join an ACE school.

I need to add that not everyone could apply, only teachers that had attain a specific level in the TEI (Teacher Excellence Initiative) scale, could transfer to one of these schools. There were few exceptions, but that was the overall rule.

I also want to add that what I saw in the first year at one of those ACE schools was very bad. I never talked to the previous teachers, but I could tell that the morale was on the…

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But if we only have a few schools that are economically disadvantaged and need that push that ACE provides how would that dramatically affect the other schools? We have no more than two or three teachers from each elementary and they weren’t stolen. They came to the ACE campuses on their own to make a difference. Some saw it as a challenge because it is harder to teach as these schools.

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Michael Haring
Michael Haring
Mar 17, 2019

This is basically like the story of the little Dutch boy plugging the dike with his finger. You stop the "leak" at one school and another "leak" appears at the campus where you "stole" the teachers from. In a way, the district is basically misleading the public as to the overall effectiveness of their schools, because the problem has the potential to shift from school to school from year to year making it look more like an anomaly instead of a trend. Nice read.

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Georgia Duncan
Georgia Duncan
Mar 17, 2019

Your article bore an incredulous tone which I felt was foreshadowing an incentive for corrupted data. I fear merit pay as a questionable motive to lure teachers. The best of the best do what they do for the kids, not for the pay. Maybe I'm Pollyanna. Torture me with meetings, chores, discipline issues, and crowded classes and yes, I'm underpaid. Give me a reasonable load of students, administrative support, and restrict the paperwork and I won't feel underpaid.

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Micah Taylor
Micah Taylor
Mar 17, 2019

I think utilizing your best teachers and principals as mentors to coach/train struggling campuses is a great idea, and I believe that is the current practice for many districts. There's no doubt that doing something like what was done at Titche works. The data proves that. But in order to be a sustainable solution, you'd have to scale the transfer of teachers back quite a bit. No doubt that would reduce the effectiveness of the initiative, but without a large influx of funds and highly qualified, highly effective teachers, I just don't see how this sort of initiative can be sustained for more than a few years.

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