This post is about Dallas, which, it must be noted, is one of the most sterile, soulless cities in existence. As such, it is obligatory to begin with the excellent Dallas, Texas performed by the very excellent Austin Lounge Lizards:
On with the post.
We had thought of writing further on California’s recent foot shooting, of screwing up mathematics for everyone in the name of equity. And then came the story of Cambridge, Massachusetts schools killing off early algebra for everyone in the name of equity. But it is all so painfully stupid, and familiar, nothing much needs to be said; yelling “Harrison Bergeron” pretty much covers it. While reading about all this stupidity, however, we came upon a report suggesting that Dallas was doing it right, or at least a hell of a lot righter.
Dallas, like many places, is properly concerned with the have nots, including with children from marginalised ethnic groups underperforming and being shortchanged in educational opportunities. In particular such kids, in Dallas and pretty much everywhere, are way underrepresented in accelerated and extension classes and the like. So, what to do, other than Harrison Bergeron your way out of the disparity? Instead, Dallas decided to invite pretty much everyone to dance.
The Dallas Independent School District is responsible for about 150,000 public school kids. The Dallas ISD offers “honors classes” in a number of subjects in upper primary and low secondary years. In particular, the honours mathematics subjects appear to be the natural lead-in to taking “Algebra 1” in eight grade, which is in turn the springboard to doing the serious, uni-directed mathematics in later secondary school. In order to be enrolled in these honors subjects, however, students had to opt in or be recommended by a teacher or parent. For unstated but easily guessed reasons, few Black and Hispanic students were so enrolled.
Dallas ISD switched it all around in 2019: rather than students having to opt in to honours subjects, students now had to opt out. All primary students who did sufficiently well on the Texas’s standardised tests were automatically enrolled in the appropriate advanced classes. The students could not then opt out without parental permission.
The results have reportedly been dramatic. There has been a massive increase in the percentages of Black and Hispanic, and White, and Other, students enrolled in honours mathematics subjects, and then Algebra 1. Moreover, this increase has reportedly not been accompanied by a decline in student scores or pass rates.
No report on education should be taken at face value. One would like to see the data, and there are a number of questions one might ask. Whether this reported early progress will be maintained is not a given; nor is it a given that significant numbers of these students will continue on the same track. It is quite possible that new pressures will result in the dumbing down of classes. And, there is a limit to what such a policy change can do. It is a fact of nature and of nurture that some kids will be better at mathematics and/or better prepared to do it. Innate ability is a thing. And wealth and safe houses and time and extra tutoring are definitely things. One enlightened decision by Dallas’s ISD cannot erase a general societal inequity. Poor kids will always be underrepresented.
But Dallas ISD did an undeniably great thing. Many kids have already been given an opportunity that they would never have had otherwise, and many have benefited from it. It is far from clear that Dallas will succeed in the long term or on any large scale, but in the short term and the not-that-small scale, real kids have gotten real opportunities.
Strange to think that challenging kids might be more successful than pandering to kids’ doubts and fears, than inviting them to amplify or to invent whole cloth handicaps and neuroses. Is it puzzling that a place as meh as Dallas, Texas turns out to be a thousand times smarter than Jo Boaler and all the other handicapper generals? No, no it is not.