By Joshua Benton
When he took office in 2000, Dallas Superintendent Mike Moses said he wanted to be judged on his actions – the improvements he brought to the district and its children.
But in a few years, how history views the Moses years will depend largely on what happens after he has walked out of his Ross Avenue office for the last time.
“If we fall apart next year, that’s going to scar his tenure as a leader,” said Robert Ward, the Madison High School principal who can barely count on two hands the number of superintendents he has served under in 26 years with DISD.
“The mark of a good leader, you would hope, is that the situation is sustained after he leaves.”
That sentiment comes up a lot among educators: that the Moses years will prove a success only if they lead to something better. Because for all the improvements the last four years have delivered, it’s still a stretch to call Dallas ISD a good school district.
A doctor examining the district’s ills in 2000 might have diagnosed three major problems:
*Instability. After shuffling through superintendents like cards, Dallas needed someone to be calm and, frankly, a little boring.
*A host of big-ticket hassles tying the district’s hands. A desegregation order meant the district couldn’t draw attendance lines where it wanted to. A bad public image meant voters wouldn’t approve a bond issue. An FBI investigation paralyzed parts of the administration.
*Poor academics. TAAS scores were awful, SAT scores were awful, AP scores were awful. By just about every measure, the district was not serving Dallas kids well.
Today, that doctor might look over his patient and think: Two out of three ain’t bad.
There’s no doubt Dr. Moses brought stability.
He hasn’t embarrassed the district by stealing furniture or going on TV impersonating a tin-cup beggar. The board hasn’t acted like it’s auditioning for the new season of Cops in years.
“The way he dealt with the board, it reflects down to the schools,” said Theodore Timms, principal at Arlington Park Elementary. “He set the standard of behavior for all of us.”
The big-ticket hassles have largely melted away. Dr. Moses is, in the very best sense of the word, a politician.
He got a huge bond issue passed, got the FBI out of the district, brought some financial stability, and got a federal judge to end the desegregation order.
These are all big deals. But you’ll forgive Dallas’ schoolchildren if they haven’t noticed. Other than the bond issue – whose rewards are still mostly some years away – these are things that matter mostly to adults who wear suits. They’re structural changes.
They’re important. But will they, by themselves, make Dallas schools a better place to get an education?
Test scores are up, but they’re still the lowest of any large urban district in Texas. They’re even lower than those of school districts whose students are poorer. School violence is at or near record levels.
It’s certainly not true that Dr. Moses didn’t address academics.
In elementary schools, principals like the newly standardized reading curriculum. In high schools, they like the emphasis on pushing more kids into advanced classes.
And teachers give positive reviews to the new character education program and the laptops the district now gives them.
But the thrust of his time in office was more macro than micro. It’s understandable – was there even enough time for Dr. Moses to visit all 218 schools in the district?
To put it in baseball terms, Dr. Moses wasn’t the closer. He’s the set-up man.
“If we continue with success, then Moses was an effective leader,” said Pedro Galaviz, principal of Bonham Elementary. “If he leaves and we fail, that says he couldn’t make it last.
“But for these children, in order for them to have a fair chance in life, we have to clear the obstacles they have in front of them,” Mr. Galaviz said.
“We here in the schools, whether Moses is there or not, we have to provide for them.”
Joshua Benton covers education for The Dallas Morning News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.