The ‘A’ Word: Dustin Marshall — ‘It’s Shocking, Appalling, That There Are Arguments Made in Education That Data Is Bad’

Dustin Marshall

This interview is part of The ‘A’ Word series, produced in partnership with the Bush Institute to examine how “accountability” became a “dirty word,” and what can and should be done going forward to ensure accountability withstands the test of a bad reputation. The interviews were conducted over the telephone, transcribed, and edited for clarity and length. The same questions, or types of questions, were put to each participant to see what they thought independently and collectively about accountability. Their answers will take the reader into the inner workings of schools, the intricacies of the politics of education, and the ways in which campuses can better serve students. Click through the grid below to read other ‘A’ Word conversations.

Dustin Marshall has served as a Dallas Independent School District trustee since 2016. Marshall survived four contested elections in that short tenure (a special election, a regular election, and runoffs in both races). His support for data and research-based education reforms galvanized parents to vote in each race. The Dallas businessman, who was a member of the 2016 Presidential Leadership Scholars class, is known for using data to drive decisions and to best determine the strategies that will help Dallas students succeed.

In this ‘A’ Word interview, Marshall explains the pressures that exist in a district to not upend the status quo. Teachers unions or associations particularly stand in the way of change, in part through blocking efforts to remove underperforming teachers. He also details how some school trustees obstruct change, often by voting against a measure that actually would help students in their districts.

Marshall, though, is hopeful that reform groups in Dallas and forward-looking educators will succeed in using data and the principles of school accountability to improve the educational outcomes of students. As he sees it, nothing less than North Texas’s economic success is at stake.

How do you define accountability?

For me, accountability is about bringing data to bear on tracking outcomes, and the inputs that go into outcomes, in a measurable and definable way. It means using that data to evaluate against a benchmark, and using data to make more-informed decisions at all levels in the organization.

Has that changed for you over time?

As a definition, accountability probably hasn’t changed overtime. The practical reality of how to implement accountability has changed. Since serving on the Dallas school board, I’ve been enlightened a little bit that it’s not as easy as I’d like it to be. What is accomplishable within the political context is probably what has changed.

(Click through the grid below to read other ‘A’ Word conversations)

What specifically has enlightened you?

It’s easy to underestimate the fervor with which some people will protect the status quo. They’re vocal, and they support the current power structure. And they will protect the status quo at any cost. That makes it difficult for folks that want to use data to make decisions to make progress.

Why do you think they work so hard and fast to protect the status quo?

I’ve thought about that until I’m blue in the face and stayed up nights thinking about it. I don’t have a silver-bullet answer. It’s some combination of a couple of things.

One is racial politics. In DISD’s case, there’s a general opposition to anything that is being pushed by anyone who’s perceived as too white, too Republican, and too associated with business.

Second, teacher unions or teacher associations influence elections. There’s an effort to protect all teachers, whether they’re underperforming or not.

Finally, a lot of this is cronyism. School board members know many of the teachers in the schools in their districts, and they like them as people, whether they think they’re effectively educating kids or not.

Is it worse than you thought it would be?

Way worse.

How so?

I come from a management consulting background at Bain. Every decision is supposed to include data, and data is not thought of as a bad word. A partner at Bain had a plaque above his desk that read, “In God I trust. Everyone else must bring data.”

It was shocking to me, and fairly appalling, that there are actually arguments made in education that data is bad, that you need not talk about data because data’s misleading.

Are there DISD educators who are willing to use data at the classroom level?

Yes. I would array teachers along two different continuums. One is a continuum of performance, from strong to weak. But there’s also an important continuum of a willingness to be assessed and to learn from that assessment.

Many teachers want to be supported and improve their practice. But there are also teachers who say, “Leave me alone. I know what I’m doing. Don’t talk to me. I’m an expert.” In my district, quite a few teachers are eager for assessment and coaching and professional development.

How do you see the Dallas school board using accountability practices? 

I try to make accountability come into play on everything we vote on. Certainly, the principal-effectiveness evaluation system and the teacher evaluation system are the two largest centerpieces.

We’ve also been evaluating early childhood education and looking at ways to expand access to quality pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. We’re tracking everything you can track. For example, we are studying whether a student’s participation in 3- and 4-year-old pre-K improves that student’s kindergarten-readiness rate and then, in turn, their third-grade literacy rate.

Our [Accelerating Campus Excellence] program is another great example. We’re identifying our best-performing teachers and then paying them a stipend to go into our worst-performing schools. We’ve seen tremendous success in reducing the number of improvement-required campuses in DISD largely as a result of that program.

Those are tactical ways we’re using data and assessment and, broadly speaking, accountability to make decisions. Unfortunately, not every board member is interested in that decision-making philosophy. We’ve got a group of five that get most things passed 5 to 4. But we didn’t pass the Tax Ratification Election because we needed six votes.

Can you tell us about a time where you were advocating for something you really thought was in the best interest of the kids and families that you serve in your district that faced significant opposition?

The TRE is the most obvious example. It’s just it doesn’t make any sense. The state continues to underfund education in Texas, and the only tool that’s left to us to get the money we need to educate kids is the TRE.

We’ve got the second or third lowest tax rate in North Texas. We’ve got 90 percent poverty. Every school district around Dallas is passing a TRE, most of them unanimously. You could count on one hand the number of trustees in all the North Texas school districts that voted against it. We’ve got four people on our DISD board not supporting it.

Why do you think something that sparks so little controversy in surrounding communities is so controversial in Dallas? 

I don’t know how broadly applicable this is to the statewide or national stage, but some DISD board members derive their power largely from being seen as oppositional. If you look at the number of items that are pulled off the consent agenda at our DISD board meetings, 99.9 percent are pulled by two people. And, if you look at the amount of time spent speaking at our board meetings, it’s 90-plus percent those same two people.

The great irony is that we often have unanimous votes on the items they pulled off the consent agenda and then spent 20 minutes talking about. In my opinion, those members need to be perceived by their constituents as yelling about something. And I literally do mean yelling, raising their voices, and banging the table.

Their constituents, unfortunately, don’t have — or don’t take — the time to be well-versed about the issues. Instead, they have the perception that their board members are down there fighting, so they must be fighting for us. The terrible reality is they’re actually voting to undermine their own constituents’ best interest.

Let’s go back to your mention of the role of teachers unions or associations at the school board level. How do they come into play, specifically around educator evaluation?

We have a three-level grievance process at DISD, and any dues-paying member of one of the associations is represented throughout by a union or association representative who will grieve a dismissal all the way up through the process. I think 100 percent of the ones that [the American Federation of Teachers] is involved with go all the way to the board. They continue to push it even when the fact pattern is very clear.

I think roughly 100 percent of the appeals are denied by the board because the fact pattern was clear. Nevertheless, they push forward and make it as difficult as possible for the district. We pay dozens of attorneys to manage this and spend many hours on the process.

The biggest impact that the teachers groups have in DISD elections is that most teachers live in the same districts as many of our struggling schools because the real estate is more affordable. We don’t, unfortunately, pay teachers enough to live in other parts of the district. There’s extreme voter apathy in DISD elections in those areas, so teachers make up a significant number of the people that vote. And they hear from their association whom they should vote for.

In fairness, the teachers would say business-related groups also invest in races.

There aren’t any voters in those business groups, though. They mostly live outside the district. The business groups invest money, but they don’t get voters.

How do we build greater support for accountability?

What Dallas Kids First is doing is really effective locally. First, they track the key issues that come in front of the DISD board, and they also track every trustee’s vote on every issue. They put that data into an easy-to-use graphic that highlights for people how their representative voted on core issues. They tally it up, and they give a scorecard grade presented in a very easy-to-understand fashion.

Second, they have got the new Camp Fellowship program. They get 20 people, mostly millennials, to go through a yearlong class where they spend one day a month learning about campaigning, politics, and how to be an effective door knocker and campaign volunteer. Then they give them a stipend of a couple thousand dollars in exchange for working 100 hours on a DISD campaign.

The fellows are taking the scorecard out in the field and explaining to people, “These are the votes that matter. This is the data of why those votes matter, and here’s what your incumbent representative did on those votes.”

What should we expect from school board members and other decision makers?

We should expect them to bring a thoughtful and organized decision-making process, consistently applied, to their work. That entails the ability to ask the right questions, to gather the right data, to assess that data, and to solicit community input to make sure they are getting anecdotes and color around that data. You must bring that together to make as informed a decision as possible.

For folks like me, who have no teaching experience, part of the input process is seeking the color that an educator would bring to a decision as well. I liken it to consulting. Consultants get really good at asking questions. If you ask enough of the right questions, and you can cut through the bull to know whether you’re getting the right answer, then you can bring all that together to make the best choice you can for kids.

You have to be governed by only thinking about the kids, because there’s a lot of noise.

Does asking the right questions in a deliberate way break up some of the politicizing and the focus on adult issues? 

You can see that happen at the board table sometimes. I’ve started coaching myself to ask questions in a way, in front of everybody, that if the answer is given, normal, rational people will come to their own natural conclusion without being told what to think. I try to ask some leading questions and let it sit, and I’ve seen that start to break up some of the old mindset. It has the most impact on people in the audience and on the media covering DISD.

That can be a difficult strategy to deploy because it requires getting control of your emotions.

It requires more patience than naturally comes to me. I like to ask, “Can you tell me a little more about that?” That’s a great question, by the way. If you get a first answer that you know isn’t fully the whole picture, that’s the question to ask next.

What initiatives would you prioritize now?

The teacher pipeline is the biggest problem we’re confronting, and we’re dancing around it in a frustrating way. We ought to ban crummy, alternative-certification programs and never hire any teachers from them. We ought to grow our own teacher training process — like a scholarship program for DISD graduates where we pay for their college and then they come back and teach for four or five years.

We need to get creative in how we solve that teacher pipeline problem. No more of this stuff where you see “Want to teach?  When can you start?” on billboards. Every time I see that, I swear I drive 30 miles per hour faster. It makes me angry.

I would also like to tackle a principal training program. Teaching Trust is a world-class program [in North Texas], and I would love to put every DISD principal through it. Teaching Trust is educating 10 or 20 of our principals per year, and the kids in their school perform 84 percent higher on tests every year. How can you argue that that doesn’t work?  Of course it works.

The way we’re handling early childhood education is too politicized. We’re doing it but not in an authentic or ideal way. We ought to offer full-day, free pre-K for all 3- and 4-year-olds, whether they’re covered by the state or not.

We also need to change the length of the school year and the length of the school day. Of course, lengthening the school year will make the tourism industry mad.

What about TEI, Dallas’s new Teacher Effectiveness Indices? Is that driving results for DISD?

TEI is where the rubber meets the road. In the last couple of years, DISD has gone from the 24th performance percentile amongst districts in the state to above the 80th. I credit that improvement — if not most of it — to the teacher evaluation system and managing out teachers that need to be in a different career.

How do you respond when TEI critics claim it is chasing teachers out of DISD?

People will ask whether it is true, and we say, “Well, yes, it’s true, but cut the data by performance band.” We’ve got nine educator performance bands. Last year we retained 100 percent of the teachers in the highest two bands of performance. Not a single teacher in the district in the top two bands left, and all the ones that are leaving are in the bottom couple of performance bands. That means the design is working.

To what do board members who are not fans of TEI attribute the DISD’s recent success?

They will talk about ACE as a positive thing, but of course, you can’t have ACE without TEI. You need to identify your higher-performing teachers in order to offer them spots in ACE. Sometimes my colleagues oppose something until it works, and then they’re all about it. That’s always fun.

What’s at stake for Dallas to get these education issues right?

The city’s whole economic future is at stake. By 2020, 60 percent to 65 percent of the jobs in the city will require some sort of post-secondary education. Right now, 30 percent of Dallas citizens have any post-secondary degree.

We simply don’t have the labor force to fill current jobs, let alone the jobs that are coming at the growth rate Dallas is seeing. The Texas and North Texas economic miracle of the last 20 years will dissipate quickly if we can’t fill those jobs. And we’re not on a trajectory to fill them.

It’s challenging to get people to care about three, four, five years out, let alone 20 years out, but the Commit! Partnership has done a good job showing the correlation between key indicators at different moments along the pipeline.

They’ve been able to extrapolate data to show that if we have 55 percent kindergarten-readiness level in this cohort of kids, their SAT scores are likely to be this, which is then a likely predictor of their graduation with a four-year degree within six years after finishing high school. We can track that in a way that doesn’t make us wait the 15 years to see student outcomes. That has been helpful.

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