Bitter Lesson

For 27 years, math teacher Phyllis Landes had a spotless record. Then the Texas Education Agency accused her of making racist remarks, and nearly ruined her school and her life.

Well before the first bell rings at Lamar Consolidated High School, Phyllis Landes arrives at classroom 238 to tutor students in algebra. A sturdy, middle-aged woman who was an outstanding basketball player in high school and college, Landes has a no-nonsense manner about her. She skips the small talk and gets right down to her business, which is helping students learn mathematics. After teaching six classes of ninth- and tenth-grade algebra, Landes stays after school until four o'clock and sometimes later, offering further help to students who want it.

For the last 17 years, Landes has kept similar hours at Lamar, one of two high schools that serve the small towns of Richmond and Rosenberg, 30 miles southwest of Houston. She clearly loves her job, to which she has dedicated her life. But during three hellish weeks in March, Phyllis Landes feared she might never be allowed in a classroom again.

Branded as a teacher who made racist remarks to a consultant from the Texas Education Agency, she was suspended from her classroom duties, and, fearful for her life and property, she left her home for a week. Landes steadfastly denied the accusations made against her, and on March 22, she was reinstated by her school board. She is back in her classroom now, with several thousand dollars of savings gone to pay lawyer's fees and a cloud of doubt lingering over her that she may never fully banish, even if she eventually confronts her adversaries in a courtroom.

Landes often asks herself why she was singled out for making racist slurs, when she recalls only a casual conversation with a TEA consultant in the doorway of her classroom. Even if she held such sentiments, she asks, why on earth would she share them with a TEA official? Landes says the consultant took no notes during the interview, and the TEA, which is charged by the Legislature with monitoring the performance of Texas schools, concedes that it has no proof other than the word of its consultant that Landes made racist remarks.

"I'm not proven innocent," Landes says of her encounter with the TEA, "I'm just not proven guilty."

And there is a larger question at stake, one that is more important than the guilt or innocence of one woman. It is not just how this happened to Phyllis Landes, but why it happened. Every teacher in Texas who knows of Landes' plight has to be just a little bit nervous. Who might be next? Could it happen again? After all, the events that almost cost Landes her good name and the job she loves began under the aegis of a TEA office that calls itself the Department of Accountability.

On the afternoon of the last day of February, Phyllis Landes was five minutes into a three-hour-long math tutoring session when she received word to report immediately to the assistant superintendent's office. Her duties would be covered. Landes' heart skipped a beat. This wasn't a request, it was a summons, and it took her out of a math tutorial that was vital to the school.

The previous spring, only 24 percent of Lamar's African-American students had passed the math portion of the state-required Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or TAAS tests, as they are often called. The low scores had triggered a mandatory weeklong visit in February by a "peer review team" of educational consultants from the TEA, and the school district was still reeling from the impact of its report. In educational jargon that few outsiders could comprehend, the team had excoriated the school for poor planning and committee procedure.

But the consultants wrote one passage describing teacher attitudes in terms that no one could misunderstand. The largely white faculty had low expectations for Hispanic and African-Americans, the report said, and the consultants cited what were purported to be direct quotations from a teacher: "For Hispanics, it's better to be dumb" and "They're (Hispanics) just animals." And students, the report stated, had told the consultants that teachers had said "Are you going stupid on me?" and "I could train an animal better than you."

On Thursday, February 22, the district had released the report to the public, and the alleged slurs, not the educational jargon, were dominating the news. Evidently there was a racist at Lamar Consolidated High School so bold that he or she had made these remarks directly to an agent of the state who was there to evaluate the school. Television crews were camping out at the school interviewing students, who complained angrily on the nightly news. On the following Wednesday, representatives from the League of United Latin American Citizens, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Fort Bend Interfaith Council descended on a meeting of the school board to demand that something be done about the teacher, who had yet to be identified.

The next morning, when Landes and several of her colleagues attended the funeral of their department head's mother, the topic was still on their minds. Some Lamar teachers had burst into tears at the thought of such slurs. Many had asked themselves if something they had said had been misinterpreted. Teachers are always getting exasperated, and perhaps some remark they had made in frustration was taken out of context. And some of their colleagues, they conceded, might very well hold racist views. But, the little group of mourners asked themselves, who would be so stupid as to say those things to a TEA consultant? It just didn't make sense.

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