Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Setting Kids Up for Success

I've followed Sir Richard Branson on Twitter for a long time and consider him to be one of the great thought leaders among those I follow.  In a tweet just before Christmas, he shared an article about what psychologists believe to be 11 elements that help drive the success of our children.  As a parent (and grandparent), I took some time to reflect on this article and feel pretty good that we did what we could to provide a foundation for my own children's success.

Of the 11, there are a couple that truly stand out for me.  Number 3 is to set high expectations.  Without a doubt, most of have high hopes for our children but do we always set high expectations?  It's not enough simply to hope that our kids will succeed; we have to walk the walk and help them do so.  Setting high, yet realistic and attainable, expectations is an import part of what we do as parents.

Number 6 is to teach our kids math early on.  With two young grandchildren, I am constantly amazed at how well our public education system in Texas is teaching this.  It's not just about adding and subtracting but also extends to positive outcomes across other subjects.  While reading is called out specifically here, I've seen how having basic math knowledge, even for a five year old, is impacting her ability to analyze and decide on courses of action.

The other one is number 9, valuing effort over avoiding failure.  In a testing-centric world, we are more focused on outcomes than we are the process that leads to those outcomes.  President Theodore Roosevelt once said, "It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed."  It's time that we acknowledge the value of effort as being equal to, and perhaps more important than, a test score.  Test scores are simply a measurement; to use them as a single criteria in determining success of an individual (or school in the case of the proposed A-F campus grading system in Texas) is unfair to students and those who work so diligently to ensure student success. 

The Facebook post can be found at  If you are not already doing so, take some time to follow Branson and other thought leaders.  Like me, you won't always agree with their posts but part of educating ourselves is opening our minds to what others have to say on a myriad of topics.  Happy New Year! 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Who Should Oversee Charter Schools?

As I continue my quest to better understand the charter school environment, one of my associates shared with me an article about a stance taken by the Kentucky Education Commissioner regarding oversight of charter schools.  His argument is that local school boards should authorize charter schools and that these schools should be overseen by the state board of education.

The recent appointment of Mike Morath as the TEA Commissioner provides an opportunity for public education advocates to share their views on public and charter school governance.  We should take the time to understand the implications of charter schools and how they fit into an overall public education strategy supporting the needs of 5.2 million Texas public education students.

The article relating to the stance of the Kentucky commissioner can be found at

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

ESSA and Local Control - What Does it Mean?

In a blog posted on December 12, I provided an overview of ESSA as shared by TASB Governmental Relations.  While there are certainly positive aspects to this important legislation, there are also a number of issues that still need to be addressed.  But that’s a topic for another blog.  Instead, my focus here is on how ESSA expanded local control by local school boards, an important element in their ability to govern based on the needs of their students.

Public schools are local; the closer people are to their schools, the higher opinion they have of them. While they may be unsure of other schools, people know more about their local schools and are often passionate about supporting them. Public schools are governed by locally elected school boards that oversee management of the schools.  School board trustees are a bridge between the community and the schools and need the flexibility to act in the best interests of the community and schools.

In the last few decades, public schools came more and more under the control of the federal government. With the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation fourteen years ago, the federal government gained a heavy hand in determining how schools measured student performance, how they fixed struggling schools and how they determined that teachers were qualified to teach.  While local school districts had lost various aspects of local control before, this top down approach was a cookie cutter approach which applied to all schools and took away even more local control. School districts implemented the legislation, often with difficulty and great cost, and the next few years were focused on high stakes testing and accountability measures – often to the exclusion of creativity in the classroom and often punitive.

However, passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which re-authorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, scales back the role of the federal government in education for the first time since the 1980’s. The law affirms the importance of local governance but also protects the federal government’s interest in Title I for disadvantaged students. It also lessens the impact of standardized testing and one-size-fits-all mandates.  It appears that Congress and the White House now have an appetite for handing back local control to states and districts.

Under ESSA, there will still be required testing, but states have wide discretion about setting goals and standards, holding schools and districts accountable, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools. States and school districts must continue to ensure equity for all students.  And while tests will still count, there are other, multiple academic indicators as well – something local parents and communities have long been asking for. Many parents have complained about the overuse of standardized testing and the high stakes that have come with the testing. Local communities have opinions about what kinds of schools they want -- perhaps the federal government heard those voices decided that the pendulum should swing back to more local governance.

Passage of ESSA is good news for schools and communities and will usher in a new era for public education. School board trustees will have an opportunity to engage their communities about the changes and to seek their input about their dreams and goals for their public schools.  Schools must continue to ensure equity, accountability and excellence, and now there will be more flexible – and local – ways to achieve those goals!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

What Do We Know About Charter Schools?

Much has been said and written recently about the dramatic growth in charter schools and the resultant impact on public education in the U.S., but many of us don't have a full and comprehensive understanding of charter schools, their structure and the "product" they deliver.  Although having served as a school board trustee for ten years, I count myself in that crowd.

There is a strong charter schools push at both the federal and state levels, including a proposal for significantly more federal funding ($253.2M requested by Education Secretary Arne Duncan) and a push to expand the number of charters in Texas.  In doing research on charter schools as part of my public education advocacy efforts, I came across an interesting social media post that I share below.

The article, highlighting several different aspects (and concerns) relating to charter schools can be found at  For those of us engaged in public education advocacy for the $5.2 million public education students in the State of Texas, this should be required reading.  Understand that there are some positives relating to charter schools but, unfortunately, there are also many negatives.  It's time for all of us to become aware of how they are structured and who the real "winners" are.  Hint: it's not always the kids!.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

What if ISD's Were Funded Like Charters?

I recently read an interesting article posted by Raise Your Hand Texas relating to funding of charter schools.  Quoting from the RYHT post on December 7, "... the charter school finance report (was) commissioned by Raise Your Hand Texas to analyze the financing of Texas open-enrollment charter schools, and compare funding to that of Texas public school districts".  The report was commissioned in the Spring of 2014 through Moak, Casey & Associates (MCA).  Click on charter school finance report to access the executive summary of the report.

As I read through the executive summary, I was probably most surprised by the finding that, if ISD's were funded like charters, they would receive an additional $4.7B in funding.  Especially in light of the ongoing school finance litigation now before the Texas Supreme Court, this should be an eye-opening finding for all parties.  Imagine what the 1000+ school districts in Texas could do for the 5.2 million public education students if a different funding model (and revenue source) was in play!

Part of the mystique about charter schools is how little the public knows about the role and structure of charter schools in Texas.  While certainly acknowledged as public schools, they do not face the same requirements relating to accountability as public ISD's do.  They also have the benefit of being able to select (and deselect) their student population.   

I encourage public education advocates and stakeholders to learn more about charter schools.  This is not about denying those who attend charter schools the opportunity for a quality public education.  But it is about leveling the playing field and holding charters to the same system and standards as public ISD's in the State of Texas.  

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Thoughts on Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)

So what's changed from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (aka No Child Left Behind) to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)?  Without question, this is much more than a change in name.  With the signing of the Act by the President last week, ESSA sets a different tone for accountability in our schools.

As I scanned the wealth of information published by a very diverse group of sources, I found one summary, in particular, to be a very good read.  As a former school board trustee, I am privileged to have access to information published by the Governmental Affairs arm of the Texas Association of School Boards.  This week's update on issues relating to public education in the State of Texas included an excellent summary of ESSA.  

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Act is that the federal government will play a lesser role in decisions made at the state and local level.  States and local districts will have much more discretion when it comes to  accountability and interventions. One specific statement in this summary, noting that the authority of the Secretary of Education is limited, can only be positive for students in Texas.
It's important that trustees, and for that matter all education advocates, parents and other stakeholders, become familiar with ESSA and how it will impact the learning opportunities of our children.  Because the Act was only authorized for four years, giving the next administration the opportunity to put their stamp on how this evolves, we all must remain diligent in pursuit of efforts to ensure that the needs of the students are the top priority.  

As a final comment, note the voting summary of the Texas House delegation.  Take time to meet with your legislators, especially if they cast a NO vote, to understand their position and provide input on the continued importance of a positive focus on public education.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Who should be the next Commissioner of Education?

With the impending retirement of Commissioner Michael Williams in January, 2016, much has been written about the qualifications and experience of the individual who will be named by Governor Abbott as the Commissioner.  A number of school boards have recently weighed in on this consideration and offered their views of what the Governor should look for.  In a recent article, Morgan Smith of the Texas Tribune offered a number of names for consideration and did a nice job of noting the complications associated with each group of potential appointees.

Let's take a look at how each of those groups (no mention here of individual names within each category) might fit the position.  And, by the way, the intent here is not to advocate for one over the other.  But there clearly is one group that has little interest in furthering the cause of public education, namely the reform champion group.  In fact, the so-called reform champion would run counter to the need for leadership that will build on the successes being achieved within our public schools.  It's time we recognize the successes and use these as a platform on which to build success and opportunity, not change for the sake of change.

The school administrator group of potential appointees has a similar challenge in that they might be viewed as being somewhat biased in their views on public education and not open to discussion to address the needs of public education as a whole.  Ms. Smith's article does highlight candidates who have repeatedly demonstrated the "big picture" thinking that should certainly be a requirement for this position.

Gov. Abbott has sought the support of the home-schoolers, business-oriented accountability groups, charter school advocates, and voucher proponents.  While each of these interest groups might be, much like the perception of the school administrator group, somewhat myopic in how they view public education, there also likely are individuals who can see the "big picture" and thus should be considered.

Viewing this from my position as a former school board trustee, the politico group represents those who might have the best understanding of the various education alternatives and, more importantly, the ability to make it all work in Austin.  They will likely be the individuals who can most quickly build bridges across the various stakeholder groups. However, this group will largely not have the education-specific experience sought by the resolutions approved by a number of districts.    In my mind, that does not preclude consideration; their qualifications for this position should be viewed in the context of their commitment and actions toward furthering public education for over 5.2 million public education students.

So where does that leave us?  Without question, the approved resolutions are well-intentioned and well thought through.  But I believe that there is an opportunity to find a highly qualified individual who does not necessarily have all of the qualifications outlined in the resolutions.  Hopefully, these resolutions provide a perspective to the Governor that will highlight how trustees view the importance of the position of TEA Commissioner and help him have a balanced perspective on how to approach this important appointment.

This is is an important time for public education as the student population grows, accountability and assessment continue to be debated, and a ruling on the school finance lawsuit is pending from the Texas Supreme Court.  If, as many anticipate, the Court remands the lawsuit back to the District Court, there will be significant delays in a ruling.

The incoming Commissioner will have a major challenge in managing the myriad of issues.  Whether the individual has classroom and campus administration experience is less important to me than the demonstrated willingness and ability of the nominated individual to be able to work across stakeholder groups who each have their own set of interests.  Ultimately, there should be only one goal - who can best lead an organization that addresses the needs of all Texas public education students?

To read Morgan Smith's article, please go to

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

So what can trustees do between now and the 85th Legislature?

If you’re like me, service as a school board trustee from 1995 until May of this year, I didn’t take full advantage of the opportunities to connect with legislators during the interim, the time between the close of the 84th Legislature and the beginning of the 85th Legislature in January, 2017.  But now is really a great time to initiate dialog with your representatives in Austin (with some caveats) now that they are “home” and spending more time in their district.

The main caveat is that there have been a number of key legislators across the State of Texas who have announced plans not to run for office in 2016.  In many cases, including Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, this will have far reaching consequences for public education.  So you need to make certain that your advocacy efforts are clearly targeted.

 At the same time, open seats represent an opportunity for us to tell our story to a new potential audience.  The caveat here is that many announced candidates will have a primary opponent so it can be a challenge to figure out who will represent you in the 85th Session.  Starting too early, unless you have no bounds on your time, may not achieve the results you desire.  This is not to discourage you from engaging candidates in dialog but to encourage you to focus your time, energy and messaging.

Especially for those incumbents who have already announced or are likely to run in 2016, now is a great time to sit down and talk with them about public education.  We can expect to see continued focus and discussion surrounding so-called school choice (remember that public education is school choice), vouchers, and other vehicles that will divert funds from public education, as we asl discussions regarding high stakes testing.  

I recently had the opportunity to meet with three key education advocacy groups in Austin, Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Accountability (TAMSA), Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), and Pastors for Texas Children.  Along with TASB, these organizations are working hard to have their voices heard in Austin.  

While I won’t pretend to know all of the advocacy groups that support public education, each of you has your favorites.  Stay in touch with them and make certain that you know their position and are able to succinctly tell your story, asking for their support of your position.  And if your district has a legislative platform, share it with everyone at every opportunity. 

Of course, the elephant in the room is the upcoming hearing by the Texas Supreme Court of the school finance case.  While difficult to plan for an unknown outcome, school board trustees should carefully watch the proceedings so that you are poised to respond to whatever decision is made.

The next 12-15 months represent a great opportunity for each of us as public education advocates.  Don’t sit idly on the sidelines thinking you cannot influence those who represent you.  You will find that just the opposite is true!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Thank you, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock

Those of us involved with public education advocacy need look no further than the office of Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) to thank him for his support for public schools during his years of service as a school board trustee, member of the Texas House of Representatives, and most recently the Chairman of the House Public Education Committee.  The announcement by the Texas Schools Public Relations Association (TSPRA) that Chairman Aycock is the recipient of the TSPRA 2015 Key Communicator Award only underscores the value of the contributions he has made to public education in Texas.  Sadly for all of us, Chairman Aycock has indicated that he will retire from the House and not seek reelection in 2016.  His positive influence will be missed by all of us - especially by the 5 million plus students in Texas public schools.

Before lamenting his decision and applauding his contributions, I would like to acknowledge a former winner of the award and a dear friend of mine.  Bobby J Rigues, Aledo ISD trustee and the father of the Make Education a Priority (MEaP) grassroots movement, was named the winner of the TSPRA award in 2011.  Bobby J not only founded the movement but worked diligently to secure approval of a resolution supporting MEaP from a majority of school districts across the State of Texas.

As a former school board trustee in Carroll ISD (Southlake), it has been my honor for more than ten years to have served as an advocate not only for the students in my home district but across the entire state.  It has been equally rewarding to have worked with Bobby J, and with insight from Chairman Aycock, to have developed and delivered presentations at various conferences surrounding the passage of House Bill 5 and the need for effective school board governance.  Chairman Aycock was most gracious in answering questions we posed to him and readily provided his perspective on the challenges of public education.

One need only to watch the leadership he provided in the 84th Legislative Session to truly appreciate his contributions.  He was a strong advocate of addressing funding challenges and not waiting for the Texas Supreme Court to act.  At the same time, he continued to keep initiatives related to House Bill 5 at the forefront of discussion among his peers in the House.  In recognizing his contributions, TSPRA made mention of Chairman Aycock’s efforts to not only improve the Texas public education system but to simultaneously defend it from the endless attacks by those who seek to undermine a system required under Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution.  For those not familiar with this, it states that “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.

Chairman Aycock consistently did his level best to ensure compliance with this requirement and for that we are all grateful.  As I reflected on his contributions, I read one quote that stood out among others.  James B. Crow, Executive Director of the Texas Association of School Boards, acknowledged the Chairman’s efforts very succinctly when he said, “His bravery in attempting to address school accountability, school turnaround measures and school finance in one session will not soon be forgotten.”  

We owe Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock a deep sense of gratitude for consistently keeping the discussion about public education policy as a priority.  He, perhaps more than any other person, demonstrated leadership to keep the focus on the more than 5 million students in the Texas public education system.  Thank you, sir, for your contributions and for making education a priority.

Friday, July 17, 2015

So what happens after NCLB?

As a ten-year former school board member in Carroll ISD (Southlake, TX), I watched with great interest as legislation that was supposed to ensure that kids in public schools had an opportunity to learn turned out to be pretty much the opposite.  Instead of focusing on creativity and learning in the classroom, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) passed in 2002 resulted in students having to take numerous high stakes tests.  And how did they prepare for them?  They took class time so that teachers could "teach to the test".  NCLB had a significant impact not just on the kids but on those who teach kids everyday.  Teachers and administrators found themselves having to do focus their energies toward student preparation to take these tests.
Finally, some sanity.  On July 16, the US Senate (by a vote of 81-17) passed the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), legislation that potentially alters the education landscape dramatically.  Among provisions incorporated were amendments that make career and technology education (CTE) a core subject, opportunities for districts to develop local policies regarding opting out of standardized tests, and a cap on the amount of time spent on tests.  Now that is real change.
The House passed similar legislation (Student Success Act) but only by a vote of 218-213.  It will now be up to a conference committee to define legislation that can be approved in both chambers and then sent on to the President.  There is clearly work still to be done.  What's not so clear is how this administration will respond to the legislation that is working its way through the process.
But why should we even care?  Whether you believe statistics that show the United States as significantly lagging in education compared to the rest of the world (and there is data that suggests just the opposite), it's critical that we get behind legislation that restores opportunities for creativity and real learning in the classroom.  Passage of this legislation could, in fact, stem the tide of an exodus of teachers from the profession, many because they had lost the autonomy and ability to truly impact education under NCLB.  At the core of those in the profession is a desire to make a difference in the lives of students; they now may have a renewed opportunity to achieve that.
Regardless of the data, it is time for us to step up and address the constraints that NCLB imposed on our educational system.  All of us have a responsibility to not only understand why the new legislation is important but to actively participate in an educational system that will create a foundation for the future of all of us.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Reflections on the 84th Legislature - Part Two

 Continuing from my last blog, let's continue to look at some of the hits and misses of this session.

There is no question that SB 149 (Seliger) was a significant hit for students.  Students who fulfill all of the graduation requirements but fail up to two EOC exams now at least have the hope that there is a way to graduate.  While not a "slam dunk" by any stretch of the imagination, this legislation does offer an alternative for these students. 

The validity and reliability of assessment instruments was a focal point, as were discussion about the length of time required for a test to be completed.  Specifically, 85% of students in grades 3-5 should take no more than 120 minutes; grades 6-8 should take no more than 180 minutes.  With the tests are still at the root of this discussion, there is at least a glimmer of hope that the dialog about testing that began in the 83nd session will continue to result in changes to philosophies and implementation of assessment tests.  My hat is off to TAMSA for continuing to push the meaningful assessment dialog.

The failure of supporters, despite a strong push from the Lt. Governor, to pass legislation in support of vouchers, taxpayer savings grants or similar proposals that would divert funds from public education, is a "hit" for public education.  I saw an editorial recently that provided a perspective that I had not seen addressed very much, namely that the shift of dollars toward private schools may not yield the results sought by those entities.  The point made was that, through a transfer of dollars, private schools open themselves to intervention from the very entities that fund them. 

With the lack of accountability in charters and private schools as one of the main criticisms, this may resolve itself.  Nevertheless, any program that diverts dollars most certainly represents a "miss" for public education.  Expect this to continue to be a major focus in the 85th session.

Parent trigger and opportunity school legislation discussions, while not moving forward this session, will remain discussion topics.  The real "miss" of each of these pieces of legislation is that they fail to put in place any plans to address the symptoms that result in failures on these campuses.  Much has been written about the fact that many of these campuses are predominantly minority students.  It's time to figure out how to provide these students with equal opportunity, not deny them.  You might look for a recent TED Talks presentation by a principal of a Philadelphia public school, found at and how she chose to address issues on her campus.

Ultimately, and in the spirit of HB 2804, I would give this legislative session a grade of a C-.  Until funding is restored to an adequate level and as long as vouchers, among other damaging subjects, remain topics of discussion, it will be very difficult for the Legislature to ever earn anything higher than a C.  Is that what we want from our representatives in Austin? 

Anticipating that the Governor will not call a special session, now is the time for public school advocates to start the process of advocating for students across the state.  This is not the end of the road; it is the beginning of efforts on the part of trustees, administrators, businesses, pastor groups and many others to position public education at the forefront of discussions in the 85th Session.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Reflections on the 84th Legislature - Part One

As we look back on the 84th Legislative Session, we can now assess whether this group of legislators focused on the needs of public education.  Sadly, what we find is that the House did, but the Senate seemed more preoccupied with issues that they considered of greater importance, including open carry, private schools, vouchers, etc.  And the actions of both Chambers are clearly a reflection of leadership.

Rather than continue to hammer away at how leadership supported or didn't support public education, I think it is time to reflect on some of the hits and misses of this session.  Among the hits was funding, although at a somewhat modest level, of pre-K education.  I know that some have questioned whether pre-K has merit, including challenges that ultimately offended pastors and clergy across the state.  Speaking on a personal level, as a grandfather of a 4 year old and a 6 year old, there is no question in my mind that both are and were far better equipped to enter kindergarten than if they had not experienced the many disciplines, including social interaction, that a pre-K program afforded them.

A second, although not an "out of the park" hit, is the recognition of the need for incremental funding of public education.  To their credit, both chambers recognized the importance of funding enrollment growth, although total funding may not keep pace with enrollment growth.  This benefits not only those who are a part of that enrollment growth, but also those who have been in the system since fewer resources have to be diverted or allocated across a larger number of students. 

Although the House, under the leadership of Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, actually discussed legislation that would have significantly increased funding, the Chairman felt that the legislation (HB 1789) had little chance of passage in the Senate.  Sadly, the withdrawal of this bill left a void in what had been at least a modest hope for public school districts.  Nevertheless, additional resources approved as part of the budget will offer some opportunity beyond what public education had going into the session.  And now the courts await.

And what about another bill that fell short of what had been pushed by public education and other groups, namely to look at individual campus assessments and how those are derived?  On the positive side, HB 2804 did at least reduce the importance of STAAR test results to a point where the accountability tests account for only 55% of the overall rating.   But the negative for me is the imposition of an A-F rating at individual campuses.  See my prior blogs on this subject.

I could go on ... and will ... in a subsequent blog.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

An Open Letter to Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock

Dear Rep. Aycock,

It is with great sadness that I heard the news yesterday that you do not intend to run for another term.  This truly is an announcement that will have far reaching potential implications over the next couple of years.  Thank you for your continued support of the 5.2 million public education students in the State of Texas.

As I reflect on the impact of your announcement, several things come to mind.  First and foremost is how you always kept the needs of all students as a top priority in your discussions.  Students, parents, educators and others who support public education truly appreciate your efforts in making certain that Texas has a sound public education system.  Your quote about the importance of focusing on good policy, not party extremes, is truly a reflection of your commitment to service. 

I think back fondly on a couple of meetings in your office.  During the 83rd Legislative Session, my fellow trustee Bobby J Rigues (Aledo ISD) and I were privileged to present at three Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) training sessions on the impact of House Bill 5, major legislation sponsored by you.  You were gracious enough to meet with us to provide the backdrop that led to this important legislation, focusing on the topics of curriculum, assessment, and accountability, as well as community and student engagement.  We walked away with a clearer understanding of the why behind the what.

Even more impactful to me personally was a meeting we had with you earlier this year as Bobby and I developed another TASB presentation to discuss the role and importance of governance in how trustees oversee district operations.  After a brief Q&A video session, your invitation to sit and talk for an additional 75 minutes was invaluable in understanding your views on public education.  I'm deeply honored to have had that opportunity to talk.

Your sponsorship of HB 1759 was an effort that was truly appreciated by advocates of public education.  Rather than wait for the courts to decide the public school funding issue, you made a sincere effort to address concerns addressed and now pending before the Supreme Court.  More importantly, your actions started the dialog and brought renewed hope among those of us in public education. 

Suffice it to say that public education will lose one of its greatest champions with your retirement.  Thank you, Chairman Aycock; I wish you the very best.  All of us who support public education are deeply indebted to you! 

Warmest regards,
Craig Rothmeier

Advocacy Advisor - Make Education a Priority

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

So an A-F campus rating system passes … what next?

With less than one week to go in the 84th legislative session, it appears likely that HB2804, Chairman Aycock’s effort to reduce the impact and importance of standardized tests, will become law, pending signature by the Governor.  While not what trustees and administrators were hoping, the Chairman’s efforts on this bill at least bring about some element of balance to a flawed system.  What I disagreed with most in this debate was the Chairman’s comment that, “We have to call them something”.  Yes, we do have to call them something but assigning a letter grade doesn’t tell the entire story.

In fairness to Chairman Aycock, he has been an ardent supporter of public education over several sessions.  His leadership on the passage of HB 5 in the 83rd Session set a tone across the State to focus more on career and technology and community engagement; that legislation has clearly impacted schools in a very positive manner.  And his sponsoring of HB 1759, an effort to move toward adequate funding of public education, was certainly noteworthy compared to the final funding that was approved.

Looking at HB 2804 a bit further, only 55% of the campus grade will be derived directly from STAAR and EOC test results.  The remaining 45% will be derived using other criteria.  As a plug for the efforts of Dax Gonzalez and TASB Governmental Relations, the following comes directly from Dax’s update on May 25.

“The first domain (55%) would be solely based on the test, while the second and third domains would be based on student growth and closing gaps between student groups. The fourth domain would consist of non-test measures, such as certifications students earn, military enlistment, advanced placement courses taken, and other items listed in the bill. The fifth domain would measure parent and student engagement.”  (source: Dax Gonzalez, TASB GR, May 25, 2015)

So where is the good news in this?  Quite simply, it’s the reduced impact of standardized testing.  And while I (and others) still argue that assigning a specific grade rating at a campus level creates a potential stigma for lower performing campuses (see my prior blog on HB 2804), the discussion regarding ratings at least got the dialog going and acknowledged the need to look at more than test scores.  And that can be a good thing!

Now that trustees and administrators know the ground rules (of course, pending finalizing of the legislation and signature by the governor), they can at least focus on how to manage those elements that impact the rating.  But rather than get caught up in the rhetoric about what a particular rating means, and thereby increasing the stigma of a low rating, they can focus on how to address the shortcomings that ultimately drive the campus grade. 

It’s easy to lay blame; the challenge now is to take steps to address the root cause and to find ways to improve across all five domains over time.  The students of these campuses are entitled to such an effort on the part of trustees and administrators (and parents!) alike.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Who is prioritizing public education?

The 84th Legislative Session started out with at least a glimmer of hope that both chambers would address the needs of public education.  Well, they did … but in totally different ways.  The House public education committee, under the leadership of Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, focused a significant amount of dialog on how to increase funding to the required level; HB 1759 (before withdrawn) would have increased public education funding by as much as $3 billion (over the biennium) on top of the $2.3 billion required to support enrollment growth.

The Senate public education committee, on the other hand, spent more time discussing alternatives to public education and funding considerations that support what they characterized as “school choice”.  The dialog among committee members ultimately resulted in SB4, among others, legislation that is characterized as being about taxpayer savings grants but is, in reality, still a voucher proposal that moves funds from public education to other options.

While the House clearly understood the requirement defined in Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution that  “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”, the Senate chose a different path, one that fails to fulfill the requirements imposed by the Constitution.

There is still some hope as the conference committee led by Sen. Nelson and Rep. Otto seems to be leaning toward an increase to public education funding equal to $1.2-1.5 billion (in addition to enrollment growth funding).  While well short of the House proposal, this does at least offer some hope that legislators understand the importance of adequacy in our system.  What is not clear yet is how these funds will then address the equity issues that are also a part of litigation currently pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

So what can you do as a trustee?  First and foremost, don’t give up the fight!  Public education is and always has been a “school choice” consideration.  It’s critical that the voices of public education students be heard; the most impactful mouthpiece for that voice is through locally elected public school trustees.  This is not just an opportunity for trustees to be stronger advocates; it is a requirement that those elected to serve students in their communities step up to the responsibility imposed by election to their role as trustees.  Remember, you are doing this not for yourselves but for the more than five million students (and growing) who rely on you to represent them.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Why do we think that applying a grade is going to fix anything?

Despite some progress during the 84th legislative session in addressing the needs of the more than 5 million public education students (SB 149 is a great example), there is still relatively little progress in getting to the source of the issues public education faces.  Whether focused on assessment or school finance, this session and these legislators have, in large part, once again come up short in listening to the needs of their constituents.  And now this....

Both the House and the Senate have now approved assigning campus ratings to individual campuses, the House doing so on May 14 as part of HB 2804.  What they failed to do in these discussions is to recognize that addressing the issue of poor performing schools is not as simple as assigning a grade of A-F.  They failed to acknowledge that there are many factors that impact the performance of a campus.  At the top of the list is the overall socioeconomic environment of the campus.  A high level of poverty among students on a campus is a very strong predictor of performance by that campus.

Here is another consideration.  A student is the valedictorian on a campus that has been assigned a poor letter grade.  Does that mean that the student performance is not noteworthy and that the accomplishment is somehow minimized or negated because of a campus rating?  And what about the perception on the part of all students?  Isn't a stigma attached to the campus (and indirectly to the students) that makes them feel less capable and less worthy of praise by administrators, teachers and parents?  Why do we think that attaching a grade that creates a stigma is solving anything?

So when do we attack the root of the issue and not the outcomes?  At what point do we realize that investing in these students and these campuses is the most logical way to address this issue?  I have no issue with assigning grades to districts, as we have been doing for many years.  It is certainly fair to hold the district accountable for their overall performance and for the performance on individual campuses.   Working with local community members, students, administrators and business leaders, the problem at a campus level is better solved at a local level than applying state oversight.

It would be nice if we could set aside the personal agendas of those who purportedly represent us and to focus on the needs of the students.  Headlines like an A-F campus grading system make for great theater.  But does it solve the problem and do the students gain anything from this?  Other states have tried ratings systems and now acknowledge that their implementation is not helping to solve a problem.  Instead of continuing the trial and error of shortsighted actions, maybe we can step back and start with an assessment of the issues and then decide how to address them.  A "solution looking for a problem" ultimately fixes nothing.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Trustees - Your Voices Must be Heard!

Sen. Konni Burton has introduced SB 1862, a bill that would prohibit school districts and other public institutions from advocating on behalf of their constituents.  But nowhere is there any effort to control or limit the efforts of other lobbyists in furthering their cause by lobbying before the legislature.  Aren’t our elected officials in Austin there to seek out viewpoints from all parties, then decide on a course of action?

One of her arguments is that public monies are being committed to a cause that may not be supported by the very public that has paid their taxes to the political subdivision; from my standpoint, the political subdivision here is an elected Board of Trustees governing the public school districts in the State of Texas.  The reality is that the public does have a say in how their monies are being spent by electing trustees that they believe will be good stewards of the funds of the district. 

On the other hand, does the public have any say or control over how dollars are being spent by other lobbyists?  For example, Pearson lobbies extensively in support of their textbooks and their assessment efforts that are part of the STAAR exams.  Clearly, Pearson is passing those costs back to the very clients that they purport to serve, namely public education.  The State of Texas is then funding these efforts.  And who ultimately pays for this?  Hmm, might it be the citizens of the State of Texas?

There is a huge difference between lobbying and advocacy.  Pearson expends significant dollars advocating for a greater share of funds, funds that directly impact public education.  If they are successful, the only “winner” is Pearson. 

On the other hand, the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) represents the more than 1000 public education school districts in Texas.  If one believes that elected trustees are good stewards of public monies and that the needs of students drive decisions trustees make, TASB is the “voice” for the over 5 million public education students (and growing) in the State.  Unlike Pearson, TASB is not focused on self-interests but on advocating for student issues relating to funding, graduation requirements, curriculum and a myriad of other topics. 

It’s important that the public education student in the State of Texas have a “voice” in Austin.  While local trustees can certainly advocate for their districts and for public education as a whole, the fact is that advocacy on behalf of all students benefits the State a great deal.  This legislation fails to acknowledge the difference between lobbying and advocacy, creating a playing field that is heavily slanted toward business self-interest. 

Public education students deserve the right to be heard in Austin; SB 1862 would quiet that voice to the detriment of all students.  The responsibility of our representatives in Austin is to listen to all voices, not to silence those whose opinions differ from their own.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Lions, Tigers and Bears … oh, my.

Or is it Culture, Governance and Student Achievement?

So just how important are culture and governance in achieving student success?  On the surface, this may seem to be an easy question to answer but let's take a moment to look into this further.  School districts do not operate in a vacuum; there are many variables that drive behavior and actions across the district.  Let’s look at how all of these interrelate and tie back to good governance within the district.

Quoting Dr. Jamie Wilson, Superintendent of Denton ISD, “it (governance) begins with culture and ends with partnerships, relationships, and cooperation”.  What culture are we talking about?  First, what about the culture that exists within our communities?  Are our parents engaged (see my prior blog on parent engagement)?  Are students actively engaged in the classroom?  What about the impact of the business community within our districts?  Certainly each of these is a critical element and, while we as trustees cannot directly impact these variables, our actions will certainly influence how engaged the community and our students are.

A second aspect of culture is that involving the superintendent and the Board of Trustees.  Is there a high level of trust?  Is there open communications between the superintendent and the board and do all board members feel free to speak openly about their views on public education and student achievement?  One of the most important responsibilities of trustees is to work with the superintendent to formulate a shared vision, a vision that sets the direction for all actions and outcomes. 

Third, and I would argue likely the most important, is the culture that exists within the board itself.  Is the culture one of trust and respect or is there dissension among trustees that adversely impacts the functions of the board?  Dissension and disagreement are critical elements of any board operation but these must be managed with trust and respect for the opinions of others.

The bottom line is that we often ignore the impact of culture, how that impacts or drives governance, and how both impact student achievement.  It's up to us as trustees to ensure that everything we do remains focused on student achievement.  If we fail to do so, we feed the argument by some that school boards are becoming increasingly irrelevant.  For my part, that is unacceptable and does not fairly represent the impact that all of us are making.  This is our time to step up and demonstrate that, through good governance, we can and do positively impact student achievement in our districts.  Our culture demands that we do precisely that.