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.