Thursday, March 31, 2016

Our public education system is not failing!

I recently read an article from the Houston Chronicle titled “Fixing Texas’ failing education system is critical for employers”.  The article was published in the March 17 edition of the Chronicle but, like most major market newspapers today, unless you have a subscription to the paper or to their digital edition, it is very difficult to actually read the article.  Through perseverance and with an assist from a trustee in the Houston area, I was able to read the article.

The headline is certainly eye catching and the type of headline that sells newspapers, but is it reality?  Is the system failing or do we have just a few schools that are challenged and require assistance and collaboration with stakeholders?  And when was the last time that the author of the article, Chris Tomlinson, visited a public school?  In fact, that same question could be asked about others who were quoted in the article.

I can’t disagree with the basic premise.  Viewed from a different angle, the article asserts, and rightfully so, that a quality public education system is essential to the growth and continued vitality of our economy.  While constitutionally mandated (as noted in the article), the public education system acknowledges its role in a vibrant Texas economy through delivery of a number of programs that challenge students to succeed and to excel.  Whether offering programs like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), academies in fields such as medical and engineering, or a Career and Technical Education (CTE) track, Texas public schools consistently focus on what is required to meet the ever changing needs of a diverse student population.

The article starts out by challenging the reader to visit a third grade and observe the reading capability of that third grade class.  I certainly do not argue or disagree with the importance of being able to read at that level.  But I do wonder where those who criticize reading results are doing anything to help address the problem.  For example, as a print media, what is the Houston Chronicle doing to promote on grade level or higher reading skills, not just in third grade but across the elementary grade spectrum?.  Is this maybe an opportunity for media companies, many of whom are faced with declining readership, to tackle new and aggressive ways to engage young students’ minds and to promote reading?

This should not be about documenting the problems in some schools; that’s the easy part.  Instead, it should be about what stakeholders, including print media and Texas businesses, are doing to understand and then address the challenges these districts face.  In fairness, the article cites that a contributing factor in falling short in meeting employers’ expectations is a reduction in business apprentice programs.  So while the business community expresses concerns that the public education system is falling short of expectations, what is it doing, in turn, to help address the problem?

In truth, there is no single answer to address the problems and what the author labelled as a failing public education system.  But the article by Mr. Tomlinson does point out the importance of all parties, including districts, businesses, community members and the legislature, working together to address the issue.  Remember, it’s easy to lay the blame at someone else’s door step.  What is needed is a collaborative effort involving all stakeholders to Make Education a Priority for the nearly 5.3 million Texas public education students.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Walmart, Public Education and Our Students

I recently saw a tweet that led me to an article about the impact of Walmart on public education in this country (click here for the article).  Those of us who are advocates for public education are no doubt very familiar with the efforts of the Walmart Family Foundation, the Gates Foundation and others who purport to advance the quality of public education.  On the surface, we can all agree that any efforts to provide enhanced educational opportunities for students are a good thing.  But at what expense to those they say they are trying to impact?

And that’s where the Walmart business model that has yielded so much success for the family and their shareholders starts to come into focus.  I have traveled a great deal of the country by car and, as a result, have gone through numerous small towns where Main Street USA has become a ghost town.  And in many cases, the tip-off that this would be the case can be found out the outskirts of town where a Walmart has been built.  Would Main Street USA have disappeared without Walmart coming into town?  Perhaps so since there has been a flight from small towns to the cities for any number of reasons, including droughts and the impact on farming.  But the presence of the large corporations in these small towns has been significant.

So how does all of this impact public education?  As proponents of so-called school choice promote vouchers and charter schools, they are promoting options that impact their corporate bottom line, often at the expense of the local communities and the local schools within those communities.  Instead of being at the core of the community, the push to privatize is leaving local schools much like the local businesses who have been displaced by Walmart, fractured and, in many cases, shuttered.

Has the Walmart strategy been good for the Walton family and shareholders?  Unquestionably.  What about the small business on Main Street USA?  Certainly not.  And what will be the impact of their efforts on the stakeholders in public education, namely the students and parents in communities currently served by local schools?  That verdict is still out but it seems likely to me that we run the risk that outcomes will be very much like those of the small businesses that no longer exist.  This time, however, we are talking about students. 

As a final thought, quoting the author of the article, Jeff Bryant, “Completely lost in the discussion, though, is whether it's right for the American populace to have its access to education determined by the values and philosophy of a few rich people.”  The discussion should center instead on the needs of the students and how we Make Education a Priority for the nearly 5.3 million Texas public education students.  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

School Choice and the 85th Legislature

With the primaries over (and in many cases, those are in fact the election), it’s time for all of us to redouble our education advocacy efforts.  Although there are nearly ten months before the opening of the 85th Legislative Session, there clearly is a focus on education on several fronts, including leadership in the Senate.  The Lt. Governor has gone on record as stating that vouchers will be one of his top priorities for the upcoming session.

A recent article (click here to read the article) in the Community Impact newspaper made an effort to summarize the pros and cons of so-called school choice.  And while you may not agree with the premise of each or the accuracy of each statement, their analysis at least represents an attempt to provide a balanced view of the considerations, something many do not offer.

The reality is that there are schools and districts that are not meeting the needs of students today.  But, as I suggested in a recent blog (, I don’t believe that running from these challenges is the right way to address them.  Sure, one might argue that it is good for those who are able to use the dollars made available to them and move to a private or other school.  As kids, were we taught to run when things got tough?

But what about those who don’t have the financial wherewithal (or desire) to do so?  Schools are often the heart of the community; wouldn’t it make sense to bring the community together by addressing the shortcomings of a campus rather than splintering the students and breaking up their social development opportunities?

While I applaud the efforts of Community Impact to bring the education debate to the forefront, two specific things (and these are certainly not the only two!) come to mind about the debate.  First of all, charter schools are not held to the same accountability standards as public schools, yet are funded with public dollars.  Second, charter schools can be much more selective in who they admit (and expel) than can a public school.  If charters and public schools played on a level playing field, I have no doubts that public schools would consistently outperform most charters.

I am not suggesting that there is not room for a charter or private school environment.  To the contrary, I encourage discussion not just about the type of school but a focus on what best meets the needs of students.  That, after all, is what the debate should be about, not a one sided emphasis on one option or the other.  The students don’t really care (and shouldn’t) about the delivery option; they are more concerned that we Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Austin ISD - A Great Example of Engaged Trustees

I recently saw a tweet highlighting actions taken by the Austin ISD Board of Trustees with an intent to create innovative schools from existing classrooms.  The article from the Austin Statesman can be found by clicking here.

This type of forward thinking and, more importantly,action by the board is a shining example of how one district has chosen to address the myriad of challenges they face not just today but into the future.  This discussion is not about school choice options although it clearly is about school choice, a board taking the steps to create excellent public education options for the students in Austin ISD.

So what are the challenges Austin ISD is facing and why are their initiatives so important?  This is not about more and better buildings, proposals that bring to light the challenges many have made that the public sector is taking on too much debt (more about that in a later blog).  This is about a more efficient utilization of existing buildings and classrooms, initiatives that address the challenges associated with declining enrollment in some schools, recapture as a Chapter 41 district, the presence of an increasing number of charter schools, and aging of current schools.

Without stealing the thunder of a very well written article, as a former school board trustee myself, I was impressed by the focus of the board on solving current challenges and looking to the future.  Acknowledging that there are certain contributing factors such as a high cost of housing that they cannot control or impact, the trustees nevertheless are undertaking a longer term planning effort to address those elements that they can.

The ultimate winners as a result of this forward thinking effort are the students.  I applaud the Austin ISD Board of Trustees as they undertake renewed efforts to Make Education a Priority.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Running Doesn’t Solve a Problem (Except for a Runner!)

Pastors for Texas Children (@pastors4txkids) recently tweeted a quote by Raise Your Hand Texas (@ryhtexas) that really struck a chord with me and supports a belief that I have had all along when it comes to addressing the challenges of the so-called “failing schools”.  Their quote:

“If the voucher debate is really about kids, we’d target those 70 or 80 struggling schools out of 8,500 public schools and we would give them the resources they need to succeed.  The Legislature consistently refuses to do that.”

It reminds me of the discussion about the failing transportation infrastructure in our country but where it differs is that we talk about fixing the roads and bridges that make up the infrastructure that fuels our economy.  Imagine if that discussion were to focus only on starting over with other options at the expense of the existing infrastructure.  Could we afford that? 

The obvious answer is no but this seems to be the perspective of those who want to funnel dollars from public education to other options.  I am not suggesting that options should not be in the mix; if they weren’t, we wouldn’t be having discussions about high speed rail and mass transit as solutions to address a multitude of transportation problems.  What I am suggesting is that all options need to be discussed, not one solely at the expense of others.

The more than 5.3 million public education students deserve better.  If a student is in a failing school, they are owed the commitment of their district, their community and their families to do all that they can.  And while the quote may have focused on funding challenges, that is but one part of the equation.  What is needed is first of all an acknowledgment of the challenges these schools and thee students face, followed quickly by a commitment to address these issues and, more importantly, set a longer term course toward a quality education for those students.  Incidentally, for a perspective on how one district is addressing issues and anticipating challenges, see my blog about Austin ISD.

Simply throwing money at the issues these schools face will not solve the problem.  To truly make a difference in the lives of students in struggling schools requires a commitment of the community, including parents, the board of trustees, district and campus administrators, business partners and the students themselves.  All should share a common purpose, namely to Make Education a Priority for students in all public schools.  As with the transportation infrastructure, an investment in our public schools will generate a significantly greater return than walking (or running) from the challenges.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Does an A-F School Ratings System Really Tell Us Anything?

The A-F school rating system was passed by the 83rd Legislative Session, with implementation in the 2017-2018 school year, and I am still trying to figure out who this benefits, if anyone.  This is also a matter of timing, as noted in a recent exchange between Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro and Sen. Larry Taylor, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. 

Mr. Malfaro’s contention is that work underway by the Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability, including a March 23 discussion of this rating system by the Commission, may provide an opportunity for the 84th Legislature to again look at this and determine if it best addresses the question on how to evaluate public schools. 

Lost in all of this is how the A-F rating system will address the needs of the more than 5.3 million Texas public education students.  Does it provide an opportunity to address the challenges of struggling campuses or is it a rating that is to be used against the campus?  As I reflect back to my experiences in public schools, we certainly received a grade for our performance on exams.  That by itself might suggest this as a system that makes sense.  Where it differs from my experience, however, is that the grade was used as a reference point in defining areas for improvement; that appears to be lacking here since those advocating for education options see this as a reason to move dollars from public education, not invest to address the issues and challenges.

I wonder as well what impact an A-F rating system will have on the students on that struggling campus.  Many of these campuses are in areas where the majority of the students are economically disadvantaged and they may not have the opportunity to move to another option, even if dollars to do so were made available to them.  I’m also concerned about the stigma attached to a campus and how that impacts the performance of students on that campus.  We were all taught as kids to strive to achieve.  But if these students are told that they are in an environment where they cannot succeed, a great number of them may accept that as the norm and choose to drop out.  The long term ramifications of this stigmatization are dramatic on all stakeholders, not just the students themselves.  Parents and community members may feel that they cannot make a difference (the reality is that they can!) and thus stop trying or fail to participate in the debate about public education.

Mr. Malfaro cited a recent study by the National Education Policy Center that highlighted the fallacies of A-F rating systems, noting that report card systems:
  •           don’t necessarily measure school quality;
  •           do not foster critical thinking;
  •           preclude participation by parents and community members in the deliberation about public schools’ policies; and .
  •          do not consider a broad array of evaluation criteria, including achievement, attendance, and dropout rates.

The NEPC concluded that there is “little credible research on whether letter grades validly measure and express school quality.”

Does this mean we should not evaluate schools and districts?  Not at all, but we should be careful in not forcing the pendulum to move to the extremes.  There will be pros and cons with any evaluation system but the risk is that relying solely on testing does not address the requirements of the students.  Rather than focus on the outcome, as TEA Commissioner Mike Morath told me, we must focus on the process.  If we do that, we will truly Make Education a Priority.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Primaries are Over – Now What? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this topic, I suggested that now is the opportune time for trustees and public education advocates to initiate their efforts at the local level.  I recently had the privilege of attending a dinner hosted by the Fast Growth Schools Coalition at which Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, as we the speaker.  I have been fortunate to spend time in a number of meetings and presentations where the Chairman offered his view of public education and what he sees as the challenges that lie ahead.

In this blog, I’d like to highlight comments he made at this dinner and to offer encouragement that, with the proper focus and effort, there is a battle to be won.  Without question, we will not get everything that we want in an ideal public education world.  But we stand no chance of attaining the goals we set for public education without a strong grassroots effort to tell the positive story of public education.

What are some of the challenges according to Rep. Aycock?  At the top of the list is a focus on public debt and how public monies are being spent.  A second issue is that of transparency, an issues that seems to permeate the public education environment but not have the same level of focus for charter schools.  Third is student growth; this obviously has a direct impact on the first issue and how we provide facilities and other services to support the growth in student population.  It is certainly fair to ask how much debt is reasonable but that question has to be answered in the context of student growth.

What advice did he provide to us?  First is to focus spending on the classrooms and for districts to economize where they can; it will be difficult for legislators to challenge these efforts.  Rep. Aycock also suggested that districts need to continually challenge themselves to economize their operations.  A third main point of advice is to continue to build the public trust and involve the community in decisions and discussions about the direction of a district and public education in general.  Ultimately legislators and other elected officials are accountable to their constituents; do what you can to create trust and a positive public perception of the work being done in your local schools.

We have an opportunity over the next 10 months to articulate a powerful message to our elected officials.  Will it be easy?  Certainly not.  Will they be receptive to the message?  In many cases, they won’t but they likely will at least give you the opportunity to share your message with them; take advantage of that opportunity.  Finally, set a positive tone in your discussions with legislators.  They already hear a great deal of negative input from constituents.  Let’s do our part to send a positive, consistent message, a message that we are asking for their support to Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Primaries are Over – Now What? (Part 1)

With the primaries now behind us and many races for House and Senate seats decided in the primaries, it’s time for public education advocates to get down to work.  We already know that there will be a renewed focus on vouchers in the 84th session, whether they are called vouchers or another name.  But the reality is that there is a push for privatization and moving dollars out of our public schools to other options. 

While I have written before about what I perceive as the fallacies in some of the arguments suggesting a need to look at options other than public schools, the bottom line is that we have to do what is best for the 5.3 million Texas public education students, 93% of whom are educated in our local public schools.  This suggests to me that there is room for private schools and charters but not at the expense of public education and, in the case of charter schools, not without transparency surrounding admission (and expulsion) policies and accountability for result in those schools.  Public dollars are being expended and it is right for us as taxpayers to demand the same transparency and accountability that we have in our public schools.

Back to the question at hand … Now that the primaries are over, what next?  First and foremost, we must continue our push to communicate with policymakers and they know our position on all things education.  There is a tremendous story to be told about the Texas public education product but the naysayers would have us believe that we have a plethora of failing public schools.  I don’t deny that there are areas where we have problems but those problems are not solved by running from the problem.  None of us were raised to run when faced with challenges; why do some think that is the right response to challenges in our system.

We have approximately 10 months until the 84th session convenes in January, 2017.  Incumbents, newly “elected” legislators via a primary vote where there is no opposition from the other party, and those who will be elected in May will have a great deal of work to do preparing for the next session.  As public education advocates, now is the time to reach out to your local officials, engage them in a discussion about public education and do your part to communicate the positive message about what we see every day in our public schools.

Education will be one of the main topics of the next session, along with health care and transportation, among others.  And depending on what happens with the price of oil, a factor that could potentially have a significant financial impact on the State, there will be strong posturing to convince legislators on how dollars should be allocated.  With a base of more than 7000 locally elected trustees, we have the opportunity, through advocacy with locally elected officials, to push to Make Education a Priority.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

How Well Is Texas Doing With Public Education?

One of my fellow board members of Make Education a Priority shared a report with me that evaluated schools across the country based on six different criteria and then assigned an overall grade for public education in each state.  The report, published by the Network for Public Education (NPE), an organization founded by Diane Ravitch, can be found by clicking here

The truly sad part of this report is that no state graded higher than a C overall.  While some states did better in one or more of the criteria, the overall ratings reflect the deficiencies confronting public education today.  They also point out the challenges based on a set of criteria established by NPE during the evaluation process.  Note that the study methodology is outlined quite well in the document itself.

The six evaluation criteria and Texas’ grade for each are as follows. 
  •           No High Stakes Testing; Texas Grade - C
  •           Professionalization of Teaching; Texas Grade – F
  •           Resistance to Privatization; Texas Grade - F
  •           School Finance; Texas Grade – D
  •           Spend Taxpayer Resources Wisely; Texas Grade – D
  •           Chance for Success; Texas Grade – F

With these as the backdrop, the overall grade given to the public education system in Texas is an F.  While I applaud the intent of trying to evaluate a public system that is under attack on many fronts, both at the national and state level, it seems to me that this evaluation serves to “feed” those who are behind efforts to tear down our public education system.  I personally would like to see a greater emphasis on actions that will reverse the trends and start to improve grades in each of the categories.

It is worth noting that some of the changes in public education are grounded in actions or efforts originated in Texas.  For example, Texas adopted the first state mandated criterion-referenced test in 1980.  The proliferation of high stakes testing occurred under the administration of President George W. Bush.  And the impetus to reverse what had become a devastating use of high stakes testing was initiated by Texas Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA), resulting in a reduction in end-of-course exams from 15 to 5, approved in the 83th Legislative Session in 2013.

The continued use of a single letter grade to assess performance at a campus level or at a district level does little to define ways to address the problem.  It is important, therefore, that the grades assigned to the six criteria and to the State of Texas as a whole simply serve as a reference point for communities, students and staff, and local businesses.  Grades should be used as a starting point in defining actions to improve overall performance.  Take time to review the data but, more importantly, take time to engage in those activities that Make Education a Priority. The 5.3 million Texas public education students are counting on all of us to do so!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Community Conversations and House Bill 2804

House Bill 2804, passed in 2015 by the 84th Texas Legislature, established the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability.  The commission, appointed by the Governor, has held the first of six meetings that will develop and make recommendations for new systems of student assessment and public school accountability.  The commission’s work and presentation to the Governor must be completed no later than September 1, 2016. 

In an effort to assist the commission in completing their task of a review of the assessment and accountability system in Texas, the State Board of Education, chaired by Donna Bahorich, is sponsoring a series of Community Conversations around the state.  On February 16 and 17, meetings were held in Ft. Worth and Dallas and were attended by educators, parents and community members and local businesses.

The purpose of these meetings was really threefold:
  •          Discuss the role of assessment and accountability
  •           Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the current system
  •           Provide input to the Commission on areas to address

Regardless of their involvement as attendees, there was unanimity in a number of areas, including a belief that testing is excessive and not necessarily aligned with the goals of post-secondary readiness.  There was a general consensus that testing today is used as a punitive measure and not consistently focused on how testing measures the outcomes themselves, specifically measuring whether students are learning what they are being taught.  One statement made that was particularly alarming is that, “when the test is over, nothing further is taught”.

The SBOE will be publishing the output of these discussions with a target date of the end of April.  Those of us interested in the direction of the discussion relating to assessments and accountability (and all of us likely are) should closely monitor the discussions, and take time personally to offer input to local legislators as well as members of the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability.  With the engagement of all stakeholders, we can continue to Make Education a Priority.