Thursday, April 28, 2016

Legislators in the Classroom … Please!

I published a blog on April 5 in which I offered a glimpse at a program to be offered this October called School Priority Month (SPM’16).  Specifically, Make Education a Priority (MEaP) envisions this program as an opportunity every two years, just before the legislative session in January of the following year, to invite local and statewide elected officials into our classrooms to experience firsthand the successes being achieved in Texas public schools. 

With the rhetoric around school choice already a topic of conversation, as well as the anticipated Supreme Court decision regarding the school finance lawsuit, we can expect to see public education as a focal point in the 85th Legislature.  And now is the time for those of us who are public education advocates to start the conversation with our elected officials.  

SPM’16 is but one aspect of what should be a very concerted communications effort at all levels of government.  Garnering the support of our elected officials, most of whom acknowledge the schools as the core fabric of the community, is critical in meeting the needs of the nearly 5.3 million Texas public education students.

Speaking of the school finance ruling, Kristi Hassett, Lewisville ISD trustee, posted an excellent blog on the options that the Supreme Court has at their disposal.  Here blog can be found by clicking here.

SPM’16 will focus on the classroom as well as co/extracurricular activities that provide developmental and growth opportunities for the nearly 5.3 million students in our public education system.   MEaP also envisions a student roundtable as part of the day’s activities, an opportunity for students to share why public education is critical to their personal development.  Recognizing that elected officials may have only a limited time on a campus, the program will focus on breadth of message that supports the need for a quality education system.

The success of SPM’16 will rely on a coordinated and committed effort on the part of advocates across the state, starting with locally elected school board trustees.  There is strength in numbers but only if we exercise the right to demonstrate our commitment to Texas public education children.  SPM'16 will be an outstanding opportunity to pull this messaging together and to demonstrate not only why our students need the support of our elected officials, but to also acknowledge the tremendous work done every day on our local campuses. 

It’s up to us to ensure that those elected to serve us understand the need and importance to Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

TEA Appointments – What Do They Mean?

Taken strictly at face value, some have criticized the recent appoints by TEA Commissioner Mike Morath as not representing the nearly 5.3 million Texas public education students.  If you look at the resumes and backgrounds of the newly appointed officials, there is perhaps cause for concern.  Rather than jump to conclusions, however, I believe that we should carefully weigh the experience factor and some certainly do have extensive experience in education.  The fact that much of it may not be in public education suggests that perhaps we take a bit more of a wait and see approach rather than rush to judgment.

Commissioner Morath has spent a considerable part of his first almost four months in his position reaching out to education groups across the state.  He has engaged in extensive dialogue with superintendents, trustees, and advocacy groups such as Make Education a Priority.  Bobby Rigues, founder/CEO of MEaP, and I met with the commissioner shortly after he was sworn in in early January and found him to be very interested in understanding our perspectives on public education.  We are grateful for that and will continue the periodic conversation in support of our advocacy efforts.  It’s refreshing to me that he has shown interest in understanding our position.

The commissioner, as most know, served as a school board trustee in Dallas ISD prior to his appointment so he clearly has a background in understanding some of the needs and challenges of public education.  Whether we all agree with his position is not the issue to me.  The issue is how well we can engage in conversations with the commissioner and have the opportunity to share why we believe there needs to be greater support for public education.

So what does this all mean?  With the lines of communication clearly open, and with a commissioner who is willing to have conversations with advocated of public education, the focus now shifts to those of us who advocate for the children in our public schools.  We may not agree with everything that comes out of the commissioner’s office (or from his staff) but I do believe his office will continue to strive to Make Education a Priority.  It’s up to all of us to ensure that our views, and ultimately the needs of those we serve, are heard.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Merits of House Bill 5

When I started my blog in February, 2014, I did so in an effort to share information with school board trustees about the importance of House Bill 5 and how that legislation would positively impact students across the State of Texas.  Since the legislation was passed in to law and signed by Governor Perry in June, 2013, much progress has been made toward providing enhanced opportunities for students.  But there are still those who challenge the legislation and whether it is effective.

In a recent editorial, the Austin America- Statesman criticized the overall impact of the legislation, initially stating that there had been minimal impact on students and that it had fallen short of the goal of increased college readiness for 2014 and 2015 graduates.  That message struck a chord with some, specifically Alief Superintendent HD Chambers, a strong proponent of the legislation.   In a response published in the American-Statesman on April 11, found here, Mr. Chambers and Joe Arnold, senior government affairs manager for BASF Corp., documented the successes achieved and the positive outlook for Texas public education. 

One of the key tenets of HB 5 was an acknowledgment that not all students will choose to pursue a four year college degree.  The carefully drafted legislation, with significant input from Mr. Chambers, recognized this and established a number of different programs that provide opportunities for students to become career ready as opposed to focusing only on college readiness.  What is important about this legislation is that it acknowledged the need for some post-secondary education in order to create a platform for personal success. 

The first class that will go through high school under HB 5 will be the class of 2018 so it is truly too early to draw definitive conclusions about the impact.  As a former school board trustee and now president of Make Education a Priority, a public education advocacy organization, I have already seen the impact in areas of community engagement and the rapid adoption by districts of multiple endorsements within the district, many of which are grounded in partnerships with businesses and institutions of higher education.

HB 5 has the potential to change the landscape of career and college readiness.  With continued support from administrators in how they implement it, a strong community engagement element that involves all stakeholders, and commitments from businesses and institutions of higher education, achieving this potential is well underway.  The winners are the nearly 5.3 million students in Texas public education who fuel the ongoing need to Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What Is the Purpose of Testing?

With the recent STAAR testing debacle behind us (and amid the ongoing debate about what happened, who’s to blame, what can be done to prevent this from occurring again, and so on), this seems like a good time to step back and really consider the true purpose of testing. For an extensive discussion on testing and its merits, I encourage you to read Diane Ravitch’s blog post entitled Texas: The State Obsessed with Testing.  Diane’s post itself addresses her concerns but what I found even more interesting were the comments that follow the blog.  

I recently came across the following infographic published by Central Ohio Friends of Public Educators.

This may be the very best summary I have seen of what tests should and should not be about.  When I think back to my days as a student in Colorado public schools, I recall that we put great emphasis on grades in evaluating student performance and needs, not on punishing students, campuses and districts as current testing and accountability systems do.  We were very focused on grades primarily because an overall GPA was one of the critical elements in being admitted to the college of our choice.  And testing was an integral part, actually the only part, in determining a grade for a course.

Where did we go so very wrong?  By all accounts, much of the focus on expanded testing found its roots in Texas.  Over time, a series of standardized tests was created to measure student performance, to the point that there were at one time 15 required end-of-course exams.  With advocacy from several organizations, including Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA), the legislature reduced that number to 5.  But are we achieving what we hope to accomplish with testing?  Are the winners the students or those who have been paid handsomely to administer the tests?

The above infographic captures the essence of testing and where we should focus testing outcomes.  To me, the most important of the four items under the “should” column is to measure student progress.  Of course, these four are closely intertwined; one cannot be achieved without a reliance on each of the others.    As far as the “should not’s”, we should not be using tests to decide how to rank schools.  This is a topic of prior blogs that I have posted, challenging the validity of the A-F rating system to be imposed on public education in the 2017-2018 school year.

This is not to suggest that there should be no testing in our public schools.  To the contrary, we must focus on testing as a resource to help guide students, teachers, and staff toward achieving the goals of a quality education for all students.  If we use testing in a more positive manner, i.e., as an evaluative and development resource, we can once again return to the days where the focus was on teaching and evaluation of learning, not using testing as a way to punish schools or to create a platform for those who promote a shift in public funding to other resources.  Used properly, testing is a valuable resource in the efforts to Make Education a Priority.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

What Grade Do We Give Lawmakers?

Much has been written lately about the proposed A-F grading system for districts and campuses across the State of Texas.  I’ve referenced this in prior blogs and expressed my concerns about the fairness of this approach as well as the stigmatization of campuses and, more importantly, students on those campuses.  Perhaps my greatest concern is that we are potentially using a grading system as a punitive measure, not as a resource or tool to assist campuses in better meeting the needs of students.

I recently read a report published in March, 2016 by Rutgers University and the Education Law Center that evaluated states on four different attributes relative to their support and commitment to public education.  Sadly, this continues to be a story of shortcomings relative to funding and the state’s commitment to meeting the education needs of all students.  The report, Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card, can be found here.

Quoting the opening of the report, the report “evaluates and compares the extent to which state finance systems ensure equality of educational opportunity for all children, regardless of background, family income, place of residence, or school location.”  In their effort to address this, the authors provide an assessment of Funding Levels, Funding Distribution, Effort, and Coverage.  The report’s evaluation of each is as follows (see the report for details on each element) 


Not a good story!  So now where should we apply a grading system?  This falls squarely on the shoulders of our decision makers in Austin.  As Dr. Brian T. Woods, Superintendent of Northside ISD, so aptly put it in his blog Straight Talk, “STATE LAWMAKERS FAIL MISERABLY; CONTINUE TO IGNORE INVESTING IN PUBLIC EDUCATION”.  At the very time that lawmakers have pushed through legislation that mandates implementation of an A-F rating system for the 2017-2018 school year, we should continue to evaluate them and how well they are meeting the needs of their constituents; more specifically, how well are they meeting the needs of the nearly 5.3 million public education students in Texas?

In a sidebar on page 1 of the report, the authors note that, “Many of the lowest funded states, such as Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, North Carolina and Texas, allocate a very low percentage of their states’ economic capacity to fund public education”.  Texas currently ranks 40th in per student funding at $7404 per student.  But how can this be in a state that, despite the challenges presented by depressed oil and gas prices, continues to have a vibrant and growing economy?

In the end, this discussion should not be about grades.  The discussion should center on what is best for our students and what is best for the longer term viability of the Texas economy.  Clearly, what is best for students is a commitment on the part of all stakeholders, including legislators, to Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Texas, Nevada and vouchers (by any other name)

In my role as a public education advocate and president of Make Education a Priority, I am committed to doing what I can to ensure that the impact of actions by our elected officials is clearly understood.  With public education accounting for the second highest percentage of the Texas budget, there will always be considerable discussion about a multitude of topics relating to how the almost 5.3 million students in the State of Texas are educated, including curriculum, funding, and accountability. 

I am also committed to focusing on the positives of education across the state, while noting how the decisions made in Austin may have an adverse impact on students.  But I am not alone.  On an increasingly frequent basis, I find trustees more engaged with their legislators, even during the interim.  I see superintendents and other district leaders more engaged in the legislative process, whether through editorials, contacts with legislators, or testifying at public hearings in Austin.  And for the students across the state, this will have a positive impact.

One such superintendent advocate is Dr. Jodi Duron, Superintendent of Elgin ISD.   I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Duron at a press conference a couple of years ago and appreciated here insightful comments on the requirements and future of public education.  Specific to the discussion of “Texas, Nevada and vouchers”, Dr. Duron recently published a letter to her local newspaper in which she expressed concerns about comments made by the Lt. Governor relating to vouchers (under any name) and a reference to adopting actions taken by the State of Nevada.  Dr. Duron’s editorial can be found by clicking here.

I’ve previously expressed my views that moving dollars from public education fails to recognize the constitutionally mandated requirement that the Texas Legislature adequately fund public education.  I’ve also expressed my view that it is important that we focus on providing the best quality education that we can for the more than 5.2 million public education students in Texas.  A diversion of public dollars for private purposes goes against both of these notions. 

In a recent conversation with Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, he expressed that we need to look not at the discussion of public v private, or the notion of vouchers (under whatever name is defined) but at the need to provide the best education for our students.  I would hope that, instead of focusing on the mechanism and where dollars are allocated, we renew our focus on the students and how to best meet their needs.  It is up to all of us to Make Education a Priority.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Are we focused on the STAAR test or on the students?

By now, most involved with public education are aware of the testing fiasco that occurred during the week of March 28.  This was not only a failure on the part of the system overall but appears to be a complete failure on the part of Educational Testing Service (ETS) to respond to these issues in a timely manner.  Much has been written and many have weighed in but there still seems to be a greater focus on process than on outcomes, i.e., the impact on students and educators.

I applaud and thank TEA Commissioner Mike Morath for his actions and response to this issue, calling the situation “unacceptable”.  His actions clearly indicate a position that is very supportive of the students in Texas public education.  Some have challenged that his response did not go far enough but he certainly stepped forward in initiating the dialogue.

As I watched this unfold last week, I saw two specific links that resonated well with me in addressing concerns about what transpired.  The first was a letter to Commissioner Morath from Dr. Karen Rue, Superintendent of Northwest ISD.  Dr. Rue’s letter to the commissioner can be found by clicking here.  Thank you, Dr. Rue, for a thorough and prompt summary of the issues.

The second was an editorial published in The Monitor, the largest newspaper in South Texas, titled “Texas failed our kids with the faulty STAAR tests”.  The editorial highlights comments and proposed actions articulated by Sen. Eddie Lucio, D- Brownsville, and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen.   Their questions relate not only to the process of rendering the test itself but also to the funding for this purpose.  The editorial can be found by clicking here.   

My hope is that the impact on the students and educators who prepare for these tests is not lost in this discussion.  Nor should this issue cloud the overall assessment and ratings of districts and schools alike.  While scrutinizing the testing process itself is crucial, instead of focusing so much on the testing process, we need to redouble our efforts to ensure that we are giving our students the opportunity to succeed.  In short, we must continue to Make Education a Priority.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

School Priority Month - Opening in October

Make Education a Priority (MEaP), a non-profit public education advocacy organization, has announced plans to coordinate School Priority Month in October of each even numbered calendar year as a precursor to the upcoming legislative session in January of the following year.  Because public education is in the cross-hairs, combined with the fact that there is significant misinformation or a reluctance to acknowledge factual information about our public schools, MEaP has set a goal to educate elected officials in our communities about the positive things that are happening every day in our schools.

Studies have consistently shown that parents and community members generally have a positive perception about their local schools.  While there are admittedly campuses and districts that are not fully meeting the needs of students in their schools, the vast majority of schools are, in fact, seen positively.  Does that mean we should be satisfied with the status quo?  Certainly not; the reality is that we should always challenge ourselves, our schools and our students to do better.  But in order to understand what the term "do better" means and the context for hosting School Priority Month on our campuses, we have to first establish a baseline.

Public education and so-called school choice options beyond the constitutionally mandated public school system remain a hot topic, and legislative leaders have expressed an intent to again make this a focal point of discussion during the upcoming 85th Legislative Session.  As public education advocates, the time for us to act and to impact that discussion is now; School Priority Month will be but one element of the overall advocacy effort and need.

While definition of School Priority Month is still in its formative stage, Make Education a Priority will be working with local district leadership, as well as our elected representatives in Austin, on a program to invite all elected officials to visit their local campuses during the month of October.  Over the course of a day, or perhaps even just an hour or two, elected officials will have the opportunity to visit with campus leadership and to observe the education system at work in our classrooms.  

Our elected officials will witness firsthand what and how students are learning, a learning process that has evolved significantly from the way most of us learned when going through public schools.  Through observation, these officials will gain an enhanced perspective of how public education is developing the leaders of tomorrow, in sharp contrast to statements and misinformation suggesting otherwise that permeates much of today's debate.  At the end of the day, it is our hope that our elected officials will take the time to debrief what they saw by meeting with the entire campus staff.

Between now and the end of the 2015-2016 school year, Make Education a Priority will continue its efforts to define this program, an effort that will require close collaboration with not just districts and elected officials, but with other public education advocacy groups.  It is an effort that will provide an opportunity for elected officials to better understand what they individually can do to impact public education.  It is an effort that will yield positive results and a better understanding of the good in public education.  We welcome the opportunity to focus on the successes of the nearly 5.3 million Texas public education students and the importance of continuing to Make Education a Priority.