Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Trump's Education Secretary Nominee ... What Next?

In the interest of full transparency, while I did not necessarily support Donald Trump, I did vote for him.  I still consider him to be the lesser of the two "choices" that we had in this presidential election but some of his nominations to cabinet positions are very troubling to me.  By far, the biggest concern so far is the appointment of Betsy DeVoss as Education Secretary.

There is no real need to regurgitate information about DeVoss, her interests and her focus that are clearly anti-public education.  The impact that her wealth can have clearly is not focused on the needs of the majority of the children in this country but, like the Walton’s, the Gates, and many others, her interest in changing the public education that has served so many seems to have nothing to do with the public education system but is solely focused on personal agendas and profit motives.  

So what can we do about it?  First of all, we always have the opportunity to send messages to those who will approve (or not!) President-Elect Trump's cabinet appointments.  Take the time to write to your US Senator and express your opinion and concerns about the appointment of DeVoss. 

Second, the world of those who advocate for choice other than public schools is as much about using incomplete information as it is the profit motive.  When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Colorado, the text book in my Statistics class was "How to Lie with Statistics"; those words ring very true in today's discussion about public education.  It has never been more important than now for those of us who advocate for the more than 5.3 million Texas public education students to make certain that facts are a part of the discussion, whether relating to graduation rates, so-called failing schools, or the tremendous successes of population sub groups.

Third, while we may be concerned about this appointment, the reality is that the bigger concern for us lies with the continued and (so far) never ending push by the Lt. Governor for his personal agenda in support of vouchers.  While the arguments of a free market system certainly warrant consideration, the reality is that in those states where voucher programs have been adopted (one need look no further than DeVoss' home state of Michigan), the results have generally not been a better school environment.  We must do our homework and must be able to articulate the often-failed impact of voucher programs.

Throughout history, grassroots organizations have sprung up to battle actions by those in power; while it would be unfair to call public education advocacy a grassroots effort, that is where it all began.  Advocacy groups and individuals across the state have had a significant impact on public education and there is an increasing groundswell of support.  As advocates, we need to continue our efforts to make education a priority.  Our students are counting on us to do so.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Poke the Bear!

You know, occasionally I read an article and am so angry at the headline and/or content that I find it difficult to even respond/react.  Sunday’s article in the Dallas Morning News, headlined as “Lawmaker: Trustee training puts kids second” is one such article (click here for a link to the article).  As a ten-year school board trustee, I was offended by the content and innuendo suggesting that trustees do not have the best interests of children in their districts in mind when serving.  The author of the article, Dave Lieber (calls himself the Watchdog but all he really writes is articles that are heavily slanted), clearly had no interest in actually reporting facts, but for many in the media, do facts matter anyway?

So what in the article really bothered me?  First is obviously the headline.  If the intent was to get the reader, in this case me, to read the article, he succeeded with that.  Second was the reference to a Senate education committee hearing in which, among other things, a San Antonio ISD trustee expressed his belief that training provided by the Texas Association of School Boards is “not even close to good enough”.  It would be interesting to me to know what training this individual has actually taken.  Did he attend sessions at TASB-sponsored conferences or did he take courses on line simply to fulfill the state mandated training requirement.  Why did the Watchdog not ask that question?

Third was the passing reference to comments made by Charles Stafford, a Denton ISD trustee currently serving as president of TASB.  The only quote from Charles?  “It’s just not right”.  Knowing Charles as I do, I find it highly unlikely that his comments to Lieber were that brief and that he alluded only to other TASB services.  Why did the Watchdog not probe further (actually, he probably did but the response likely was not in line with the slant Lieber wanted to take) to understand what Charles meant?

Quoting parents and others (somewhat at length, I might add), the Watchdog failed to include substantive thoughts on how those individuals thought the needs of students might be better served.  But that wouldn’t make good press, would it, even if they had offered comments?  Why didn’t the Watchdog ask for input from those he quoted to gather their thoughts on addressing what they see as an issue?
In fairness, Lieber did end his article with a couple of “Solutions”.  One is a suggestion to live stream board meetings so that parents can watch the meetings.  A second was to focus on financial transparency.  Third was a consideration of how to remove trustees who do not act in the best interests of the students.  Are these the solution to what is seen by some as a problem?  They certainly are considerations that should be discussed by trustees so maybe there is some positive to the article.
As a final thought, Lieber’s first word in the article is ‘Guts’, specifically referring to Sen. Kohlhort’s so-called guts in challenging the system that exists today.  What really takes guts, however, isn’t simply to criticize but to actually take action that ensures that the needs of students are the priority.  Let’s look at the big picture, not simply sound bites that sell newspapers, of making education a priority.  

Lieber’s article has, in fact, poked the bear but only if trustees (and former trustees) step forward and continue to demonstrate through their actions that the needs of the more than 5.3 million students drive all that they do.  Maybe that will be something about which the Watchdog might want to write.  Just imagine the headline ... "Trustees: Working on behalf of all students".

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Election is Over … What Next?

Now that the election is over, what do we do next and what should we anticipate?  As I spent time yesterday on Facebook, I came across a post from a friend of mine that speaks to what we must do over the coming weeks and months.  His post, written on election eve, follows:

Tomorrow is our last night as either Republicans or Democrats. We chose to vote for the candidate of our choice, better or worse. But after it is said and done we must support our President. We as Americans are able to voice our opinions thanks to our forefathers and those who have stood and fought for our freedoms! We may not agree all the time with each other but let us not forget how we got here. Some of you have or will have children who will be under the new commander-in-chief. So let's all pray for our new President that our Lord will guide them and our country as we move forward. But let us not disgrace our great nation by not standing beside them as they lead.

This is certainly the most divisive campaign I have seen in my lifetime and the healing from the campaign will take a long time.  The healing process is not solely up to those in Washington or the two combatants, however.  Instead, it must start at a grassroots level, where each of us put aside differences and have fruitful discussions about what we can do to positively impact the lives of our children and grandchildren.  

As part of that discussion, we must also focus on the needs of students in our public education system.  Without question, public education will continue to be under attack at all levels of government.  Now is not the time to throw our hands up; now is the time to strengthen our resolve to focus on the more than 5.3 million Texas public education students.

As I watched last night’s returns, I recalled the first election in which I had the opportunity to cast a ballot.  I viewed it as a privilege to be able to vote and was proud to do so as I stood in line in 1972.  Over time, there has been a disengagement by voters but this election seemed to rekindle interest in the election process.  Perhaps it’s because the candidates and their supporters were so polarized but I see hope in the fact that people were passionate enough to vote for their candidate of choice.

Closer to home, it’s now time to assess how the political landscape changed in Texas and to begin to focus our public education advocacy efforts on those elected on Tuesday, while continuing to interact with those whose seats were not up for election this cycle.  The elections of 2016 may not have brought out the best in all of us but we at least now know where we need to expend our energies.  As part of that effort, we must work tirelessly to ensure that our elected officials make education a priority.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016


The Houston Chronicle recently published yet another article challenging the Lt. Governor’s continued insistence on pushing his personal agenda at the expense of more than 5.3 million Texas public education students.  While I applaud the Chronicle (and recent articles published by a number of other media outlets), the fact that he continues to push vouchers (by any name) is a clear indication that he cares little about the needs of students across the state.

As House Public Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock reminds us, the discussion about education in the state should center around the fact that there are a number of choices available to students and their families.  Whether charters, home schooling, private schools or public schools, parents do have a choice.  Admittedly, not all parents can make a choice of an option other than the local public school but the constitution guarantees the right to a free public education for all students.  And quality must be part of the equation here.

Under the Lt. Governor’s plan, as noted by recent news articles, students in underperforming districts or campuses would be able to select an option other than public education (remember, public schools are also part of school choice!) and have an opportunity to have the money follow them.  Of course, we now know that one of the pitfalls of this proposed plan is the lack of accountability on how and where parents choose to apply those funds.  What assurances do we have that selecting an option other than the local public school will afford the students a better educational opportunity?  Candidly, none!

So when the Lt. Governor’s continued push for vouchers (by any name) doesn’t necessarily suggest that students’ interests will be better served, why shouldn’t we be concerned?  It’s easy for the Lt. Governor to stand on the bully pulpit and to continue to push his agenda.  What is not so easy is for students needing the support and assistance that will improve the quality of education in underperforming campuses and districts to watch while proposals (and personal agendas) continue to be advanced to take money away from public education.  This is money that, invested wisely and responsibly, could improve opportunities for all students.

As I watch and read stories about public education, I am encouraged to see the “baby steps” being taken as those of us who support investing in our public schools continue to focus on the entire student population in the state.  Is our educational system perfect?  It certainly is not but it is critical that we continue to make education a priority.  Students, teachers and administrators across the state deserve this support.  This is not (or should not be) about starving or thriving.  It is about fulfilling the state’s obligation to provide a quality public education for all students, not shifting dollars from a public education system in need of support from our elected leaders.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Is The Classroom Exciting?

I saw an infographic last week that caught my attention.  When teachers were asked to respond to, “I make learning exciting for my students”, 84% responded affirmatively.  But when students were asked if their teachers make learning exciting, only 40% indicated that they felt this was the case.  The disparity between the two perspectives got me to thinking about why this is the case. 

As I look back on my K-12 days, I realize just how many differences there were between that environment and the environment in today’s classroom.  While there may have been a prescribed curriculum to ensure that students in a particular grade were being taught pretty much the same content, there was a great deal more autonomy on the part of the teacher to teach the content in a manner best suited to their individual personality and style.

The continued focus on high stakes testing has to be a part of this gap between student and teacher perspectives on what makes learning exciting.  This is certainly no fault of today’s teachers.  They are doing a phenomenal job of adapting to an environment where autonomy has somewhat been sucked out of the classroom.  With the focus on testing, they are left with no choice but to adapt their style to a structure that requires a bit more (or maybe it’s a lot more) of a structured approach.  But they persevere and are generally very successful; for that, they deserve our undying appreciation.

The question now becomes one of better understanding why students feel that learning is not exciting.  At the core, I have to believe that the “drill and kill” approach driven by high stakes testing is having a major impact on their perception of what makes learning exciting.  Much like an accountability system where the lowest performing campus dictates the overall rating for the district, the testing requirement has an overarching impact on student perception of the classroom environment.

Can I absolutely state that the elimination or at least the reduction in testing would jump the number significantly?  I certainly cannot but I firmly believe that the response percentages will be favorably impacted.  I have one other idea of how we might better understand student perspectives.  Let’s ask them!  After all, the real stakeholders in the discussion about public education are the students themselves. 

Increasingly, I see efforts on the part of leadership in districts across the state to engage students as part of an advisory council for them and those efforts are to be applauded.  When education is a collaborative effort between all stakeholders, “good things” happen in the classroom.  And the more that “good things” happen, the greater the likelihood that students will begin to feel that the classroom is more exciting.  

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Are We There Yet?

With the recent editorial by the Dallas Morning News suggesting that the Lt. Governor move beyond his agenda focused on vouchers, combined with the article previously published by Ross Ramsey of the Texas Tribune, it’s obvious that the importance of public education is recognized by increasing number of people across the state.  The challenge to this point in time has been to get the conversation started; that objective has now been achieved to the point that the difficult task of gaining traction is at least underway.

In my role as president of a public education advocacy group, I get more excited every day that not only has the advocacy train left the station, but it is about to become a bullet train!  And more passengers get on board at every station!

What is it that is helping us gain traction?  First and foremost, while we as public education advocates were disappointed when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that school finance meets the “minimum constitutional requirement”, the words that they used in their ruling clearly got the attention of everyone involved in public education.  But this is not just a finance discussion.

With apologies that I am only citing a couple of examples of leaders in the advocacy movement, look at the work done by Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA).  Through their efforts, the required number of end-of-course exams was reduced from 15 to 5.  And they continue to be outstanding advocates.  In fact, just today, I complete a TEA-sponsored survey about ESSA as a result of an email notification from TAMSA.

Or how about the outstanding work being done by Rev. Charles Foster Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children?  Rev. Johnson is working closely with the faith community to get them to embrace public schools in the communities they serve.  He is also doing phenomenal work with Dr. Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of Dallas ISD, in looking at the needs of specific campuses in DISD.  If there is any question about the impact he is having as a public education advocate, the recent House Public Education committee hearing in which he was challenged by Rep. Bohac was a great example of Rev. Johnson’s passion and commitment to public education.

Speaking of the House Public Education committee, that committee is doing a wonderful job of assessing the opportunities and needs of the more than 5.3 million (and growing) public education students.  While Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock is retiring, it was clear from the hearing that there is significant support for public education in the House. 

Our kids used to ask us, “Are we there yet”?  I previously worked with an individual whose response to his kids was, “We’re close but grandma has a long driveway”.  We are not really that close and we certainly have a long driveway in front of us, but there can be little question that the collaborative efforts of public education advocates are making an impact.  As a group, we must (and will) continue to make education a priority.