Tuesday, April 25, 2017

What Does It Take To Say Yes?

Last week, the Texas House passed HB 21, a bill introduced by Chairman Huberty that is intended to start the process of fixing a broken school finance system, one that the Supreme Court said met "minimum constitutional requirements".  The bill passed on a vote of 134-16 and what amazes me in this is not that 16 representatives (predictably based on looking at the list) voted against it but that those who did seem clueless about the charge by the Court to address the problems of equity and adequacy of school funding.

But maybe we shouldn't be surprised.  After all, for many, politics in Austin has evolved from working to address the needs of those they were elected to serve to focusing on how to add to their own resume.  This probably applies to both those against and in favor of changes in school finance so some of the votes have to be looked at from that perspective.  There are some who represent North Texas who will pretty much vote NO on anything regardless of what their constituents want.  But we keep electing them.

Without question, there are leaders and followers in Austin.  Calling some of them "leaders" may not be an accurate characterization of what they are actually doing but that doesn't mean that they cannot exert influence.  One need only look at the Senate where the LG's top two priorities will likely not reach the governor this session ... but it doesn't mean he won't continue to try.  Nor does it mean that he won't continue to try to use his position and authority in his interactions with his peers and those in the House.

What does it take to say yes, however?  By the way, I am not saying that all legislation warrants a "Yes" vote; there certainly is bad legislation that should be opposed.  But in the case of the discussion about school finance, and statements by the Supreme Court that responsibility for addressing the "Byzantine" school finance system falls to the legislature, something has to give.  As near as I can tell, nay votes by at least three North Texas representatives are more "because I can" votes than votes that are grounded in a specific political philosophy.  The only way for them to justify their votes is to acknowledge an allegiance to a party ideology, not to those they were supposedly elected to serve.

As voters, we are owed an explanation for the votes that the 16 representatives cast against HB 21.  Perhaps there is rationale behind their votes that would benefit all of us.  To actually expect that we will receive one?  Not likely.  In the end, we need to celebrate and support those who support public education, those that make education a priority and those that know how to say "YES".

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Sapping the Energy

I don’t know about you but just watching the goings on in Austin from 200 miles away is enough to wear me out.  The flurry of activity surrounding public education, specifically under the leadership of Chairman Huberty, makes me wonder where those who are elected to serve find the time and energy to participate in the extended discussion and debates about issues impacting all of us.  I continue to be amazed by the differences in approach between the House and Senate regardless of the issue but specifically as it relates to public education.

We all know that the Lt. Governor has focused a considerable amount of attention on vouchers (by any name), the bathroom bill and taxpayer relief.  Thanks to the House, I am hopeful that the issue of vouchers can be put to bed at least until the next session.  Of course, we know that they will once again be an issue regardless of whether the LG is reelected or not.  The bathroom bill?  I continue to be amazed at the amount of energy in the Senate being put into trying to find a problem for the “solution” introduced by Sen. Kolkhorst.  And while I, like all of you, would like a lower property tax bill, I just don’t get the view that suggests that we can address (and fund) issues in Texas with this relief.

Off of my soapbox!  What really strikes me is that the two chambers, perhaps reflective of leadership attitudes, are focused either on themselves and making headlines (Senate) or on the needs of those they were elected to serve (House).  Admittedly, both are striving to create and approve a balanced budget as required by the Constitution but their approaches are starkly different.  With both chambers having now passed their budget bill, I am anxious to see how the compromise committee arrives at a budget that, among other things, tackles the issue of school finance that the Texas Supreme Court said fell to the legislature.

I have found myself over the past couple of weeks struggling to find the time between job and other activities to focus on education issues about which we are all so passionate.  And then I remember the reason we do this and it is not for our own personal agendas (unlike some!).  5.4 million students in our public education system are counting on us to represent their voices in Austin, and those who advocate for public education have done an outstanding job in promoting the dialogue.  Even something as simple as writing this blog is a reminder to me that I need to step up my engagement and advocacy.

Energy sapped?  Yes, it is a bit, but then I remember the kids and find my motivation in ensuring that they are given the opportunities that I was given many years ago.  My hat is off to all of you who continue to make education a priority.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

An Evening with Diane Ravitch (and friends!)

Diane Ravitch is certainly one of the most outspoken and visible advocates for public education.  I recently had an opportunity to meet her and to hear her speak at a dinner hosted by the Friends of Texas Public Schools.  Much of what she discussed is a part of her daily blogs but I wanted to summarize what I thought were the key points of her presentation.
  •           Diane reminded us that the role of charter schools  was originally to complement the public school system but that it has become, in her words, a “juggernaut for privatization”.
  •           She discussed the overwhelming failures of the Milwaukee and Detroit public school systems and the role that introduction of vouchers played in that trend, also reminding us of the considerable influence exerted on Michigan public schools by Betsy DeVos.
  •           The lack of accountability and transparency continues to be a source of concern as it relates to school choice other than our public schools.  It is well documented that our Lt. Governor believes that the only accountability requirement for these parents is through the parents of children attending other than public schools.
  •           Diane expressed concern that the current push for vouchers will create a lot of  “pop up” schools, schools that seize upon a profit motivate as the driver, not the education of children.  Nothing new here but it’s always helpful to be reminded of the potential ramifications of voucher programs.
  •           In today’s school choice discussion, she stated that, “Schools have the choice, not the parents”.  We are well aware of this but I liked the simplified summary of the stark differences between public schools and other school choice options.
  •           Another of her quotes that resonated with me was, “Who gets the money is not about education reform; it’s about who gets the money.  True education reform would strive to make our public schools as strong as they can be”.
  •           She also noted that, in most communities, our public schools are the vehicle that brings communities together as parents and community members work on shared goals for their children.
Most of you have likely had the opportunity to read Diane’s blogs, to hear her speak, or to read one or more of her books.  Her blog can be found at https://dianeravitch.net/.

I found the interaction with Diane and the subsequent panel discussion with Diane, House Public Education Committee Chairman Huberty, Rep. Bernal and Rep. Van Deaver to be very enlightening and motivational to those who support public education.  Thanks to FoTPS for hosting this dynamic event.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Vision with Results (part two)

In my last blog (click here to read), I shared the background on a program in the Dallas Independent School District, the School Time Capsule Project.  Founded by Bill Betzen, a retired middle school teacher in DISD, this program focuses on helping 8th grade students define a vision for their futures and, more importantly, sets the stage for a reunion ten years later at which time these students share the positive outcomes tied to their involvement in the program.

Bill shared with me some of the outstanding successes of the program and discussed how the DISD School Effectiveness Index (SEI) has documented these successes.  For additional information on the impact by campus, click here  to access a blog written by Bill that provides details on progress of campuses across the district.

I wanted to gain a better understanding of the impact of the Project and what Bill sees as the outlook to expand the program.  Following are excerpts from my discussion with him.

CRAIG:  How did you select the schools that participate?  
BILL:  I started with the school where I was teaching (Quintanilla Middle School), moved to the high school it fed into, and was contacted by a teacher in the other middle school that fed into that high school.  He was a TAG (talented and gifted) teacher who read about the project in the paper and wanted to start it at Greiner.
CRAIG:  What criteria were used in expanding to other campuses?
BILL:  The other schools were added because I approached the principals, had the money for the vaults due to a $15,000 donation, and was able to install them and get started.  While not intentional, most of the schools were high poverty and mostly 99% minority.

CRAIG:  Who is the Project champion of the campuses?
BILL:  Typically it is the principal.

CRAIG:  What are the plans to expand the program onto other campuses?
BILL:  A DISD administrator has been tasked with defining how to expand the program, including an effort to expand into 3rd through 12th grades.
CRAIG:  What are the biggest challenges to making this program an ongoing success?
BILL:  Keeping a focus on simplicity and simply getting the steps done that are now known as making a difference.  We need to fund a full time bi-lingual director position.
At the conclusion of our meeting, I asked Bill why he thought the results had been so impressive.  He replied that, "Having students write down their plans for the future is common in education.  It works to improve achievement and focus. An article about nuns having students write such letters to themselves which were then mailed years later to those students gave the initial idea that grew into the School Time Capsule Project in DISD.  School climate changes with a documented focus on the future.  Achievement and graduation rates go up, behavior problems and pregnancy rates go down."

All of this makes me wonder where we would be with public education in this state (and in the country) if any of our “leaders” had the foresight to create a vision that included public education as a cornerstone for future success.   But that’s a story for another day and another blog.

Through his program, Bill clearly has focused his energies on making education a priority for these and other public education students.  For that, we all owe Bill a special thank you.  For further information, contact Bill at bbetzen@aol.com or visit the Project's web site, www.studentmotivation.org.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Vision with Results (part one)

I recently had the opportunity to reconnect and visit with Bill Betzen, a retired middle school teacher in Dallas ISD and the founder of the School Time Capsule Project.  The purpose of the meeting was to get an updated status on the Project, an effort that is making a significant impact on students on 11 campuses in Dallas ISD.  The following is a background on the project and the motivation behind Bill’s efforts in founding it.  I will share the outcomes and outlook in a separate blog on April 6.

The School Time Capsule Project was founded in 2005.  The initial program focus was on helping 8th grade students craft their vision for the future with an eye toward revisiting that vision in10 years. This has evolved into an annual process with the previous year’s letters always returned to be re-written each year until the last year in a school: 5th, 8th or 12th grade.  That last year the letter is written planning 10-years into the future, the letter that stays in the vault for a decade until the class reunion.  The students were told that, at their 10-year reunion, they would be asked to speak with current 8th grade students about their recommendations for success and how the program has positively impacted their lives. This is currently happening with the third 10-year reunion for the 8th grade class of 2007 planned for May 2, 2017. 

While initially focused on one middle school campus, the Project has now spread to 11 schools.  Graduation rates for students who participate in the program have doubled and DISD's School Effectiveness Index (SEI) (click here for information about SEI) indicates that the two oldest Time Capsule Project schools now enjoy the highest average SEI scores of any of the 35 DISD middle schools. The other 5 middle schools with 3 or more years in the Project have enjoyed an average gain of 6.7 points on the SEI scale over the past 3 years.  The remaining 24 non-magnet schools with no Time Capsule Projects have lost 0.7 points during the same three years.

As the program evolved, and in response to a lack of parental engagement on some of the campuses, sponsors on each campus, typically campus leadership, sent letters to parents inviting them to participate in helping their children map their future.  The initial results of that effort were somewhat lackluster until a suggestion was made that the letters to the parents come from the students; parental engagement skyrocketed and families became much more involved with helping their child lay out a vision that would impact not only the child but likely the entire family as well.

For the students and parents in DISD who have been fortunate to participate in the School Time Capsule Project, there will be a long lasting impact on the lives of these students and their families.  Bill’s hope is that, within 5 years, this will be a normal set of annual writing projects in every one of the 227 DISD schools.

This is a program about a district and volunteers in the district who care enough to take the time to focus on helping students set a vision and then track individual progress toward achievement of that vision.  It is much more than simply an exercise for these students and parents ... it is a blueprint for success, one that Bill and others hope to see expand into other districts and communities.  

In my next blog (April 6), I will share the discussion I had with Bill about outcomes and successes of the program.  This truly is an exciting effort that has been embraced by the district as well as students, teachers and administrators on middle school campuses, an effort focused on making education a priority in our public schools.  

For further information about the School Time Capsule Project, please contact Bill at bbetzen@aol.com or visit the Project's web site, www.studentmotivation.org.