Executive Director's Message

The Classroom Teacher, winter 2014-15

by Jeri Stone, TCTA Executive Director/General Counsel

For the past three decades, non-educators have been busily reforming education. In hindsight, but for the face-slap of the so-called teacher “competency test,” the first round of reforms was fairly innocuous and had some positive results, like K-4 class-size caps, no pass/no play, and limitations on interruptions (mainly announcements) to the school day.

Next came curriculum reform and the accountability system, followed by the bevy of tests that many people enjoy naming off in order of acronyms. Then, after Texas served as the template for the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the system became consumed by testing, and far too many reformers lost sight of the goal.

It was never realistic to expect all students to be proficient by 2014. As many commentators have noted, this is not Lake Wobegon, and all of our children will never be above average, no matter how much tutoring they get, how many standardized tests they take, or how many benchmark tests we give them as practice.

Reform, 2015-style

This January, we begin again with a new legislative session. What’s different this time, other than the new and generally more conservative legislative members and leaders, is the approach we’re seeing to this start of our fourth decade of “reform.”

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry when those who lament the state of public education fail to acknowledge that it is the product of over a generation of reforms, most of which did not involve the educators who would have to implement them.

The new approach seems to be to abandon our public school system rather than to fix it. Reformers generally refuse to acknowledge that educators are doing a pretty impressive job with much-lower-than-average funding and much-higher-than-average numbers of low-socioeconomic status students, who are more expensive to educate.

Instead of properly funding and staffing our schools, they are building exits from them. And all roads, or at least most of them, seem to lead to charter schools or outside managers. There seems to be a pervasive mentality that anything is better than what we have, despite a lack of successful track records of the suggested alternatives.

Ignoring the research

Real research is done by properly credentialed people, pursuant to the scientific method, and subject to peer review. But somehow, for far too many policymakers, a position paper written by a staffer for an interest group seems to qualify as “research.”

Never mind that the real data clearly indicate that charter schools tend to underperform other public schools. Despite the constant refrain we hear about the tens of thousands of children on charter school waiting lists, the state initiated closure of seven within the past year and is beginning that process for 14 more, while authorizing only five. Plenty of spaces are left for qualified charter school applicants.

The state has also provided charter school operators with multiple avenues to open more campuses, without requiring approval from anyone. The lines may be long at the big-name, success-story charter schools, but those are usually the ones with significantly higher per-pupil funding, due to revenue from foundations and assorted billionaires.

And even when you give charter schools the benefit of the doubt, you must realize their advantages. First, the students — or their parents — want to be there, suggesting an enviable level of parental involvement. Also, some charters may choose to be evaluated under alternative accountability standards, which allow lower performance to be awarded a rating that looks the same to parents as one a higher performing school would receive under the traditional system. Finally, charter schools may reject any student with a disciplinary history — one that can include a punishment as minor as a trip to the principal’s office.

Let me be clear: It is not TCTA’s position, nor mine personally, that charter schools are bad. We have members who teach in charter schools (many of whom call us when they learn their employers are not required to provide some basic teacher rights). There are some great charter schools that serve niche populations, such as homeless children, and offer a wraparound array of services that could not be provided anywhere else.

But let’s be realistic. It’s expensive and potentially counterproductive to flee our existing system of traditional public schools for one that has yet to show it’s superior and may, in fact, be inferior.

This is local control?

Then there are reforms like parent triggers and achievement districts. “Parent trigger” proposals purportedly allow parents, by signing a petition, to change their district’s management. Too bad nobody explains that the parents’ role pretty much ends there. With this type of “reform,” you can’t count on having an elected school board to complain to or vote out of office if you’re not happy. And nobody bothers to share that the only true “parent trigger” program attempted in the U.S. has reportedly torn the community apart.

An “achievement district” is a grouping of low-performing districts throughout the state that will purportedly be better managed by some sort of parallel commissioner and — you guessed it — outside management firms. Orleans Parish in Louisiana has adopted a similar model; the state’s “recovery school district” took over most New Orleans schools after Hurricane Katrina. Now, all of the schools included in the recovery district have been converted to charter schools. In the most recent Louisiana rankings, the data show the district to be at nearly the bottom.

I’m not always a fan of local control, and I believe the state has an obligation to provide a baseline of protections for parents, students and educators. But this is about as far away from local control as you can get, and I simply don’t believe cadres of crack school managers with proven track records are out there waiting to move in and help, though many people would happily take public dollars to focus solely on raising standardized test scores.

The same logic applies to vouchers, as does the same data — there is no indication that private school students are receiving a better education than those in public schools, with the exception of those with rigorous academic admission standards that employ the practices we would wish for the public schools, like small class sizes at all grade levels.

Where’s there’s skepticism, there’s hope

The other thing that feels different about this round of reform is the increasing, and welcome, skepticism of many policymakers that we’re headed in the right direction and the explicit concern that our accountability and testing systems may be out of control. At a recent hearing, Senate Education Committee members expressed a lack of confidence in our testing system.

Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment has been a welcome ally, and the organization has articulately and passionately described the price children and their families are paying under the current high-stakes testing system. People are questioning just what we are trying to learn from the tests, and whether the cost/benefit analysis holds up under scrutiny. As we all know, when it’s time to seek higher education or enter the job market, it’s highly unlikely anyone is going to want to know your STAAR scores.

So for the upcoming session, I’m harboring some secret optimism, some hope that common sense and reason will prevail and that the intrinsic value of public education will be recognized so that we can focus on shoring it up and getting back to its core mission.

We need to assure parents that their children are learning what they should reasonably be expected to learn, when they should reasonably be expected to learn it. We need to recognize that there is not a problem with teachers any more than there is a problem with students. There’s a problem with allowing a measurement system to become the goal rather than the barometer.

Maybe this will be the session when we can all take a step back and look at what we, regardless of political affiliations or ideology, really hope to achieve for our students and our society, and how we can get there from here.