Archive for February, 2015

TRUANCY “DE-CRIMINALIZED”?

I am extremely concerned about a growing movement among Texas legislators this session to water down legal consequences for truancy and other offenses. In Orwellian doublespeak, proponents of this movement call it “de-criminalization.” The same legislators also use the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” as justifying their position. Truly, de-criminalization should be called “hyper-criminalization,” and the “school-to-prison pipeline” flooded if the legislation passes.

Let me explain.

Senator Whitmire, a democrat from the Houston area, is chair of the Criminal Justice Committee and is the best-known of many “de-criminalization” bill advocates in Texas. He believes students and parents are too often facing legal consequences for excessive absences from school. I’ve heard him tell a story about overwrought moms calling him with stories about how the judicial system is picking on them despite the many life challenges they face. Though schools have no legal authority over parents, he wants to place an even greater burden on the schools to track down and miraculously compel student attendance. And he calls this “local control” when, in fact, it imposes new state law preventing the local judiciary from acting! I’m sure that he and other legislators do care about students and parents, but the efforts are misguided.

In Pearland ISD, as in most  of Texas, we make mighty efforts to get truant kids in school BEFORE resorting to the courts. Despite what the de-criminalization advocates say, we do have discretion about referrals when there are valid and compassionate reasons to wait. So when we do finally refer the matter to Judge Starkenburg, it is because of a large volume of unexcused absences. The judge is straightforward, merciful, meticulous, and helpful such that the higher goal can be reached: Kids attend school, and parents face up to their responsibilities.

Consequently, we have a drop-out rate here of 1%. We have a high school completion rate north of 96%. We also have a daily attendance rate of 96%. Do we really need our legislators to change what’s working for us?

State and federal politicians combine this “de-criminalization” of truancy with a larger push to stop what they claim is  over-representation of minority students receiving discipline consequences. Democrats have joined Republican Education Commissioner Michael Williams in advocating this effort — as well as President Obama’s Department of Education. The assumption (though never stated) is that legions of racists are making disciplinary decisions — and therefore a quota system to constrain them is necessary. And if such limits are not enforced, society is widening the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The reverse is true. Does anyone seriously believe that truant students spending all day outside of school are LESS likely to commit crimes leading to a prison record? By allowing students and parents to avoid legal responsibility for truancy and other offenses, society guarantees a new “hyper-criminalized” class of students who don’t attend school, are idle all day, and are MORE likely to use drugs and commit crimes. Consequently, more economically-disadvantaged minority students are disproportionately left WITHOUT a high school diploma, WITH a serious criminal record for offenses committed, and WITHOUT a chance to achieve the American dream. In short, the  diameter of the “school-to-prison pipeline” is widened, not constricted.

After writing my first draft of this column today, I visited one of our schools. As I talked with the principal, we were interrupted by a crisis in the hallway. A young student became angry and disoriented after being caught under the influence of a drug. He began running away from the office. A school police officer was on-site and restrained him before he did further damage to himself or others. He then firmly and compassionately put his arm on the boy’s shoulder, walking him up and down the hallway until the student was calm. That is typical of our police officers and our local judiciary. They return students down the right path when they run away from school.

So let’s be realistic. Most Texans don’t believe that bad behavior is caused by requiring legal consequences for it! I implore our citizens to protest these legislative efforts underway right now in Austin. Otherwise, Texas is GUARANTEEING more drop-outs and more criminal records.

 

MY VIEWS ON ACCOUNTABILITY AND STANDARDIZED TESTING

While I agree that state standardized testing is overdone, my views on testing and accountability are somewhat different from most other Texas superintendents and many members of the public.

Federal accountability: President Bush made a mistake by introducing federal accountability over states and local school districts through No Child Left Behind legislation. Such federal power is NOT found in the U.S. Constitution — and is reserved for the states (see the 10th Amendment). I believe the role of the federal government should be greatly reduced (as President Reagan believed). I admit there has been some beneficial federal intervention/funding in special education and in the area of civil rights. But even those areas are now ever-expanding and perennially under-funded. President Obama has made the situation worse by forcing states to compete for funding (i.e. “Race to the Top”) with “winners” — only those who adhere to the newest federal “fads.” (For brevity’s sake, I won’t go into arguments about the Common Core, teacher evaluation, charter schools, and other such topics.) Most Texas superintendents might agree with me on this….

State accountability: But I strongly disagree with those who want to eliminate or water down state accountability over school districts. I believe Texas SHOULD hold school districts accountable by comparing them on similar measures so it can be determined where each district stands. Many school folks want to completely eliminate state accountability and substitute a locally developed (“community-based”) system. That’s a veiled attempt to avoid comparisons and lower pressure on schools. While folks justify their views under the banner of “local control,” “community priorities,” and “deeper learning,” there remain basic achievement measures upon which ALL districts in Texas should be compared and held accountable.

Just as athletes, teams, and companies strive to be the best, so should all school districts. We SHOULD be compared on various student achievement and financial criteria. We should identify the best among us. And if a school district is awful and content to stay that way, the state should step in and exercise greater oversight.

I believe the current Texas accountability system is useful as a starting place. But it can better distinguish among districts in terms of the challenges unique to each. For example, when wealthy, educationally-advantaged Highland Park ISD students have high test scores, such results are rightfully acknowledged. But I would find quantifiable ways to honor most highly those districts with more challenging demographics that achieve miracles in relation to their realities. Give Highland Park the “Born with a Silver Spoon in Its Mouth” award for high test scores. But give the more prestigious prize to the economically/ethnically diverse district that achieves far beyond what might be predicted. Reward those outliers!

Standardized testing: Yes, standardized testing in Texas has become overkill. I applaud the legislature action in 2013 to reduce the number of  high school STATE tests prior to graduation from 15 to 5. While the entire nation already uses the SAT, the ACT, and AP tests to assess college readiness, it was ridiculous to add 15 more. Compared to any other state, we had 3 times the number of tests required for graduation! But I do not agree with those who want to completely eliminate K-12 standardized testing. We do need valid measures for comparing every school district’s progress in each grade.

So SOME standardized testing is essential and provides a valid basis for determining whether students are mastering the curriculum in the academic core areas such as reading, math, science, and social studies. Although many disagree, I believe students should be tested, in some nationally comparable way, in all grades K-12. I say that a nationally normed, end of year test in kindergarten and succeeding years won’t devastate children nor confine instruction only to “the test.” There are various  existing national tests useful for these purposes. These include the existing College Board SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement, and K-8 instruments such as the California Achievement Tests. (By the way, current “No Child Left Behind” rules won’t allow  such national tests to satisfy federal mandates — hence federal funding would be withheld.)

Nationally-normed test results can be disaggregated (as Texas tests are now) by ethnicity, English language learners, economically disadvantaged students, etc. Also, progress measures can be incorporated whereby individual student scores are compared to the previous year results. All such factors can continue to be built into the state’s accountability system using national tests. That would save Texas BILLIONS of dollars and NOT require a rewriting of the laudable Texas curriculum standards (TEKS). And Texas would know more than we do now about how we stack up against the rest of the nation.

We need not spend the entire year worrying about standardized tests to the exclusion of everything else schools now do. The testing emphasis in grades K-10 should be on diagnosis and intervention — such that a good foundation exists before high school. We can build upon those basic foundational skills in reading, math, science, and social studies as we continue to enrich the curriculum in other subjects and activities.

So here is my  proposal for Texas public school accountability:

1. Test at least 90% of the students on math and reading in grades K-9 using already existing nationally-normed tests. (Incidentally, this would greatly upset Pearson executives, whose testing company is a Texas monopoly!)

2. Test at least 90% of the students in social studies and science at the end of 5th and 8th grades.

3. Test at least 90% of the student body in grades 10-12 on the PSAT, SAT, and/or ACT.

4. Test at least 50% of each year’s graduating class on one or more College Board Advanced Placement tests.

5. Allow school districts to exclude up to 10% of the students from standardized tests who are identified as having valid disabilities.  Making such students take grade-level standardized tests is irrelevant and cruel.

6. Those who do not meet minimum graduation standards (as set by the state) on the PSAT, SAT, ACT, or AP tests can alternatively meet high school graduation requirements by successful attainment of rigorous career area certificates in various occupational fields. Such certifications would be earned in coordination with dual credit opportunities offered by community colleges and universities. Honor the hard training and occupations of the working man/woman! We need them more than society knows!

7. Use the Texas school financial accountability measures already in place. They are reasonable. These include the FIRST system, the FAST system, and elements of the TAPR. The TAPR already compares school districts on many different variables, including student achievement, completion rates, budget, staffing, taxes, etc.

8. Re-establish labels for overall achievement in school districts such as Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable, and Unacceptable. But use fairer formulas to assign such labels. Take into account the measurable challenges they face (such as demographic variables, funding levels, language barriers, etc.). Ensure that the least-wealthy school district in Texas has equal opportunity for commendation — as compared to “silver spoon” districts.

Perhaps I’ve upset some through these ideas. But I believe such a system would be fair, competitive, and a significant improvement over the current state of affairs.