Posts Tagged 'school districts'

The tourism lobby trumps education?

Statewide special interests undermine the common-sense decisions of locally elected leaders. For example, a few years ago the tourism industry — through the Texas legislature — decided when your child’s school year began. While new legislation now allows local officials to make some of those decisions, special interests are misleading parents and teachers into believing  vacations and working conditions will be ruined if their codified profits don’t continue. It’s not true. Allow me to give a little background:

Local Texas school board policy manuals are about four inches thick. In addition, the “Texas School Law Bulletin” consists of 1,553 thinly sliced pages. Of these seven total inches of regulations governing our schools, perhaps 2 percent can be generously attributed to decisions made by locally elected school trustees. (I won’t even include foot-long reams of federal laws and regulations.) Thus, claiming our state is the home of “small government” is like claiming Texas fits within the geographical boundaries of Rhode Island.

Even the entire Bible — consisting of  God’s commandments, man’s history and his future — is far shorter than Texas education law. It’s time to restore a little sanity.

So in 2015, the Texas Legislature took a step in the right direction by passing a law (HB 1842) titled “Districts of Innovation, allowing all but low-performing districts the opportunity to exempt themselves from a few Texas laws. Wise lawmakers realized that some of the same freedoms offered to charter and private schools might benefit public schools — and perhaps place them on a more even playing field.

Special interests are alarmed. Last week, the tourism industry asked the Texas Education Agency to curtail local control of the school calendar. They are lobbying legislators to pass new laws that further constrict local school/parental control over the calendar. And they seek to ally themselves with teacher group representatives, falsely claiming that local districts will use new powers to hurt working conditions.

Quite the opposite. Pearland ISD seeks (through this “Districts of Innovation” law) to end the school year before Memorial Day — instead of in June. We’d also like to improve working conditions for teachers by exempting them from some unnecessary regulations. We think the laws dictating overly-long teacher contract years, the length of school days and other regulations are counter-productive. We’d like to use our teacher/parent calendar committee to draft a school year preserving the local community’s interest in traditional holidays such as Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, MLK Day, spring break, Good Friday, Memorial Day, etc. In short, we’d like to build the calendar our parents and our educators deem best. Given our most recent ranking as among the top three districts in the Houston area as well as in the top 2 percent of the state (www.niche.com), we believe we have the academic performance and client satisfaction data here to inspire confidence in such local decision making.

It sounds enticing when the tourism industry touts beginning the school year after Labor Day and ending it before Memorial Day. But there are hidden unfavorable consequences in these dictates. Among these are fewer holidays during the school year, an uneven number of days for the fall and spring semester, an even longer school day and a continuing requirement for teachers to begin and end their employment year way beyond the students — even when professional duties are completed.

I anticipate the tourism industry will soon announce a “compromise” by applauding all deregulation — except that which directly affects tourism! That’s sorta like the Texas lottery founders who sold us their profit scheme as “for the kids”!

Decisions on the school calendar are best made close to home. But frankly, public schools do not have the legislative clout that special interests have. So please remain skeptical about the propaganda now underway — and help us retain our new and tiny foothold in local control. Be wary of any legislation next session that seeks to curtail, rather than expand, “Districts of Innovation.”

 

 

 

 

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.