Voices From the Battle Lines

As we wrap up the semester and thus our careful coverage of public education in Texas and what the legislators have in store for it, it’s hard not to notice the continued absence of several important voices.

Where’s the feedback, the testimonies, the opinions and the first hand experiences of those most directly impacted by this issue? That’s right, I’m talking about students, teachers and parents. I know there have been committees and town hall meetings, but when it comes down to it, hardly any of the coverage has focused on them and from what we could tell, teachers voices were also largely absent from the committee hearing and house floor vote that we attended. What’s wrong with this picture?

In a paltry effort to tip the scales in the right direction, we close our coverage with a few choice words from Melissa McCann Cooper, a language arts teacher at Murchison Middle School in Austin. Her full piece can be found and SHOULD be read here.

Speaking of her recent experience administering the STAAR writing exam to this years  7th graders, Ms. McCann Cooper reminds us that even with the frenzy currently taking place at the Capitol, we still have a long way to go:

If the goal was to create a more rigorous assessment, STAAR has failed. STAAR’s predecessor, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), required students to write a two-page, well-elaborated essay. Those who followed a basic formula (introduction, explain your topic in detail, conclusion) scored reasonably well. TAKS didn’t produce the Great American Novel, but it expected students to generate and organize coherent, connected examples on a particular topic. They were also encouraged to write with style, including complex sentence structure and engaging vocabulary in their essays. Throughout the year, I taught my students to be effective writers, and on test day they simply had to apply those skills to whatever topic was given to them.

The STAAR writing test, in contrast, limits writers to 26 lines, effectively encouraging only superficial, shallow statements with no room for reasoned argument. It’s the antithesis of good writing, a dumbed-down version of a mediocre assessment. My students can only score well if I teach them to go against everything they know and everything I want them to be as writers. STAAR may appear more rigorous because students sit for four hours at a time for two consecutive days to complete it. But intellectually and academically, STAAR is far less rigorous than its discarded older cousin.”

Further on Ms. McCann Cooper offers us a real look at what has been lost since the onset of high stakes testing:

“What else has been stolen? Novel studies, independent thinking, analytical discussions, and creative writing. Where my 2001 students would have read 10 novels by now, my current students have read one. Where my 2002 students would have written and peer-edited more than 15 creative writing pieces, my current students have completed zero. Instead of analyzing literature, students get sorted into testing rooms to take practice tests. School officials seem to think that testing kids — who have already lost significant instructional time to STAAR practice — will improve their performance. But as we say in Texas, weighing the pig does not make it fatter.”

Ms. McCann Cooper’s honest and well articulated piece offers us a small but troubling look at what’s really at stake. It’s about more than just numbers, it’s about what those numbers represent and about what’s happening, and what’s being lost, in the classroom and in the minds of students.

After all isn’t this what we’re really talking about? Shouldn’t that be the point of testing? To make sure students are being challenged to both learn and grow? To not only internalize facts but learn, through experience, how to learn and most importantly how to think for themselves?

Maybe its time we started asking, what’s the actual point of education? Does the root of the problem lie in the vastly different answers to this question?


Texas’ Testing Revisions Make Headlines

Even in the Big Apple, the fact that the state that started the accountability movement is considering backtracking is newsworthy.

Motoko Rich’s piece in today’s New York Times highlights the importance of the debate happening right here in our state, and discusses the same tension I mentioned in my post last week: how do we balance the desire to have high standards for all students while not overwhelming students and teachers with time-consuming and expensive tests?

Coincidentally, this article highlights Akins High School, where I’m an MSSW Intern. Akins’ Principal Girard, quoted in the article, makes a valid point that lowering standards equals a risk that not all kids will be equally encouraged or pushed to achieve. I wish I didn’t agree that we adults need rules lest we let some kids slip through the cracks – but I think America’s gaping achievement gap shows that the honor system doesn’t cut it. When we trust the system to treat all kids the same, low income and minority kids lose big.

At the same time, I agree with the parent who noted that 9 of the last 12 weeks of school are impacted by testing – that’s insanity.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, where is the middle ground?

Can’t we have high standards, ones that drive kids to the limits of their potential, AND a number of tests that is reasonable (e.g., not 15 when no other state has more than 6)?

I think the answer is a pretty straightforward, resounding YES – but sadly I don’t see the political will for that kind of a compromise in Texas. Despite a few Dems’ best efforts (Van De Putte, Strama), I just don’t see those kinds of proposals moving forward.

Breaking news from the lege

pecan pieDon’t worry folks, Erin and I have been watching the legislature like hawks so we were able to catch the passing of this important resolution:

Texas House of Representatives formally names pecan pie the official state pie in a ceremonial resolution sponsored by first-year Rep. Marsha Farney, a Republican from Georgetown, north of Austin.

Glad we’re taking care of the important things and glad we’ve got our priorities straight when it comes to coverage. The Houston Chronicle covers three events in last Thursday’s Legislative Notebook. Guess which one got top priority?

Accountability in Texas, Part 2: A STAAR is born

Time to pick up our history lesson. We left off with a critique of the so-called “Texas miracle” that occurred during the era of the TAAS test.

The next big transition to come to Texas was a move to the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), which were implemented in 2003. These tests were intended to map closely to standards set by the new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) – the Texas curriculum standards* – and to be more rigorous than TAAS.

When the first round of results came out, Texas was shocked by results that further debunked the “Texas miracle”. The results revealed a deep achievement gap for minority students and pointed at potentially flawed previous scores/standards.The Lone Star Report called it a “reality check”, reporting that:

“The revelations of TEA’s presentation [to a House Committee] were nothing short of a confessional. Comparison of Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test results showed passing rates for reading of around 90 percent, and for mathematics around 80 percent for grades 3 to 8, compared to TAKS pass rates at panel-recommended scoring averaging around 70 percent for reading and declining to nearly 50 percent for mathematics.”

Conversations about an updated assessment began just a few short years later, and in 2009, STAAR was born – the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

Again, according to TEA, the goal was to increase rigor. STAAR also introduced several new concepts, most notably, the idea of end-of-course (EOC) exams. These exams are designed to measure only the content taught at a particular grade level (or in high school, in a particular subject). In addition, with STAAR, high school students must pass 12 exit exams based on required subjects in order to graduate.

With STAAR barely in the implementation stages, the backlash began. 

A high level-source of dissatisfaction heightened the issue: in early 2012, TEA Commissioner Robert Scott made a speech to the Texas Association of School Administrators that surprised many legislators and educators alike. Among Scott’s more quotable moments, he called the current testing regimen aperversion of its original intent”.

Thus began the conversation that’s happening now, wherein former accountability advocates are flip-flopping and calling for more flexibility and fewer exams. Republican Dan Patrick stated, “We can blame the Legislature…If we have fouled this up, we need to get this right.”

And that, friends, appears to be what they’re trying to do with House Bill 5.


*Side note: Texas curricula is a controversy in and of itself – check out http://www.therevisionariesmovie.com for some stunning (and terrifying) information on how standards are set in the Lone Star State.

Laws are like sausages, its better not to see them being made….

Erin and I arrived at the capitol on the 26th of March excited to see the House floor vote on one of our bills (HB5). As a relative novice of the legislative process I assumed (naively I now know) that we just might get to see some fiery debates about this controversial issue. Instead, things started out with over an hour of pomp and circumstance followed by a grueling nine hours (no we did not stay for all of it) during which a total of 117 amendments were proposed.

After about an hour of guest introductions and congratulations to the likes of the East Bernard High School football team who recently won the 2012 Division 2 state championship, Erin and I were starting to wonder if we had stumbled into the wrong room (the capitol is a bit of a labyrinth). When HB5 finally took the floor we thanked our lucky stars and again turned our attention to tracking HB5s bid for victory:

The first amendment, proposed by Representative Aycock outlined a number of semantic changes and procedural edits that we eventually got lost in. The next three amendments proceeded to amend each other, with Representatives Branch, Rodriguez and Villarreal offering the second amendment to amendment number 1 and Representative Fisher offering a substitute amendment for amendment number two. This went on until the  5th amendment proposed by Representative McClendon which amended a portion of the house committee report on HB5.  Sadly the amending of amendments lasted longer than Erin and I and we sulkily made our way to class with very little idea of what HB 5 would look like by the end of the day.

So what DID happen?

HB5 finally passed with a vote of 145 to 2 on Wednesday the 27th after a long and arduous process the day before. Checking back at the end of the day on Tuesday Erin and I were aghast to see the stunning 117 amendments that were proposed. More frustrating than anything else was how difficult it was to untangle the implications of the many changes made to HB5 (not for lack of trying). Broadly speaking the passing of HB5 promises to reduce the number of standardized tests while increasing curriculum flexibility to allow students to pursue more individualized interests as they prepare for both collage and the workforce. And yet, despite our careful attention to this issue over an entire semester and our best efforts to bear witness to the passing of HB5 we remain frustrated and confused about the nuances of what HB5 really has to offer.

Next up, senate floor

PS For anyone looking to do a little light reading, please feel free to check out the transcript of the entire process




Who’s Lobbying: Raise Your Hand Texas

In an effort to get a better sense of who’s lobbying for what, we turn our attention to an organization called Raise Your Hand Texas. Our goal? To examine their legislative agenda in the hopes of further expanding our perspective of the many voices seeking to improve and influence Texas education.

Raise Your Hand Texas, identifies itself as “a non-profit education advocacy organization working to strengthen public education in Texas. We train public school leaders to lead transformational change at the campus level, and advocate for public policies that make public schools better for all Texas students.”

Their legislative agenda challenges legislators to:

Restore Critical Funding for Texas Public Schools

  • Texas has the second highest national public school enrollment and the fifth WORST per-student spending
  • Raise Your Hand Texas supports: restoring the $5.3 billion cut from the budget last session

Improve the Accountability System
Accountability efforts should:

  • Expanding the number of measures used to make an accountability rating
  • Include student progress and other factors other than performance on state assessments
  • Provide relevant performance results that the public can easily access and understand
  • “Simplify and align standards and reporting under the state and federal accountability system”

Reduce high stakes testing

  • Texas has by far the highest number of end-of-course exams of any state
  • Raise Your Hand Texas supports: reducing the number of exams, allowing local districts more flexibility over the 15% grading requirement, and “allowing AP/IB exams and Dual Credit course completion to satisfy EOC requirement in that subject”

Oppose School Vouchers

  • Raise Your Hand Texas is opposed to school vouchers in any form, claiming that they “divert taxpayer funds to fund private schools at taxpayers expense”

Fund Pre-k + Reward High Quality Pre-K Programs

  • By restoring funding for Prekindergarten Early Start Grants and for the School Readiness Certification System quality and quantity of pre-K offerings can be increased

Increase Career and Technical Course Options for Texas Students

  • Prepare Texas students for future careers by increasing the number of Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses that satisfy math and science requirements for graduation

Support Stronger Authority to Close Failing Charter Schools

  • Raise Your Hand Texas opposes: expanding the current cap on charters until significant progress is made in improving charter school enforcement and revoking poor-performing charters

Support Stronger Accountability and Transparency for Virtual School Providers and oppose

  • Full-time virtual education is criticized for its poor academic performance and lack of transparency and yet enrolment has quadrupled in the past four years.
  • Raise Your Hand Texas opposes: “Allowing virtual school providers to deliver courses outside of the Texas Virtual School Network, or to receive direct funding for students using taxpayer funds”

Interested in following this agenda? Raise Your Hand Texas provides regular Capitol Updates to help you stay on top of these issues as they move through the house and the senate

Ok but………. who ARE these guys?

Finding information on what Raise Your Hand Texas supports was easy enough. But efforts to dig a bit deeper to determine who is behind this organization proved to be significantly more challenging.

In fact, we became increasingly more uncomfortable as we searched for information that is (as we understood it) supposed to be public record (such as the organization’s 990 funding disclosure form). When we finally did find their 2011 990 on Guidestar we were most interested to note that the full title of the foundation included the “Charles Butt Charitable Fund.” What does this mean? In short, Raise Your Hand Texas is the private foundation of Charles Butt, chairman and CEO of HEB, who is worth about $7.4 billion according to Forbes Magazine.

What’s wrong with Charles Butt giving some of his excess wealth to help improve Texas education? The short answer is nothing. What we were most bothered by in our efforts to figure out where the money was coming from and what additional motivations may be factoring into their legislative agenda was the total lack of transparency. A non-profit supported by a single funding source is worth keeping an eye on, but its difficult to do so when their website provides no direct access to such information and when the best secondary source is the Linkedin page for Raise Your Hand Texas which states vaguely that its “funded by a Texas philanthropist.” In fact the only source to openly acknowledge the connection between But and RYHT came from RYHT’s social media providers, who define the organization as being “founded and led by Charles Butt.”

Why does this matter? Because, as they say, money talks, and in such a heated debate with so many factors at play its important to know whose pushing for what and why.