Month: <span>September 2013</span>

What does “education reform” mean to Greg Abbott?


When Attorney General Greg Abbott launched his campaign for the Republican nomination for governor, he went around the state promising to usher in a “new era of education reform.”

Uh-oh. If Abbott’s definition of “education reform” is the same as most of the Republican leadership in this state, it will mean more support for unproven privatization schemes and corporate takeover of local neighborhood schools. That means spending state tax dollars on school vouchers and cookie-cutter, corporate charters, while slashing tax dollars from already under-funded, traditional public schools, where the vast majority of Texas children will continue to be educated.

Right now, we can only guess – although I think the above is a pretty educated guess – because Abbott so far hasn’t spelled out what he means. He has spoken against “teaching to the test” – which the Legislature already dealt with this year — and said Texas needs to prepare more children for college or careers and make college more affordable.

But mostly the “education reform” remark has been a footnote in a campaign stump speech heavy on red-meat, right-wing rhetoric that bashes Obamacare and the federal government, promotes religious ideology and suggests that failure to promote Abbott to governor could mean the imminent collapse of the U.S. Constitution.

I checked Abbott’s campaign website today, and if there was anything on it fleshing out his education priorities, I couldn’t find it. But I did find the 10 issues that he singles out, and not one has anything to do with improving the public education system.

The first is ending Obamacare, which would ensure Texas of remaining the national leader in residents without health care. The second is protecting the Second Amendment, which doesn’t need protecting, unlike school children in harm’s way from an over-supply of guns in the wrong hands. And, the third is defense of “traditional values,” like displaying the Ten Commandments on the state Capitol grounds.

Also on the list is Abbott’s defense of the voter ID law, a thinly veiled political attempt to disenfranchise minority and elderly voters who are not likely to support the attorney general’s gubernatorial bid.

But I guess we will have to wait a little longer for that “education reform” platform to be spelled out.




Be wary of the book police


In case you haven’t heard, this is “Banned Books Week.” The timing is interesting, following last week’s umpteenth assault on science textbooks by flat-earthers appearing before the State Board of Education.

Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Library Association to help people remember not to take their First Amendment Rights for granted. The association reports that, in the past decade alone, its member libraries and schools have faced nearly 5,000 challenges over books that someone considered too sexually explicit, too violent or too “anti-family” or that someone else thought had too much “offensive language.” There also were objections to books for dealing with homosexuality or various religious viewpoints or whatever else some self-anointed censor found objectionable.

For all I know, some people objected to books affirming the existence of global warming or describing the world as being round – or reporting that President Obama, indeed, was born in Hawaii.

In the newspaper op-ed linked below, the writer makes the point that people have the right to ban books from their own homes if they don’t want to read them or they believe they are inappropriate for their children. But they have no right to try to restrict access to those same books for other people – or other people’s children.

Let’s ban the book police.



Computers alone don’t cut it in the classroom


The educational entrepreneurs who would have us believe that computers can replace teachers have some more egg on their faces. So, for that matter, do some administrators at San Jose State University in California, which recently ended a much-ballyhooed online program, but not before setting who knows how many students behind in their degree plans.

As the NEAToday Express story, linked below, points out, this is another dent in the myth that MOOCs – massive, open, online courses – are a potential educational miracle. Computer-assisted education certainly has its place, but let’s not be in too big a hurry to dismiss real, flesh and blood teachers.

Last year, San Jose State entered into an agreement with Udacity, a for-profit company, to offer three for-credit, online-only classes in developmental math, statistics and algebra. San Jose State students and others who took the course were charged $150 per student, with the university president predicting the high-tech arrangement would be a “game-changer.”

Not quite.

In none of the three online courses offered last spring did more than half of San Jose State students pass, and only 25 percent of the university students passed the online algebra class, compared to a long-term average passing rate of 65 percent among students who take the same algebra course face-to-face with professors. Most of the online students said they wanted more help with contest.

The “game-changer” partnership was suspended this summer.

San Jose also entered a second MOOC deal with MIT-Harvard’s edX in which students watched MIT engineering lectures online. But in this course, students also attended classes with a San Jose State professor, who answered questions and otherwise worked with them. Engineering students in this “hybrid” approach did better than engineering students in traditional classes.

Computers certainly can help teachers and students in the classroom. They are valuable educational tools that can open up new learning opportunities. But most students still need a teacher.


Charter schools worsening educational equity?


BASIS, a charter school operator based in Arizona, boasts on its website that its schools are “among the best in the world.” And, it includes data about rigorous curriculum, high test scores and top notch teachers that seem to back the claim.

BASIS charges no tuition and requires no entrance exams for its open-enrollment schools and claims to admit any student for whom there is space – or who can win, if there are too many applicants, a registration lottery. Despite that annoying lottery business, BASIS almost seems like a parent’s dream come true, an opportunity to watch a child’s education – and future – take off.

Some futures doubtlessly have, but for every child benefitting from BASIS lotteries, countless others risk being left behind in traditional public schools from which tax dollars have been diverted to BASIS charters – and the profits of their private operators. If this scheme takes hold in Texas, the public school inequities that Texas educators and policymakers have been struggling for years to overcome will worsen.

So far, BASIS has only one school in Texas, a charter that opened a few weeks ago in San Antonio, where it was recruited by a coalition of charter proponents and given a boost by a $1 million grant from the George W. Brackenridge Foundation. But the Legislature’s enactment of a law earlier this year to expand the number of charters in Texas is creating a potential growth industry – fueled by tax dollars – for educational entrepreneurs.

BASIS, like several other charter outfits, was organized as a non-profit. But its founders have since formed a separate, for-profit company that operates the schools. Shelley Potter, the president of the San Antonio Alliance, TSTA’s local, calls these arrangements, “Corporate, cookie cutter charter chains.”

Moreover, BASIS’ “open enrollment” claim is, in reality, something else. According to David Safier, a former teacher-turned-Arizona blogger, BASIS, at least in Arizona, requires students who are accepted to take a placement test. The parents of students who score low are advised their children will be moved back a grade if they still want to enter the school.

Many other students end up leaving the charter. At BASIS’ first charter campus in Tucson, Safier reported earlier this year, the graduating class of 2012 had 97 students when they were in sixth grade. By graduation time, the class numbered only 33, a drop of 66 percent. Every year, based on Arizona Department of Education data, the number of students at the chain’s Tucson and Scottsdale campuses fell between 60 percent and 71 percent from sixth to 12th grade, Safier wrote.

He concluded that’s how BASIS achieves a large percentage of high test scores. “They winnow the weakest students year by year until only the most academically successful survive,” he said.

That’s great for the academically fittest. But what about the large majority of students who dropped out of BASIS? Most likely, most of them reenrolled in traditional public schools, which don’t have the luxury of cherry-picking, yet are constantly under attack by the charter “reformers” who love to fatten themselves on the cream. That, folks, is not what an equitable public education system is supposed to be all about.

BASIS opened a charter school in Washington, D.C., last fall. Initially, the school enrolled 443 students. But by April, 43 students – almost 10 percent – had left the school, according to the Washington Post. Seven of those who departed were students with disabilities. BASIS, the Post reported, still got to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax money it had been awarded for the 43 students who dropped out, while the traditional public schools to which the students most likely returned received no additional money for the school year.

Then, last month, the Post reported that the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights had opened an investigation into a complaint that the BASIS school in Washington discriminated against students with disabilities.

The newspaper quoted the mother of a special education student who was failing when he withdrew from the charter. “They just weren’t dealing with him or helping him at all. It was all about the kid fitting their model rather than how can we help this kid excel,” she said.