Month: <span>December 2014</span>

A message from someone who really appreciates education


Ellen, an old family friend, former teacher and Brooklyn artist who recently moved to Pennsylvania, has a deep appreciation of the value of education. As do other educators, she recognizes it is a continuous, lifelong process and knows you don’t achieve it by mastering the phony art of passing standardized tests.

This year, Ellen illustrated her season’s greetings booklet with a very well-done black-and-white sketch of herself on the cover and, inside, delivered a timely message about the evil of excessive testing. She also offered the hope that someday the powers-that-be — the politicians and privateers who are souring the classroom experience for millions of schoolchildren and compromising their futures — will come to their senses.

Ellen noted that George Washington Carver, the historic and well-respected African American educator, defined education as the process of “understanding relationships.”

Contrast that to the reality of untold numbers of public school classrooms throughout the country today, where, as she noted, “education is defined as learning from teachers how to pass standardized tests.”

She asked: “Don’t we want to understand relationships in order to save our planet; make beautiful music; create masterpieces in the visual and literary arts; cure all old and new diseases; change an age of greed into an age of green; transform hate into love?”

We do, Ellen. Most of us parents and others who value public schools certainly do.

On that note, I would like to wish everyone a safe, happy and healthy holiday season, while those of us at TSTA also take the occasion to recharge our batteries for another year of trying to educate state policymakers about education.

See you in 2015.

A tale of two superintendents


As we know, school districts get a lot of grief from legislators and other state policymakers for problems that are largely the fault of state policymakers. Chief among these are a shortage of funding for a growing enrollment of low income and special needs children and a refusal among many legislators to recognize that they should be more accountable than third-graders.

But obviously local school leadership also makes a difference, which is why educators and parents are keeping their fingers crossed over the Austin school board’s decision this week to promote from within its own district’s ranks and give Interim Superintendent Paul Cruz the “permanent” superintendent’s job. How long permanent will be, of course, will depend on Cruz’s job performance. He will be challenged with a minefield of problems, including an uneven use of resources that has some neighborhood schools bursting at the seams of countless portables and others with room to spare.

Cruz’s promotion so far has been greeted with cautious optimism, mainly because Cruz has improved communication with educators, parents and the community as a whole.

Meanwhile, a couple of hundred miles up IH35, optimism — cautious or otherwise — may not be the term to apply to Dallas ISD, where Superintendent Mike Miles, based on what I read and hear, is more dictatorial than communicative. He has angered many teachers with excessive paperwork, played musical chairs with administrators, had an elected board member physically removed from a school campus and insists on grade school kids taking useless, standardized tests in PE.

Meanwhile, Dallas ISD still has the same urban school district problems it had when Miles arrived a few years ago, leaving the door wide open to a potential power grab by privatization advocates who are trying to convert the district into a home rule charter that could weaken educational standards and strip teachers of basic employment rights.

I am a taxpayer – and more importantly a parent — in Austin ISD, and I am rooting for Paul Cruz. I also am keeping a wary eye on Dallas, where many TSTA members are working hard for their students and their community under very difficult circumstances.


Education is not a “top” priority without funding


With only occasional exceptions, a government’s policy priorities and its funding priorities go hand-in-hand. Policymakers can call repeatedly for building more roads and highways, but if they don’t spend more money on highway construction, the roads don’t get built. Or, they can pontificate forever about improving education, but if they continue to shortchange public schools, it is extremely difficult for teachers and students to effectively teach and learn.

In his news conference yesterday, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott continued to claim education is a top policy priority. But except for some limited initiatives — including limited expansion of pre-kindergarten programs — he has yet to show that he means what he says. Instead of calling for a significant increase in funding for public schools that haven’t fully recovered from the 2011 state budget cuts, Abbott is still defending an inadequate and unconstitutional school finance system that includes the budget cuts.

“I want to ensure that all children finish the third grade reading and doing math at or above grade level,” he said. That’s a laudable goal that would be much easier to reach if thousands of kids weren’t still parked in overcrowded classrooms and forced to sacrifice real learning opportunities in preparation for excessive, counter-productive standardized tests.

With Texas now spending about $460 less per student than it did four years ago, with school enrollment increasing by about 80,000 children per year and with most of those kids coming from low-income homes, Abbott isn’t going to come close to realizing that goal without a greater investment of state revenue in public education and support services, such as health care. And, with billions of additional tax dollars generated by the state’s strong economy, the new governor and the Legislature can make that investment without raising anyone’s existing taxes.

Abbott identified his top priority yesterday, and it wasn’t education. It was highway construction, for which he proposed a $4 billion a year funding increase. Texas needs to increase funding for highways, and Texas voters overwhelmingly approved a proposition diverting additional oil and gas production tax revenue to the highway fund. That diversion is expected to total about $1.7 billion next year, and it is included in Abbott’s $4 billion proposal.

The Legislature will have enough revenue next year to pay for Abbott’s highway proposal AND increase funding for public schools and other critical services. Abbott needs to start giving public education the same status he is giving roads because it will take more than new highways to keep Texas moving forward.


Testing second-graders on the fine art of skipping


Anyone out there who has had it up to here with standardized testing should take a look at the tests that Dallas ISD requires of grade-school students in art, band and – believe it or not – physical education. First you may have a good laugh, and then you may want to cry.

The tests required by Superintendent Mike Miles are ridiculous. The Assessment of Course Performance, or ACP, as it is known, for kindergarten art requires five-year-olds to “create artworks using a variety of lines, shapes, colors, textures and forms.” I don’t know what happens if a kid insists on sticking to one color, but surely he or she doesn’t have to repeat the class.

First-graders in music class are required to take a test measuring their ability to “sing tunefully,” and second-graders in PE are tested on their ability to “demonstrate mature form in skipping,” among other skills.

The Dallas Morning News (see the link below) provides several more examples of this preposterous administrative incursion into the classroom day and rip-off of taxpayer dollars. It almost seems as if Superintendent Miles is trying to motivate parents to pack their children off to private school, if they can afford it, even before they hit the STAAR grind in the third grade.

According to the newspaper, Dallas ISD teachers and parents have rallied against the tests because they are stressing out children and taking away too much time from actual learning. At a school board briefing on Thursday, some trustees urged the superintendent to consider eliminating the tests.

I have a better idea for the board. It should demand, not simply ask, that the superintendent call a halt to the testing foolishness. The board, after all, hired the superintendent and can fire him. So, why should trustees allow the tail to wag the dog?