Month: <span>May 2015</span>

Wondering what teachers think about STAAR testing


Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, a Republican member of the State Board of Education from Dallas, is wondering what, if anything, the board can do to improve STAAR test scores.

My immediate response would be for the conservatives on the board to stop rewriting history or ignoring science the next time the board reviews a set of textbooks or revises curriculum. But Miller had another idea – form a committee of teachers to discuss the problem, The Dallas Morning News reported. Teachers are the real education experts, after all, and they have to administer the tests and prepare students for them.

Perhaps Miller has heard the growing roar from parents, Republicans and Democrats alike, against standardized testing. Unfortunately, though, many of Miller’s Republican colleagues in state government – particularly the lieutenant governor and the state Senate majority – probably would consider her idea more heretical than anything else.

In their view, teachers are for campaign photo-ops. When they are looking for information about educational policy, they are more likely to turn to the pseudo, self-styled “experts,” privateers seeking to rake off tax dollars for vouchers or some other privatization scheme. Most of these “experts” haven’t set foot in a classroom in years.

So, I give Miller credit for acknowledging the real expertise of teachers, even though there isn’t much the State Board of Education can do about testing policy. That’s primarily a job for the Legislature.

I can’t speak for every teacher, but I suspect that, given the chance to tell the State Board of Education or the Legislature what to do about STAAR test scores, many teachers would tell officials to dump the STAAR and quit using standardized tests to punish students, teachers and campuses.

Here is a workable alternative. The state should replace the STAAR with a diagnostic test, administered at the beginning of the school year, to help teachers learn their students’ strengths and weaknesses, and then get out of the way. Leave teachers alone to do what they do best – teach. And, I don’t mean teach to a test. I mean help their students learn how to learn and experience the sense of real accomplishment that comes with that.




Heard the bad joke about tax cuts?


Educators can appreciate tax cuts as much as anyone else, but they also know when they are being taken for a ride. The “tax relief” emerging from this legislative session will give a substantial break to many businesses, while barely affecting most other Texans.

Don’t be fooled by the reported $3.8 billion worth of the total tax reduction package, the total chunk it takes out of the state budget. That’s combining everybody’s share. What the tax cut will be worth to each individual is what matters to most individuals, and the joke will be on the average tea partier out there – and almost everyone else.

If voters approve a constitutional amendment in November, the standard homestead exemption on property taxes will be increased from $15,000 to $25,000. That means the average homeowner will receive a tax cut of about $125 a year, or about $10 and pocket change a month.

You can spend that on a big bucket of popcorn at the movies every month. But not much else.

To be sure, increasing the homestead exemption is the best way to reduce property taxes fairly, but property tax cuts are only one part of the tax-reduction package. The primary beneficiaries of the entire package will be businesses, not individuals. Business owners will see a real reduction — 25 percent — in their franchise tax rate, not just a few dollars a month. These are some of the same people who allegedly value the contributions of public schools and wring their hands over student test scores but nevertheless put a higher priority on lower taxes than they do on adequate education funding.

The Legislature is increasing public school funding by $1.5 billion over enrollment growth for the next two years. That is a step in the right direction, but it still leaves education funding in Texas – which spends less than most states per student — with a long way to go. And now, going forward, the tax cuts mean we will have less revenue to spend on schools and other public needs.



Another way to bash educators


Texas is a so-called “right to work” state, has been since 1947 and, in all likelihood, will be for many years to come. That partly explains the enthusiasm for worker-bashing that prevails among many state legislators and also points to the absurdity that such worker-bashing represents.

To be sure, this worker-bashing includes teacher-bashing and a similar attack on thousands of other school employees whose work is critical to preparing the next generation for a successful future. And, in the closing critical days of the legislative session, this attack has become embodied in one piece of legislation, Senate Bill 1968, which would deprive educators and most other public employees of the simple security and convenience of having the membership dues they give to TSTA and other unions and professional organizations automatically deducted from their paychecks.

Payroll dues deduction is a benign administrative practice that has been going on for years, and there is absolutely no public policy reason to repeal it. Membership in unions or any other organization is voluntary, and dues can’t be used for political contributions. School districts aren’t demanding a change, and some districts have even gone on record against the bill. Yet the Senate, which has approved a long list of bad legislation this session, has approved this measure, and its fate will be determined in the House within the next few days.

Like other public employees in Texas, teachers can’t bargain collectively and can’t strike. But they should have the right to control what happens to their own paychecks.

Through no coincidence, Senate Bill 1968 would allow certain organizations, including the openly political 501c4 “dark money” groups, to continue to be funded through payroll deductions. These groups don’t have to divulge their funding sources, despite the fact they or their related political arms actively attempt to influence legislation, including the promotion of bills to spend our tax dollars to privatize our public schools.

Educators and other public employees are experts in their professions and, as such, are a strong threat to these privateers. So Senate Bill 1968 seeks to punish them.


Students need real help, not labels


The A-F grading system for individual schools, which the Texas House has now joined the Senate in approving, will stigmatize students – mostly low-income children – while doing nothing to improve performance.

It also will make it easier to label schools as “failures,” clearing the way for takeover by corporate-run charters and generating profits (with our tax dollars) for landlords and charter management companies.

As The Dallas Morning News reported, data presented to legislators have indicated that, on average, the state’s lowest performing schools have enrollments that are 86 percent economically disadvantaged. That means their students are primarily low-income and/or of limited English-speaking ability, and they are the schools most likely to be marked with “Ds” or “Fs.”

Research indicates that poverty has a significant impact on educational achievement. Poor children can succeed, but this rating system would serve only to punish poverty-stricken students – and do nothing to provide them greater opportunity.  The A-F system only serves the interests of education privateers, not the children who need the most help.

“Why should we place the blame on the kids?” asked Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, in debating unsuccessfully against the A-F proposal.

Why, indeed.

The House and the Senate have passed different versions of the A-F rating requirement. So more votes will be necessary before the legislation goes to the governor, but House approval increased the likelihood that the proposal will become law.

The House version is part of a broader bill by Public Education Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock that would create a fairer accountability system for public schools. Aycock’s accountability system would reduce the role that standardized tests play in measuring school performance and include other factors – such as graduation percentages, attendance, dropout rates and parental engagement – as well.

Aycock is to be commended for his attempt to improve the overall accountability system, and adding the A-F grading system could improve the bill’s chances in the Senate. But, at least at the outset, low-income schools would get the worse marks, and A-F grading systems have been unsuccessful in improving campus performances in other states where they have been tried.

Disadvantaged children don’t need “Ds” and “Fs” or corporate takeovers of their neighborhood schools. They need more help and support from their local communities, which is why TSTA is supporting separate legislation to encourage use of the Community Schools model, which has been effective in Texas and a number of other states in turning around struggling schools.

This approach, which also is advancing in the House, would enable teachers, parents, local businesses and non-profits to work together to provide students and their families all the resources necessary for classroom success. Success requires hard work, not labels.