Month: <span>April 2016</span>

Lt. Gov. Patrick crusading to under-fund schools, deny basic services


WFAA-TV caught Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick doing what he does best, which isn’t representing the best interests of school kids, educators and other Texans. What Dan does best is being hypocritical, and in this case he was publicly berating a Republican county judge who is simply trying to provide necessary public services to the people who live in his South Texas county – something Patrick doesn’t really care about.

Patrick, in his patented demagogic fashion, lectured the judge for testifying at a Senate committee hearing in Arlington that he needed to temporarily raise local property taxes to replace revenue lost to dropping oil prices. Rural Atascosa County, which the judge represents, was heavily dependent on oil production, which has been drastically curtailed. And now public services – including the local sheriff’s department, jail and courts – are running low on money, the judge explained.

But our lieutenant governor did not express concern that the county judge needs to make sure local law enforcement has the funds to protect and serve his community. Patrick instead is on a crusade – he has been ever since he was a showboating talk radio host in Houston years ago – to strictly restrict how much cities, counties and school districts can increase property taxes. The idea perhaps would be easier for local officials to take if Patrick also had the desire to offer better financial support from Austin, but he doesn’t. In fact, he has a history of reducing support from Austin.

As a state senator, for example, Patrick voted to cut $5.4 billion from public school budgets in 2011 and voted against the entire state budget (including all state funding for school districts, counties and other local governments) in 2013. And one of his top priorities during his first session as lieutenant governor last year was to reduce state business taxes, while public schools and other important state needs remain under-funded.

The county judge wasn’t the only recent victim of Patrick’s hypocrisy. The lieutenant governor also has been lambasting university regents for raising tuition, even though universities say higher tuition is necessary to fill shortages in appropriations from Patrick and his colleagues in the legislative majority.

Patrick is a showman, but Texas needs more than that in the state’s second highest office.




What the real numbers experts say about teacher evaluations


The American Statistical Association (ASA), an organization of professionals whose jobs are to make sense of numbers, warned two years ago of the unfairness and inaccuracy inherent in using test scores to evaluate teachers, but some educational bureaucrats still refuse to listen.

I looked up the ASA report again after Education Commissioner Mike Morath approved a new teacher evaluation model under which school districts could base 20 percent or more of a teacher’s evaluation on “student growth measures,” including so-called value added measures (VAM).

A VAM model typically is based on a complicated formula that compares a group of students’ actual scores on standardized tests to scores predicted by an equation based on test scores of other, but similar student groups. It is an opaque process that is incomprehensible to most educated people, but the American Statistical Association has figured it out and raised warning flags that Morath has failed or refused to see.

TSTA believes that Morath also has exceeded his authority as education commissioner in proposing that element in his teacher evaluation plan, and we have sued him to try to keep it from going into effect.

In its assessment, released in April 2014, the American Statistical Association warned that using VAMs for teacher evaluations could be counterproductive because the practice could result in even more class time being spent on test preparation “at the exclusion of content that may lead to better long-term learning gains or motivation for students.”

ASA also noted that, based on most VAM studies, teachers account for only about 1 percent to 14 percent of their students’ variability in test scores.

“The majority of the variation in test scores is attributable to factors outside of the teacher’s control, such as student and family background, poverty, curriculum and unmeasured influences,” the association wrote in its report.

Teachers welcome fair, productive evaluations that encourage professional development. They deserve to be evaluated on more than a numbers game, and the numbers experts agree.



TSTA lawsuit: students aren’t formulas, and teachers aren’t robots


Educators and parents get it. There are too many, high-stakes standardized tests in our classrooms. They steal time from the real work of teaching and learning and cause many children so much stress they destroy the joy of learning — and that is shameful.

Even the U.S. Congress gets it. That mostly dysfunctional group of Republicans and Democrats who don’t even like to agree on what day it is sensed so much public, bipartisan aversion to excessive testing that it junked the main test-generator, the No Child Left Behind Act, late last year, repealing the federal requirement that school accountability ratings be tied to test scores. In its place, they enacted the Every Student Succeeds Act, which encourages states to design accountability and teacher evaluation systems that more accurately and fairly reflect what educators actually do in the classroom.

But Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath still doesn’t get it. In one of his first major official acts, he approved a teacher evaluation system that would require school districts to base at least 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on so-called student growth measures, essentially the test scores that we waste too much time on now.

Texas teachers could be left trying to figure out an incomprehensible formula that allegedly compares their students’ test scores to the scores their students should be making, based on who knows how many factors that Einstein may or may not have been able to figure out.

TSTA opposes several features of Morath’s evaluation plan, and we told him so, to no avail. So, now TSTA is suing him, specifically because we believe his student-growth requirement exceeds the commissioner’s authority under state law.

If Morath doesn’t understand the growing professional and public opposition to excessive, high-stakes testing, then maybe the man who appointed him, Gov. Greg Abbott, doesn’t understand it either.

But the truth is this. Students are not faceless or mindless numbers to crunch into meaningless formulas. And teachers aren’t robots to be rated on what those formulas spit out.


Some things are more important than a STAAR test


Sometimes, it seems as if our state government – a majority of our leaders, anyway — cares more about the score a kid makes on the STAAR test than whether that child had anything to eat before coming to campus that morning, had a safe place to sleep the night before or was even healthy enough to be in school.

Am I exaggerating? Well, consider the fact that, beginning with the third grade, Texas school children and their teachers are hammered not only with several versions of the STAAR but also with hours of benchmark tests and other forms of preparation because government blindly equates passing STAAR scores with success. With school accountability ratings and, in some cases, teachers’ jobs at stake, government has made a big deal about how well childen do or don’t do on STAAR.

But does our government make as big a deal about issues of far more critical importance to millions of Texas children and their families than a test score – issues like, say, poverty, health care or child abuse? You be the judge.

One of every four Texas children lives in poverty, with even higher percentages among two minority groups – 33 percent of Hispanic kids and 32 percent for African Americans. Many of these kids are coming to school hungry, and it’s been this way for years. It also has been years – if ever – since state leaders made a concerted effort to really do something about it.

(In all these cases, I am talking about the majority of legislators and other state leaders because a minority of lawmakers are really trying to do the right thing but are consistently outvoted.)

Some 11 percent of Texas children – several hundred thousand — don’t have health insurance, which means many kids are coming to school sick and many more aren’t coming to school at all, or not very regularly. This is an old, recurring problem that recent governors and the legislative majority have stubbornly refused to address, even to the point of rejecting hundreds of millions of dollars in available Medicaid funds under the Affordable Care Act. And the legislative majority worsened the problem last year by cutting $350 million from the existing Medicaid program, cuts affecting an estimated 60,000 disabled children, including many in foster care.

Meanwhile, foster care in Texas remains a mess, as it has been for years, with several top level administrators recently resigning and many Texas children either being subjected to abuse or in danger of abuse from caregivers with woefully inadequate state supervision.

Dogged by a federal judge and some embarrassing publicity, the Legislature appropriated some extra money for Child Protective Services last year and talked tough about the need to crack down on abuse of foster children. But the Legislature spent much more – almost $4 billion – on tax cuts, and it left several billion dollars in the bank, while caseworkers remained overwhelmed and children remained imperiled.

The tough talk is continuing, following the widely publicized death of a 4-year-old Grand Prairie girl, who died of abuse earlier this year, and the arrest of a 17-year-old, abused runaway from foster care, who is accused of murdering a University of Texas coed on the Austin campus a couple of weeks ago.

Most foster parents, I am sure, are doing a great job taking care of vulnerable children with difficult issues to address. But the problem is that state regulators aren’t finding all the abusers and potential abusers. Two of the main reasons they aren’t is because there aren’t enough caseworkers and turnover among caseworkers is high. The Grand Prairie girl who died was one of 70 cases her caseworker was trying to juggle. Ideally, that caseworker should have been responsible for no more than 12 kids.

Gov. Abbott and legislative leaders have ordered reforms. But reforms — without significant, additional funding – can’t do much to help caseworkers keep up with staggering caseloads and perform more than a cursory job of supervision and intervention to protect children’s lives.

Year in and year out, STAAR scores are a big deal with state government. The most vulnerable children in Texas, however, seem to be a big deal with state leaders only when tragedy strikes