Michael Williams

Appreciate teachers, not high-stakes tests


Leave it to state Education Commissioner Michael Williams to “celebrate” Teacher Appreciation Week by giving teachers the back of his hand. Admittedly, that may sound a bit hyperbolic, but my characterization will be mild compared to what some parents may start saying once they realize the commissioner has fed a testing frenzy in their school districts.

Williams this week released a new, pilot teacher evaluation system that will be partly based on student test scores. The emphasis on test scores was not unexpected because that was a requirement from the federal government for granting Texas a waiver from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. But the testing emphasis, nevertheless, flies in the face of increasing parental outrage over the standardized testing culture for which NCLB and its champion, former President George W. Bush, are largely responsible.

Now, the Obama administration has misguidedly taken up the testing banner, and Texas officials who go out of their way to disagree with President Obama on just about everything else are all too eager to heap more high-stakes tests on students and teachers. A couple of weeks ago, you may recall, Attorney General Greg Abbott proposed giving teachers – in lieu of a pay raise — a bounty for students who pass Advanced Placement tests.

Beginning with the next school year, the new evaluation system will be introduced in as many as 72 school districts and charter schools, Williams announced. Unless the Legislature steps in and says otherwise, the commissioner plans to expand the system – or a version of it – to all districts during the 2015-16 school year.

Teachers also will be evaluated on other factors, such as self-assessments, classroom observations and professional feedback. But 20 percent of an evaluation will be based on test scores for those teachers who administer standardized tests.

Thanks to pushback from parents, most legislators have started to realize that high-stakes testing and the teaching-to-the-test syndrome that it encourages are interfering with the real learning process. That is why they took a first step toward testing sanity last year by reducing the number of end-of-course exams that high school students have to pass to graduate. Now, tying a teacher’s evaluation and, potentially, pay level to test scores will encourage more teaching to the test.

Some people just don’t get it. You can count Commissioner Williams, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama among them.



Confusing politics and educational needs


Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, a Republican African American, praised today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act because, he said, it eliminates a “major hurdle” to helping children in ineffective school districts, such as Harris County’s North Forest ISD.

Huh? How does gutting a law designed to protect minority voters help children in struggling, largely minority school districts? It doesn’t, except in Williams’ mind.

The commissioner’s argument, however, is that the high court decision clears a potential barrier – Justice Department approval – to the Texas Education Agency’s plan to abolish North Forest and its elected school board on July 1 and put North Forest’s students into Houston ISD.

Williams obviously considers the gutting of the Voting Rights Act a political victory, but he shouldn’t confuse that with improving educational opportunities for the mostly African American students in North Forest. The biggest barrier to a quality education for them has been – and remains — an inadequate and unfair system of education funding, which has a particularly harmful effect on many low-income students. Simply moving these students from one school district to another is not going to change the basic problem. The much larger Houston ISD has more resources, but many of its students also are struggling for the same basic reason.

As the state’s public education commissioner, Williams has championed private school vouchers, high-stakes standardized testing and, now, a reversal of minority voting rights. When is he going to advocate for the resources that students and their teachers really need?


Merit pay a bad idea


El Paso ISD’s caretaker board of managers recently approved a 2.5 percent pay raise for all district employees. Yes, that is a bit of good news, but you may want to hold your applause because the board also has asked district officials to consider merit-based raises for the 2014-15 school year.

Merit pay is a very bad idea, and no one should know better than administrators in El Paso ISD. But some memories can be very short.

As a reminder, the El Paso district is still recovering from a cheating scandal that resulted in the previous superintendent – who had a financial incentive to artificially raise test scores — being sentenced to prison. The district was taken over by the state, and teachers are trying to help hundreds of children recover lost educational opportunities.

In naming the district’s temporary board of managers, state Education Commissioner Michael Williams included former state Rep. Dee Margo as president, even though Margo had used his one term in the House in 2011 to strike a blow against public schools. He voted for $5.4 billion in school budget cuts.

The cuts crammed tens of thousands of school children into overcrowded classrooms, cost thousands of school employees their jobs and prompted many of our best, most experienced teachers to take incentives to retire early. Consequently, over the past two years, the average teacher pay in this state dropped by $528 a year. Texas now has the dubious distinction of paying its teachers more than $8,000 below the national average.

This year, the Legislature, with the help of Margo’s successor, state Rep. Joe Moody, restored part of the $5.4 billion, and El Paso ISD and a number of other school districts have been approving pay raises. The raises, however, will do little to cure Texas’ compensation deficiency.

With average teacher pay in Texas lagging so far behind the national average, a Texas school district has no business considering merit pay for a small group of teachers.

We need to continue to raise pay for all teachers, the vast majority of whom are good educators. Overpaying “bad” teachers in Texas is not a problem. The problem is underpaying good teachers and forcing many of them to leave the classroom in order to be able to support their families. That is the real threat to educational quality for school children.

Education is a collaborative effort that takes several years to develop. A teacher’s success in the middle and later grades is affected by how well his or her students were taught in earlier grades. So, it wouldn’t be fair to single out, say, an eighth grade teacher for a merit pay raise without taking into account all the other teachers who have taught the same students over the years.

Another problem with merit pay is that it usually is based heavily on students’ scores on standardized tests, a woefully incomplete measure of a teacher’s success. High-stakes testing has become such a flash point for parent and educator frustration that the Legislature this year significantly reduced the number of graduation tests for high school students.

El Paso ISD, in particular, should know better than to try to tie pay to test scores. The district’s managers need to pull their heads out of the Chihuahuan Desert sand and shelve the merit idea.




Missing the point on graduation rates


Whether you greeted it with applause or skepticism, the recent report crediting Texas with one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country will have a very short shelf life if the powers that be in Austin don’t stop undermining the public schools.

After the U.S. Department of Education released a study crediting Texas with a graduation rate of 86 percent, Gov. Rick Perry’s appointee, Education Commissioner Michael Williams, declared in an op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman: “Our public schools are delivering a high-quality education. Thanks to hard work from teachers, administrators, students and parents, more Texas students are earning a high school diploma than ever before.”

Williams failed to point out, however, that the graduation rate was based on the 2010-11 school year – before the governor and his legislative allies cut $5.4 billion from public school budgets, resulting in the loss of 11,000 teaching jobs. Consequently, thousands of children in overcrowded classrooms didn’t keep receiving as much individual attention as many need to stay on a successful track to graduation. Pre-kindergarten and other important dropout prevention programs also fell victim to the budget ax.

Yes, teachers, administrators and students are working hard, and they will continue to work hard. But the resources they need to keep succeeding at a high level – manageable class sizes, up-to-date textbooks and facilities – were cut back. The 2010-11 graduation rate cited in the federal report also was based on the old TAKS test, not the more difficult STAAR tests that legislators imposed on students and teachers even as they were slashing funding for classrooms. How long will Williams – or his successor – be able to keep bragging about graduation rates without a strong commitment to public education from the governor and the legislative majority?

Williams needs to use his position as state education commissioner to demand that commitment, beginning with a restoration of the funding cuts. But, so far, Williams has had little to say about funding public schools. Instead, he has joined the governor in advocating for private schools. Both are among state “leaders” who would drain even more tax dollars from public education to fund a private school voucher program. If Williams is as proud of the public schools as he says he is, why take more steps to weaken them with privatization?

Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, a Capitol insider who apparently thinks standardized tests are more important than adequate education funding, also wrote an op-ed about the graduation report. But he questioned the accuracy of it, coming as it did behind other estimates indicating a much lower graduation rate.

“In order to focus appropriate attention on this issue, a more honest reporting of the numbers would be helpful,” Hammond wrote in Texas Weekly. “Educators must not be allowed to take their eye off of the problem. A falsely optimistic report shouldn’t stop educators from working towards programs that graduate kids with diplomas that mean something.”

Business has much to gain from a strong public education system, and if Hammond and his group are trying to correct the biggest problems facing the public schools today, they need to start by looking in the mirror. The biggest problems facing the public schools today are an inadequate and inequitable funding system and the push for privatization. And, the Texas Association of Business has been a longtime political and financial supporter of Gov. Perry and the budget-cutters and education profiteers in the Legislature.

Perhaps Hammond should do more than bemoan poor test scores and worry about graduation rates in underfunded schools. Perhaps he should work to convince the governor and his other political allies to provide the resources necessary to educate a workforce that will benefit the Texas economy and the businesses he represents.