Campus miracle workers can do only so much


During the new school year, thousands of teachers across Texas once again will prove themselves to be miracle workers, of sorts, as they help students not only tackle their studies but also cope with a number of issues and distractions originating outside the classroom.

But even miracle workers have their limits, as the Houston Chronicle editorial, linked below, accurately points out.

Public schools and the people who work in them cannot “fix” deep-rooted, intergenerational poverty that continues to haunt tens of thousands of children in Texas. State leaders have failed them for years and continue to fail them with an inadequate safety net of health care and social services. These same state leaders – who also refuse to pay for an adequate and equitable school funding system — pass the buck to educators and then wring their hands when the same kids, year after year, continue to under-perform on standardized tests.

The editorial cited the case of Kashmere High School in Houston, which has been rated “improvement required” on the state’s accountability system for seven years.

Here’s why. Some 48 of adults in the community served by the school don’t have a high school diploma, and fewer than 7 percent have a college degree. Fifty-three percent of adults make less than $25,000 a year, the community has no Head Start programs and it lacks sufficient health care providers.

As the Chronicle wrote: “No matter what hours Kashmere’s principals, teachers and administrators put in, no matter how well they use data, no matter their dedication, school personnel cannot fix intergenerational poverty. They can’t amass the resources to meet these students’ basic needs or those of their families, whose engagement is vital to student success. Yet until students have full stomachs, a roof over their heads and a safe environment, it’s at best challenging for students to learn.”

A community school model in the Kashmere feeder pattern is attempting to coordinate social services and other community resources that the students and their families need. This is a good step, but the legislative majority also needs to provide more resources.

It doesn’t take a genius to predict that once the state implements it’s new, A-F grading system for campuses next year, Kashmere will get an “F.” And so will hundreds of other campuses with classrooms full of improverished children.

That is a stigma that will do absolutely nothing to help these kids. But it was much easier for the legislative majority to insult low-income children and their educators with this law than it was to begin to realistically address the challenges that these children and their teachers face.



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

Homelessness a major problem for public schools


Our policymakers don’t talk about it very much, but thousands of children in Texas public schools are homeless, presenting their own special problems for educators. According to new federal data, there were more than 111,000 of them during the 2013-14 school year.

Nationally, as reported by the Washington Post, the number of homeless children in public schools totaled 1.36 million that year. Texas came in third behind California and New York. The national amount has doubled since before the recent recession.

“Teachers often find themselves working not only to help children learn but also to clothe them, keem them clean and counsel them through problems – including stress and trauma – that interfere with classroom progress,” the Post reported.

Sound familiar?

The newspaper also noted that homeless children are “more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, are more likely to miss school and change schools, are more likely to drop out of school than other children and score lower on standardized tests.”

Homelessness isn’t limited to urban school districts. Suburban and rural districts also struggle with the problem, partly because the gentrification of cities has forced many low-income families to abandon central city neighborhoods in hopes of finding affordable housing elsewhere. And, often, they don’t find it.

I may have missed it, but I don’t recall any singificant debate in the Legislature when it was in session earlier this year about the plight of homeless students. To their credit, some lawmakers tried to convince the powers-that-be in Austin to expand Medicaid, at least, so millions of low-income Texans, including the homeless, could get health care.

But the powers-that-be shut the door on that idea, keeping Texas’ social safety net extremely thin – and letting educators continue to deal with the consequences.




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.