A-F school blame game tracks student poverty, not school accountability

It is bad enough that state officials refuse to give low-income children enough support to succeed, but it is worse when they insist on blaming the kids when the kids fall short of the politicians’ expectations. That is essentially what the new A-F grading system for Texas schools is all about, and the practice is contagious.

You may recall that school districts with the largest concentrations of low-income children got a large number of the Ds and Fs when the Texas Education Agency released the first A-F grades last summer. Individual campuses won’t be slapped with letter grades until next summer, unless the Texas law is changed. But based on the numerical grades posted for individual campuses, the same pattern will hold true.

Similar results, to no one’s surprise, where found in Louisiana when that state recently released its A-F grades for the 2017-18 school year. As one commenter pointed out on the deutsch29 blog, “The scores track poverty very well.”

The blog also cites similar, historic results from Florida and North Carolina and credits former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (brother of the former No Child Left Behind president) with coming up with the A-F idea. It then was spread by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), as so many bad ideas are, to legislators and governors throughout the country.

Texas, Louisiana and Florida have a couple of other things in common, besides the A-F school grading system. All three under-fund public education, and all three have poverty rates that are higher than the nation as a whole.

Texas spends $10,456 a year per student in average daily attendance, Louisiana spends $12,030 and Florida spends $9,897, all below the national average of $12,756. These figures are based on the National Education Association’s estimates for the 2017-18 school year.

Some 20.7 percent of Texas children (one in five) lived in poverty in 2017. The percentage was similar in Florida, 20 percent, and Louisiana’s was even higher, 27.8 percent (more than one in four). Texas and Florida also have refused to expand the Medicaid program for low-income residents under the Affordable Care Act, even though the federal government would pay most of the cost.

Poverty impacts a child’s ability to learn in many ways, including through poor nutrition, inadequate health care, and in some cases homelessness. Poverty also impacts a child’s ability to pass the standardized tests on which the A-F grades for their schools are largely based.

Low-income parents can’t afford the tutoring and the special STAAR-prep classes that many children of middle- and upper-income families receive. Many low-income parents also are busying working second and third jobs to support their families and don’t have time to help their children with homework. Many don’t have the educational backgrounds to help their children with school assignments or prepare for STAAR exams. And many don’t speak English well.

I am encouraged that Dennis Bonnen, the new House speaker-apparent, has said fixing the school finance system will be his top priority. While he is at it, he also should get the A-F blame-the-kids law repealed.

“The truth of the matter is that A-F shames and blames poor children, it shames and blames the professionals that love those children and it needs to be repealed,” the Rev. Charles F. Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, told the Austin American-Statesman.

The children whose schools stand to get the most Ds and Fs don’t deserve a stigma from state officials. They need more resources from state officials.





Don’t remove Helen and Hillary; remove STAAR from classrooms


The latest assault on history by the State Board of Education majority was necessary to give teachers more time to teach, board members say. But there is a much better way to accomplish that goal than by removing Helen Keller, Barry Goldwater or Hillary Clinton from the required curriculum standards. It would be by abolishing the STAAR testing regime or, at least, significantly reducing the amount of time it sucks up from the school day.

I know. The state board isn’t in charge of STAAR testing. The governor and the Legislature are responsible for prolonging that misguided and miserable policy. But if board members really want to give teachers more time to actually teach currculum and not just teach to the test, they should demand that lawmakers drastically reduce the role of STAAR. They could start by writing a letter to the governor and the Legislature.

But despite widespread unhappiness among parents and educators with STAAR, don’t hold your breah that the State Board will take a unified stand against the single biggest curriculum-killer that Texas government has to offer.

Instead, curriculum will continue to be manipulated through a political and ideological lens.

The board at least partially corrected the lie, inserted into the standards in 2010, that slavery was a secondary cause of the Civil War. This time, the board identified slavery as the central cause of the war, but it still promoted the myth that the more-neutral sounding “states’ rights” principal was also to blame. In truth, the only “state right” that provoked secesson was the so-called “right” to own slaves.

Teachers can still teach about Helen Keller, Barry Goldwater and Hillary Clinton. The removal of their names from the standards simply means that teachers won’t be required to include them in their lessons.

In don’t necessarily see partisanship in Helen Keller’s omission, just inexplicability. Keller, who overcame blindness and deafness to publish numerous books, lecture throughout the world and become an inspiration to millions, remains one of the most courageous figures in our nation’s history. Not to teach about her life, her challenges and her accomplishments is a disservice to school children.

I don’t see partisanship in Goldwater’s removal either, although the U.S. senator, Republican presidential nominee and 20th century leader/hero of the conservative movement definitely earned a place in history.

Hillary Clinton’s removal from the curriculum standards, on the other hand, has partisanship written all over it. As the first woman presidential nominee of a major political party, however, her place in history is established, with or without the State Board of Education’s approval.

Carisa Lopez, political director of the Texas Freedom Network, summed up the problem with curriculum decisions in Texas pretty well.

“Once again, we see why politicians rewriting curriculum standards for public schools is just a bad idea,” she said. “You end up with history based on majority vote rather than on facts.”




Pay every teacher more, and quit over-testing their students


The House Public Education Committee had a hearing on teacher compensation yesterday and heard from TSTA and other teacher groups. Education Commissioner Mike Morath was there too, officially wringing his hands over low teacher pay and high teacher turnover. (Yes, there is a connection.)

Thirty years ago, Morath told lawmakers, the average Texas teacher had 15 years’ experience. Now, most teachers you are likely to encounter are only in their first or second year in the classroom. And most college graduates are choosing other professions.

The solution, he proposed, was to pay a handful of the “best” teachers more, ignoring the fact that all Texas teachers, except for maybe a few high school football coaches, are underpaid.

On average, Texas teachers are paid $7,300 a year less than the national average, a gap that is growing wider, and you don’t cure that by forcing the so-called “cream of the crop” to jump through more STAAR hoops for a pay raise.

Moreover, almost 40 percent of those Texas teachers who haven’t given up on their professions are taking extra jobs during the school year to make ends meet, as TSTA’s latest moonlighting survey points out.

And it is not just teacher pay that is lagging. The state also under-funds school districts for basic school supplies and other educational needs. Teachers also are shelling out an average of $738 of their own money on school supplies each year, providing what amounts to a $250 million annual subsidy for the elected state officials who are neglecting their duty to adequately fund public education.

Next week, the attention will be diverted from teachers as Morath unveils the first A-F letter grades for school districts, which will be largely based on STAAR test scores and do nothing to improve teacher compensation or give one additional school child a greater opportunity to succeed.

The A-F grades are designed instead to give political cover to the governor, the lieutenant governor and their legislative allies who persist in shortchanging public schools, students and educators. They will use low grades to blame under-funded school districts and teachers – instead of themselves — for “failing” their students. And it will get worse next year when the letter grades are assigned to individual schools.

The real culprits who deserve an accountability kick are the officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who persist in over-testing students and under-funding their schools and their teachers. Remember that on Election Day and Vote Education First!




Teachers deserve real appreciation — now, next week and beyond


Next week is Teacher Appreciation Week, a reminder of the important work that teachers do every day, work that is vital to their students, to their communities and to everyone’s future.

Teachers will appreciate the special works of art, the gift cards, the lunches and the heart-felt words of appreciation they will receive from their students, parents and principals.

But Texas teachers deserve more. They also deserve appreciation from their governor and legislators, and I am not talking about the hollow, suitable-for-framing proclamations that amount to little more than a pat on the head.

I am talking about real appreciation.

Real appreciation, as in a meaningful pay raise that will make up much of the $7,300 deficit below the national average.

Real appreciation, as in more state funding for their classrooms and students, who now lag $2,300 below the national average in financial resources.

Real appreciation, as in less standardized testing for their students and more time for teachers to do what they do best – teach.

Real appreciation, as in less intrusion from self-styled education “reformers” and more input from the real experts, the teachers, in the setting of education policy.

Every week needs to be Teacher Appreciation Week, at the statehouse as well as the schoolhouse. The schoolhouse is covered, but the statehouse remains a challenge for teachers, parents and everyone else who truly values public education.

I hope Texas teachers enjoy the genuine tokens of appreciation they will receive next week from their students and parents. Then I hope they all will send a message to the statehouse on Election Day – a message that clearly spells out what real teacher appreciation means.

Vote Education First!