Fighting the testing plague


Sen. Leticia Van de Putte renewed the war on the testing plague yesterday. She vowed to significantly cut back on standardized testing in the public schools and give students more time to actually experience the joy of learning, rather than the dread of bubbling the wrong bubble.

That goal alone (plus the fact that she is fighting to save Texas from Dan Patrick) is enough of a reason, although there are many more, to vote for Van de Putte for lieutenant governor this November.  So, you teachers who are sick of teaching to the test and you parents who are sick of your children being sick of testing, applaud Leticia – and then vote – because testing advocates don’t want to release their stranglehold on Texas classrooms.

Even as Van de Putte and gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis are fighting against excessive testing, the Texas Education Agency is getting ready to launch in about 70 school districts this fall a teacher evaluation system that will be partly based on test scores. State Education Commissioner Michael Williams agreed to the program as a condition for getting a U.S. Department of Education waiver from some provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.

School districts had to agree to participate because the education commissioner has no authority under state law to force districts to base teacher evaluations on test scores. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, one of the state’s largest school districts, declined the commissioner’s offer to take part.

The election of Van de Putte and Davis could go a long way toward heading off legislative approval of such an evaluation scheme because Williams is likely to try to get the Legislature to endorse a similar plan.

Much research in recent years has discredited using standardized test scores – or so-called value-added measures (VAM) – to evaluate teachers. The process gives an incomplete and unfair picture of a teacher’s performance, researchers have concluded, although so-called education “reformers,” including the Obama administration, persist in trying to ram it down our throats.

If these misnamed “reformers” get their way, testing will become even more stressful – for both teachers and students – and further erode the time that children need for real learning. That threat makes Van de Putte’s stand even more welcome.



Making teachers an afterthought


While political leaders throughout the United States continue to heap high-stakes tests on 8-year-olds and wring their hands over less-than-magical scores, many of these same leaders – if you want to call them that — persist in neglecting the teachers at the heart of the educational process. And, I am not just talking about Texas, although our state ranks right down there with the most neglectful.

Now, those of you who think teacher pay isn’t a valid educational issue can go back to sleep. If you think teachers are overpaid because most of them get two months off during the summer, even if they cram about 12 or 13 months’ worth of work into a typical school year, you may find the Cartoon Network or the Disney Channel more to your level of comprehension.

But if you believe that teachers should be paid as professionals at a level that recognizes and rewards the value of their work, read on to learn just how far off the mark the United States has fallen in this age of “accountability.”

Pay for teachers in the United States is now only sixth highest in the world, according to a new report by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This ranking is based on daily pay of teachers in public primary schools, adjusted for purchasing power parity. The UNESCO report is summarized in HR Exchange, a publication of the Texas Association of School Boards, linked below.

Since 2000, the purchasing power of teachers has increased significantly in many countries, while increasing by less than 5 percent in the United States. This means that average teacher pay in the U.S.  – unlike, say, the pay of hedge fund managers and other business billionaires who are some of our public schools’ biggest critics – has only slightly outpaced inflation. In Texas, according to TASB, the purchasing power for the average teacher in Texas has declined by $1,000 since 2000.

The UNESCO study also found that the United States, on average, rewards experienced teachers less for their years of service — compared to starting teachers’ salaries — than most other industrialized countries. And, the pay disparity between teachers and other people with similar educational backgrounds is greater in the U.S.

Teachers in the United States, according to the report, are paid between 66 percent and 70 percent of the average salaries of other people with bachelor’s degrees. Teachers in the 34 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which include many countries with much smaller economies than the U.S., earn, on average, between 80 percent and 89 percent of the salaries of other individuals with bachelor’s degrees.

That comparison may be worse in Texas, where teacher pay is more than $7,000 below the U.S. average. And, now, state Education Commissioner Michael Williams, prodded by the Obama administration, wants to add insult to injury by imposing a teacher evaluation system that would potentially link teacher pay to student test scores.

Williams needs to get a clue, and, unfortunately, he isn’t the only one.


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.



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.