As I read the following article in the newspaper, I could not help but be dismayed at the surface level understanding and judgement of school funding.
Bill Hammond Article on Texas School Funding in Dallas Morning News
Thank you so much for your viewpoint on the cost of education in Texas. You make some valid points on how the legislature has backed off on many of the previously established criteria for high school graduation. One thing that you failed to point out is that part of the reason the legislature has backed off on these incredibly stringent criteria is that even with higher demands on students through extremely limiting class schedules and even more rigorous testing with State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) and End of Course Assessments, it wasn’t working. We had incrementally increased standards and weren’t seeing any results to justify this new direction of demands. Does it mean that schools are not doing everything they know to do to prepare our students for college and for their futures? Absolutely not.
Years of increased demands on graduation plans and increased testing weren’t increasing students’ success on tests or in college. More importantly, they were likely causing more damage than good. My guess is that both you and I didn’t face the demands of high school schedules or testing that students in the past ten years have faced. Yet, I think we both turned out okay. I took the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills (TABS) in high school. I know for a fact the STAAR tests my students take in elementary school are far more rigorous than what I faced in high school. Still, I graduated from high school and have managed both a bachelor’s and master’s degree.
The legislature’s ridiculous demand with testing took the focus off students and put it on testing. Schools and more importantly students are paying the price. Teachers didn’t want to focus on testing, but faced with the pressure of labels and job security, they did what they thought necessary, valued, and expected. We began teaching students specific steps to follow to “pass”. Unfortunately, as we became a “test” driven state, we forgot that it was more important to teach students some of the skills that are critical for life: thinking, problem solving, perseverance despite failure.
When Texas revamped our “testing” agenda to create tests that required students to think and problem solve rather than follow specific steps and testing strategies, educators weren’t prepared for such a drastic swing in the pendulum. The change isn’t a bad thing, but it takes time to shift gears. The students who had the “do as I say” instruction are finding it harder to undo this way of thinking. These would also be the students who have more recently graduated high school and are the ones creating the numbers you reference.
Here are some other things that you are not considering in your stance. Poverty rates across the country have skyrocketed in the past seven years. We are currently at some of the highest rates since The Great Depression. It was four years ago that the state cut school funding and has yet to restore it back to even the original rates, much less keep up with rises in prices of almost everything.
Students from poverty are facing crises at home, again, like I would suspect you or I never faced. I have students at my school who do not know where meals are coming from. Some live in cramped housing exposed to high crime rates. Others absorb the stress of their parents who live in financial uncertainty. They bring all of this to school with them. My colleagues and I gladly are there willing to take it off their shoulders as they walk through the door so that for a few hours a day, they can just be children without bearing the weight of the world.
Teaching the students at my school looks much different from the instruction when I grew up. I experience students who are angry and frustrated and by no means ready to learn. But it’s okay. They are children trying to cope with a world that is not “child friendly”. I do feel it is my job to meet their basic needs: make them feel safe, make sure they have food, make sure they feel loved unconditionally so that they can get ready to learn. I don’t make excuses for them because we don’t have time for that. I just know these are some things I must do if I hope to make sure they are proficient in academic skills. While we push our students academically, we don’t do it with “test prep”. We teach our students to think and problem solve. We embed technology because digital literacy is just as critical for the 21st Century as reading, writing, and math. We show them how the skills and concepts they are learning are critical for their futures. Because most of our students from impoverished backgrounds do not have someone in their family or circle of friends who have benefitted from higher education, we have to find ways to intentionally show them the value of college, too.
Yes, I’m quite sure as a businessman, you don’t see the value of an educational dollar. You grew up in a system that required much different demands on you as a student, not to mention, public school is typically a “middle class” system. You probably sailed through without an issue. You probably haven’t considered that more than fifty percent of our Texas students are living in poverty. I know this because I don’t think you are including the fact that this number has been significantly increasing in your relaying of Texas public school’s dismal failure in graduation rates. For students from poverty to successfully access the educational system, it takes committed adults who are willing to help them learn rules and values about education that they may not have learned at home, not because their parents don’t care, but because they may not know them either. I know that smaller class sizes don’t necessarily show a positive effect on student achievement UNLESS the strategies being used are different. I would say that given the high needs of students in poverty, children DO benefit from small class sizes because this allows teachers to invest more in each child. It is amazing how five fewer students can increase time to develop one-on-one relationships and help students see the value of education in a personalized way.
I recently had a great conversation with Senator Van Taylor. He shared with me how he thought charter schools made better use of a tax dollar. I cannot help but laugh at this notion. Charter schools accept the students they want and remove them if they don’t live up to expectations. In public school, we educate every child. We don’t pick to keep the ones who can make good scores. We even keep the ones who are experiencing emotional and behavioral issues that make teaching and learning hard. We do this willingly because we know that if we don’t teach all students in the classroom how to accept and adapt to each other, our society won’t have much of a chance. The real world includes all types of people.
For people to get out of poverty, research shows three things that can make a difference: a quality education, a relationship with an adult who can help them navigate their way, or a special skill/talent. Public schools can absolutely provide the first two and help enhance the third if given the support needed to do so. Public education is the key. We need legislators to quit making mandates that distract us from our work. We need businessmen who haven’t walked into a school since they graduated (if they even attended public school) to quit thinking they know best, unless they want to come and spend real time in a school and see what the circumstances are before acting as judge and jury.
You see, you may be a businessman, but I too am in a business: the “people development” business. I have a better reason to succeed than you because I have more at stake. My job isn’t about profits and stakeholders; it’s about human lives and could result in the rise or decline of a society based on the success of the lives I touch each day. If I fail, the outcomes are much more devastating, so please do not act as if this is something educators take lightly and that it is just about money. As a businessman, I am sure you can understand that in business, money is equivalent to support. I think that is all any of us in education want – support of the communities we fight for every day.
I recognize you may equate rigorous learning with coursework and tests. I don’t. I am a proud member of a school district that understands that to teach students in a way that prepares them for the 21st century, we must do this through authentic work that ties learning to the real world and involves problem solving and critical thinking. It takes conversations and meaningful feedback from teachers, not scores on a bubble sheet. Creating this type of classroom that also results with success on tests takes time, and it also takes money.
If you would like to see what we do, I invite you to my school. We begin talking about college with our students while they are in Pre-Kindergarten. We do rigorous, relevant learning. Teachers in my school take part in ongoing job-embedded professional learning so that we get better at teaching our students every day. In addition to the core subjects, we teach our students about character, grit, and growth mindset because these are the skills that research says result in success in college. We are not where we want yet with test scores, but our students are developing the skills they need because of the work we do. We do it with the money we have, but even a return to previous funding levels would help.
Personally, I would rather see Texas tax dollars spent on education than prisons. I think we should be much more shocked by the cost of our penal systems than public education. The recidivism rate there shows much less success. If we spent the money on education, maybe the penal system would improve in the long run as well. Having better prepared citizens has to be better for Texas, our community, and businesses in the long run.