Tag Archives: Bill Hammond

Why I Won’t Have a STAAR Pep Rally at My School

Pep Rallies before a standardized test have become a common occurrence in schools. A campus principal’s email can be flooded with people who want to get paid to be a part of these “pep rallies”.   I have been a part of this practice in the past, but since becoming a principal, I have been against this type of practice.  Why, because a ” STAAR Pep Rally” makes the important thing the test.  It sends the message to those people outside education that “the test” is what is important.  I am here to say a standardized test is the LEAST important thing that happens during a school year.

A test is what happens on one single day to measure all the learning that takes place in the course of a school year.  For it to be an accurate measure, all the variables for that would have to be absolutely perfect.  Students would have to have a great night’s’ sleep,  a well-balanced breakfast, a supportive emotional environment before school, and all the supports they need to be successful.

Let’s face it.  Some students have trauma at home. Many don’t have basic needs met.   They don’t always have the nutrition they need.  They may not get adequate sleep. Even our students with disabilities don’t have access to all their IEP interventions because of the rules of the test.  The variables are not the best case scenario for some kids.  How in the world could we expect the test to accurately reflect all they have mastered?

Here is what I am willing to rally over:  students, teachers, grit, growth mindset and all they have accomplished over the ENTIRE year.  At my school, we do this every Friday. Today, on the eve of our standardized test, my students did come to the cafeteria to meet with me.  The rest of the building lined the hallway to applaud their hard work and let them know we stand with them. It was not a STAAR Pep Rally.  It was a celebration of people who work hard to grow in their learning. It was caring about the people enough to let them know they were loved, supported, prepared, and in control of their destiny.

When students arrived, I shared with them my story of having to retake the GRE to get into graduate school to work on my doctorate.  As I sat down to take this test, I felt angry and frustrated.  I felt like there were some words that no one used, so impossibly worded questions, and I just felt there was no way that that test could accurately encompass who I was as a principal or a learner.  It hit me that this was how some of my students felt.

I told my students that there was no way that tomorrow’s test could define them either.  There was no way that this test could fully share with legislators or the public how much they had learned this past year. What I did tell these students was that they were in control, that they had the power to control their destiny. I shared with my fifth graders that sometimes, working hard at a test can give you a benefit.  That while my test couldn’t define me, it could gain me access to a program I wanted to be a part of to improve my life.

For them, working hard to “show what they know” could prevent them from retaking this test in a few weeks, but it would be their choice.  I told my fourth graders that while they weren’t facing a retest, the evidence does show that every time they pass a test like this,  it increases their chances of passing the next one.  No matter what, I told them they were in control.  I wanted them to know they were prepared and had everything they needed.  If they wanted it, they could achieve it.

I think that is what it is all about:  empowering students to know that they have control over their education.  The focus should never be on a test, but the people taking the test and continual reminders that even as children, they get to choose, they get to decide how to define themselves.

 We put tremendous pressure on students to “pass.”  The truth is our actions should support our beliefs.  At my campus we don’t have a test pep rally, we have a “hope rally” every single week where we celebrate teachers, students, and the power of education together as a campus.  While today I did bring students down to meet with me before they take their test tomorrow, it was never about the test.  It was ALWAYS about the people.  Whatever happens, tomorrow doesn’t really change anything.  Don’t get me wrong.  I want all of my students to do well because I know it makes their life easier in the long wrong. However, I know what my students have learned, how they have grown, and how much they have overcome and it far exceeds the constraints of a multiple choice test!

You Can’t Compare Apples and Oranges

This is a great read if you don’t understand why public schools are NOT failing. For example, if you looked only at my campus’ non-disabled, non economically disadvantaged and native English speakers, we would be at the top of the charts. Even so, we are climbing those charts because we educate all children in a social-emotionally healthy, rigorous way.

The great thing about America is that everyone has opportunity. You don’t have to be wealthy, non disabled, or meet a standard to get the in. We start with whatever you give us and grow you. In public education we educate every child. And here’s the great news, if you want a different product or possibility, you can home school, or choose a private school.
Just remember, our constitution guarantees a FREE and APPROPRIATE, PUBLIC education. Everyone having a quality education is how we make America great, not through soft segregation. If you think public schools can improve, roll up your sleeves and help.

If you decide not to help, please just don’t take every report you read at face value.  Rates of American Public Schools include all children.  Private schools, Charter schools, and schools from other countries often have selective processes.  One’s an apple, one is an orange.  However, unlike the picture above, these reports and media stories are clearly labeled as such.  Make sure you only compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges.

#standupforpublicschools #proudpublicschoolprincipal #donttreadonme

U.S. Public Schools Are NOT Failing. They’re Among the Best in the World


Why Complete Privatization of Education Won’t Work

Credit for graphic to Jim Wyre
I read an article today where Brittish Prime Minister David Cameron calls for the elimination of all public schools in the UK and to replace them with private academies. So what, right?  It’s not even our continent.

The problem is these same conversations are taking place here, in America, in Texas! There are those who think private funding and vouchers make educational opportunities better. They try to convince us it is good for all because it allows choice. I say don’t believe the rhetoric. Privatization allows small interest groups to push their agendas. Believe it or not, they may not actually be concerned about your child’s education. Most are worried about the dollar it puts in their pockets.

I’ve been keeping a close eye on Texas Businessman Bill Hammond. He has a great deal to say about public education being less than quality and questioning school funding. If you look carefully, he just puts the same, tired story in multiple newspapers around the state. He repeatedly tweets broken links that are supposed to provide evidence and he won’t respond to an opposing viewpoint. He doesn’t have answers. I doubt he’s been to a public school recently (even though I’ve invited him to mine!). Otherwise, he would understand the rest of the story. Much more of his communication is about business and money. If you ask me, this isn’t someone who cares about the quality of education for future generations. He cares about his profit margins and funding for his special interests. If less money goes into education, he might get more funding for his projects. His arguments are unsubstantiated propaganda used as a scare tactic to evoke fear in the middle-class American. Instead of questioning his motives, people extend trust.  I mean, why wouldn’t he want what is best for our children, right? Hmmm.

Here’s why a system solely based on privatization of schools won’t make the United States education system better:

  • The money will decide. In public education, voters have a say. They elect their officials. They vote for or against educational laws. They have a voice into curriculum and policy through input sessions. If they take the time to speak up, education can reflect community values. It’s like I tell my own children,
    This may or may not be true. It is something to consider to ensure that it doesn’t become the reality.
    when you pay your way, you get to decide when, where and how to do things. Personally, I’m not ready to give all that power over to someone else so that they will foot the bill. Their values likely represent a small population. I want the power of input, not an absolute monarchy controlled by the ones with the most money. Look at how our voters are reversing their views on how we are using standardized testing.  It’s because the average American has some say into what they value.
  • Privatization will cause more division rather than unify our community. The root cause of education issues in America isn’t schools. It is a different value system amongst different groups including their views of schools. Sometimes families from poverty haven’t experienced personal success in schools. Lack of personal success tied to schools can result in them not seeing the value of education, but rather a task that has to be completed. If they don’t value education, they aren’t likely to take up an offer to move to a different school, even if the one they attend is not the best. If someone is trying to survive poverty, their biggest focus is just that, survival. If the only groups that take advantage of vouchers and school choice are those not living in poverty, it means an exodus of the middle class and greater socio-economic division. When people feel disenfranchised, they get angry. They feel the rest of the world doesn’t see them as people, so they have nothing to lose. I believe if you look at any situation of violence against communities, whether it be school shootings or city riots, it was because someone felt treated as less than human. When that happened, they reached their breaking point, and they acted “less than human.” Can we afford to take this risk?
  • There is no proof privatization solves the problems facing education. Private schools pick and choose their students. They often aren’t held accountable to the full extent of education law. Educating a diverse community is much more challenging than a school where you have the ability to say “you are not meeting our standards, so you’ll need to look elsewhere.”  What happens to those considered by private schools to be “substandard?” Do they get no education? Are they put into one school of misfits?  If that seems like a good alternative, please reread bullet number two.

It’s time to solve problems of education at their core and stop blaming public education. No, it’s not perfect, but the number of schools that are doing great things far outweighs those that are struggling. Even when you see a school deemed “unacceptable” by standardized testing, you should look deeper than the numbers. Are they growing? Is there another issue that needs to be addressed in the community before instruction can take place? Most school districts already offer open enrollment and choice.  Has it solved the problem or made it worse?

Public schools are doing great things for students. They are standing up against one-size fits all education. Teachers are becoming innovative in their practice to prepare students for a future that is undoubtedly beyond what our minds can conceive. They don’t do it for themselves, money, or personal fame. They do it because it is what is right. We have always been told we shape the future. That’s what we are trying to do. We want the future for everyone to be better than it was yesterday.

I’m not opposed to private schools, charter schools, religious-based schools or home schools. I believe every child deserves a free and appropriate public education, and you have the right to choose an alternative and pay for it if that meets your needs. Just don’t trash an entire system with propaganda for self-serving goals that likely aren’t based on whether the education system is working or not. One-size fits all judgments can’t be one hundred percent accurate and don’t solve the real issue. If we work together to make public education a priority and support our schools, it is the most viable solution for everyone, not just a privileged few. The end result of a strong public educational system is diverse groups of people becoming literate problem solvers who know how to get along and respect each other in our society.

I Am Accountable

You might have read the title of this blog post and heard a whiny tone.  You might have heard an angry tone.  Maybe you read it and heard an exasperated tone.  Actually, it was with none of the above.  Accountable is just an adjective that accurately describes me as a campus leader.

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 7.12.34 PM

The day after my open letter to Mr. Hammond, he tweeted this:


I was anxious to see Mr. Hammond’s ideas for holding schools more accountable, so I immediately clicked the link.  It wouldn’t open.  I’m not sure if this is a super, secret accountability plan.  It is certainly possible, as schools are often the last to know the rules by which we play.  Regardless, it got me thinking.  To whom am I accountable?  How am I accountable?

I started with the most obvious:

At the most surface level, I am accountable to the state and the federal governments.  They

accountability road sign illustration design over a white background

have very detailed, complex plans with formulas that hold me “accountable” at certain levels of success.  The formulas look at all students, but also specific subgroups of students. Most of the formulas involve standardized testing where the questions are constantly changing, and the bar is always moving (both up and down) based on what picture the state hopes to paint with the results.  It also includes attendance rates, financial expenditures, staffing allocations, staffing qualifications, and demonstration of the inclusion of activities of House Bill 5.

This type of accountability is the one that gets the most publicity. It is also the one that governments try to simplify the explanation into nice clean categories, but I assure you, there is nothing “simple” about it. I do not oppose standardized testing or accountability to the state or federal government.  I use these results to develop my campus improvement plans and yearlong professional learning plans so that we grow as a campus. Using this data in healthy ways has helped us improve our methods and help our students gain a deeper understanding.  I oppose oversimplification of the results with labels that don’t explain the entire picture. A word such as “acceptable” or a letter grade creates a mental model in the public’s head of “good”, “decent”, and “bad”.  I would just pose a question. Which were you more proud of in school:  the easy A or that hard-earned C?

I also oppose to the abuse of the data and tactics of some school districts that use “quick fix” solutions at the cost of students’ long-term learning.  Some district leaders are so desperate to make the news; they will do anything to succeed.  They judge teachers without looking at growth and don’t develop plans to support teachers improve their practice.  How can district leaders expect teachers to grow their students if they don’t do anything but threaten them?  Desperation results in desperate practice. I am grateful to work in a district that isn’t desperate and supports its campuses to grow through best practice, not quick fixes.

As I continued to contemplate, this is the accountability list I  came up with:

  1.  I am accountable to my district. It is an honor to work for this amazing community.  I am proud that they expect more from me than performance on tests. I must make sure that each dollar of the money allocated to me makes a positive impact on student learning in some way.  I am accountable to these incredible district leaders because of the servant leadership they show and for their belief in me and my ability to make a difference with students.  I want to make sure that I always represent them well.
  2. I am accountable to my community.  I have a responsibility to make sure that I am preparing my students to become positive contributors to this community.  I must make sure that my actions support the beliefs of those I serve and add value to the properties and the lives within its boundaries.covey accountability
  3. I am accountable to the parents of my students.  They trust me with their students almost 8 hours a day.  They trust me to prepare their students academically.  Some need me to help meet basic needs.  They are counting on me to make good decisions. I am especially accountable to those that may disagree with me. If I am unable to give a parent the answer they want,  I must believe I have knowledge of a bigger picture and that it is what is best in the long run for all involved.
  4. I am accountable to my teachers and their families.  It is my job to make sure they have the knowledge and materials they need to do their jobs effectively.  My teachers work hard.  They put in lots of extra hours.  They make sacrifices for our students.  They do this willingly, but it is my job to prepare them with knowledge and skills…to give them time to plan and collaborate so that every minute is powerful and not spent spinning their wheels.  I am responsible for making sure that any minutes teachers give to our school rather than their families provide benefits that outweigh the negatives.
  5. I am accountable to my family.  I come from a long line of amazing educators.  I have family members who paved a path in public education before me.  I witnessed the tremendous impact they have had in the lives of children.  I am accountable to respect the legacy they have created.
  6. I am accountable to my husband and my amazing boys.  I could not do this job without them.  They truly sacrifice so much because they know this job is my passion. Being a parent has made me much more sensitive to the parents of my students helping me to realize we all send the best children we have, and we are doing all that we know to do. My family has stood up and cheered for me when the rest of the world was silent.  I want them to know that nothing I do would be possible without their love and support.
  7. I am accountable to my students.  I know this would seem obvious, but here is where the accountability becomes especially complex.  I am accountable to these eyes that look up at me each day with hope as they say “Good morning, Mrs. Stuart” with hope for the future. I am responsible for stepping out of my comfort zone to put on the performance of my life each Friday to sing, dance and celebrate their successes (even if it means playing air guitar). I am responsible “no excuses” and must teach them the power of education.  I am accountable for making sure that each one of them is a literate problem solver ready to go to college if they choose. I must make sure that they have the instruction that teaches them how to think and make real-life connections while also preparing them to answer abstract applications on standardized tests.   I have to know them as individuals, know their needs, tell them what they need to hear and not just what they want to hear, all while loving them unconditionally.  I am accountable for putting them on a path of success.
  8. I am accountable to my God.  He has given me gifts and talents that I am responsible for using for the purpose He intended.  My actions must show His love and care for others so that others can see Him through me.  He has charged me with this mission. Some day, I know I will answer directly for my choices.

The truth is I think all educators feel the same way and do the best they know when trying to accomplish this accountability.  We all enter education with a passion for making a difference. We know it will not be easy.

While I don’t think pointing fingers is the answer, here is where I think we need “stronger accountability”:

  • Legislators need more accountability for spending time in schools investigating education first handfinger pointing before passing blanket laws with no direct knowledge or considering the unintended consequences of their actions.
  • The Media needs more accountability for reporting the negative situations about schools in a disproportionate way.  There are way more good things going on in public schools than reported.  It may get people’s attention, but it skews public opinion in harmful ways.
  • Special Interest Groups need more accountability for the claims they make about public education.  Those who profit from less funding for schools and more funding for testing need accountability for their actions.  People like Mr. Hammond make statements with skewed data and half-stories that create fear and panic in the public. I suspect his reasons are self-serving and not for the good of public education, student, or their families.
  • School districts that over-emphasize standardized tests need more accountability.  There are those districts that have decided to make their mark on the world by commanding high performance on tests without a balance in quality instruction. “High scores at any cost” is the motto.  It works for a while, but when people fear for their jobs and desperation sets in, they will do anything for test defined “success.” I believe this is what happened in Atlanta.  I am grateful that I do not work for one of these districts, but they are out there.  Anyone who abuses data needs stronger accountability for the harm they incite.

Finally, I guess educators do need stronger accountability, but not for what you might think.  We need more accountability for standing up anI am Accountabled telling our story to the public.  We need to speak loudly enough to have a say in the policies that affect us.

I hope that it is clear that I am not opposed to accountability. I am not opposed to testing.  I know without a doubt that if I am preparing students in meaningful ways, this will translate to success on standardized tests, but more importantly success in the real world.  I just think that sometimes we throw around the concept of increased “accountability” without exploring it more deeply.  Even with testing, we have to examine what these tests can and cannot tell us about how students are growing and the variables that played into the results.

In my twenty-four years of being an educator, I have learned that being accountable for the lives of those you serve is anything but simple. My work cannot be defined by a single word or category.  Sometimes I succeed.  Sometimes I fail. No matter what, I try to get better every day because student success is my obsession.  James 3:1 says ‘Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”  I don’t think you can get any more accountable than that.

An Open Letter to Bill Hammond in Response to his Article in The Dallas Morning News on the Cost of School Funding in Texas

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

Mr. Hammond,

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.


Vanessa Stuart