Thursday, July 28, 2005

Those who don't know their history...

In Texas the other day, the long awaited new school finance plan went down in flames. Things got so bad that the authors of the education reform and tax bills -- Rep. Grusendorf (R- Arlington) and Rep. Keffer (R- Eastland) -- voted against their own bills. The world was turned upside down.

Yesterday, Rep. Aaron Pena (D-Edinburg) posted an outstanding reflection on the history of the great state of Texas in his blog. A highlight:

Yesterday marked the anniversary (142) of the death of General Sam Houston, who led the Texans to victory in their struggle for independence against Mexico. Mexico you see failed to care for the well-being of all of it's citizens, including the Texans who lived in the out lands of the Mexican nation.

Texans wanted an education for their children and early reports sent from Col. Juan Almonte to Mexico City reflected the sad state of affairs,

"If your Excellency does not successfully press the ayuntamientos of those towns to provide funds to support a school in each place--through taxes or the rental or sale of some lands, etc.--their unfortunate children will be condemned to the most degraded state."

Mexico failed to respond and General Sam Houston led a people to their sovereignty. Two years after Col. Almonte delivered his report the Texans issued their Declaration of Independence, which stated its reasons for separating from Mexico:

"It has failed to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources, (the public domain,) and although it is an axiom in political science, that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty, or the capacity for self government."

The founders of Texas government placed these same values towards education firmly in our constitutions (1845, 1861, 1866, 1869, 1876, 2000) so that such principles could not be changed easily:

"SEC. 1. A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of this State to make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of public schools."

Suitable provision has not been made. The plan that failed on Tuesday would have taken the state further away from that goal.

Texas legislators need to realize how angry people get when their public schools are neglected. It's the kind of anger that starts revolutions. Hopefully Democrats and moderate Republicans will take up the cause and change the leadership of this state so that all Texas kids have a chance to succeed.

Education will undoubtedly be the #1 issue in Texas in the '06 elections.

Struggling schools need help, not punishment

Another excellent editorial today on NCLB. This one from the Palm Beach Post. A sample follows:

Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie school districts have failed NCLB three years in a row. (Palm Beach and Martin failed NCLB this year even though each got an A grade from the state. St. Lucie got a C.) If the districts fail a fourth year, consequences include: Reopening schools as charter schools; replacing all or most of the staff responsible for lack of progress; letting private companies operate the schools; turning over school operation to the state.

Those are dramatic, all right. But effective? Charter schools have a very mixed record. So do private companies. Switching to them is no guarantee of improvement. Firing those "responsible for lack of improvement" would be very tricky...

And good luck finding new teachers to replace the old ones because 1) there's no incentive to take on the tough students and 2) there's a looming shortage of teachers for a variety of reasons — low salary, low respect, etc.

Excellent points. The author agrees with most that the tests themselves aren't the problem; they should be part of the solution. Tests are important tools for teachers. It's not the tests, it's how they're being used:

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test takes a lot of flak. But the FCAT isn't the problem. The FCAT, in fact, is a good and necessary collection of tests. Sure, there are some kids who don't test well. But most kids who can't pass the FCAT in reading or math really need more help in reading and math. Science is being added to the FCAT, and social sciences eventually will be tested. I'm all for that.

The consequences when a school's students perform badly on the FCAT is where the whole thing goes haywire. If a school earns an F two years in a row, students can transfer to a better-scoring school or get a voucher to attend a private school. The problem is that even students doing well can move. That doesn't make sense. Neither does the fact that voucher students don't have to do any better at the private school than they did at the public school they fled.

Anybody want to try to answer that?

The solution, according to editorial writer Jac Wilder VerSteeg (nice name, by the way) is to drop the distractions -- vouchers, etc. -- and focus on much needed help, like tutoring, for struggling schools.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Dissecting the gains

The Miami Herald's Mary Sanchez is jazzed at the narrowing of the achievement gap. And why not? There does appear to be some progress happening.

But she makes some very good points that many other NCLB cheerleaders miss:

The Bush administration is busy taking credit, crediting No Child Left Behind. The administrative self-congratulations is a little early.

Most of the reforms that affected the younger kids began at the state level prior to the implementation of the much-debated No Child Left Behind. That said, the every-child focus of NCLB might just be the monitoring device to ensure that these gains continue.

Further, she gives credit where credit is really due:

So the usual commentary that surrounds the education of minority children -- disproportionately in inferior schools, underfunded, least qualified teachers, less engaged parents, outdated materials -- let that subside for a moment and give the kids and the teachers who taught them their due.

All the pundits, analysts, and politicos in the world don't teach the kids to read and write. Teachers do. And students have to work to succeed. So before any politician or policy wonk takes credit, let's give the ones who really make it happen the credit they deserve.

Sanchez also cites the Education Trust's point that 13 year olds made barely any gains and 17 year olds made none at all. Teaching reading and writing to elementary students is only part of the equation; making schooling relevant and compelling for middle and high school students is the other.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The State of Education Reporting

The Washington Post's Jay Matthews writes about a study that criticizes education writers for focusing too much on the opinions of education leaders.

I'm looking forward to a companion piece about how journalists focused on foreign relations quote the State Department too much. Oh, and writers who focus on transportation are quoting transportation officials 90% of the time! Can you believe it?

The one critique I like:

What galled me most about the report's results was the almost total lack of
stories from inside classrooms, which is where I think education reporters
should try to be as often as possible. That is where readers are most likely to
learn what is working, what is not, and what is happening to their children.
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