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School Failure: A Manufactured Crisis?

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By: A. Patrick Huff, Ph.D.  August 21, 2017

School Failure:  A Manufactured Crisis?

A. Patrick Huff, Ph.D.

Recently the subject of school failure has been back in the news.  Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath visited with officials from Houston ISD over the state of some of the low performing schools within the district.  From that meeting came a press conference from Houston ISD School Board members, and articles in various publications about the crisis that is categorized as a failure in the classrooms, which translates to schools not making an acceptable accountability rating and being rated as “Improvement Required”.  It is these chronic Improvement Required (IR) schools that have drawn the attention of the Texas Commissioner of Education. Commissioner Morath is threatening to remove Houston ISD school board members and replace the school board with his appointees.  He has stated over and over again in various meetings and articles that he puts the blame for the IR schools at the top and it’s the school boards of districts with failing schools that should bear responsibility for the problem.  It has been Morath’s objective almost from the moment he took office to begin taking over school districts that have been labeled underperforming.  Here we see his plans dating back to August of 2016, eight months into his hiring as Commissioner.

The Texas Tribune, August 16, 2016:

“This is important because I don’t think we can sit back and sort of armchair quarterback and complain about underperforming teachers at an individual campus when in fact it’s the leadership [at] the district level that sets the stage for whether they can succeed or not,” Morath said, adding that harsher interventions — and sanctions — are often more effective than weaker ones. If the medicine tastes particularly bad, you’re less likely to take it,” said Morath, who has been on the job for eight months.

More recently from the Houston Chronicle, August 11, 2017:

“Campuses are not isolated islands,” TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said in August 2016. “They operate within school systems, and often the system as a whole isn’t set up to support real performance improvement in that individual campus. In this case, system-level interventions are necessary.”

From the Houston Press, August 10, 2017: Here mention is made of Texas Representative Harold Dutton (D) of Houston, who is a co-sponsor of House Bill 1842 that set in place, at the state level, the ability to close down schools and school districts. 

Bolstered by Dutton’s House Bill 1842 passed three years ago (and apparently a little-read one by legislators ahead of the vote), Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is apparently taking steps to either close down public schools that have been on the state’s Improvement Required list for a number of years, or appoint a board of managers that he may believe will do a better job for students than some of the school board members in districts throughout the state.

Add to that list of school districts hundreds of very small school districts throughout the state that have very low enrollments but very high percentages of economically disadvantaged families that feed into the schools, and you have a situation that demands clarity so it can be understood.  At the center of this whirlwind is Mike Morath, A person who was plucked off of the Dallas ISD School Board and given the authority by Governor Abbott to govern the Texas Education Agency, which manages and coordinates all the public school districts in Texas.  Mike Morath is a businessman, and he is following the business model of school governance that relies on quantifying performance in order to judge its worth or merit.  He is not an educator, similar to our Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.  Both have been given broad authority to govern our schools while not having spent time as a professional educator.  Morath is following the federal accountability system, which is a business model designed to quantify performance based on several categories of quantifiable achievement, but most significantly based on the outcomes of the students on the yearly state standardized test. 

This business model needs to be examined closely.  We have had various renditions of our accountability system in Texas since the mid-1980’s.  With each version of accountability, a new state test was brought in and accountability increased.  Some would argue that over the years our school system has not improved, but actually has gotten worse. 

The reality is that schools are different, some schools look good with their outcomes and others look very poor.  This is because the accountability system producing the school ratings is a one size fits all system.  The same system that grades The Woodlands or Kingwood with their student outcomes on the test also grades the poorest areas of urban Houston and all points in-between.  It is the most discriminatory system ever invented because it disproportionately sanctions our Title One schools.  So, why do we put up with it?  Why would anyone in this day and time tolerate a system of governance that discriminates against the most vulnerable in our society? 

The answer to that question lies in complacency and ignorance.  Complacency is a problem because the general public is not willing to investigate the roots of how this situation developed.  Ignorance of the facts is a problem because there is a general lack of knowledge both in the education community and in the general population about the maneuvering that is taking place in the halls of government, that will eventually lead to complete takeover and the privatization of public education.  How will public schools become private?  Try not to think of a private school in the sense of a parochial school or a private school that caters to the top 1% of our population.  Think of the private aspect coming from the removal of elected school board members, and replaced with appointed managers.  The main way parents have to voice their concerns is through their elected school board member.  It is the link between the people and the government school.  It is fundamental to our Republic and absolutely must not be eradicated.  Are their school board members that need a lot of education on proper school district governance and responsibility?  Most assuredly there are.  But that does not mean that they should be removed.  If the community is unhappy with a school board members decisions and performance on the board the community should rally to remove that individual and make plans for another election.  Only in the case of criminal involvement or disreputable immoral conduct should a school board member be removed.  To remove in mass a school board for what is purported to be low performing schools and replace them with an appointed managing board should never be entertained because it takes away the voice of the people.  If this happens the new managing board will not be accountable to the community, but rather they will be answering to the dictates of the agency that gave them their position.  This is one of the problems with the way our commissioner is given his position and also the head of the Texas State Board of Education.  Both positions are appointed by the Governor and are not answerable to the public.  The Commissioner can decide to give a school district an F in their rating, but can we give a grade to the Commissioner for his performance? 

One law, in particular, gave The Commissioner his unbridled authority.   The language used in this bill has its roots in No Child Left Behind law.  Texas House Bill 1842 passed in June of 2015 gave the Commissioner authority to begin closing down schools after two years of “under performing” on the state test, after the school had already developed a school improvement program due to low performing scores for the second year in a row.  That makes the number of years required to qualify a school for state intervention at four, one year less than what was mandated in No Child Left Behind law.  It also set up the district of innovation program that permits a school district to operate more like a charter school.  The entire bill can be read here.  A summary of the bill reads:

Relating to public school accountability, including the intervention in and sanction of a public school that has received an academically unsuccessful performance rating for at least two consecutive school years and the designation of a school district as a district of innovation.

Time and length of this article do not permit me to cover District of Innovation (DOI), but school districts took to this new law like bears to honey due to the fact it will remove many obstacles that school districts struggle with every year.  The question needs to be asked, however, why would the legislature pass a law that allowed school districts to ignore Texas Education Code and operate like a charter school?  The Texas Education Code is the balance and governance of our entire public education system.  Charter schools can select their own start date for beginning the school year.  Charter schools don’t have to hire certified teachers.  Charter schools don’t have to answer to teacher’s demands for better working conditions.  There is no room for a teacher organization representative in a charter school.  There is also not any elected school board members overseeing a charter school. They have an appointed board of managers put there by the corporation that owns the charter.  So in many respects, it would be similar to Commissioner Morath removing elected school board members and replacing them with a board of managers.  In both instances, the parent loses representation through an elected official.

Recently on the E-Z Cofield program coming out of the radio station KTSU 90.9 FM, Pastor Cofield had as his guest Representative Harold Dutton.  As mentioned Representative Dutton is one of the sponsors of HB 1842 and entered into a discussion about the possible removal of the Houston ISD school board.  In the discussion with Pastor Cofield, Representative Dutton made reference to the quality of education he received while attending Phyllis Wheatly High School many years ago.  He agreed with Commissioner Morath that the problem at HISD should be focused at the top, meaning the Board of Trustees.  He inferred that it is a systemic problem that can only be addressed by putting the responsibility on the School Board that created the system, and has allowed a number of schools to receive IR ratings for many years.  He firmly believes that poverty cannot be blamed for our troubles in our schools.  He mentioned that he came from poverty but did not use poverty as an excuse for not learning and receiving a very good foundation to build on for his future.  He made comparisons to the education he received in his day with the education students are receiving now.  I would agree with Representative Dutton that the education he received was a quality education but his education was vastly different from what we have today.  The main reason why it was different is that the schools in his day did not have the Accountability System to operate under. 

It is the Accountability System that has resulted in the high stakes testing program people hear so much about.  It is the Accountability System that has rated schools through quantifying the school’s performance of its students on the state yearly test.  Because of this rating and the pressure to achieve a rating that is acceptable, the teachers have been forced to change their method and delivery of scholarly information and instead teach to the test.  Everyone has heard this phrase used to the style and method of teaching in today’s public schools.  Teachers now spend great amounts of time on test taking strategies in an effort to improve their outcomes.  Teaching that was in the past broad in scope in Representative Dutton’s day, is now narrow in scope to just the objectives and content that is likely to be seen on the test. 

The Accountability System has caused schools to use countless benchmark tests to assess if a student is improving in mastering what is likely to be seen on the test.  The Accountability System has caused school districts to abandon those areas of the curriculum that take away from concentrating on items that will be seen on the test, like learning cursive.  The Accountability System has made way for schools to spend thousands of dollars of the school budget on technology, namely learning programs that promise the magic bullet to their accountability issues and electronic tablets to replace textbooks.  It is the Accountability System that has allowed for the explosion of technology in the classroom.  Schools are looking for the magic bullet that promises to solve their problems with accountability.  This has allowed corporations to make huge profits off the backs of what has been labeled failing schools.  The expanded use of technology is a whole different topic, but let it be known that schools are compiling huge amounts of data from what the student inputs into his/her electronic device.  FERPA laws have been relaxed so that third party vendors in the name of research can gather this data.  For those who want to explore this further, you can do so here.  It is the Accountability System that wrote into law the ability of a state education agency to close down a school or an entire school district because of the outcomes of the student’s performance on the test.  It is the Accountability System that has taken away a teacher’s ability to teach a student in a manner that best inspires and motivates a student to want to learn.  Finally, it is the Accountability System that has brought on the phenomenon that has swept the country known as school failure.  When one understands and realizes that school failure was brought about by a manufactured crisis in the nation, and was a result of No Child Left Behind law, then one begins to look at the current crisis in Houston, Dallas and all the other urban centers in Texas in a whole different light.

Now let me explain why I call it a manufactured crisis.  Before No Child Left Behind (NCLB) the term school failure was not used, and it certainly was not used as the reason to close down schools.  It is a complex issue I have written an entire book about, but I will try to condense my remarks for the sake of this article.  In 2002 the George W. Bush administration along with the U.S. Congress passed NCLB.  For the first time, the federal government was now involved in the Accountability System of the education programs in every state. The federal Accountability System took precedence over the state accountability system.  It also gave us a new term that would completely change the landscape of public education.  That term was Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  What AYP did was take the subgroups of a school’s population and apply a percentage for passing that applied to each subgroup.  This percentage was not the figure used that each student had to attain on the test to pass.  It was the percentage that the subgroup had to make collectively for the school to pass.  There were seven subgroups and they were:  All students, African American, Hispanic, White, Eco-Disadvantaged, English Language Learners, and Special Education.  If only one subgroup did not hit the percentage required for that year then the entire school failed.  The percentages required for each subgroup started off low, but AYP mandated that the percentages rise each year.  Why did they have to rise each year?  They had to rise because written into NCLB law was the mandate that by 2014 all students had to be proficient on the test.  All students being proficient meant that each subgroup had to be 100% passing by 2014. 

Well, a funny thing happened as we got closer to 2014; schools began to fail in record numbers.  Suddenly we had a national crisis and school failure was now a national phenomenon.  So the question is, why did the schools fail?  Failure was due to the schools across the nation being unable to keep up with the percentages required for passing mandated by AYP.  The failure rate was highest in Title One schools located in neighborhoods of poverty. Representative Dutton says he refuses to accept that kids who live in poverty can’t pass, and I agree with that statement.  Kids in poverty can pass the test and many do pass every year. Many who have gaps in their learning are remediated, through excellent teachers and make a passing grade.  Here is the key to understanding why this dilemma of failure becomes so difficult.  It is the high percentage of students that live in poverty and have significant learning gaps that create a perfect storm for failure because the school cannot remediate the high numbers of students each year.  It cannot be denied that poverty has a major impact on the school wide performance on the test.  All one has to do is look at a cross section of school report cards and it will be quickly discovered that those schools dealing with 80% eco-disadvantaged or more in their school are not faring well on the school report card.  A person can say that it is unacceptable all they want, but it does not change the fact that poverty is a major hurdle to overcome.  Students are not widgets that can be tweaked and improved as if they were on an assembly line at some factory.  Poverty produces many side-effects that have ramifications in how well a student may perform during the few days a year when the test is given.  Add to this the extreme pressure students are under to pass and you have a toxic environment for the student to try and pass a standardized test.

There are two more demographics that play heavily into how well a school performs on the test.  One is the percentage of English Language Learners a school has in its population.  English Language Learners may also be in the eco-disadvantaged category.  So now the English Language Learner student not only has the language barrier to overcome, he or she must contend with the ramifications of living in poverty.  This only adds to the difficulty these students face in mastering the test.  The other demographic that has a huge impact on a school’s testing outcomes is the mobility rate of the students in the school.  The mobility rate correlates to the number of students that enroll after school begins and the number of students that withdraw before the school year ends.  This percentage greatly affects the teacher’s ability to get the student over the finish line with their testing outcomes.  Many schools that are labeled as a failure have mobility rates of 25 and 30 percent, or more.  The important thing to understand about the three demographics mentioned is that it is beyond the school’s ability to impact these percentages.  They have no control over who enrolls in their school.  They can’t hang a no-vacancy sign on the marquee like a charter school.

State officials will argue that what has been said in this article is mostly conjecture and hyperbole and that the assertions I have made are not true.  All one has to do, however, is look at the facts and use logic to realize that what I am stating is all too true.  One simple question exposes it all.  Why would NCLB be written to mandate 100% passing by 2014?  That in and of itself should be enough for any sane individual to say that NCLB was written to set up schools for failure.   By 2010 and 2011 the percentages of school failure across the country hit some alarming numbers.  AYP required student groups hit 80 percent passing.  A massive failure of schools took place across the country.  Were the students really not learning?  Or was it that the percentages required by AYP reached levels that were impossible for many schools to attain.  Remember, schools had to be perfect by 2014.  Congress could have taken action, but they didn’t.  Instead, they let the schools fail.  After all, if schools fail, then we have a crisis that must be solved. Politicians must intervene and corporations can help with the fix.  Corporations make lots of money and individuals get rich.  The other reason NCLB law was not changed, and AYP removed, is that school failure allowed politicians and bureaucrats to create laws that have increase the control over education matters.  The Accountability System creates the failure that produces the crisis so that new laws are needed to fix the problems created by the very system the politicians put in place.  Every law governing school accountability has been built on the premise of school failure or low performing schools.  When you realize that this has been a manufactured crisis, then steps need to be taken to reverse the situation that now exists.

Today our schools are not under Adequate Yearly Progress and No Child Left Behind has given way to the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA).  The schools, however, are still under the Accountability System; it just has a different operational mode.  They are still under the federal system that is now ESSA.  Schools are still measured by their outcomes and a system is in place that can put a quantifiable number on the outcomes and declare a school a winner or a loser.

There is a movement nationwide in every state house to privatize public schools.  All one has to do is do a modicum of research and you will find this to be true.  Mike Morath’s move to take over school districts in following in lock step with the national trend that is supported by the US Department Of Education.  The Legislature has given him the authority and that is what is getting ready to take place. 

This crisis of failure in our schools is manufactured.  Cries of low performing are built on fraud.  People need to call it what it is, fabrication and manipulation.  Mike Morath is moving our school districts into a public-private arrangement where the people have no voice through their elected representative.  In order for our schools to have any chance of returning to sound teaching and true student learning, they must be free from the Accountability System.  The politicians and bureaucrats will scream at this and say how then can we know how well a school is performing if we don’t have a way to measure their outcomes?  This bogus argument only points to the fact that they want to stay in control of the narrative.  A lot of money rides on their ability to keep the status quo in play.  In order to improve our school system students need to quit being asked to perform and instead allow them to learn.  Performance is temporary; learning is forever.  Mike Morath needs to cease closing down school districts.  A moratorium needs to be placed on the Accountability System and the practice of rating schools stopped, especially in lieu of the impending A-F rating system due to go in place in the 2017-2018 school year, until a new and fairer system can be established.  Testing needs to take a back seat to genuine teaching, from a teacher, not an electronic device.   Any new system, however, that judges a schools performance from quantifiable measurements based on a standardized test, will only produce the same results.  If it can be measured, it can be controlled.  In a new system, if the value of a school is only placed on that which can be measured, then we are no better off.  Local responsibility will return to school boards and superintendents once a new system is allowed to come forth, not built around a standardized test, but built around sound teaching and transformative leadership.  This is the kind of system Representative Dutton received his public education under.  We must allow it to return.

A. Patrick Huff is the author of  “The Takeover of Public Education in America:  The Agenda to Control Information and Knowledge Through the Accountability System”, AuthorHouse 2015. The book can be found at http://www.aphuff.com.  Dr. Huff is a retired middle and high school principal with 34 years in the public education profession.  He lives with his wife, Connie, of 35 years in Tomball, Texas and can be reached at aphuff51@gmail.com.

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