Superintendents and School Trustees, It Is Time To Draw the Line
An Editorial Opinion by A. Patrick Huff, Ph.D.
Sitting in the audience at a town hall meeting in Waco, Texas, I was amazed at the statements of concern, disappointment, and anger coming from the constituents in the room. It seemed as though this was the first time they had heard about the danger their schools faced. Yet, this was a situation that was years in the making. They were at this meeting to hear from the Superintendent and Waco School Board Trustees about the Texas Education Association (TEA) possibly shutting down their “failing” schools, and even worse, replacing the elected school board members with a board of managers appointed by the Commissioner of Education, Mike Morath.
Waco Superintendent Dr. A. Marcus Nelson was recently hired during the summer of 2017 from Laredo ISD to be the answer for Waco’s “failing” schools. He is being given only this year to turnaround these schools and get them out of Improvement Required (IR) status. Is that even realistic? You can read about the situation in Waco ISD here. Dr. Nelson is asking for at least three years to turn around the Waco schools. TEA is giving him one. This is so representative of how school boards operate when they have the Texas Education Agency (TEA) threatening closure of a school or replacement of the entire school board with a board of managers. If one superintendent can’t get the job done, the school board will hire another and if that one can’t get the job done, hire another. It’s madness and more times than not it ends in the closure of the school. Now the Commissioner is adding the replacement of the elected school board with an appointed board of managers, selected by the Commissioner. The reason it most likely will end in failure (according to TEA’s definition of failure), is due to the core issue of why IR schools continue to fail to reach TEA’s mark of minimum success. That core issue is these schools are located in neighborhoods of extreme poverty that also have high mobility rates. This makes for a perfect storm of students who have a multitude of issues affecting their education and thus affecting the school accountability rating.
Every education law that is passed by our legislature in Texas is written on the false premise that schools are failing due to low achievement on standardized tests. This notion that a school can be declared a success or a failure based on predetermined target lines for student achievement is built on faulty data and it is imperative that the general public understand this all-important fact. The data collected on the tests does not take into account the poverty in the neighborhoods, or if the student has moved frequently during the school year. Take for example the student who lives in an affluent neighborhood and has both parents in the home who provide ample support and possibly tutors for their child who may need some help. Now juxtapose the student from the affluent side of the tracks with a student in a neighborhood of poverty. They both get graded under the same system. The student in a neighborhood of economic hardship, with perhaps only one parent in the home who has to work two jobs to make ends meet, has the same passing standards on the test as the student from the affluent neighborhood. The schools they attend are graded on the same accountability system, as well. There are so many factors that go into why a student from poverty is possibly behind in his or her learning, and have what is called an “achievement gap”. The Achievement gap is another tag that has been placed into the vernacular of ‘failing schools’. Students only have achievement gaps because the state has placed predetermined points of progress that a perfect student must achieve at a particular time of the school year. This plays into the accountability system with its built-in measurements that quantify learning and applies that measurement to a school to determine its accountability rating.
All you need to do is ask any teacher or administrator who formerly worked in the North Forest ISD from 2008 to 2013.
North Forest ISD was a school district located northeast of Houston. It mostly had neighborhoods of poverty feeding into its schools. They faced the same situation with new principals hired each year if the former principal could not get the school out of TEA trouble. The teachers and administrators who taught in North Forest during this time will tell you that they were working as hard as they could, under immense pressure, only to come up short, in the end, each year. The reason for this is fundamental to understanding why the data used to build a case for labeling schools failures is faulty. The reason why North Forest ISD schools could not keep up TEA’s version of a successful school is that the bar for success kept moving every year. The percentages required in the subgroups for passing rose to levels that Title One schools simply could not keep up with the rising percentages. To go into this again seems so redundant for me because I have written on it so many other times. If you need a refresher course in how No Child Left Behind (NCLB) intentionally was written to drive schools to failure you can read about it here. I wrote this article in 2014 shortly after writing my book, The Takeover of Public Education in America: The Agenda to Control Information and Knowledge Through the Accountability System. The article is a good primer for the book and if you have never understood the accountability system and how it keeps teachers and principals marching to the beat of the standardized test, this article will help you understand how it works. Important to note is that even though we are not under NCLB federal law, we do still have an accountability system and NCLB laid the foundation for what constitutes a failing school and still influences law today. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that this foundation of what constitutes a failing school was built on a very shaky foundation.
The whole NCLB era permanently placed in the public’s mind that we have schools that are failing, or what they call “low performing”. Don’t you love how the controllers and managers of our children’s education use the term “performing”? They kind of liken it to dog training. That term is so demeaning it should be eradicated from all educational vocabulary. But I digress. For you to truly understand the big picture you have to look at the education agenda as a long-term plan to incrementally move the schools to the very point where they are today. All is proceeding according to plan. The test has been implanted to be the primary determining factor in what constitutes school success or failure. Teachers have had their yearly evaluations tied to their own student’s outcomes on the test, so this keeps them teaching to the test. The school is graded by standards that are not standards of quality and assurances of a healthy and safe environment. No, the standards are the target lines that schools have to meet with their student outcomes on the test. This is what makes the test so high stakes and keeps principals applying pressure to the teachers to get those outcomes up.
Superintendents are looking for that magic bullet that will make the difference in their schools’ outcomes, as well. That hope for success makes them easy prey for every kind of snake oil salesman coming along with another professional development program, or a new learning style that promises to push those outcomes right over the top and bring the superintendent one more year of TEA relief. The last few years have brought a whole new lexicon of terms and names like competency-based learning, collaborative learning, or personalized learning. In order to implement personalized learning, the student needs to have an electronic tablet, like a Chrome Book, so that the lesson is found in the device. Most everything for the student is found in the device, which reduces the teacher to a facilitator in the classroom, not a disseminator of instruction. With all of this change teachers are slammed with another way to teach, another practice that promises success with those kids with “achievement gap issues”, and more and more professional development. It’s no wonder that teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Students are left at the low end of this insidious plan and are reduced to a test score, that is so horribly deficient for explaining the educational worth of a child one is pressed to even find words that fit.
The latest fad for superintendents seems to be this notion that we can find our answers to our accountability problems in Singapore. Yes, that’s right, Singapore. It seems that Charles Butt, of HEB grocery store fame, has created a splendid learning compound for school administrators and curriculum coordinators to attend. At this compound located outside Austin, administrators will learn how to effectively manage their schools, and curriculum specialist will discover new and exciting ways to deliver the results needed (to stay out of trouble with TEA). Mr. Butt has sunk a fortune to get his dream off the ground. You can read about his Holdsworth Center here.
Looking at the board of directors I don’t see anyone from the public education sector. But that would stand to reason since the whole direction of public education is being driven from the business sector, because as we all know, teachers don’t know how to improve education. After all look at all the low performing schools. Pardon my sarcasm. Butt’s leadership model is Singapore. It seems that Singapore’s model for running schools and producing high testing outcomes has become the national trend. Now, I’m not passing judgment on Mr. Butt for his philanthropic efforts in trying to improve public education, but why Singapore? Why are educational planners modeling school training after a system located in a country that is not a constitutional republic and that has a school system built around high stakes testing? Has anyone stopped to look and think about the high rate of youth suicide in Singapore? The pressure Singapore teens are under strikes a similar cord with the school system in the United States. In fact, the national rate of teen suicide in the United States has been trending up since 2010. One of the premium culprits for the lack of “usefulness and joyfulness” felt by teens has been the amount of time spent in front of an electronic device. In just five years from 2010 to 2015, the number of teens who committed suicide is up 33%. Read more about this horrible trending statistic here and understand some of the causes.
Now, everywhere I turn there are people talking about Singapore. Singapore is most certainly a country that has risen out of the ashes since World War II, but it has a form and style of government quite different from ours in the U.S. In fact, you could make the case that while on the surface it appears to be somewhat of a democratic republic like the U.S., or possibly more like Great Britain. If, however, you dig deeper you will find more of a benevolent dictatorship where dissenting voices are not allowed. The current Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, who succeeded his father, longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew, appears that his reign will continue those practices of his father. You have to ask yourself, why the fascination with Singapore? Is there something else behind the curtain we are not being told? It has been said that when something comes out of nowhere, to suddenly be everywhere, you can bet it is part of an agenda. Coming back around to the question of why are superintendents and school board members learning the educational approaches practiced in Singapore, it is important to research and try to find why the fascination. Could it be that once again superintendents are falling for the snake oil. Or could it be this a signal that the societal and government planners want to move America to a form of government and leadership like Singapore’s and their style of education is part of the picture that disserves more of our attention? If you want to familiarize yourself with the Singapore system you can do so here and here.
So what needs to be done?
Here is the way I think it is playing out. TEA and the Commissioner, along with the leadership in the Texas Senate, including the Lt. Governor are playing the role of the bully. It’s been this way for years with the Congress passing increasingly constrictive bills that move schools to tighter and tighter accountability which translates into more school failure. TEA is all too happy to play the role of the supportive agency that is going to help schools meet accountability, but somehow that only translates into forcing schools into the tightly controlled, data-driven, drill and kill academic delivery system that is not healthy for our children or the education profession. If you follow the school accountability propaganda coming out of Austin you can’t help but notice a perplexing statistic. Every year since 2013 when TEA puts out their report on the STAAR outcomes from the previous year, the percentages show that approximately 95% of the schools met standards and approximately 5% did not. This 5% is what is referred to as priority schools and are labeled as Improvement Required (IR). Do you find it odd that these percentages don’t vary much every year? The reason for this is because that’s what is mandated. Yes, that’s right, 5% of the schools are designated as Improvement Required each year. So each year TEA brags about approximately 95% of the schools meeting standards on the STAAR test, while in reality this is mandated through the application for the Waiver from No Child Left Behind mandates that then Commissioner of Education, Michael Williams, wrote to Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, in 2013. The Waiver application was later updated in 2015 and you can review it here. Interesting that you can read in the Waiver application, which got approved by Secretary Duncan, we do have Common Core in our schools in Texas even though we have a law that says we will not ever have Common Core in Texas. Look at pages 13-14 in the Waiver and see what you find. You can also find the mandate for priority schools beginning on page 38. Since there has to be a bottom 5% TEA does not release what the passing percentage will be on any of the STAAR exams until after the tests are taken and graded by TEA approved graders. Isn’t it odd that teachers and principals don’t know what the passing percentage is going to be for the STAAR tests? The students have to first take the test, and then after it’s graded, TEA tells the schools what the passing percentage is in each discipline. What??? I’m sorry but yes, it is that crazy.
I’m sorry if this news is disturbing to you, but the truth is sometimes difficult to swallow. The whole accountability system that keeps teachers and schools marching to the beat of testing outcomes is a system built on fraud and deceit. The system is meant to completely control the worth of a school, giving TEA the ability to declare winners and losers and leave in its wake students with their love of learning snuffed out and teachers looking for the exit door. Now with the advent of Social Emotional Learning, teachers will be forced to teach essential elements for character development and social understanding. What happens when these social mores taught by the school interfere with those taught in the home? Go ahead, discuss among yourselves.
Getting back to Waco, what is happening in this school district appears to be different. Dr. Nelson is not taking the approach of many of the districts already threatened by Mr. Morath and his Deputy Commissioner, A.J. Crabill. At each meeting, the school board and the superintendent are given a healthy dose of intimidation mixed with threats meant to make the school board cower in fear and do what they are told. School boards all over the state are marching to the orders of the Morath/Crabill workshops. All have backed down except, it appears, one. Houston ISD has not fought back, nor have the Dallas Superintendent or Board of Trustees. Nor has San Antonio and especially not Austin. Waco has said NO to the TEA. Dr. Nelson, the newly appointed Superintendent of Waco ISD, says that the TEA will not close down any schools in his district, not on his watch. When I heard Dr. Nelson make that statement at the town hall meeting, I was energized. This is what is needed desperately among the many school districts around the state. Superintendents and school board members need to stand up and say NO, not on my watch. Superintendents, you need to support Dr. Nelson in his fight to stay independent. You need to not only support him but also join him.
Superintendents of the State of Texas, you may not be in trouble with TEA now, but all it would take is an escalation in the percentage for the student to pass the test, which has happened in the past, or an elevation in the indices required to meet standards, and the situation in your district could change significantly. Dr. Nelson will be under intense pressure to capitulate to a plan that will move Waco ISD into a charter type of operation that allows an outside entity to move in and take over operations. For now, however, Dr. Nelson is objecting to that plan and choosing to defy attempts to take over his school district. This could be the beginning of a statewide movement to stand up to the dictatorial mandates of a Commissioner and a Senate that want our school systems to move into a public/private partnership style of operation. When boards of managers replace the elected school boards, the people lose their voice. Elected school boards, love them or hate them, have always been the link between parents and the schools. This time-honored method of operation is a microcosm of our state and federal modes of operation for our representative form of government. If we abandoned elected representatives for our schools how will we respond when we are made to believe we must abandon this form of government for our state and federal governments? Will we move to a form of government more like Singapore? Superintendents of Texas, let us draw a line in the sand and tell the Commissioner NO, NOT ON MY WATCH!
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, 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 currently works as an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He lives with his wife, Connie, of 35 years in Tomball, Texas and can be reached at email@example.com