ON FEBRUARY 23, an estimated 10,000 parents, students and teachers from around Texas marched up Congress Avenue in Austin to the state Capitol for a rally to save public schools from continuing budget cuts and runaway testing. The rally was organized by Save Texas Schools, a statewide coalition formed in 2011 to fight cuts to education funding.
Speakers included former Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott, who condemned the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test and said that the state's accountability system is spinning out of control.
What education "reformers" call "accountability" is a lucrative business for Pearson PLC, a multinational conglomerate with six lobbyists for the Texas legislature alone (including the former House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler). Texas has already paid Pearson hundreds of millions of dollars since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated standardized testing throughout the nation, and the state signed another $468 million contract with Pearson for STAAR exams for 2010 through 2015.
Like the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test preceding it, the STAAR exam questions are chosen based on "item response theory," a method that does more to sort students by test scores than measure individual students' academic progress. TAKS and STAAR are high-stakes tests for students, teachers, schools and districts. Students must pass them to graduate. Schools are subject to onerous "reconstitution plans" and closure based on them.
Pearson, the company providing the tests, has a history of problems that include wrongly scoring some SAT results in New York in 2005, multiple incidents of wrongly scoring other standardized tests, and botching the 2010 rollout of online testing in Wyoming.
Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education-turned-outspoken opponent of corporate school "reform," spoke at the rally. She dismissed the reformers' charge that public education is failing. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress–"the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America's students know and can do in various subject areas," according to the National Center for Education Statistics, are at an all-time high. Additionally, dropout and graduation rates are not at the crisis levels reformers claim.
Instead, Ravitch pointed out, the remedies pushed by privatizers as solutions to these alleged problems are causing problems. The misuse of standardized testing, for example, causes crises for students and schools alike. Rather than a useful measure of academic progress, it is used to justify the scapegoating of teachers and closure of schools. But neither vouchers nor charter schools improve student outcomes, nor do they address the one root problem privatization advocates so often fail to mention: poverty.
Elite private schools do not inundate their students with standardized tests. What they do offer are great physical education, drama, art, music and other programs, low student-teacher ratios, and a curriculum that stimulates students' interests and creativity. Ravitch stated, "If it's good enough for them, it's good enough for you, too…We cannot close the achievement gap until we close the opportunity gap–when the reformers start talking about the opportunity gap, then we'll know they mean it."
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JOHN KUHN, the school superintendent in Perrin, Texas, delivered an impassioned defense of public school teachers and students, and did not mince words in contrasting them with the legislators doing the privatizers' bidding.
In 2011, Kuhn wrote an open letter in which he stated, "I am answering the demand [for school funding cuts and standardized testing] with a (figurative) cannon shot, and the Texas flag still waves proudly from our flag pole. I shall never surrender the fight for the children of Perrin." He read this "Alamo letter" at the rally to cheers.
A parent carrying a sign that read "Listen to parents, not Pearson," with three kids in the Conroe Independent School District, said that each new version of the tests intended to assess academic knowledge and skills–the TAAS, TAKS and now STAAR–has had a worsening impact on kids, with more drilling and more anxiety, at earlier ages, for all involved. She said students in 4th grade are subjected to four-hour practice testing, two days in a row, and that parts of the tests, particularly the expository essay writing, are not developmentally appropriate for that age.
According to a Round Rock teacher, drilling for the tests begins in kindergarten. She has 20 second-graders in her class, with seven or eight needing extra help. There is no aide. She too said that the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards (on which standardized tests on based) are increasingly lengthy and difficult.
When asked if there is anything people may not realize about schools and teaching today, she replied that most people were unaware of the range of developmental abilities teachers must accommodate. The necessity for test preparation at even those early grades, she said, interferes with the individual attention teachers are able to give students, and class sizes often exceed the mandated cap of 22 even in those early grades. There is no class size limit after the fourth grade.
One Del Valle teacher stated that she had 30 kids in her pre-kindergarten class for the first six weeks of school. Enrollment in the Del Valle school district is growing fast, so the district applied for and received a class-size waiver. About a quarter of the state's districts now have class-size waivers, and most cite budget as the reason.
A Cedar Park teacher held a sign summarizing how he views the legislature's priorities: "Education: F, Infrastructure: F, Health Care: F, Formula One: A." (Formula One is a new racetrack that has received millions in tax breaks).
Instead, lawmakers will decide on such issues as whether to expend public education funds for private school attendance (vouchers), lift the cap on the number of charter schools, assign schools grades on an A-F scale, and arm school employees.
Two Del Valle teachers said that while class sizes were increasing, their salaries had been frozen for three years, although they finally did receive raises this year. They said that they would like to dispel the myth that all teachers receive fantastic benefits that somehow justify lower pay. In reality, they pay a lot for health insurance, and can lose considerable wages during maternity leave.
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A NUMBER of students from San Antonio were present at the rally. When asked what he thought was the biggest issue facing schools in San Antonio, one of their teachers said segregation–but that it's rarely mentioned.
A school counselor attending with two students said the testing has become too much, that it is stressful. She said excessive prepping for testing leads to boredom and dislike of school.
One student said he didn't like the district's plans to open more single-sex schools. Single-sex schools may reduce certain distractions during class time, but without reasonable class sizes, less focus on testing and a more interesting and relevant curriculum, they can't achieve the results their advocates hope for.
One man attending with his family told me exactly what he wants from the legislature: to restore the $5.4 billion cut in 2011, reject vouchers, and reduce high-stakes testing. A former teacher said underfunding is her main concern. She said that initially she was open-minded about standardized testing, but that she has seen its effects in the schools her two kids attend and believes it has gone too far.
When Del Valle teachers were asked if there was anything they wanted the public to know, they answered without hesitation. "Pay for performance" is coming to Texas, they said, referring to merit pay.
Merit pay for teachers based on students' test scores has been a top priority of the Obama administration's $4.3 billion "Race to the Top" program. The Texas Education Association (TEA) supports it and is running a pilot program this year. Next year, 1,000 districts are scheduled to participate, with statewide implementation in 2015.
There is organized opposition, however. The Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA, affiliated with the NEA) is encouraging school boards to not participate in the pilot. The assumptions behind this kind of merit pay are flawed, and past experiments did not yield good results. The tests that will be used to measure teacher performance are simply not reliable enough.
Students from Austin's Eastside Memorial High School (EMHS) were among the last to speak from the stage. They described what it's been like as students in a school underthe recurring threat of closure.
They also described how they began to speak out in defense of their school community against the threat of a takeover by a charter school. They began attending and speaking at late-night school board meetings, and invited the Texas Education Commissioner to visit their campus to see their school's progress firsthand.
The high-stakes testing regimen in Texas does not have the confidence of students, parents or educators, and yet EMHS faces closure in May based on that one criterion. The EMHS community and supporters hope Commissioner Williams will give their letter the serious consideration it deserves.
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BEFORE THE rally, on the other side of the Capitol, a small group of "school choice" (in reality, school privatization) advocates held a press conference. And a few days later, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, now an "education reformer," urged Texas senators to "go big" in transforming Texas schools.
In response, the Texas State Teachers Association issued the following statement:
The Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE), which Bush founded and chairs, and its affiliate, Chiefs for Change, are conduits for letting their corporate donors connect with and privately influence state policymakers on expanded testing, expanded online instruction, private school vouchers and other privatization raids on public tax dollars.
The struggle to save Texas schools is being waged on the now-familiar terrain of the manufactured crisis and corporate proffered "solution." Budget cuts and unrealistic, flawed standards predictably combine with factors like poverty to yield outcomes defined as "failure," even when students and faculty are achieving tangible progress.
The testing industry provides education "reformers" the data generation they need to justify the closure of public schools and transfer of billions of public dollars to corporations. Privatization is a multi-billion dollar bait and switch. The real and lasting solution is to improve our public schools, not close them or turn them over to corporations.