Monday, January 25, 2016

Factoring poverty into public education, test scores and threatened school closures

Important piece from the Waco Tribune, January 23, 2016 by Bonnie Lesley and Linda Ethridge, both of whom have been staunch advocates for children in Waco and statewide.  
School closures sound so medieval as a "remedy." When will we learn?  To keep following the conversation on possible school closures in Waco, Texas, I strongly recommend folks to like Texas Kids Can't Wait on Facebook.  You'll also want to see their website.

 Last Sunday’s Q&A conducted by Trib opinion editor Bill Whitaker with the Waco Independent School District superintendent and two members of the board of trustees sparked a great deal of concerned conversation in the Waco community over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. It continues.
An unelected commissioner of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) has determined that Waco ISD has two choices in the next few years. The Waco ISD board can close six of our schools due to their low performance on state tests. Or we can allow our elected school board to be dissolved and replaced by a politically appointed board of managers who will subsequently close the six schools — and perhaps others or all of Waco ISD. TEA has been empowered to make these decisions for us through state law passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

These six schools — J.H. Hines Elementary, Alta Vista Elementary, Brook Avenue Elementary, South Waco Elementary, Carver Middle and Indian Spring Middle — are also likely the schools in Waco with the highest percentages of poverty — all more than 90 percent. Everyone involved, then, including the children, their families, school employees, churches and the neighborhoods are dealing with myriads of problems, most of which they cannot control. They require the engagement and assistance of the larger community. Is it really appropriate, therefore, to judge these schools based on their test scores? The evidence is in and the answer is a resounding NO for many reasons. All of us need to stand with these six schools and ensure their survival and ensure the children in them thrive.
It’s poverty, stupid! Test scores, as we all ought to know by now, always reflect the socio-economic status of the students taking them. Always. Poverty does not determine the test scores, but it surely does predict them. It is true in Waco and in every community in the world. Texas, therefore, in order to move forward, has to address the exponentially growing rate of poverty in our state and we are very late to the game. More than 60 percent of Texas school children qualify for the free/reduced lunch program. In Waco that rate is close to 90 percent. At the same time, Texas has the highest percentage of minimum-wage workers, outrageous payday-lending policies, poor access to health care and high rates of incarceration. Poverty is growing quickly in Texas as a result of unforgivable policy decisions. For most Texans now, there is no “Texas Miracle” to celebrate. According to a recent UNICEF report, the United States has the second-highest poverty rate for children among the 35 most developed nations. Texas ranks fifth in the nation in the percent of children living in poverty. Through conscious action, the Texas Legislature and the governor, over time, have created one of the most hostile environments for children in the world. At least 90 percent of Waco ISD children are among these victims.
Inadequate, inequitable It is simply indisputable that it takes more time and more resources for schools to be successful in educating essentially three types of students: those who come from economically disadvantaged homes, those who have learning disabilities and those who are learning English as a second language. Waco, as do almost all cities, has a preponderance of these kinds of kids. And what does our state do? It allocates less money to districts like ours than it does to wealthy districts where children attend a better-resourced school and have every advantage that a home can offer to support them. Waco citizens stepped up to the plate recently in strongly approving a tax increase because we recognize the needs. But that tax increase does not provide even close to what is needed for Waco ISD kids to compete for the opportunities available to students in more privileged districts. The gap in funding is enormous, with as much as $10,000 per student between the wealthiest and poorest school districts in the state. But the gap isn’t just in the state. The picture is even worse if we compare states. Texas rates 49th in the nation on education expenditures per student, according to Education Week’s latest issue of Quality Counts. The highest-spending state spends $10,000 more per student, according to regionally adjusted calculations, than does Texas. New York, the state with the highest per-student expenditures, spends almost $10,000 per student more, on average, than does Texas. Sadly, only 10-11 percent of Texas children go to schools funded at the national average. Money matters. And it matters greatly if we are to ensure all Texas children have an opportunity to learn and compete. It is clear many Waco kids are being denied that opportunity.
Constitutional issue The poverty of Texas families and the unacceptable low funding of public education were the primary issues leading to State District Judge John Dietz’s recent court decision declaring the Texas school system unconstitutional. Funding is inadequate because the state has failed to provide the schools enough resources to ensure that “all students have a meaningful opportunity to graduate college- and career-ready.” Judge Dietz noted that, “As large as the gap is between Texas’ expectations and current levels of student achievement, the gap is even larger when considering the performance levels of economically disadvantaged and ELL (English Language Learners) student populations.” He concluded: “This court finds that current arbitrary and inadequate levels of funding do not allow school districts to provide a general diffusion of knowledge and thus do not satisfy the constitutional requirements of adequacy and suitability.” Judge Dietz also ruled that the school finance system is inequitable: “While taxing substantially lower than their property-poor counterparts, property-wealthy districts often reap over $1,000 per students more than their neighboring property-poor school districts for no better reason (much less an educational reason) than the value of their property.” He concluded that “it is the State’s duty to provide all districts with the revenue necessary to prepare their students for college or a career — at similar tax rates and with meaningful discretion for enrichment. The evidence before this court makes it clear that the Legislature has failed in this duty.”
Truth about testing In this insane era that we live in, an almost religious belief in test scores exists. In truth, preparing for THE test is THE focus in schools all over the state, especially those with high levels of poverty and with majorities of minority students. If, however, testing produced better citizens, more moral individuals, higher levels of educational attainment, less crime, better health, more economic success, even more successful schools, then Texas would lead the world. Unfortunately, we have led the way for other states and the nation down this path of destruction. Mandated testing began in our state about 1980 and we have spent billions of dollars imposing testing on our children with increasingly higher stakes if standards were not mastered — for students, teachers, principals and schools. In the 2011-12 biennium, after cutting $5.4 billion from the public education budget, most of it falling on the backs of disadvantaged kids, the state still managed to set aside $468 million for the STAAR tests, not including the millions spent across the state on teacher training, test preparation and practice materials.
So what to do? Research from every credible source, however, is continually published, warning educators, policy makers and the general public that the use of test scores to make decisions about student promotion in grade or for graduation, for evaluation of educator performance and/or for judging school quality is absolutely inappropriate. Such approaches introduce high levels of fear and anxiety into the teaching/learning environment that make quality work impossible. Such approaches drastically narrow the curriculum, so that the students needing art education, recess, project learning, etc., the most are denied even exposure to these activities. Result: No joy is left in teaching or learning. Ask any student, any educator. It is no wonder we have high dropout statistics, huge teacher/principal turnover rates and parents vigorously organizing “opt-out” movements across the country in rebellion to this punitive system. What to do? First and foremost, let’s not allow the state to close our schools. Let’s demand a return of democratic principles to Texas — and a return to local control of schools. Let’s not allow our children to be further harmed by these state policies. Wacoans know how to get things done. We saved, as a great example, our local veterans hospital. We’ve recreated our downtown and revitalized it. Let’s now stand for kids in Waco. If we have to, let’s be willing to engage in a little civil disobedience. These children are our children. These schools are our schools, bought and paid for from local taxes. Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, says that “If we don’t stand for kids, we don’t stand for much.” Longtime school administrator and education specialist Bonnie Lesley and former Waco Mayor Linda Ethridge are founders of Texas Kids Can’t Wait, a statewide public education advocacy group encouraging equity, excellence and adequacy for Texas students. It educates citizens on challenges facing schools and encourages legislative action to strengthen public education in Texas.

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