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August 23, 2011 / philosophermouseofthehedge

The important stuff: Rick Perry and Texas schools

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The insanity begins from Rick Perry’s presidential campaign. Noise about Texas schools is mind-boggling.

Texas education. Keep it simple like in The Important Book by Margret Wise Brown. If you’re not familiar with this old book, check it out – maybe you’ll agree her middle name is appropriate. Here’s a sample:

“The important thing about the sky is that it is always there.  It is true that it is blue, and high, and full of clouds, and is made of air. But the important thing about the sky is that it is always there.”

Simple. Plain. Just what’s important.

And what is true.

The important thing is that Texas is very big, with a large number of school districts, and an extremely diverse population (as it has been from the beginning).

Increasing the difficulty of educating Texas kids is the fact that they come from just about every where.

Take a look at just a few of the festivals about to be celebrated this fall: German Octoberfest, Houston Brazilian Festival, Bollywood Blast, Grand Taiko Concert (Japanese drumming), Fiestas Patrias and Diez y seis de septiembre (Mexico’s independence from Spain), Incredible India, Splendid China VI (Chinese culture historical traditions and Asian dance), Houston Korean Festival, Festival Chicano, Kolache Festival, Polish Harvest Festival, Slavic Heritage Festival, Zydeco Dances, Gumbo cook-offs, Czech Festival, Czech It Out Harvest Fall Festival, Texas Mennonite Sale and Auction for World Relief,  multiple Greek Festivals, Turkishfest 2011, Cajun Catfish Festival, Festa Italiana, Dia de la Hispanidad (Valencia, Spain highlighted this year), Cajun Crawfish Jamboree, Dia de los muertos, Texas Championship Native American Pow Wow, Texian Market Days, Fiesta Guadalupana opens the holiday season along with Pancho Claus, the Norwegian Christmas Bazaar, the Ukrainian Winter Bazaar…you get the idea – that’s a partial list. Everyone celebrates everything because Texas loves to party.

City schools list over 100 different languages as students’ L1. (L1=First language – or language used at home). English becomes their L2 or second language (or even L3 in some cases.) Fortunately so many languages have been common in Texas for a long time (yes, even in the 40′s and 50′s), so it’s no wonder the state is a leader in bilingual/multilingual education, dual language programs, maintaining heritage languages, and teaching English as a second language. Texas bilingual educators are so good other places as far away as Chicago and Washington state hire them to bring their fledgling language programs up to speed.

FYI a child speaking Spanish does not mean he’s Mexican. There’s Academy Spanish from Madrid, Spanglish from Florida, Puerto Rican Spanish , Cuban Spanish, Mexican Spanish, Argentina’s Spanish(similar to Spain), Columbian, Ecuadorian, Brazilian, …you get the idea…not to mention Tex-Mex, and Southwestern U.S. Spanish (and yes, varies from Mexican Spanish). All Spanish languages, but there are many differences in vocabulary, how words are pronounced and used. (The same goes with kids from Asia and the middle east: so many different dialects and languages!)

Complicating the language and academic language acquisition is not the youngest/pre-K kids, but the large number of older kids who arrive in middle school or high school. So it’s impressive that high school drop-out rates have continued to decline since 2000.

Adding to the confusion, many incoming students have varying amounts of schooling: none, little schooling, interrupted schooling, or excellent private school level. Some can speak, but not read their L1 language. The crisis is to keep them from becoming illiterate in both languages.

Texas school enrollment has grown to 4.9 million kids: with about 85,000 additional students each year across Texas. The number of low-income families has also dramatically increased. Research shows it cost more to educate children from low-income families. Lt. Gov. Dewhurst says Texas lawmakers have “appropriated more money for education than we’ve ever appropriated in the history of the state of Texas.” He continues, “We tightened the belt on administration. We reduced some of the spending for the Texas Education Agency, but we put more money in the classroom, because we know good teachers are the key.”

The important thing is that Texas schools educated many different types of students from everywhere, from all ethnic groups, and from all economic levels.

School money and budgets

The important thing is that the State of Texas provides a certain amount of money for each child for each day that child is present in school (So attendance records are important and audited).

Unfortunately as the school age population very recently has boomed, the state funding per child has decreased this year. There’s just so much money to go around like in a family, so each individual gets less.

It’s also important that schools have other funding sources. Each school district taxes local businesses and home owners pay “property tax”. (Not apartment dwellers, although their landlords pay property taxes.) The state does have a ceiling on property taxes and how much those can be raised. Some school districts “freeze” property tax of senior citizens. Many schools have gotten very good at writing grant proposals and receive grant money from various sources. Research universities are eager to partner with districts to run research pilots in schools. Philanthropic foundations, businesses like Dell, and  community groups like Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo donate to schools. And as always, parents also pitch in to raise money for schools.

The important thing is that schools in Texas have funding sources – and are savvy at securing money in addition to what the state is able to provide. Each school districts determines their budgets and policies. Residents and parents have a great deal of influence since they elect school boards (who hire superintendents who then hire principals who hire teachers, specialists and staff).

Curriculum

The important thing is that Texas has state standards, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS of the State Education Code) which are revised every 8-10 years.  The State Education Code is law and mandates what is taught in public schools and what grade level.

These standards are written, rewritten, and rewritten (again) by local and national education specialists, researchers, and ordinary teachers. The standards are reviewed by the public in open meetings. It’s often a circus: frequently dominated by people motivated by textbook companies (who have a great deal to gain or lose if their textbooks do not meet the requirements of the state’s standards), or by people looking to build their reputation or get attention, or some trying to force their ideas on others…or national media looking for a story.

The important thing is that local school districts determine curriculum as long as it meets the state education code’s requirements. So school curriculum reflects the community.

This can be a problem when one parent demands all the books about witches or ghosts must be removed from the library because they personally believe these are evil and of the devil. Or that mythology should not be taught as it talks about false gods (notice the little “g”, parent?) Or that evolution is a lie and creationism/intelligent design is the truth. Or another considers the Bible as literature and believes anyone going to college/wishing to be well-rounded should be familiar with Biblical references as they are abundant in classic literature and the world at large. Another uses a different religious source – or none at all. Then there’s the loud one who feels the Bible is the Word of God (Capital “G” there, OK, you other-side parents?) and should be taught in schools as that. But it can’t and isn’t in Texas.

The important thing is that the state guidelines are broad and flexible in certain areas so districts can make some choices. It’s possible to offer an elective course studying the Bible as literature / history with a state prescribed curriculum. It’s Ok if a student takes another elective they feel more appropriate. The state standards try to insure balance with tolerance in science curriculum. For example if  “individual design”(creationism) is mentioned, it may only presented as a theory and must be balanced with evolution as a theory, also. Schools always offer alternative lessons if a parent has a serious objection about a particular lesson.

The important thing is that once Texas core curriculum is addressed, each school district decides what other courses to fund. Maybe one school wants to offer classes in early childcare, or dual-credit high school-community college courses, but chooses to drop teaching Latin. Tough choices are made locally what specific courses are offered when money is tight. (Here are  two articles of the hard decisions schools are making in Houston area schools and in schools statewide)

The important thing about Texas school curriculum is that it is designed for the general public. If a parent finds he is at complete odds with others in the local community, well, he is perfectly free find another school he is more comfortable with or meets his child’s needs. Or children may be home schooled.

Just a note: Texas was ahead of the curve when Texas implemented College and  Career Development TEKS for students in 2009. Many Texas students do not have a family tradition of going to college, so Texas encourages all students to work towards a higher goal and a better future.

The important thing is that Texas does have solid state curriculum standards (TEKS) that school districts must meet. (Go ahead and read some of the TEKS.  You might be impressed.)

Teachers’ Issues

The important thing is that all the educators given “pink slips” last spring by school districts due to uncertain budgets were not actually in the classroom. Some were “specialists”(supervisory/teacher mentors/trainers in building), reading recover teachers with individual tutoring instruction,”Bilingual specialists”, grant writers, grant administrators, Special Ed. coordinators, librarians, or teacher aides (in special education classes, computer classes, hall monitors, or general teacher aides who assist by “typing” up lesson material, grading, making copies, laminating, and making items for classroom projects or instructional materials teachers used to make at home), office clerks – even some administrators were let go. There’s always been a nasty little secret about school class sizes: many were large in order to balance out the select few classrooms with teachers with an extremely small student load number (like only 6 or 10 total students). Regular class teachers hated that. It was very unfair and mislead the general public – like the practice of counting the nurse, librarian, and any other adult in the building to average them in with the total number of students. One local high school had: a “Lead” Principal, four “Associate” principals (one for each grade 9-12), a “Curriculum” principal, a “Business” principal (all financial), and a “Disciplinary” Principal. Maybe administration decided it could take a few cuts to keep teachers in the classroom?

The important thing is that in Texas has  class size limits (Dallas article). But even in the past  (1950′s to the 80′s) there were routinely 35-45 students at the secondary level and kids learned. And yes, teachers in Texas during those years did deal with multilingual classrooms, poverty, violence, mainstreamed special education students, and did I mention the violence, knives, guns, and disrespectful parents and kids? That’s still the same.

One important thing Rick Perry and the Texas legislature for teachers was pass a new law, HB 1907 (disclosure of student criminal behavior). Finally teachers will be advised of student’s criminal offenses and arrests. It’s not just a matter of safety. Most teachers will say any information about a student makes it easier to decide which instructional method will be the best approach.

The important thing is that in Texas teachers teach and students learn.

Teachers and kids know what’s important.

It’s plain and simple.

- like this passage from Margaret Wise Brown and The Important Book

The important thing about a shoe is that you put your foot in it. You walk in it, and you take it off at night, and it’s warm when you take it off.  But the important thing about a shoe is that you put your foot in it.  

Truth. Plain and simple.

Hoping politicians will insert foot in shoe and not in mouth!

(Related posts on teacher lay-offs, textbooks, or schools: click sidebar tags “education” or “Texas”) 

Phil, the Philosopher Mouse of the Hedge

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