My commitment to public education is rooted in two core beliefs.
The first is that education can solve our most pressing problems—poverty, hunger, inadequate health care, the lack of affordable housing, unemployment, crime, the need for criminal justice reform, and many more. It is the one issue that can affect all others.
Second is my belief that in order to unlock education’s immense potential, it must be offered to all students fairly and equitably. The idea that educational opportunities are determined by zip code is un-American and falls short of the greatness of Texas.
Although the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the public school finance system meets minimal constitutional requirements, meaning nothing has to change, the inequity of the public school finance system—and the absurdity of this ruling—is obvious to the naked eye.
That reality, lived by more than 5.23 million students in every corner of the state, means that Democrats and Republicans alike have a moral obligation to find ways to improve public education in spite of the Court’s failure.
In politics, it is often the case that elected people talk to other elected people and other “leaders.” There’s nothing wrong with that, and it can yield valuable information, but my team and I wanted to get to the core, to the bedrock, of public education. We want our work to be useful, to be felt and meaningful.
So we went local.
Texas House District 123 includes campuses from three school districts—San Antonio ISD, North East ISD, and Northside ISD. It is one of the most economically diverse districts in Texas, a fact reflected by the campuses and their surrounding neighborhoods. We wanted to know if there were similar experiences, issues, themes, and patterns that linked these schools and districts together. We wanted to start by identifying what they had in common.
We decided the only way to do that was to go to each campus and talk to educators—the people who do this work for a living every day. I asked my staff to set up meetings with the principals/educators at every public school in our district. There are 55 campuses total. I met with them all.
The only ideas and recommendations that made their way into my final report are the ones that I heard again and again, everywhere. Every point listed below was repeated, confirmed, and verified by educators during the 55 school visits, as well as by scores of individual teachers, parents, and students that I met and continue to meet with across campuses and districts.
This document is a blueprint for nonpartisan, common-sense education policy in Texas, both in terms of practical action items and school finance priorities. During my visits, I didn’t find Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals; I only found people who wanted the best for our students.
After more than 55 campus conversations and dozens of others, here are excerpts of what they said.
Find ways to fit more quality instruction time into a school day.
Educators repeatedly stated that quality instruction time — more time teaching — is what matters most to a student’s learning. Teachers end up with less time dedicated to teaching and learning when forced to spend too much time on other responsibilities, like filling out mounds of paperwork, managing large classrooms, and taking attendance.
Texas Educator: “I bet you think I need more money, and I do, but it’s not at the top of my list. And I bet you think I need new technology, and trust me, an iPad for every student would be great, but it’s not at the top of my list. You know what I need? Time. Give me more time spent on actual instruction and I’ll show you a school that’s been turned around. You know what I do? I have my office take on as much of the teachers’ paperwork as possible. Anything we can do to lighten the load, we do it. You know why? MORE TIME! Teachers get to teach. Simple.”
Programs meant to help schools shouldn’t burden them.
Reporting and compliance duties often come along with grants, academic improvement programs, and data collection. Well-intentioned regulations can take away instruction time if the logistics at the district and campus level are not properly considered by the state.
Texas Educator: “You guys [the Texas Legislature] give us so much to do, but don’t tell us how or when. You want fire drills for school buses, good idea, now tell me how to do it and when. What am I going to have to cut? We always have to ask ourselves these questions. These days, if I can get my teachers to spend 3 ½ hours on instruction a day, it’s a win.”
Districts and schools need the freedom to hire more support staff.
Co-teachers, social workers, behavioral health professionals, and additional staff can all take burdens off educators and allow them to spend more time teaching. If students arrive in the classroom well-fed, well-rested, housed, clothed, cared-for, and ready to learn, teachers automatically gain more quality teaching time. Educators across districts asked for the ability to hire additional support staff to provide these wraparound services.
Provide incentives for hiring exceptional teachers.
Good teachers, and excellent leadership, are important at every campus, but students and campuses with the most challenges require the best help. From a policy perspective, when advocating for the “best” teachers, it is difficult to define with specificity what that is, although the consensus is that experience is a common quality. Overall, principals and other teachers know talent when they see it and need the flexibility and authority to hire those educators.
Texas Educator: “If I had to choose between an iPad for every student or a few more top notch teachers, I would take the teachers in a heartbeat, every time.”
Resources should be commensurate with the size of the student population and what the state expects of them.
Although the responses from educators varied in terms of priority, in almost every way possible, educators noted that generally the resources for English language learners and special education students were insufficient. From the dearth of certified teachers, instructional materials, and test preparation to class size and accountability, educators at nearly every campus lamented the general inadequacy in resource availability and quality.
Texas Educator: “These students are capable. They can do the work, it’s just their English that’s the challenge. In every other way they’re on top of their game, just as gifted, and it feels like we’re punishing them. We’re failing them, really.”
Allow teachers to teach.
Quality teachers want to teach, not do paperwork, tend to administrative matters, manage behavioral problems, or act as social workers. Many teachers leave poor, minority, inner-city schools not because of a bias or lack of compassion for the students or their neighborhoods. Rather, in those settings, teachers often find that they spend a tremendous amount of time doing things other than teaching.
Texas educator: “I didn’t leave because I didn’t like the kids. I didn’t like the adults. They wanted me to save the school, save the district, save their job… I’m here for the kids.”
Change testing practices so that they help, not hurt, students.
The federal government requires specific testing practices to hold districts and campuses accountable. Texas currently mandates additional layers of testing and adds higher standards and more curriculum requirements to these tests. Instead of helping direct a student’s learning, these tests have taken over the school day and year, hijacking a teacher’s ability to be creative in the classroom.
Hitting testing benchmarks has become more important than the mastery of the subjects. The stress of standardized testing is palpable at many campuses, especially at those with high-needs student populations.
Attempts to tie teacher ratings to testing outcomes hide inequalities.
Test scores, particularly those from high-stakes tests that students take once a year, can be used to measure a variety of things, but they are an imperfect and incomplete measure of the effectiveness and dedication of any one teacher. When test results can impact the career trajectories of teachers, students shoulder the additional stress.
Texas Educator: “How do you expect to get teachers — the superstars you want us to bring in or even the young ones we know we’ll get — to come to the toughest schools when they know that the risk of being labeled a ‘bad’ or ‘unsuccessful’ teacher is so much higher?”
The A-F campus rating system harms students.
This district and campus rating system can ultimately shame students, branding them individually with their school’s score. Students might not be aware of the precise meaning of an “improvement required” campus, but every student knows what an “F” means. The inequality of the current school finance system all but ensures that a campus’s letter grade will align with the wealth or poverty of the surrounding area, but the students will carry the weight of that grade in a more personal, internal way.
Texas Educator: “What are they grading? How much do you want to bet the grades line up with how much money the schools get? And why A through F? We’re using the language the children use. They may not know the exact meaning of ‘needs improvement,’ but they all know what an F is. You want them walking around thinking they and their friends earned their school an F? Way to go.”
Teachers and principals note the significant differences between students who attended pre-kindergarten and those who did not. Teachers can go further with kindergarten students who have common academic foundations and learning habits, as well as an understanding of basic classroom norms. Pre-K sets up students for success; it is an essential educational foundation.
Spend money on materials that teachers need and will use.
Instructional materials currently make up a distinct and significant part of a school district’s budget, and much of this money is spent on textbooks. Educators said that textbooks occupy a different place in today’s classrooms than they did before — they’re used far less and are often supplemental compared to other types of lesson materials. Districts need to evaluate their decisions to buy textbooks because they have more spending flexibility than they may realize.
Further expanding those spending options would free up districts to spend money on what they really want: people.
Texas Educator: “If I could spend the textbook money anywhere, I would spend it on people.”
Ensure schools engage every anti-hunger resource available.
Hunger makes it more difficult to learn and focus, and can lead to behavior issues. Most school districts offer a variety of food programs, including breakfast, lunch, snack, and summer meals. However, many do not access the USDA’s school supper program and assume it is too costly. It is, in fact, fully subsidized. Districts should pursue this program as another way to address hunger among their students (and it essentially pays for itself).
Texas Educator: “I didn’t always know what to do with the hungry students who came to see me later in the day because we’re not allowed to give them cafeteria food after the lunch period. There was one young man who came to see me more than a few times a week, so with him I took to us walking back and forth between the main campus and one of the portables in the back. There was a pecan tree there, so we’d walk back and forth and stop so he could pick and eat a few until he felt better.”
The concerns detailed in this report are just a snapshot of the common issues educators face across HD123. There are, of course, more. What is not in this document are those that may be school district, campus, or classroom specific. It also does not touch on the nuances created by private and charter schools (both of which I am visiting soon).
That said, it is also irrefutable. It outlines what educators believe would make a difference in their everyday work. You don’t have to like or agree with what is here, but you would be arguing with what these educators have lived in their classrooms.
Let’s craft practical, pragmatic policies and shepherd our school finance conversations not based on what we believe to be true or what our parties say, but on the educational environment those decisions will create for our educators and, most importantly, our students.
I’d like to thank the educators, parents, and students who took the time to sit down with me, the school districts for their cooperation and help facilitating the visits, and my staff for their hard work and patience during the duration of the project.
As a graduate of public schools, I believe in their purpose and promise. After this exercise, I am now more convinced of that than ever.
Let’s get to work.
This article was originally published on Medium. It was edited to fit in ATPE News. Read the full version at https://medium.com/@DiegoBernalTX/what-they-said-4e531235a1e6#.bkb4rcfbi.