Friday, January 23, 2015
Let me see if I have this right. Our new governor, Greg Abbott, is complaining that Texas is becoming more like our sister state, California, and that is a bad thing. Let’s take a look at some areas where it just might be a good thing to be like California. Gross Domestic Product - $2 trillion for California to $1.3 trillion for Texas; average teacher salary - $69,000 for California (4th nationally) to $48,000 (37th nationally) for Texas; average ACT score – 22.2 for California (15th nationally) to 20.9 for Texas (29th nationally); citizens not covered by insurance – 19.0 % for California (7th nationally) to 24.3 % for Texas (1st nationally) – and that is not a category where you want to be at the top; poverty rate – 16.4 % for California (18th nationally) to 18.1 % for Texas (10th nationally) – again, the lower the ranking the better; and finally highway fatality rates – 0.87 for California (41st nationally) to 1.27 for Texas (18th nationally).
Maybe California has some issues and concerns that need to be addressed as every state and country does. But let’s not dismiss, out of hand, that state and the way they approach their own issues. We have our own problems right here in Texas – school funding problems, environmental issues, fracking and drilling fights, and now earthquakes to deal with. We could learn a few things from our brothers on the west coast how to handle some of these issues in a more democratic fashion.
If we were to look for best practices regardless of where they originate from, then all of us would benefit and reap the rewards of doing things in the best form possible. Maybe that’s the way to approach governing at any level, see what has worked for others and use those techniques in your own neck of the woods.
Friday, September 5, 2014
Cooperation vs Competition in Education
I’m not talking about athletic, or even academic, competition in public schools. They can be uplifting and enhance school spirit when done in a positive way. What I am concerned with is the proposed method of evaluating teachers using their students’ scores on standardized tests. If I am being judged against other teachers on test scores, then I will do all in my power to come out on top. If that means keeping my successful teaching techniques to myself, then so be it. Why would I share good teaching tips with other teachers who may end up pushing me out of my job? I do not want to help my ‘competition’ become better than me and earn more bonus money than I could. Nor do I want others to finish higher than me on the passing test percentage list. If schools do plan to get rid of low performing teachers, then I want to finish as high as possible on that list to keep my job.
I can also use other techniques to bolster my rating. For instance, I could work through the school counselors to get low performing students transferred out of my classes. I do not want any hard-to-train students when I could pass them off to other teachers. I used to work for the good of the students but now, with my performance measured by these tests, I have to look out for my rankings and me.
I will also petition to teach upper level courses, especially AP, pre-AP, and gifted and talented courses. Those kids are the cream of the crop and do extremely well on standardized tests. I will push for any advantage I can get to keep my job and keep those bonuses coming. Why not use the system to my advantage?
I am certified in math and physics and have been happy to teach both in the same school year. I have actually done that and enjoyed it tremendously. It makes for an exhausting year but well worth it. But under this new system, I would decline to teach both at the same time. Preparing for one subject is difficult enough but preparing for two is even tougher. Maybe the school could use my expertise in the two subjects and spread the work out among teachers in a more efficient manner but that is not my problem. I want to maximize my benefits and I am not concerned about whatever problems the school may have. The schedule and work load are their problems, not mine. I am here to use the system to maximize my salary, not for any other purpose like making administrators jobs any easier.
Now that I’ve showed you a cynical view of teaching with scores used to evaluate teachers, let me show you a better way to facilitate the learning process. Cooperation is the key. Departments and teams that work together for the overall good of the students is the way to go. Sharing and letting others in on your techniques helps all in the quest for superior performance. Assisting in the process rather than trying to come out at the top of the heap is the preferred method to use in education. Counselors can steer students with special needs to the teachers who can best assist that student in the learning process. I had counselors tell me they were giving me tough to handle students because they thought I could get through to them. I enjoyed the challenge and did ‘get through’ to some of these kids. But it took extra time and effort. However, under this new system, I would refuse to take on those students.
There is so much more than test scores in education. When those reformers and political leaders realize this, then maybe, just maybe, teachers will be allowed to do what we have done well for many years, and that is teach children, not just the subject listed on our resume, but about life and how to be good human beings in a big, bad world.
Sunday, August 17, 2014
Using a Business Model in Education
We hear that we should be using a business model to run our schools. And which model would that be? The one used by the robber barons in the late 1800’s where workers were just tools to be used when healthy and whole then discarded when injured or worn out? Or a more current and compassionate model that takes into account all the various stakeholders in the education system and works for the good of all the different components of the system? I would choose the second one. But it seems that some would rather go back to the slash and burn tactics of corporate raiders from the 1980’s.
Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary and an economist, points out the difference between shareholder capitalism and stakeholder capitalism. The former concentrates on the concerns of the shareholders of a company which is mainly focused on profits, while the latter looks at the big picture and works to benefit all the various stakeholders in a company - employees, customers, suppliers, citizens, as well as the shareholders. Which would you consider more sustainable? I believe the stakeholder model is superior in many ways. Let’s look at how that compares to our education system.
Some experts would emphasize standardized test scores as the best, and only, method to judge schools and teachers. That is comparable to the robber baron model or, if you want a more current example, our corporate raider period. When students are successful in testing, their teachers get awards and, more importantly, bonuses. If their students do not pass the test, then off with the teachers heads, or at least they should be shown the door for their next career move.
But if we take the education system as just that, a system, there are other goals which are as important, if not more so, than those pesky test scores. Some of them are just not very measurable, like good citizenship, or leadership, or compassion. These traits are only apparent over a person’s lifetime, not on a test score. Certainly, schools can be made better and serve all stakeholders more efficiently and effectively. But let’s get away from this major emphasis on standardized testing. Let us discuss and even argue, if necessary, the outputs that we need and want from our education system. But let us also take into account all the various stakeholders in the process – researchers, teachers, administrators, parents, societal leaders, and most importantly, the students themselves, along with the many outcomes that are needed to ensure continued excellence in our country.
Thursday, August 7, 2014
Competition vs Cooperation in Education
When I taught math at Pasadena High School in the late 90’s, we had a situation where if the we as a school met certain goals, then the teachers would receive a bonus. We did meet those goals and all the teachers received a bonus of around $600 each. It was a nice reward for doing our jobs well. At the time we were under the TAKS testing system where only English and Math were tested. The key was that all the faculty pitched in to help the school meet its objectives. Each department was given areas that they were to review with the kids. For instance, social study teachers put up English warm-up exercises for their students to work on. The same was done with science except that they did math instead. (An observation – not all science teachers were good at math. I went to help them set up problems and show the solutions several times over the school year.) Notice that we all pulled together for the good of the school and our students. And we were very successful in that regard.
Now there are plans to rate teachers according to how well their students do on the standardized tests. But how will that system promote cooperation among teachers? I believe it will not. If I am being judged against my teaching peers in my department, then I will keep my successful techniques to myself so that I do not help my “competition”, the other teachers, do better than me. If there are quotas to get rid of a certain percent of teachers, I am not going to help those who might push me out. I have heard that certain school districts in Texas, such as Houston ISD, do have goals to meet including getting rid of teachers who are rated lowest in their group. Some assistant principals just fire these low performing teachers regardless of what has happened in the classroom. Poor management that teachers end up paying for with their jobs.
We need to set up programs that promote cooperation between teachers. It has happened before and with the right incentive system, it can happen again. Cooperation is the way to go in our school systems. Leave the competition to the athletic teams on the fields of play.
Friday, July 25, 2014
Texas Technology Funding Program
Let me see if I have this right: Republicans go after Democrats for investing in private companies but when Republicans do the same thing it’s okay? The Dallas Morning News, on July 25, 2014, ran a story questioning the effectiveness of the technology fund in Texas and the problems associated with it. It seems that investing money in start-up operations is a risky business – who knew? Who decided that was an appropriate use of the taxpayers’ money? If the state’s elected politicians were experienced venture capitalists then this foray into investing might be fine. But Texas has other, more appropriate uses for its funds, like the transportation system which has morphed into a toll-based system or education which has suffered in the budget battles of recent years. Even the health care system in the state could be upgraded to include more of the state’s citizens and better care.
There is also the lack of oversight for the technology fund. It appears that the upper level politicians are the ones who choose the companies that are to be invested in. That can only lead to charges of waste, fraud, and abuse. Who is to say the winning companies are the best ones available or just run by the friends and cronies of the state leaders? Where is the accountability and transparency that should be there when dealing with public funds?
Maybe the state should be involved with funds like this one to help companies grow and prosper to bring more jobs and business to Texas. But this system needs more oversight. If the history of this program shows minimal success or loses state money, then the program needs to be shut down and the funds moved to areas of greater need.
Monday, July 21, 2014
To Frack or not to Frack, that is the question. At least within Denton, Texas city limits.
Denton, Texas is dealing with the issue of oil and gas well fracking within city limits. There was a citizen proposed ban on fracking which the city council considered during an open meeting. They heard from the various parties about the proposed ban. I attended this meeting and listened at the adjacent convention center due to the overflow crowd. The result was that the council sent the proposed ban to the November elections to let the voters decide. There was considerable debate in the format of three minute speeches by interested parties. Here is my take on the talks and situation:
1. There are real issues concerning fracking procedures in the city limits. Mothers reported health problems with their children during fracking operations near their homes. After contacting the drilling companies, nothing was done to address their concerns. Only now that action is being taken to stop the practice of fracking are the drillers now proposing to “work with the city council” to help with these health and safety concerns.
2. The industry pulled out the big guns to oppose this ban. The council heard from geologists, state regulators, and politicians about the safety and need for fracking. They know this is a test case in Texas. If a town in the state bans fracking and it sticks, then other cities will follow suit and ban fracking in their jurisdiction. That could lead to more restrictions on drilling and fracking. They do not want these restrictions and will do whatever it takes to keep drilling.
3. One thing the drillers threatened everyone with was lawsuits to continue their fracking. State law may supersede local ordinances in this case. Some of the politicians spoke of the majority of rights and how drilling for oil may have precedence over other concerns. The state of New York has shown that local governing bodies do have the right to control what goes on within their geographic area. We will see if the same holds true in Texas if and when the ordinance is passes and is then challenged in the courts. It may end up in the Supreme Court eventually.
My opinion: The oil industry has more than enough areas where they can drill or frack old wells. The safety and quality of life issues are important for the citizens of Texas and the U.S. Let’s ban fracking in the city limits and take back our cities from industry who only cares when we actually do something to protect our families and health. Thanks for listening.
The Border Crisis
The situation at our southern borders is turning into a humanitarian crisis. Children are streaming to our border seeking compassion after brutal treatment in their home country. We should be assisting these kids as much as possible as we seek a more permanent solution to the problem. What, exactly, is this problem? The original countries that these children came from are in turmoil with little prospect of a peaceful future. The risk of staying in their home countries is greater than traveling across unknown territory to the U.S. The reasons are many and will need to be addressed in many areas over a period of time.
Here are some suggestions for improving the situation:
1. Find places for these children to stay temporarily until long-term solutions can be worked out. If the kids are to be shipped back to their country of origin quickly, then the laws of the U.S. will need to be modified since there are current provisions to provide legal safeguards protecting those who are fleeing certain situations.
2. Eventually, we will need to deal with all who are here illegally. Supposedly, we dealt with this in the 1980’s but things have fallen through and we now need to deal with it again. Compassion and respect for the rule of law need to be balanced in the proposed solution.
3. Hopefully, the different factions of our split government can agree on some common ground in this mess. Compromises need to be proposed and accepted by all parties involved. There should be middle ground where acceptable solutions can be found.
4. Solutions should also include assistance to the countries of origin. If the economic, safety, and cultural situations in the original countries are addressed and improved, there will be less incentive for people, adults and children alike, to brave the difficult journey in search of a better life. This holds for the rest of the world as well.
5.This problem did not surface overnight. It was not caused by any one party, all concerned citizens and leaders have been involved with this for some time. It will take effort and time to approach this multi-layered situation with compassion and problem-solving techniques for the highest quality solutions. May the force be with us.