I tried in my first part to use my own recent experiences and those of my friend to illustrate the current challenges of public education.

I ended by pointing out that on top of these problems we have faced “reforms” from reformers who hated public education, who saw their reforms as a way of controlling “anti-corporate”forces and eventually teacher’s unions.

I think it important to understand how that came about and that requires that we do a little historical back tracking.

The aspirations of the school reforms that came with integration in the 60’s and 70’s  was that every child, regardless of race ( and eventually of gender) would have a chance to go to college , to make of themselves all they could. What happened instead was a splintering of support for public schools. This was evidenced by the growth of private schools as a way to evade integration. Further , we saw “white flight” and the weakening of neighborhood links to neighborhood schools. With middle classes of all races eventually fleeing urban centers for the “good life” in the suburbs both political clout and tax dollars also were lost. Less political muscle for public schools, especially urban ones meant less resources. It did not mean less problems. Schools became the place for fighting the drug scourge, the sexual revolution , racial prejudice, sexism, etc.

As with many thorny national problems, we turned to a Blue Ribbon Commission to tell us what was wrong and how to fix it.

Then in 1983 came A Nation at Risk, the all-time blockbuster of education reports. It was prepared by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, a group appointed by President Reagan’s secretary of education, Terrel Bell….

The report was an immediate sensation. Its conclusions were alarming, and its language was blunt to the point of being incendiary. It opened with the claim that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.” The nation, it warned, has “been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” Beset by conflicting demands, our educational institutions “seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them.”19

Ravitch, Diane (2010-02-04). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (p. 24). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

The report was notable for both what it called for :

the report was an impassioned plea to make our schools function better in their core mission as academic institutions and to make our education system live up to our nation’s ideals. It warned that the nation would be harmed economically and socially unless education was dramatically improved for all children. While it did not specifically address issues of race and class, the report repeatedly stressed that the quality of education must improve across the board. What was truly at risk, it said, was the promise that “all, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost.”20 To that end, the report recommended stronger high school graduation requirements; higher standards for academic performance and student conduct; more time devoted to instruction and homework; and higher standards for entry into the teaching profession and better salaries for teachers.

Ravitch, Diane (2010-02-04). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (p. 25). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

And what it did not call for.

A Nation at Risk was notable for what it did not say. It did not echo Reagan’s oft-expressed wish to abolish the U.S. Department of Education. It did not support or even discuss his other favorite education causes: vouchers and school prayer. It did not refer to market-based competition and choice among schools; it did not suggest restructuring schools or school systems. It said nothing about closing schools, privatization, state takeover of districts, or other heavy-handed forms of accountability. It referred only briefly, almost in passing, to testing. Instead, it addressed problems that were intrinsic to schooling, such as curriculum, graduation requirements, teacher preparation, and the quality of textbooks; it said nothing about the governance or organization of school districts, because these were not seen as causes of low performance.

Ravitch, Diane (2010-02-04). The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (p. 25). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

By the 1980’s here in Texas the demand for educational reform was a key political issue. Enter Mark White, Democratic governor:

Mark Wells White

Education was an essential factor for White. When he took office, Texas was ranked as one of the lowest performing states for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) also in teachers’ salaries. After taking office, White immediately appointed a committee on Public Education, called a special session of the legislature in 1984, and worked with lawmakers to pass the Educational Opportunity Act (EOA). The EOA was committed to building the finest public education system in the country. Through White’s work, Texas saw the desired results. SAT scores increased by twelve points, Texas first graders improved in statewide tests and teacher salaries increased by $5,000.

The initial achievements could not be sustained. The problem was the fundamentally flawed system of school finance that doomed poor children to an inferior education. Three times the Texas Supreme Court invalidated Legislative efforts to address this problem. Finally, in 1995 in George Bush’s first term as governor the legislature revamped the entire system. Hello high stakes testing, jerry-rigged accountability measures, “teaching to the test” , Schools starting losing an entire month of instruction to testing and test preparation. The result:

220 The Big Cons (Lies) in Education Are Alive and Well in the U.S. [ the link no longer works]

By Dennis W. Redovich August 2004 (Posted EducationNews.org 9/30/2004)

Con number one- Texas has developed an educational model of high stakes testing and accountability that miraculously lowered dropouts and significantly increased test scores on State of Texas tests from TABS to TEAMS to TAAS to TAKS.

Texas Educational Miracle never existed. It was a calculated, well-promoted lie. It elevated the professional careers of many; the financial bottom-line of individuals and corporations and the political careers of others. It should serve as a model of deception. The notion that Texas is a national model that addresses society’s burden to at-risk minority students is morally, ethically, philosophically, academically and constitutionally perverse.” (George Scott, Senior Editorial Writer EducationNews.org See previous columns of George Scott at EducationNews.org)

As the quoted material suggest the great reform was a great con. It was sold as a way of improving the performance of  at-risk minorities. I remember the great line that Governor Bush used,  something about “the bigotry of low expectations”. That was what he was fighting first in Texas then on the national stage after he became president. Like his mantra of “compassionate conservatism” it was all a just a sound bite. The heart of the “Texas Miracle” was the boiler plate grab bag of Reaganism.: “local”control , the “magic” of market competition, privatization, etc.

Overseen by hack ideologues on the State Board of education and lap dog commissioners of education, using management techniques developed for corporate America, ,  the entire effort was the predictable failure one would have expected. At least it was a failure for public education, but it was a success for the Republican agenda of killing public schools, funding private schools, killing teacher unions and morale. You want proof?

Forget the TEKS and TASS scores -they have always been garbage  manipuable to suit Perry’s agenda.[and here ] On the other hand the SAT is a well established, well validated national test.  After all the high stakes testing, brain dead accountability schemes , faculty purges etc., surely we are doing well on this measure of performance? [ see here for a more complete high stakes testing take down]

Texas students’ SAT scores slide in all three subjects

AUSTIN – Texas students slipped in all three subjects on the SAT this year, widening the long-running gap between them and their counterparts across the country on the college entrance exam.

A report from the College Board on Monday showed that Texas scores dropped two points in both reading (484) and writing (473), and one point in math (505). The national averages increased a point in math to 516 and remained unchanged in reading at 501. The writing average dipped a point to 492.

Each section of the SAT has a maximum score of 800…

In Texas, math scores increased five points from 2000 to 2010, with a peak in 2007. Reading scores, on the other hand, have dropped nine points since 2000. The writing test has been administered for only five years.

State Education Commissioner Robert Scott pointed to increases in the number of minority students taking the SAT as a positive sign despite the setbacks in average scores.

Please note the irony of Scott’s claim. The entire justification for the whole failed effort was to aid at-risk minority students. Now he his claiming that the fact they are taking the test , even if doing relatively poorly validates everything. Overall we rank 45th in average SAT scores!!

A commentator at a sports blog of all places sums it all up pretty well:

American Kids, dumber than dirt [ the author goes on to argue this is NOT true by the way]

When I entered the teaching field in 1975, my students were great. Regardless of race, religion, or economic level, they were gasping for a breath of knowledge. I could not give them information fast enough. And it stayed like that until they were told that a “test” would determine their success or failure. They pretty much ignored it at first, but as they began to get stung by the testing, as they began to be forced to guess at answers in order to pass, they began to shut down.
Then, as they began to pass the tests, the various agencies began to demand even more rigorous tests. If they were passing, some said openly here in Texas, then the test isn’t hard enough. So they began to change it, almost yearly. In a space of ten years, Texas went through the TEAMS, TABS, TASP, TAPS, TAS, TAAS, and TAKS, with all the related TEKS, EO’s, IO’s, and E-I-E-I-O’s. They have even wobbled the type of test between fact-based and critical thinking-based (the estimation type referred to).
At that point the teachers began shutting down because their jobs were now being tied to a test that was never consistent, always changing. It’s not that they didn’t want to teach. God knows they did want to. They just weren’t being allowed to. My wife, who was teaching fourth grade at the time, was told by her principal that if she (the principal) ever walked into a teacher’s room and they weren’t teaching the test, they would be written up! And that was widely practiced throughout the state.
Today, the curriculum teachers must teach is no longer their option. There are lesson programs that districts are purchasing for teachers to use. And “No Child Left Behind” is costing teachers and administrators their jobs. It was a well intentioned and well meaning program, but without funding it was destined to be what it has become, a failure. Teachers are frustrated and leaving education in droves, being replaced by anyone with a degree in anything, as long as they have an alternative form of teacher certification.
All this dilutes the kid’s opportunity to learn, and the kids in turn are frustrated and leaving school in droves.

So, lets fast forward through the last 2 decades of “reform”. What do our Republican Reformers want to do next? Well more of the same. More testing, more privation, more diversion of resources ,

Legislature readying for showdown over ‘school choice,’ other education reforms

School districts asked for flexibility on the testing system — the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness or STAAR — as well as other changes that would allow them to start school earlier, and Patrick said his bill would provide that freedom.

The kicker here is that the legislature in the very same session it passed these new tests, now to be delayed,, refused to provide for updated textbooks to help teachers prepare students for these tests.. Even then Commissioner Scott has publicly declared the whole testing regime is totally out of control and counterproductive.


Texas Education Agency Commissioner Robert Scott said today that the state testing system has become a “perversion of its original intent” and that he was looking forward to “reeling it back in.” Addressing 4,000 school officials at the Texas Association of School Administrators’ annual midwinter conference, Scott said that he believed testing was “good for some things,” but that in Texas it has gone too far. He said that he was frustrated with what he saw as his “complicitness” in the bureaucracy that testing and accountability systems have thrust on schools.

[ see the extended discussion and the blow up that followed here. It also contains a good history of the whole testing regime here in Texas. ]

By the way, Scott is no longer commissioner of Education.

The other bright idea that Patrick had for improving our public schools is by , wait or it, diverting more funds to private schools!

Legislature readying for showdown over ‘school choice,’ other education reforms

Inside a Catholic elementary school just blocks from the Texas Capitol, Patrick unveiled a broad, five-point education reform package that includes a plan for helping public school students attend private schools. The “tax-credit scholarship” would be paid for through donations from businesses that would in turn receive a partial tax credit from the state.

Good Old Dan insists that this will not be taking money away form public education. Well ,first, Dan,you do realize that when you geniuses cut the school funding by $5.4 dollars last legislative session and refused to dip into the “rainy day” fund to avoid this, you caused a lot of pain. Shouldn’t you be putting that money back?

And you are taking money form public education. You used the Business Franchise tax to plug the hole in school finance revenues left by your property tax cut of 2006. Of course it never did live up to your made-up projections, but why let any of this stop you weasels ?  I mean people have probably forgotten about it anyway, right?

Over at TEA (Texas Education Agency) Perry’s handpicked administrator is writing rules that will maximize the number of students who must take the new STAAR test to graduate instead of being able to substitute AP test results or IB (another internationalized recognized curriculum) results. In fact, you would have to score high enough to get college credit on these more challenging tests to just get a pass on taking the STAAR. Why you say? Money for Pearson the vendor of the state test would be harmed if too many students didn’t have to take the test.


[State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff…“This is a prime example of having a system that is so rigid that it is no longer meeting the needs of employers or colleges because we are choosing to assess our students in a way that is meaningless to both,” Ratliff wrote. “Does TEA think (vendor) Pearson’s tape measure is better than the one used by everyone else? If so, why don’t employers, colleges and universities use it?”

I will have a separate posting on the testing industry which “reform” has spawned later in this series. Hint: think $billions$.

And so, here we are . I think there are good reasons to believe Patrick will fail, but the sad part is we shouldn’t be in this hole in the first place. At the very least, we should stop digging now and give our schools and teachers  and students a chance to actually make public education work;

Next time I take on the myth of the “Great Charter/Private school/ Competition” as solution to our educational issues.


I have been inactive over the past 6 months and therein lies a story. Don’t worry, it is relevant to our title.

After about 20 years of teaching only Advanced and Accelerated students, I was asked to teach 3 regular senior World History classes. I had not taught this level and in such numbers for at least 20 years.

I teach at a college prep school, so what was there to worry about? I mean these were simply less talented or less motivated versions of the students I had been teaching for a very long time. I was a veteran of almost 40 years of experience and I had won a lifetime teaching award from my school. I was good at what I did and this would be a piece of cake.

Wrong, it isn’t easy . The key reason why is in those throw away phrases “less talented or less motivated”. I should also add less mature. It is not unusual for young people to be mature as persons, as students, what is missed in that observation is what that means for the average teacher in the average classroom, especially a “public school” classroom.

What I found was that at least 40% of my “college bound” regular seniors could not or would not read their textbooks and a hardcore minority would not bring them to class either. I don’t know how you teach a survey of World History without having your students read a lot of history outside of class. Less you think we are talking 100’s of pages a week, we are not we are talking about 20 to 30 pages a week.

What I found was that these students had a hard time following the logic of a historical narrative/event. I have always maintained that history is simply a course in or collective psychology, repeated lessons on how basic human nature mixed with unique circumstances leads us to act in certain ways, to choose from a limited palate of options. But when asked why barbarian warriors could grow less battle ready after living among the comforts of civilization, most of my students could not see that the very human desire for comfort and leisure and luxury could cause even the most blood thirsty of warriors to grow soft and slow and unready to ride a 100 miles a day to do battle in some distant corner of their conquered lands.

The reasons for this go back to their life experiences and maturity and their motivation or lack thereof. Our technological environment and the culture it has spawned reinforces this superficiality of understanding, this emotional/psychological deafness. To these issues adds shorter attention spans, the expectation that the teacher should spoon feed them everything they need to know and the unwillingness to simply take notes and make a minimal effort to follow along and we have the makings of endless headaches for a teacher.

I am a teacher, and I take it personally when students do poorly. I question what I am doing or not doing to cause this . Even knowing all I have written, I still look in the mirror each morning and ask “what am I doing wrong, what more can I do?” I am now spending between 2 and 4 extra hours a day working on this course. I simply have not had the time or energy to blog very much over the last 6 months. It is not just the extra time required. I find myself emotionally and physically spent at the end of each day. There is no more toothpaste I can squeeze , the tube is often empty.

In this I am like most teachers. We care. We have chosen a profession that is long on hours and short on material rewards, so if we didn’t care we would have to be insane to do it, even more to do it for decades.

All I have said about the challenges of teaching average high schoolers is only compounded when we discuss public school classrooms. They are filled with students who share all the limitations and challenges I have mentioned . But instead of 22 students, fill those classrooms with 30 or more and make the number of classes not 3 but 5 or 6. Additionally, give that teacher not one preparation or course to teach but 2 or 3. Add in the issues created by poverty, single parenthood, cultural marginalization and disparagement. Add learning impaired students in the mix. Did I mention administrators who make “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job”  look like the executive of the year? The challenges are enormous. Now you can begin to see the task public school teachers must take on every day of their professional lives.

I have a friend who  is one of these quiet heroes, so I get to hear about it everyday as we ride home together.

In Texas, and much of the rest of the country we must add a whole other level of challenges – political extremists who hate all public institutions and harbor a special hatred for public education. What that is all about is the subject of my next blog entry.