Some Reforms Left Behind

Lege looks to account for school accountability

Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro
Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro (Photo by John Anderson)

The Senate Education and House Public Education committees held separate meetings March 17 to discuss the new public school accountability bill – Senate Bill 3 and its companion, House Bill 3. The plan was that witnesses would run between rooms, delivering similar testimony – which turned out to be repeated plaudits and criticisms.

Supporters of the legislation say it opens up new pathways to graduation and rebalances the public school accountability system. Opponents say it still ties the fate of schools to absolute testing standards, while creating a two-tier educational system. Now the two committees are frantically drafting a revised version of what could be the biggest reform of Texas schools since No Child Left Behind.

The ultimate goal of the bill is to place Texas in the Top 10 states for postsecondary readiness within 10 years, in part by changing the definition of post-secondary readiness. Students may breathe a sigh of relief that it would end the dreaded Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test as the absolute arbiter of their secondary education. Instead – as the bill is drafted now – they will work toward one of two diplomas. The Texas Diploma would be for students aiming for four-year colleges, while the Standard Diploma would concentrate on preparation for employment or community college. There will be one shared core curriculum through eighth grade, then students will specialize. Students will have electives but will also be tested over their school careers in four core disciplines – English language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies. Courses will no longer be designed in isolation but instead will vertically align with what colleges and employers want, in theory cutting back on the need for remedial classes and on-the-job training. Social promotion – letting children move up a grade even if they haven't reached the standards – will in theory be unacceptable. And locally developed accelerated learning programs will target specific needs, rather than just relying on grade retention. The emphasis, said House Public Education Committee Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, will be on "the three 'R's – relevance, rigor, relationships."

Staying intact is the idea of standardized testing and of disaggregating data; Eissler and Senate Education Committee Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, remain resolute that no school should fail any single ethnic or social group. However, schools will be judged not on one exit exam but instead across a three-year rolling average. The current system of grading schools as "Academically Accept­able" and "Academically Unacceptable" would be replaced by three new tiers: "accredited," "accredited-warned," and "accredited-probation." In addition, campuses could achieve "distinction" status, based on measures such as work force readiness, fine arts, and health and fitness. Accreditation, however, will be based solely on absolute academic standards.

Substitute the Omnibus

The response in public testimony was mostly unified: Accountability reform is overdue, but the new rules would be still too punitive on school closure. This was not unexpected: In her opening statement in committee, Shapiro called SB 3 a work in progress. In the room below, Eissler was initially more bullish, but after six hours of public testimony, he admitted, "We think our bill does one thing, and the impression that it leaves on very qualified, very conscientious witnesses is a little bit different." He was unsure whether it was a problem in drafting or in his explanation or a fundamental difference of opinion about accountability. He even closed the meeting with a "to do" list for consideration: social promotion, teacher quality and retention, intervention, school closings, implementing a growth model for assessing school performance, and exams. All major issues, all demanding serious discussion.

The decision was made that, instead of amending SB 3/HB 3 in committee, the current language would be a 120-page holding document. The committees invited lawmakers and stakeholders to come forward with their proposals and create what Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, called "an omnibus substitute bill." Howard is proposing her own amendment that would pre-empt the accountability trip wires that close schools with "certain triggers that an intervention needs to take place." Common factors of underperforming schools – such as high student mobility or a large number of newer teachers – would be tracked. Before a school starts to fail, these triggers would bring educators, stakeholders, and local legislators to the table to work on a voluntary, community-driven restructuring. "It's intervention before you get to the sanctions," she explained. She modeled this on the community involvement in Austin's Webb Middle School, which she called "not theoretical but a successful attempt to pull a school around."

While Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, is supportive of reform, she's concerned that the current proposal does little for the 2.5% of Texas public schools and 2.6% of districts gauged as unacceptable by accountability standards that the Legislature is looking to abandon. With Johnston High closing and reopening as Eastside Memorial, she's already had one repurposing in her district; now Reagan High is on the same track. Her proposal would make the bill effective immediately. "That buys us another year," she said, "and that year will be under the new standards, which helps us avoid closure. At the same time, the new standards require additional assistance and stimulus to schools that are at risk."

While the accountability system has been the center of attention, there is still much work to be done on the new vocational track. Dukes said she's concerned that the Stan­dard Diploma doesn't become a dumping ground, "whereby we force students who are presumed [to be] not as ready into an arena of only getting technical skills training or a technical degree, as opposed to shooting for the stars with higher education."

High Hopes, Nagging Worries

The two committees will try to synthesize all that criticism into a new draft bill. At the March 17 meeting, Shapiro said she hoped for new language within the week. But staff at Eissler's committee confirmed that target had been pushed back, first to the end of the month and now potentially until the second week of April. The sheer volume of public feedback and the desire to have the bills match when they come out of committee complicate the process. Then there's the pressing issue of the budget-building process in House Appropriations swallowing legislators' time (three days last week were dedicated to education funding). Tom Leyden, director of gov­ern­mental relations for the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals, said that until the new language arrives, "we're in a 'wait and see' state on this." Even though he doesn't know what the bill will ultimately look like, he praised Shapiro and Eissler for how they handled the meetings and the redrafting process, adding, "Procedurally, they're open, they're listening, [and] they're trying to find the right way."

Allen Weeks of Save Texas Schools has been working with Howard and a study group from the Mexican-American and African-American caucuses on proposals and said he is happy for the extra consultation time. As they stood, he said, "[HB 3 and SB 3] were pretty sketchy on a lot of things." Some of those loosely drafted passages hide some major reforms, Weeks noted: "This bill opens up [school interventions] to for-profit companies to manage schools, and that's real problematic, because [their] track record in Texas is really poor."

Louis Malfaro, president of Education Aus­tin, questioned the bill's core underpinnings. "It doesn't address a number of concerns that we have about the overemphasis on the test," he said, "all the protestations to the contrary notwithstanding." The current rules, he stated, have done nothing to prove that forced school repurposing actually improves education, and the reforms don't change that. "What it does is force school districts into very defensive postures, and everything becomes about the short term." He added: "It's kind of ironic. They're admitting on the front end, 'Our accountability system is far from perfect and really needs to be overhauled' ... but they've left all the sanction stuff in for schools."

Whatever finally comes out of committee will have a massive impact on Texas schools and students for years to come. It will also have to be tested against the new top 10% university admissions rules in SB 175. When senators passed that bill, they were so wary of unintended consequences that they inserted an eight-year sunset clause, to revisit its impact in 2017. When it comes to such sweeping educational reforms, Eric Hartman, director of government relations with Texas American Federation of Teachers, had a stark and historic warning for lawmakers: "We need to have due humility about how we do this. We all had very high hopes for the last version of the accountability system. As it evolved, those hopes were substantially dashed."

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school accountability, House Bill 3, Senate Bill 3, Florence Shapiro, Rob Eissler

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