A Peek Under the Big Top – PTA Mom’s Look at the 84th Legislature


motdcarneymascot01A Peek Under the Big Top – PTA Mom’s Look at the 84th Legislature

January 27, 2015

Come one, come all — the circus is back in town! The spine-chilling 84th Texas legislature that convened in Austin this month promises to feature daring radicals and tantalizing ideologues in the center ring. And this year public education is in their cross hairs!

Step right up and watch… as Texas’ public schools attempt to survive the legislative high wire, with threats of privatization, punitive accountability, unfunded mandates, and school “choice” schemes.

Ooh and aah…as educators continue to juggle oversized classes, expanded curriculum requirements, and high-stakes testing run amok.

Watch in wonder… as still-underfunded school districts educate Texas’ growing student population while fighting off the deadly combination of falling oil prices and ill-advised campaign promises of tax cuts.

More than 300 education-related bills had been filed by the beginning of this session. Before we look at the three-ring circus that awaits public education this year, let’s recap where we left off since the gavel fell on the 83rd legislature in 2013.

  • Election 2014: As the cliché goes “elections have consequences,” and November’s elections may have dire consequences for Texas’ public education system. Let’s just say, the 84th legislature may be even less friendly to public education than its predecessor. And that’s really saying something; since 65% of legislators in the 83rd legislature had less than stellar voting records on public education issues according to a University of Mary Hardin Baylor/Texas Kids Can’t Wait study in 2014. 

The study rated then Senator Dan Patrick’s voting record on public education issues the worst in either chamber of the 83rd legislature. And we just elected him to Lieutenant Governor in charge of Texas’ Senate. Buckle up! Without strong voices of opposition from parents, educators, and advocacy groups, the radical make-up of this legislature may allow anti-public education legislation to be pushed through fairly easily.

  • School Funding: In case you hadn’t heard, Texas schools are under-funded. Remember those history-making education budget cuts in 2011? The ones that forced class size waivers across the state, loss of bussing, cuts to sports and arts programs, and the elimination of thousands of education jobs? Those cuts were never restored. Despite record-setting revenue growth, an $8 billion rainy day fund, and leaving $7.5 billion on the table in “leftover” funding, the 83rd legislature chose not to fully restore education funding in 2013.

Today Texas students remain underfunded by $600 per pupil from 2008 when adjusted for inflation. And, of course, that’s based on funding formulas driven by an outdated cost of education index that the legislature has conveniently forgotten to update since the 20th century. With that, it’s not surprising that yet another recent national study has Texas weighing in at 49th in the nation in per pupil spending and graded the state a “D” in school finance.

  • School Finance Trial: In 2013, a district court ruled that Texas schools are inadequately and inequitably funded in violation of the state constitution. This ruling was re-visited and upheld in 2014 following the partial restoration of $3.4 billion of the $5.4 billion in education cuts in 2013. Governor Greg Abbott (as then Attorney General) appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case later this year. A ruling could come in early 2016.
  • Testing: With HB 5, Texas made strides in reducing its over-use of standardized tests for accountability purposes. Following public outcry, testing requirements were dropped from 15 end of course exams to five end of course exams for high school students. Elementary and middle school students? Well, they didn’t see any relief and continue to be saddled with testing and prep that can run into more than 40 instructional days per year depending on the district. In the meantime, high stakes testing has continued to secure its place as public enemy number one as the grassroots’ disenchantment with Texas’ long-term love affair with the scantron continues to grow.

With that, there’s a lot you’ll want to watch for over the 140 days of the 84th legislature. Here’s a preview of some key education issues:

  • Operation CHOICE: “School choice” has a lovely ring to it, doesn’t it? I mean, who doesn’t want “choice?” McDonalds even offers “choice” between a yogurt and fries these days. If Texans can have choice in their happy meals, they should have choice in their schools too, right? Actually, Texas already offers a wide variety of public school choice options (open enrollment districts, intra-district transfers, public school academies, magnet schools, charters schools, not to mention transfers required by the federal government for schools failing to meet No Child Left Behind requirements). With all of these options and choices currently in place, why the outcry? Well, the wide variety of public choice options already available aren’t really the kind of “choice” these folks seek.

Instead, when politicians lament for “school choice” this session, it’s actually a thinly veiled code word for school vouchers. Vouchers (also known as they friendly sounding “tax payer savings grants” or “tax savings scholarships”) are a scam to shift public taxpayer funds for public schools to private institutions without the same educational or financial accountability. Wisely, Texas had ducked vouchers for more than a decade, particularly after watching how poorly they fare in other states, including Wisconsin and Louisiana. But, if passed this session, Texas legislators will soon funnel your tax dollars from Texas’ already under-funded public schools to unaccountable, non-transparent private organizations that don’t have to answer to taxpayers. How’s that for fiscal responsibility?

Let’s look at how this scam could work: when a local coven opens their Wiccan-focused private school, a voucher scheme would allow your tax dollars to fund the coven’s educational operations and Wiccan curriculum. With all due respect to Wiccans, this doesn’t seem to be a palatable option to most Texans, especially since the state’s educational standards, testing/accountability, and employment/certification requirements typically don’t apply to these private entities. There’s also that pesky religious establishment thing. Nor does financial oversight or public voice in the private entity’s operations apply. Texas has an infamous history of doling out taxpayer dollars to private enterprises without accountability or oversight – it’s just this time they’re robbing your under-funded public schools to do it.

In fact, the voucher scheme isn’t even palatable to most forward-thinking private schools that recognize the shackles they accept with public funding, which may well eliminate the very aspects of their school operations that differentiate them from public options. Last session, then Senator Dan Patrick tried unsuccessfully to push through a voucher scheme. This session now Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has promised to ram the voucher scam through in his barely hidden quest to dismantle public schools. Unless met by strong grassroots opposition, he likely has the fringe votes to make it happen this time.

  • Money, Money, Money: With the school funding trial waiting to be heard by the Texas Supreme Court later this year, conventional wisdom would suggest that most legislators are less than eager to address the funding issue and content to kick that can down the road.

Let me tell you about their dirty, little secret – your legislators actually have no idea how to fix the school funding system. A patchwork quilt of bad ideas, years of convoluted legislative band aids, and reactionary responses to three decades of court decisions, Texas’ school finance system is a muddled mess that the majority of your elected representatives do not understand, do not know how to fix, and do not know how to fund.

At best, they might try to hide behind rising property tax receipts when preparing this year’s budget. Increasing local tax dollars due to rising property values will result in more funding to public schools courtesy of property owners, but with no thanks to the body that’s actually constitutionally responsible for funding Texas schools and that has failed miserably to do so for years. Yes, I’m looking at you, Texas Legislature. It’s time to stop being a dead beat and fund your responsibility instead of relying on over-burdened property owners to bail you out each session.

With a huge knowledge deficit among legislators and lack of political will to face the looming school finance trial elephant in the room, the issue will likely be left unresolved until the Supreme Court directs the legislature to fix it. That fix might come sometime in 2016 if we’re lucky. So, my child who began his public school career as an unfunded kindergartner may finally see relief as he prepares to begin middle school. If all goes well…

Yet, despite these challenges a few proactive legislators recognize that when it comes to school funding Texas is doing it wrong. They’re making moves in the right direction to fix it and have filed legislation in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling. Chairman of the House Public Education Committee, Representative Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), has filed House Bill 654 in an attempt to create school finance districts to overcome the state’s inequitable funding woes. Aycock said in a memo to fellow legislators, “While we do not know the final outcome of the school finance lawsuit, I believe it is appropriate to foster broad conversations on the matter while awaiting the final decision.” Other proactive legislators include Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) who pre-filed several bills to reform school funding and formulas and Representative Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), who filed a bill to update the 24-year old cost of education index that determines each school district’s funding allotment from the state.

  • Testing Mania: Even as implementation of HB 5 continues, state testing remains a top issue. Some bills filed propose allowing students to graduate despite not passing end of course exams if other requirements are met, while one bill forbids the use of state test scores on teacher evaluations. An interesting bill filed by Representative Dan Huberty (R-Houston) largely resurrects a failed bill from last session. Huberty’s efforts would require the STAAR test be verified as a valid and reliable assessment tool (it’s widely argued that it’s not) by an independent entity and place time limits on the tests (two hours for elementary school and three hours for secondary students).

Clearly, the fervor for testing reform continues as legislators and parents advocate taming the high stakes testing beast. Of course, if Big Testing magnate Pearson and its well-paid lobbyists have anything to say about this sideshow, it’s a battle that is sure to rage on for sessions to come.

From the governor to lobbyists to policy wonks and watchers, education is being billed as a key issue in this year’s legislative session. Whether that results in positive policy and change for our students and schools, however, is yet to be seen. And much of that depends on those of you well outside of the big pink Capitol dome and the role you’ll play in this circus.

Will this be the session when parents demand adequate funding for their neighborhood schools and less reliance on standardized testing? Will educators speak out loudly about the impact of teaching to the test and over-crowded classrooms? Will taxpayers allow their funds going to unaccountable private organizations without oversight and unknown standards, requirements, and practices? And if all of that happens, will it be enough to stop the radical legislators riding an anti-public education tide in Austin? Will this be the session when the grassroots steps up to demand that Texas make public education a priority? Or will legislators advance their continuing assault on Texas public schools as parents, educators, and taxpayers stand idly by? Again.

So grab your popcorn and prepare to be spellbound as we watch this year’s performance in Texas’ ongoing battle for public education. It just might be the greatest show on earth, after all.

Standards, Curriculum & Instruction — Part 3: Instruction


By Dr. Jerry Burkett and Dr. Cathy Moak

DISCLAIMER: This blog is the third in a series designed to educate and inform readers on the differences between standards, curriculum, and instruction. These blogs are not an endorsement of Common Core State Standards.

In our previous article we defined educational standards and curriculum. In this article we show the relationship between standards, curriculum and instruction. This beginning article on instruction will provide a general overview. In future articles we will explore specific approaches to instruction.

Standards are the expectations, or goals, that are established to drive student learning and mastery of content and grade levels. Curriculum is a method of ordering standards in concise tools for teachers to use to plan lessons and help inform teachers as they create their instruction. Curriculum is WHAT content the teacher delivers to students. Instruction is HOW teachers deliver that content.

Instruction is the method or way of teaching students. The standards, or goals, will never be achieved without a guaranteed viable curriculum. But, that is not enough. Without effective instruction, even the best curriculum cannot lead a student to success. Effective instruction is the most critical factor in student success.

There are a variety of instructional strategies that have been used by teachers to deliver content to students, making every students probability for success very dependent on the instructional approach in the classroom. Some teachers have stood before their students and lectured for hours and hours to deliver content with little or no student interaction (i.e., Lecture). Other teachers have repeated information over and over again (i.e., “Drill and Kill”), forcing students to memorize endless facts without explanation or discovery of their origin. And some teachers have passed out worksheets for students to complete while the teachers retreat to their desk (i.e., Teacher-Centered Instruction).

While many of us have experienced teachers who have used these types of instructional techniques educational researchers have discovered through peer reviewed research and study that these instructional techniques are NOT EFFECTIVE.

For example, many of us had to memorize the 50 state capitals during our time in school.  While this information stayed with some of us, many people have forgotten over time. Unless you are a geography teacher or a contestant on a game show, have you ever had a need in your life to know the 50 state capitals?

Or, would it have been more useful for you to understand why these capitals were chosen?  Maybe study the various forms of state government throughout the United States? Or perhaps to think critically about how they were built and the concepts around how they became central hubs for government?

Although you may have forgotten the factual parts of those questions, the real skills you would have acquired are the ability to think and process information related to those capitals, which are attributes that employers seek in the workplace.

Research in the area of instruction tells us that effective instruction includes a small group environment, working on projects that are designed to push students to think critically.  In addition, teachers serve as facilitators of student learning, guiding students through cross-curricular lessons and infusing technology into the instruction where necessary and appropriate.

The table below outlines several strategies, their characteristics, examples, and classroom effectiveness.

Category Characteristics Examples Effectiveness
Direct Instruction Teacher-directed, practice and drill Teacher lecture, demonstrations Effectiveness is limited to providing information, step by step skills, and basic knowledge construction.
Indirect Instruction Inquiry, induction, student-centered Reflective, discussion, problem-solving, guided inquiry Very effective for problem-solving, life-long learning, student motivation, comparing/contrasting, influence, predicting, summarizing, and analyzing.
Interactive Instruction Peer-learning, discussion, multiple solutions Socratic discussions, collaborative learning, debates Very effective for debates, brainstorming, and problem-solving
Experiential Learning Hands-on learning, active participation, analysis, application Project-based learning, problem -based learning, simulations, lab experiments, building models, surveys Most effective. Greatly increases understanding and retention compared to other strategies. Increases student motivation
Independent Study student-decision making, analysis, self-reliance Student centers, research projects, flipped learning, essays, computer assisted instruction, online instruction Very effective in developing student initiative, self-reliance, self-improvement, and lifelong learning.

Most educators agree that teachers should have enough autonomy to make the best instructional decisions for their classrooms. However, all teachers should be held accountable for implementing the curriculum and using classroom strategies that best meet the needs of their students. A skilled teacher will use a mix of each of these strategies when they are appropriate. For example, when given the TEKS standard:

1.6A The student is expected to: classify and sort regular and irregular two-dimensional shapes based on attributes using informal geometric language,

it would not make sense for a teacher to lecture on the differences between regular and irregular two-dimensional shapes. First grade students are not likely to retain information from a demonstration on an overhead projector describing the differences between regular and irregular two-dimensional shapes. It would be much more effective to provide the students with actual hands-on experience sorting the shapes and classifying the differences on their own, with teacher guidance.

Effective teachers analyze the standards and the curriculum to determine the best strategy for their students. Ineffective teachers stick to one approach and choose that approach based on the teacher’s needs rather than the needs of the students.

The reality in education is that the game has changed. The game changer is technology. Technology has created access to knowledge that our world has never seen. As such, students no longer have a need to regurgitate the capitals of the 50 states and they no longer need the teacher to drill and kill those capitals. Teachers are no longer the supreme keepers of the information; Google now has the stronghold on that. Facts are free and readily available.

However, what Google can’t do is help students facilitate, analyze, synthesize or process this knowledge. They need a teacher for that. They need a teacher who can take well-written standards, use a powerful curriculum tool, and plan research-based instruction to help facilitate a purposeful learning environment for students that will help them think critically about the information that is being delivered.

This is learning in the 21st century.  It’s not a conspiracy.

Standards, Curriculum & Instruction — Part 2: Curriculum


By Dr. Jerry Burkett and Dr. Cathy Moak

DISCLAIMER: This blog is the second in a series designed to educate and inform readers on the differences between standards, curriculum, and instruction. These blogs are not an endorsement of Common Core State Standards.

In our previous article we defined educational standards. In this article we show the relationship between standards and curriculum and why it is necessary for a school district to have curriculum to meet the educational standards. Consider the following:

  • Does it make sense to teach World War I before World War II?
  • Should a teacher conduct a lesson on area before showing her students what a square looks like?
  • How many different ways are there to teach multiplication? When should it be taught?

The three examples above are all expectations derived from our state standards that Texas students are required to learn. Educational standards, like the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), are goals. These goals inform educators and parents about the content and skills their students are to master in a given school year. Unfortunately, these goals don’t come with a plan. We want our students to know and understand concepts from World War II but much of that lesson will be lost if World War I wasn’t covered first.  It would be impossible to measure area unless we know what the square looks like. And multiplication can be taught in multiple ways for visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.

Below, is a real example from the Texas standards (TEKS). Each of the four standards are exactly the same at the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade:

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 5.42.06 PM

Common sense would tell you that a teacher would not teach these concepts exactly the same at the third grade level as she would at the sixth grade level. But, teachers need a plan to know what should be mastered at the 3rd grade level to be prepare for the 4th grade level and so on. This is why school districts need curriculum. While standards are goals, curriculum is the plan to meet the goals. Curriculum is a detailed description of how students and teachers interact with specific content in a specific sequence over a school year to meet the educational standards. The execution of the curriculum, or plan, is the instruction.

Standards are typically written in a plain, straightforward language and are designed to simply state a student expectation of learning. However, the standard does not explain HOW to teach the student expectation or WHAT materials to use to allow the student to demonstrate mastery on the standard. Standards are goals and do not specify curriculum, textbooks, workbooks, or lesson plans, all of these things are at the discretion of the district. It is good that the districts have this discretion. They each have different needs and require the ability to determine which curriculum would best meet those needs.

Research has shown that one of the most effective tools in successful schools is a guaranteed, viable curriculum. A guaranteed and viable curriculum is one that guarantees equal opportunity for learning for all students and adequate time for teachers to teach content and for students to learn it. District curriculum is a large body of work and it takes trained educators to ensure the that a curriculum is guaranteed and viable. Educators who write curriculum must be familiar with the state standards, understand the conceptual development of subject matter over several grade spans, and have adequate time to plan and write the curriculum.  Often, the process includes master teachers who meet over the summertime, evaluate the current curriculum, suggest changes based on data, and then train colleagues on the new curriculum when school begins. Unfortunately, many of the districts in Texas do not have the resources to write their own curriculum.

Another struggle for school districts in Texas is the ever changing nature of our standards. Every time the TEKS are changed, districts have to rewrite their curriculum. The same is true for the timing of the state assessments (STAAR/EOC). The assessments are the means for the state to determine if students have met the goals (standards). For a curriculum to be guaranteed and viable, a district has to have a curriculum (plan) to make sure all of the content and skills are mastered at the time of assessment. Everytime the date of an assessment changes, the district has to update the curriculum to ensure there is adequate time for teachers to teach content and for students to learn it. In other words, curriculum is a very necessary,  never ending process and expense for school districts.

What are these districts to do? Some districts have joined together to write curriculum. Some use the curriculum of larger districts that have the resources to write their own curriculum. Many have purchased curriculum for their districts. There are several curricula available for schools in Texas. One very popular curriculum is the TEKS Resource System (TRS) curriculum, formerly known as CSCOPE. Once plagued by controversy over a few lessons created for instruction (not curriculum), the TRS is now just a curriculum built to be guaranteed and viable for Texas school districts.

There are other curricula used in Texas schools. For example, if a student is in an Advanced Placement course, the instructor is required to use the AP curriculum. When Texas was one of the largest consumers of national curriculum, publishing companies used to write curriculum to meet the Texas standards. However, with the adoption of the Common Core standards in 43 states, we are no longer a top priority for these publishing companies. Therefore, most the curriculum published is aligned with the Common Core. Publishing companies haven’t forgotten the Lone Star state. They now retrofit the curricula written for Common Core to meet the TEKS. As a result, much of what we see in Texas, created at a national level, will be considered aligned with the Common Core.

The national organizations who write these curriculum follow a process to develop their content. The writers collect and analyze standards from all 50 states and attempt to align similar standards found in each state.  It is common to find standards in some states that are not found in others.

All of this begs the question: How do we ensure that our districts are not using Common Core standards? The answer has already been given. The goal for all of our educators in Texas is to meet the standards given to us by the state of Texas, the TEKS. The plan is to have a curriculum that is guaranteed and viable to meet this goal. Teachers will execute this plan with high quality instruction based on their curriculum.

Since a variety of instructional materials are frequently used by teachers to meet their standards, one could expect to see a worksheet, lesson plan, workbook, or instructional guide with the words “Common Core Aligned” printed on the material; especially since 41 states (40 as of Thursday, June 5, as Oklahoma has dropped CCSS) have adopted CCSS and Internet resources with a “Common Core” label are easily found. This simply means that the curriculum writer who developed that content went through a process of aligning similar standards from a particular state with the Common Core Standards.

In fact, if a district has adopted a national curriculum to meet the state standards, teachers may have to use instructional materials that are “aligned” with the Common Core. Consider this, humans share 92% of their DNA with mice. But, mice and humans look nothing alike. The TEKS share 68% of their standards with Common Core. The curriculum and instruction in Texas classrooms will look nothing like Common Core, or we won’t meet our goal. In part three of our series, we will examine classroom instruction and the variety of instructional techniques teachers can use to process both standards and curriculum.

Ten Things Texas Students Need for the 21st Century Classroom


Our world, our nation, and our state are a changing at a rapid rate.  As the world changes, the goals and methods of public education must change as well to prepare students for the requirements they’ll face in the 21st century. We can no longer rely on outdated practices, technology, and approaches.

Our future is dependent on producing students who can think critically, collaborate, and produce project and systems driven assignments. We have talented students in our schools, and it’s time to give them the tools they need to be the next generation of great leaders. So what does Texas’ public education system need to keep up with the needs of educating a changing workforce?

1)   Update the cost of education
Simple fact: The state of Texas has not updated the cost of education since 1991.  We are currently funding schools using a complicated funding formula based on data that is more than 22 years old – from a time when a gallon of gas cost $1.12, a pound of bacon cost $1.95, and Internet usage reached a whopping one million users. Fortunately, the ruling from the most recent school finance law suit will likely require the state legislature to update the Cost of Education Index (CEI), which will create a new baseline for funding.  The adequacy and equity will hopefully come later.

2)   Funding
Once the state of Texas updates the CEI, the need for adequate and equitable funding for Texas schools will be paramount. Texas is the second most populous state in the US with a growing population of students.  Among these students are immigrants, students whose first language is not English, students in poverty, and students with special academic needs.  These are aspects of our schools that are costly and desperately need attention by the state.  Funding our schools is complicated and will require strong leadership in the next couple of years to see it through.  This important need and constitutional requirement cannot be ignored and is a critical for the future our state.

3)   Reduce the class size
After $5.4 billion was cuts from Texas school funding by the Texas legislature in 2011, many school districts adjusted by reducing teachers and raising the numbers of students in classrooms.  School districts across the state asked for record numbers of waivers from the Texas Education Agency to increase class sizes beyond the required 22:1 in grades K-4.  As the 83rd legislature returns some (but not all of the lost) funding to schools, it will be imperative for school districts to work to reduce the student to teacher ratio. Students are easier to mange, instruct, and are more engaged in smaller classrooms.  This is also a similar argument used by charter school advocates to promote more charter schools across the state.  Again, with adequate and equitable funding, manageable class sizes – for all grade levels – is essential.

4)   Technology
How quickly do things change?  Five years ago, Twitter, Facebook, and iPads were not found in any classroom in America; now they are essential.  The methods by which we need to educate students have to change and that will happen through technology.  Many students today are coming to school as “digital natives,” having experienced a wide range of technology but are not being allowed to use that experience in the classroom environment for a variety of reasons (lack of funding, equipment, training, ideology, etc.) Nonetheless, technology is here to stay and will continue to change through the life of our students. In addition, the education research related to instructional technology is conclusive that it has a significant place in our schools and in our students’ learning.

5)   College Readiness
Many of the jobs that will be available to high school graduates in 15 to 20 years will more than likely require a college degree.  This is a simple fact. More jobs are requiring students with prerequisite knowledge that can only be attainted through higher education in a two-year or four-year setting.  In addition, our students will be in significant competition with students from India, China, Japan, and Western Europe for the top jobs in engineering, science, math, and technology.  Our students will need to be critical thinkers, creators, evaluators, and more than likely need to speak more than one language –not French, German, or Italian – but Farsi, Hindi, Mandarin, or Spanish.

As such, it will be essential that we provide challenging instruction for students, promote them to take upper academic courses, and have better advising for them to promote careers that best support their individual skill sets.  As we work to differentiate their instruction through their lives, we may also need to differentiate their career choices when they are ready for the “real world.”  This means helping to make our kids “college ready” and “ready for college.”

6)   Best practices
In every profession, people maintain their skills through professional development and practice.  Education is no different.  There are countless conferences, staff development sessions, and other learning opportunities that education professionals attend—year round—to maintain required certifications and improve their craft.  This is commonplace in education. However, professional development has been cut in recent years due to the school finance crisis.  There have been less opportunities for educators to travel for staff development sessions or for districts to bring staff developers into their district.  Training is being compromised and students will ultimately feel the impact.

As such, it is increasingly important that educators are using the best practices research has to offer in our profession. We have a multitude of research to support the best instructional (Marzano, Danielson), discipline (Sprick), classroom management (Danielson, Jones, Emmer), and curriculum (English, Resnick, Stenhouse) and educators needs to employ these strategies early and often in our classrooms.  We are at a time when parents and politicians are expecting the best from our schools; we need to offer them the best.

7)   Support programs for students in poverty
Federal sequestration has hurt our poorest schools by cutting funding to low socioeconomic schools.  In addition, the poverty rate among children in Texas is significant at 25%,presenting a clear need for quality programs for students in poverty.  Texas schools will need more social workers, food programs, tutoring opportunities, and increased personnel to help teach, support, and grow our students.  Research tells us that students in poverty come to our schools with learning gaps, family problems, and a culture of low expectations. In addition, education has a habit of placing teachers with alternative certifications or limited experiences in our highest need schools. These schools, students, and teachers need our help and support to meet the expectations of state testing, college readiness, and the public.

8)   Deeper understanding of our changing population
Our state is changing.  Texas’ Hispanic population is growing, we have more children, we have more Spanish speakers, and we have more poor people than ever before.  However, our legislature is primarily made up of white men with private school educations from affluent areas of Texas.  This dichotomy in ideology and lack of understanding of our changing population cannot continue. Ultimately, it will hurt our schools. Our state must understand and adapt to our changing population by implementing training, funding, and supporting the educational system that will ready the next generation of Texas’ workforce.

9)   Instructional differentiation
We can no longer teach like we did 50, 25, 10, or even five years ago.  Technology has changed much of this need, but so has a significant amount of quality research dedicated to instruction.  In addition, our students are not “one size fits all”; meaning that one type of instructional technique is not going to work for every student.  We have a variety of students with various learning needs.  Special education students often need very different instructional techniques as gifted students do.  The same can be said for Hispanic students and white students.  The method of delivery must be adapted to meet the needs of the students.

Texas teachers will need help in learning various instructional techniques and be provided training on how technology can enhance and improve the learning experience of our students.  In many school districts, teachers are turning to Twitter chat sessions and Pinterest to work with educators nationwide to learn ways to improve instruction in the classroom.

There are many different ways to teach a single concept and teachers need to employ as many ways as possible.

10) Early childhood education
I want to make a bold suggestion that would be a significant paradigm shift in education:  it’s time to change the first grade. No longer should first grade be for six year olds.  First grade should begin at three years old.  The education gap is a significant challenge for our schools, as educators cannot control the level to which students are prepared before they enter school.

Many parents have the time, resources, and interest in providing their children various opportunities to prepare them for school before they begin and many parents do not have these resources or desire. It’s time that Texas schools take the lead and begin to close that gap by providing high quality instruction for children as young as three years old.

Many students begin kindergarten without having learned their alphabet, numbers, colors, or shapes when these concepts could be captured earlier in life. In addition, the very young brain is a sponge that soaks everything it can when it is in tune with the environment.  We can teach our young children two languages at once, provide opportunities to experience their environment through local travel, give them opportunity to interact with other children, adults, and various types of technology.  These learning experiences will close the education gap that so many of our students in poverty encounter and set our students up for fruitful adult lives.

School Funding Déjà vu– Back to the Supreme Court

By Dr. Jerry Burkett
October 21, 2014

A court has found the state of Texas’ school funding system unconstitutional.


Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced late last month that he will choose to appeal that ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.


Does this seem story seem familiar to you? It should, this dance between Texas’ public schools, its state legislature, and its judicial system has been going on since about 1972. Here’s how the Texas school funding tango works: schools find themselves inadequately and/or inequitably funded and sue the state of Texas; courts find the state’s school funding system unconstitutional or otherwise unacceptable; the Texas legislature slaps a bandage on the system to stop the bleeding, but in most cases makes the system even less effective and more cumbersome; the legislature then watches haplessly as school districts sue them.


An entire generation of Texas students has now been educated within a funding system that has been found ineffective and/or unconstitutional time and time again. And now it’s time to grab your partners, Texans, because we’re going back to the dance.


In August Judge John Dietz ruled that the current system of school funding is unconstitutional because it not only provides limited funding to schools, but the system also is flawed in how it distributes money to school districts. Further, the system creates a de facto statewide property tax whereby school districts are capped and cannot raise funds locally to offset the $5.4 billion budget cuts made by legislators in 2011 (and still not restored – most schools are operating at 2010 funding levels).

Meanwhile, these cuts came at a time when schools were being asked to meet new expectations and challenges, including:

  • Increase rigor and instruction for students, including implementation of college and career-ready standards and programs
  • Increase the number of standardized tests given (ultimately reduced in 2013) for a more challenging testing system (welcome, STAAR!)
  • Implement technology
  • Address increased language and cultural diversity
  • Implement rigorous and national leading state standards,
  • Give standardized tests to every Texas student from grades 3-11
  • Increase the graduation rate
  • Teach an increased number of students enrolled in public schools, adding an average of 80,000 students per year
  • Teach students from a state where 1 in 4 children come from poverty

Clearly, the state of Texas has great plans for its schools; however, they don’t provide funding to meet those goals. They desire an admirable and progressive Waldorf-Astoria-public education system on a Motel 6 budget. But Texas can’t have it both ways.

Schools and educators were asked to meet these new challenges without an additional cent of funding; rather, they saw their funding cut. In fact, in that 2011 legislative session, for the first time since World War II, the state of Texas failed to fund student growth. Texas schools have consistently set new records for student enrollment in recent years, educating one in 11 U.S. students, but were funded at a per student rate that ranked 49th in the nation.

Despite these challenges and requirements, the state of Texas still operates public schools at 2007 funding levels (when adjusted to 2014 dollars). To make matters worse these funding levels are driven by Cost of Education formulas that were established in 1991 and never re-visited or updated.

This, apparently, is how Texas values and prioritizes public education.

Ideally, the Texas state legislature would recognize the issues facing its schools and address this problem – re-examine the decades-old Cost of Education Index, re-evaluate funding formulas and mechanisms, and do right by Texas students. The 84th Texas Legislature, convening in 2015, could step up to address the ruling laid out by Judge Dietz; avoid an appeal by the Attorney General saving taxpayer money; and help improve a public education system that is struggling against underfunding, over-testing, and other challenges.

Or they may choose to wait for the political cover of yet another judicial decision. I guess we’ll see in January whether we’ve elected real statesmen with the political will and a propensity to lead and serve the needs of Texans; or if we have again elected political hacks content to disregard their constitutional responsibilities to public education, doing their best to shortchange yet another generation of Texas students. Time will tell.

Assuming the latter, we’re going to have to wait some time to find out how this dance ends. Sorry for the tease, but you won’t know the rest of this story until 2018ish. Why? By the time Attorney General Abbott’s appeal is heard and decided likely in 2015, the state legislative session will be over. Because of the nature of Texas’ part-time legislature, in the absence of a special session, it would likely be 2017 before legislative change would be addressed. Based on this scenario, new school funding formulas or finance systems would be seen some time between 2018 and 2019 at the earliest.

Yes, that’s 2018-19? Will your child still be in school by then, by the way? By 2018-19, our schools will be nearly a full decade behind on the funding required to meet the federal, state, and local expectations for public schools. And we stand by to watch as yet another generation is educationally under-served by a system that is known to be broken, but continues to be ignored.

And Texas continues to dance…

Standards, Curriculum & Instruction – Part 1: Standards

By Dr. Jerry Burkett and Dr. Cathy Moak

DISCLAIMER: This blog is the first in a series designed to educate and inform readers on the differences between standards, curriculum, and instruction. These blogs are not an endorsement of Common Core State Standards.

What are Standards?

We all have standards. There are personal standards, moral standards, national and community standards, standards of living, standard measurement, even military and gold standards. All of these standards establish a baseline within the respective area that we as a society collectively accept.

Simply put:
· A mile will be 5,280 feet no matter where you drive.
· A dollar is accepted all over the United States.
· Running water and indoor plumbing are requirements.

While our personal standards may be different, (i.e. Lexus vs. Toyota, Motel 6 vs. Omni Hotels, McDonald’s vs. In ‘n Out Burger) our community standards are mutually agreed upon through a social contract. This includes our educational standards.

What are the TEKS?

By the year 2000 every state had some form of education standards in place for their public schools. Education standards are the learning goals for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level in each subject. These standards help educators ensure students have the knowledge and skills they need to be successful. Each state decides differently on which standards they would adopt for their public schools. And, it is important to note that each state still has the right to make these decisions.

In Texas, the education standards are referred to as the TEKS or Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. The TEKS were developed and implemented September 1998 in response to the growing technology needs of the state. The TEKS was originally “mandated only for foundation subjects such as math, English language arts, science, and social studies. Since September 2003, TEKS-compatible instruction is now required in both Foundation and Enrichment subject areas”.

The TEKS were written and reviewed by teachers, professors, administrators, community members, businesses, and approved by the State Board of Education. They are regularly reviewed and revised to meet the growing demands of student learning in the state of Texas.

All textbooks, curriculum, lesson plans, and classroom instructional techniques found in classrooms in the state of Texas are based on the TEKS. These are some of the tools that classroom teachers use to process the complicated and bland TEKS into rigorous instruction.

First, lets talk about education standards.

What is Common Core?

In 2009 several (48) states got together to develop the Common Core State Standards. Please note that this was not initiated by the federal government, but by governors and state commissioners of education of their own volition. The United States Constitution does not establish a national standard or authority for education, rather leaving the institution up to each state to create and manage. This includes funding, standards, certification, and management.

Source: Closing the Expectations Gap 2013 annual Report on the Alignment of State K–12 Policies and Practice with the Demands of College and Careers

The establishment of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2009 is an attempt by members of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and state school chiefs and governors to recognize the value of consistent, real-world learning goals. These groups launched the effort “to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career, and life.” In short, the CCSS were designed to create standards for proficiency in the United States that defined the expectations for each high school graduate.

The creation process for the CCSS included examining standards that were in use in each state as well as international standards with the purpose of addressing student expectations for elementary school through high school.

Because CCSS were developed with input from standards that were being used by some states in 2009, there is some consistency between some CCSS and the standards in states that did not adopt Common Core. This includes Texas. As such, it would not be uncommon to find similar educational standards between each state.

For example, Texas has a set of kindergarten standards required specifically for students in that grade level while 11 U.S. states have no standards for kindergarten.*

What is the impact of the Common Core Standards on Texas?

The CCSS have no impact in regard to standards in Texas. It is important to understand that the CCSS are just standards — not curriculum, not instruction, and not instructional materials. Texas has its own standards, and our standards (TEKS) cannot be replaced by CCSS without a legislated change. Having said that, you may see other elements ALIGNED with the CCSS in Texas. All of these would likely be instructional materials. Please read the article Is there Common Core in Texas? Yes, but not in the way you might think for more information on why you may see these materials.

Contrary to popular belief, standards are the most transparent element we have in education. They are written and approved by each state through a legislative process. They are available online and in writing at all times. They cannot be changed without state approval. They cannot be adopted without legislative approval.

Here is a table to help you understand each element in education, the accountability associated with the element, the possible impact from CCSS, and the level of transparency.

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Education standards are important – whether they are TEKS, CCSS, or something else. These are the fundamental goals that serve as the building blocks to all other elements of our education system. When you hear that someone is concerned about “Common Core in Texas,” ask them to clarify their concern with the understanding of what standards truly are. It may be that their true concern is about curriculum, instruction, or instructional materials. And these may represent very legitimate concerns. But it is important to understand exactly what standards are – and are not – before we can achieve meaningful dialogue about how these common goals impact curriculum and instruction.

The next post in our series will address curriculum. What is it? How does it differ from standards and instruction? What are common types we see in Texas schools?

*Prior to adoption of the Common Core State Standards which are only written for math and English Language Arts

PTA Mom: Everything I Need to Know about Texas Politics I Learned in School Board Elections

by PTA Mom

I once heard the only people who run for school boards are those who want to ban a book from the school library or fire the football coach after a losing season. I tried to dismiss this cynical anecdote, as I know many current and recently elected school board trustees who have strong, sincere desires to support public education. Yet, after Texas’ school board elections this month, I have found a kernel of truth to the notion of agenda-driven school board candidates.

I participated in and watched many school board races closely, and what I witnessed was the very heart of local Texas politics. I learned a lot. What I learned was sometimes ugly, sometimes shocking; but in the end, it was rather inspiring. Here’s what I saw:

1. Radicals have their eyes on your schools.

Public education regularly comes under attack – often in an effort to increase privatization, allowing the private sector to further tap into the lucrative education market. Other times, the attacks are purely ideological. This was seen in various Texas school board elections in 2014 with many candidates statewide espousing fringe ideologies and working to push extreme agendas into public schools.

There was the bartender/open carry activist candidate in Mansfield ISD who sought to arm school teachers. Then there was the Magnolia ISD conspiracy theorist blogger who has spent years harping paranoid warnings about the United Nations taking over schools and that Texas public schools are indoctrinating students with Marxist agendas. There was also the Northwest ISD candidate who feared extreme Muslims were launching a “social jihad” through school textbooks.

And there were various candidates statewide who ran opposing Common Core State Standards in districts including Crowley, Katy, Northwest, Magnolia, and other areas. Crusading against Common Core had the potential to be a strong platform if Texas was one of the 44 states that had actually adopted Common Core State Standards. (For more about Common Core in Texas, please see this explanation.)

Along with opposing Common Core State Standards, these candidates often opposed other positive educational advancements and innovations they erroneously branded “Common Core” but that most people embrace, such as college and career readiness; Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education; digital learning; project-based learning; and 21st century learning skills.  Their reasons for opposing such innovations range from claims of student indoctrination in various –isms (Marxism, communism, Nazism, collectivism, … you get the point) to radical conspiracy theories about the United Nations and Sharia Law. While the rationales varied, few were grounded in reality or fact.

2. Radicals don’t like it when you call them radicals.

As I quickly learned when I spoke against radicalism at my local school board meeting earlier this year, radicals don’t like to be called radicals. When their fringe viewpoints are called out as baseless and extreme or when they are presented with facts or research from experts in the field, they typically decry “bully tactics” in attempts to “marginalize” their views or “vilify” them. It seems to be their universal response to reality.

Sadly, they have no idea how extreme their viewpoints are because they live in radical vacuums where fringe ideas are bounced within echo chambers of extremism. Their sources of mis-information are blogs masquerading as news and propaganda laid out by fellow extremists citing other radicals as sources. Inside their closed loops of information, propaganda becomes fact and realities become a nefarious plot by the “establishment.” And they have no idea how far their viewpoints have strayed beyond their community mores because they instead live in extremist-focused realities in which their fringe views propagate.

Interestingly, there is a Common Core standard that can address this very problem that allows this type of radical thought to flourish. In its literacy standard for eighth graders, Common Core State Standard W.8.1.B requires that students be able to “support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant evidence, using accurate, credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.” This is one Common Core standard Texas would be wise to embrace.

3. Local politics is as ugly as it gets.

There was name calling. There was back biting. There were shots fired against the education levels of some candidates and the political leanings of others. Tea party candidate forums asked school board candidates about their stands on gay marriage and abortion. One candidate was accused of being on food stamps. In short, school board races seem to represent the worst in local politics.

Perhaps one of the most outrageous examples of ugly local politics was the Magnolia ISD twitter fight heard around Texas.  In a textbook example of what not to do in a school board campaign, radical blogger/CSCOPE conspiracy theorist and candidate Ginger Russell picked a social media fight with the entire student body and faculty of the local high school by mocking their school motto. As a general rule, never pick a fight with a community of snarky teens, dedicated teachers, and determined PTA moms. That is a fight you’ll never win – and Ginger Russell didn’t.

What she did succeed in doing was rallying the community who stood up to attacks against their school, principal, and district. The Magnolia community refused to allow their schools and students to be branded and assailed by radicals for political gain. They got out the vote with the largest turnout in their school board election history – 3,595 voters cast ballots in a race that typically only draws around 900. Magnolia ISD voters (including many newly eligible high school student voters) sent the message that they value and support their school district while soundly defeating radicalism. Ginger Russell and her extreme message only garnered 28% of the vote and sent her opponent Kristi Baker to a landslide victory.

4. In the end, Texans care more about their schools than politics.

In many of its 2014 school board races, Texas (yes, Texas!) firmly ignored its radical base and overwhelmingly rejected fringe candidates. And those candidates were defeated by wide margins – some garnering as little as 11% of the vote and very few earning more than 30%. Texas rejected these radical activists and instead cast votes for retired teachers, ministers, small business owners, physicians, and even PTA moms committed to supporting and strengthening public schools instead of tearing them down in the name of politics.

As for the radicals – they’ll be back. Sadly it doesn’t seem they learned a lot from their experiences, laying blame for their losses with everyone but themselves. The reasons cited for their overwhelming losses include (choose any/all of the excuses below):

  • Battleground Texas’ stealth involvement in these non-partisan races,
  • the “education establishment” was against them,
  • teachers organized against them,
  • the  PTA opposed them,
  • they were bullied/vilified/marginalized.

So many excuses, yet the radicals have failed to notice the obvious – that their losses were because of their message. A message of divisiveness and negativity, which was rejected by Texans.

What the radicals didn’t understand is that these elections weren’t about keeping Texas red or turning her blue. They weren’t about Common Core. They weren’t about liberal indoctrination or the United Nations or even Obama. They were about schools. They were about Texas communities protecting their schools from extremists trying to make a political statement. They were about Texans not willing to see their schools forced to move backward decades educationally because of the paranoia and political ideology of the extreme minority.

In these elections that most deeply impact our communities, it became clear that Texans care about their neighborhood schools and aren’t willing to risk them on the political whims of extremism. Voters sent a clear message to radicals trying to take over their school boards – don’t mess with Texas public schools.

PTA Mom Looks at Political Extremism – Coming Soon to a School Board Meeting Near You

by PTA Mom

Everything is bigger in Texas. And sometimes that even includes political extremism. As often portrayed by the likes of Jon Stewart, The Onion, and late-night comedians, Texas is often known as much for its incendiary political proclivities as it is for its barbecue and oil fields.

But when political extremism crosses the threshold of the schoolhouse door, it ceases to become one of Texas’ quirky endearments and instead becomes a problem that burdens and distracts public schools. Look no further than the Texas School Board of Education (SBOE) for near legendary examples of ideological paralysis and political agenda pushing that has not only made for embarrassing national headlines, but has even been the subject of film documentaries. And as the SBOE has demonstrated, students suffer when extreme politics enter education. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happening in my town. And it may well be on its way to a school board meeting near you, too.

What’s the furor all about this time? Common Core. As explained here, Common Core is the set of national educational standards adopted by 45 states. In theory, Common Core standards were a good idea – ensure that students learn the minimum standards for success regardless of where they’re located in the country. Of course, adoption of these standards came with all of the fine print, attached strings, and red tape that one would expect from the federal government. As you can imagine, controversy quickly followed the Common Core rollout, particularly as many states struggle with rocky implementations, over-reliance on standardized testing, and other controversies.

So why do so few Texas parents know about the Common Core standards that have wreaked havoc in schools around the nation? Because Texas is not a Common Core state! Texas maintains its own standards (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills or TEKS), which exceed Common Core standards. Further, Texas TEKS are more comprehensive, including science and social studies; whereas Common Core only focuses on mathematics and English language arts. With no benefit to moving to lesser standards, Texas chose to reject Common Core. And to further make a political point as only Texas can, in 2013 its state legislature passed legislation making the use or adoption of Common Core illegal in the state.

Then what has caused the Common Core ballyhoo to come to a state that actually outlawed its use? Politics of extremism. This political extremism has encouraged the spread of radical conspiracy theories including Common Core sneaking into Texas’ schools to “indoctrinate” our students into rejecting American exceptionalism and embracing Islam and Sharia law, among other things.  While there are many well-reasoned and very legitimate complaints against Common Core, these fringe views are not among them.

This is the same extremism that led a Texas political party in 2012 to oppose critical thinking in its party’s education platform. And it’s the same extremism that led to the 2013 witch hunt of Texas’ educator-developed curriculum tool, CSCOPE, because of allegations that it was anti-American and promoted Marxism and Islam. (By the way, an independent review of all of CSCOPE’s lessons just last month indicated that these allegations were false. The SBOE launched an independent review team of 140 volunteers that included parents, educators, and business people tasked with reviewing CSCOPE lessons for bias and errors. Fewer than 10 found evidence of the claimed political and religious bias that led the state legislature to force Texas schools to abandon the educator tool in favor of more expensive in-house curriculum development.)

With the slaying of CSCOPE in 2013, political opportunists have now focused their attention to Common Core as the next boogeyman on their hit list. These radicals are known throughout the state for trying to push their political agendas into our schools – they include former educators promoting junk-science views of education that have little basis in actual educational theory. They include activists who actually make money by booking speaking gigs and “consulting” on how to spread radical views. It even includes a homeschooler and zealot shrieking blog-based warnings about the United Nations transforming Texas education, the dangers of “progressive educators,” and fears about everything from technology to project based learning to “social engineering” eliminating “a traditional education where ‘absolute truth’ and American Exceptionalism is taught.”

These radicals are located from Waco to Argyle to Magnolia; they do not reside in my community. But that didn’t stop them from spreading Common Core paranoia to my child’s school district. A small group of parents in my community has been deceived by these interlopers’ campaign of confusion, leading some parents to believe our school district was sneaking Common Core into our schools through the “back door.”

Their efforts led parents to believe that classroom lessons about the Pillars of Islam are examples of Common Core. (In reality, this lesson would likely not fall under Common Core’s language arts or mathematics standards, but instead could be a social studies requirement of Texas TEKS strand 17B requiring students be able to “describe major world religions, including animism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism, and their spatial distribution.”) They’ve also accused my local school district of using Common Core materials like SAT preparation texts that indicate alignment with Common Core as a marketing tagline on the book cover. (Please note the difference between alignment with and use of Common Core standards to replace TEKS.)

These attack groups have even encouraged parents to find elements of Common Core in 21st century learning programs that encourage collaboration, problem solving, and innovation. They see Common Core in college and career readiness requirements. They seem Common Core in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education tools. Reminiscent of the movie The Sixth Sense, they see Common Core standards – they’re everywhere.

Many will ignore their efforts as fringe Texas politics at its finest. Some suggest it’s best to ignore extremists, which may very well be true. But when extremism threatens educational opportunities for Texas students, it can no longer be ignored. In my district, these fringe elements worked to hinder the district’s vision to implement 21st century learning into our schools since, through their lens of paranoia, it’s just another sneaky name for Common Core.

So what is a parent to do when the politics of extremism lands before their district’s school board? I’m proud to say parents in my district spoke up. (You can see a copy of my statement to the school board here.) They worked to educate their neighbors. They talked about what Common Core is (and isn’t) at PTA meetings. They reviewed the facts. They discussed concerns with experts – actual educators and administrators. They arrived at their own conclusions without the influence of political opportunists and agenda pushers. And most importantly – they served as vocal advocates for their children and community.

Texas public schools face so many challenges – over testing, under funding, and fighting off a state legislature that, according to a recent legislative report card, generally does not have its best interests at heart. The last problem schools should be focused on is defending against political extremism. Our schools and students deserve better. I’m proud to be part of a district and community of parents that recognized and fought extremism on behalf of their children.

I hope you will put up the same fight when extremism comes to your district. And it will.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are prepared in the author’s personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, any other organization with which the author is affiliated.