Taking the Political Agenda Out of Education

“Testing has become a perversion of the original intent.”— Former Texas Education Commissioner, Robert Scott at the 2012 Texas Association of School Administrators Mid-Winter Conference general session in Austin, Texas

Never have an education commissioner’s words become so meaningful for educators. Since those words were spoken nearly a year ago, Commissioner Scott resigned his post and left the Texas Education Agency behind to work though some of the most significant issues facing education in several years.  In fact, many of the points of his speech are seemingly prophetic when considering recent happenings in Texas education. At that January session, former Commissioner Scott suggested:

  • “Testing has become a perversion of the original intent.”
  • Educational Service Centers are in remarkable shape; however, they have not been realigned in over 40 years. It’s time to look at population shifts.
  • A desire to waive the 15% STAAR EOC requirement, although he did he not have the statutory authority to change it.
  • Texas would rank in the top 10 in graduation rates.
  • The need to develop a better school accountability system.

I was fortunate to hear these words from the commissioner first hand. I heard the cheers, claps, and ovations when the commissioner stated to the crowd of superintendents, administrators, district leaders, and principals the most obvious concerns for education in this state. These are the very issues that challenge and motivate these leaders to move our students forward.  I would even venture to guess that much of his speech and vision for Texas education might have ultimately led to his departure as commissioner.

Commissioner Scott never intended to begin a nationwide debate about high-stakes testing – and  why would he?  The Texas Education Agency commissioner is appointed by a politician. Politicians have political agendas that must be adhered to. The state of Texas pays test developer Pearson $468 million for services related to standardized testing. Within that lucrative five-year contract, which runs through the 2015 school year, it’s easy to assume there is political motivation that has led the significant increase in testing over the last decade.

Instead, Commissioner Scott took a bold move: he spoke the truth. Whatever led him to that place, he bravely took politics out of education – if even for a moment. He took a realistic lens to the challenges facing Texas’ public education system. He put politics aside and put the needs of Texas and its students first. He put those needs ahead of multi-million dollar testing contracts, presidential candidacies, and political double-speak.

Unfortunately, the fallout from that speech was a variety of interpretations designed to advance more political agendas. And sadly, few of those agenda-driven detractors share Commissioner Scott’s purpose of putting Texas and its students first. To be clear – there is a war being waged on public education in Texas, and it is politically motivated. It comes from a variety of fronts – those that support vouchers or so-called “school choice;” profiteers that are more interested in garnering government contracts or charter cash cows than educating students; and even those that seek to promote their religious or political ideologies.

For example, “education advocate” Donna Garner recently used the commissioner’s speech to once again promote her anachronistic “Type 1” philosophy of education, which happens to closely resemble the widely panned education platform of the 2012 Texas Republican Party. According to Garner, “Type 1” education includes “knowledge-based, academic, clearly worded, grade-level-specific content that is tested largely through objectively scored tests  — These standards are built from K through Grade 12 and are taught mostly through direct, systematic instruction. The new TEKS and STAAR/End-of-Course tests are Type #1.”

Self-proclaimed advocates such as Ms. Garner are those that dismiss “Type 2” education that is “project-based” and emphasizes “multiculturalism, political correctness, environmental extremism, diversity, social justice agenda.” These activists fear the more modern and widely accepted “Type 2: learning as promoting “Obama’s social justice agenda.”

Inane and unfounded ramblings, such as those presented by Ms. Garner, are a clear example of political agendas permeating education. Unfortunately, fringe educational theory espoused by such radical elements are impacting and tainting the image of public education in Texas.  (Ahh… the unintended consequences of free speech.) It is time for educators to speak up against the agenda-driven attacks that take aim at the public education system. The education system has enough challenges without the noise added by those promoting ideology and political agendas. Such musings are not research-based and are without merit in the education community. As a professional that has spent the last 15 years in a public school environment, let me lay out simply and clearly for the fringe education detractors – there is not an agenda to indoctrinate children.

Instead of recognizing that our state is moving in the right directions in education with an improved accountability system (one that does not punish a school or districts for its most struggling demographic), and an improved testing design, ideologues such as Garner choose to disparage educational leaders to promote political platitudes.

I challenge fringe advocates and ideologues (and sadly that group includes many of our legislators) to visit their local school. Set foot in a classroom. Observe. See first-hand the changing faces of Texas students.  We have more Hispanic students than ever before, more English Language Learners (and not just Spanish), and more students for fewer teachers.  Our classrooms are diverse and changing, and our education and practices must change as well. Our students need small group instruction, the best practices of instructional strategies, strong guided reading and balanced literacy, opportunities to discuss their learning with others, processing time, anchor charts, and teachers to facilitate their learning. They do not need the lecturers of days past.

And teachers are meeting that challenge.  Teachers are creating more engaging and challenge lessons than were taught 20-30 years ago.  Teachers are stretching out a complicated curriculum and moving students forward in several subjects a day; not just the traditional 3-Rs. Teachers are collaborating, using technology, analyzing data, and using social media to exchange ideas an improve instruction and promote critical thinking.

Most importantly, our students need critical thinking skills to process learning that is required for the 21st century and we need to discard the archaic, rote memorization strategies of the 20th century. As I tell my teachers, we need to start asking our students, “Why Austin is the capital of Texas?” instead of just asking our students “What is the capital of Texas?”

Why these people are against that is beyond me.  How is that for critical thinking?

To public education supporters: the time is long past that we can ignore the radicals pushing their agendas into our classrooms. Speak out against these attacks. Educate the attackers and those that hear their messages. Don’t stand idly by and allow politics to enter the school system.

To those pushing ideology and politics into the classroom: Texas is different. Texas classrooms are changing.  And for the better. The antiquated educational theories you espouse no longer have a place in modern classrooms. And political and ideological agendas have never and will never have a place in the classroom. To the so-called education advocates attacking educational progress, please take a page from Commissioner Scott. It’s time to put ideology and politics aside to do what’s best for Texas’ students.

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