Last year, the Texas Education Agency chose 23 school districts from across the state—big ones, small ones, rich ones, poor ones—to serve as models for others in test performance and overall management. Getting picked for this “High Performance Schools Consortium” was a sign of trust from the agency and came with the promise of a little extra freedom from state regulations so the chosen few districts could really work their magic.
It was up to the consortium and the agency to negotiate what those special privileges would be. As you might guess, like almost all school districts in the state, these high-achievers wanted less state testing.
In fact, as The Dallas Morning Newsreported in January, the consortium’s first report to the state, in December, asked for no testing. No accountability ratings, either. They’re writing their own standards, in fact, so they’ll write their own tests. They’ll write their own ratings system too, when they get to it. Essentially, these high-performing schools want to secede from Texas’ testing system.
It would be a laughable request coming from anywhere else, but now that Texas has put its gold star on these districts, there’s a chance they might get what they want.
Education Commissioner Michael Williams wrote in a December letter that he’d “chosen neither to endorse nor reject” the group’s requests, though there’s no firm deadline on when he’d have to decide. The consortium is a long-term project with at least a five-year scope.
In all, the group wants 10 waivers from state and federal laws. Beginning with the school year starting this fall, they’ve asked to be exempted from reporting STAAR test scores to the state; to let students skip STAAR exams in high school if they do well on their SATs or other national tests; and to be free from a handful of other state and federal requirements.
So just when Texas finally tells these districts how it feels about them, they all decide it’s time for a little distance. The group can try hiding behind legalese, but the report sure makes it sound like these districts think it’s time for a break. “‘Space’ must be provided for new possibilities to emerge,” they write, “because it is impossible to run alternative or parallel systems in conjunction with the current system.”
In other words, it’s not you, Michael Williams. It’s us.
Change is already coming for Texas’ standardized test-heavy school accountability system, even to the thousand districts that aren’t part of the consortium. Top lawmakers have suggested reducing the number of tests, and opening avenues to a diploma geared toward career—rather than college—readiness.
Districts that didn’t make the cut are left to hope the Legislature will deliver them from the all-consuming wrath of the standardized test—and it’s likely this session will bring major changes to Texas’ testing program—but while they wait, they’re sure to enjoy one choice line from the group’s report to the state: “STAAR is not the best tool for being the sole indicator of school success.”
Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams speaks to the Texas Association of School Administrators' annual midwinter conference Tuesday.
For the growing number of Texans demanding less standardized testing in our schools, we’ve reached an important anniversary.
It was January 31, 2012 when then-Education Commissioner Robert Scott took the stage before a Texas Association of School Administrators conference, and uttered the words that galvanized the movement. Standardized testing as practiced in Texas schools, he said, had become a “perversion of its original intent.”
Since then, more than 800 districts have signed onto anti-testing resolutions, calling for major reforms from the Legislature. Conservative, suburban parents have joined a movement that, for years, focused around minority and low-income schools. Nonetheless, Texas continued rolling out the new STAAR exams, testing and retesting students whose scores bumped them off the graduation track.
So on Tuesday, when new Education Commissioner Michael Williams stepped onto the same stage as Scott occupied a year ago, he had a hard act to follow.
Williams, the consummate showman, stepped lightly to the stage in a navy suit and matching polka dotted bow tie. He began upbeat, praising Texas’ graduation rates, falling drop-out rates and scores on national tests. But as for the fiery talk of broad test reform that the crowd enjoyed last year, there would be no encore.
“We heard you. And because we heard you, we’re redesigning the accountability system,” he said. He’s already unveiled his proposals for a redesign that largely leaves the testing program in place, and he said today he’s gotten 1,600 comments already.
“To back away from it now, in my humble opinion, does nothing more than put at great risk the futures of those young children,” he said. “I’m gonna ask to pump our brakes and slow our roll, and let’s get through this transition period.”
Williams announced encouraging new STAAR results from last year—cumulative passing rates, after two rounds of retakes, that showed high schoolers passing algebra, english and biology at rates of 70 percent or more. He didn’t need to remind the audience about how low a “passing” score was set on some tests last year.
The scene was a fair summation of how last year’s anti-testing fury has softened with age, spun into high-level but modest policy recommendations that now have as much to do with vocational education as testing.
So instead of dwelling on tests, Williams tried to change the conversation. He told the crowd he was most concerned with the rate of out-of-school suspensions in some school districts, particularly for black and Latino students.
“I want you to be able to make sure there’s order in the classroom,” he said. “But my friends, if it is indeed true that the most significant, impactful factor in a youngster’s learning experience is the teacher in front of them, then the teacher has to be in front of them to get instruction.”
Williams said he’s going to seek the power to set minimum learning standards for students in suspension, and authority to hold hearings in districts where he sees “chronic suspension.
At the end of his talk, Williams took questions from the audience. Through the bright stage lights, he said he couldn’t see who was asking the questions, so he paced the stage instead, as the voices of school administrators came down from the speakers.
As Williams paced, one man asked if he would show his courage by joining school leaders in asking the Legislature to restore the $5 billion cut from the public education budget last session. The question drew a long round of applause that grew into a standing ovation from the crowd—after which Williams repeated what he told the Legislature last week.
He said it’s best to wait until after the school finance trial and its appeals wrap up, before making any big changes to the funding. “At that point in time, I believe there’s going to be a very big conversation, which I hope we’re a part of, about this $5 billion, or whether it’s even more than that,” he said. “I can assure I’m going to be in the middle of that.”
Small consolation to school leaders who are dealing with budget shortfalls in the current school year, when any new money from a court ruling is one or two years away, but there it is.
“I have never been afraid,” Williams said. “We just have to do it at the right time.”
Conservative groups across the country are soul-searching and charting new courses after this election, and King Street Patriots and True The Vote are no different. As Engelbrecht stressed from the stage two weeks ago, that course runs back through Houston.
“People think, ‘Oh, Texas is a red state.’ Texas is not a red state, Texas is a purple state,” Engelbrecht said. “If you don’t think Harris County can, in the next election cycle, flop all of Texas—they can.”
Yes, she said, Democrats have the advantage in voter outreach software—witness the Romney campaign’s disastrous voter outreach program, Project Orca—but there’s more to their apparent dominance. “They’re out in the neighborhoods, and they’re up in the hive mind,” she said. “We’ve not as a party, as a movement, we’ve not been walking in people’s lives.”
So. Rather than simply repeat the one-off poll-watcher fiascos that have turned off so many Houston voters in minority neighborhoods like Kashmere Gardens, Moody Park and Sunnyside, King Street Patriots are playing the long game.
Engelbrecht introduced Matt Armstrong from the conservative outreach operation Political Gravity to explain:
“The election was won a year and a half or two years before it ever started. They were out living in these people’s lives. I don’t believe that liberals actually care about those people, I think they use them for power and for gain. We actually do care about people but, you know what, we’re not out in the neighborhoods like they are. So they have no competition. We’ve got to get out and we’ve got to live in these people’s lives—people you don’t agree with and people you don’t look like. And we’ve got to let em know we care about ‘em, we’ve got to engage in things other than politics.”
It’s time, he said, to get a little warmer and a little fuzzier all around.
“I think we’d all agree that if we lose again in 2016, we probably are done,” Armstrong said. “We’ve got to bring the best of the best together, drop the egos, drop the feuds among tea parties or 912′s and we’ve got to work together. Because our enemy is not in this room. The enemy of liberty is progressive policies and those that advocate them.”
Engelbrecht conceded the plan might sound a little out-there. “You sit back and think, ‘Holy moly, they have lost their minds, talking to prostitutes and drug [dealers],’” she said, but she asked her fellow Patriots to trust her. ”We’re just gonna start helping in the community and it will turn things around.”
To handle this new plan—itself a resuscitation of the group’s dormant “Citizen Patriot Response,” or CPR, program—King Street has tapped another friend of the program, anarchist-turned-tea-partier Brandon Darby. Darby explained his plans to “take a small area of Harris County, probably close by,” and “begin to work with them, and get our communities…involved in their communities.” He went on:
“I’m going to walk the streets and I’m gonna talk to ‘em and I’m gonna ask, ‘Who helps you? Who really helps and cares in this area?’ And people are gonna tell me. And when we find those people who are actually helping, not receiving the dollars from the federal government, and trying to get people off that dependence, when we find em, I’m gonna ask you all to help me work with them.
“I’ll do the walking, you don’t need to walk with me,” he cooed. All he’ll need is support from the Patriots when the time comes. “There’s probably some elderly lady taking care of her dying husband right now, whose yard is high. And we could cut that grass.”
Who knows what you’ll find! There’s just no telling.
Well, except for one thing: Darby was quite sure they’ll encounter a few of those scammers and layabouts who while away the hours sucking your tax dollars away. And what’s he going to do then? “We would call out charlatans in the low-income communities and the black communities,” he said. (Update Jan. 28: Darby called to make it clear he’s not talking here about looking for individuals. The folks he’s after are the ones running groups and institutions supposedly in the public interest, taking money and then doing nothing with it. “By no means am i going into black and Latino communities and looking for people on the dole,” he says. “Usually the groups that get the most money to help people do the least to help people.”)
He’ll be the one to help King Street decide who’s worthy of their help. “The people in the low income communities who actually help the prostitutes and the people who need their roof fixed,” he said, “those people don’t get any resources.”
They also announced a new spinoff group to handle research for King Street, dubbed the Keystone Research Group. King Street’s executive director Mark Antill took the stage to introduce this one.
“When True The Vote puts out a report that’s enlightening to anyone, we get hammered because it’s True The Vote,” he explained. This way, he explained, voter roll research from “Keystone” won’t be so easily ignored.
And still, Engelbrecht wasn’t finished!
If you were a fan of True The Vote’s the nonpartisan-ish poll-watcher training and voter roll checks as a 501(c)3 group, then you’re sure to love the new True The Vote NOW, their new 501(c)4 outfit. ”There is a bigger need for messaging that extends beyond what a (c)3 can say,” Engelbrecht said. “The solution is to start a (c)4 that will give us a little more latitude in our messaging.”
Just what that messaging will sound like, she left up to the imagination.
It’s hard to know which is creepier: that Texas is assessing the classroom performance of 4-year-olds in pre-K, or that those assessments are conducted with a secret algorithm by a company named Optimization Zorn.
Yes, Optimization Zorn. That’s the politically connected Arlington-based company—known more commonly (and only slightly less menacingly) as “OZ Systems”—that has the state contract to analyze Texas’ pre-K performance data. You may be surprised to learn that the state is gathering and assessing data on kids who haven’t reached kindergarten yet.
It works this way: Schools, Head Start programs and private pre-K centers submit details about their students—gender and family income, for instance—along with their scores on a reading test. OZ Systems then runs the numbers through its proprietary and secret algorithm, and out comes a state rating for the school or program the student attended.
In mid-December, Texas released its latest list of Pre-K Centers of Excellence, a kind of gold-star designation based on OZ Systems’ analysis that school districts and other pre-kindergarten operators use to attract new students.
“This is really important for our parents to know,” Pine Tree Primary School Principal Becky Balboa told the Longview News-Journal in December, following news that her school had won the award. “As they are looking at school districts, they will know that this shows we teach our kids for literacy as well as for social skills.”
Or so you’d think.
But there’s no measure of social skills in the Kindergarten Readiness System, which determines those Pre-K Centers of Excellence, and which OZ Systems has developed, managed and marketed for the state. OZ has received more than $5 million over two years for this work, according to records obtained by the Observer through a public information request.
You could argue the state has no business trying to assess 4-year-olds’ classroom performance—and, indeed, critics in the Legislature beat back two major attempts in 2011 to build a full-on accountability system for pre-K. The current Kindergarten Readiness System is pretty much a reading test and some questions about students. It doesn’t track individual students’ test scores, but if a whole class does well, the school looks good.
But getting certified “excellent” isn’t as simple as making sure your students can read. Instead of gauging how many students are proficient at reading, the Kindergarten Readiness System grades each student on a curve, compared to other children from similar backgrounds. A 4-year-old African-American girl from a military family, for instance, gets compared to other girls with that same background. And if she reads better than OZ has calculated she should, her pre-K class gets credit for raising her score.
It’s a complex, expensive analysis meant to isolate pre-K programs that make a positive impact. But Susan Kellner, a former trustee at Houston’s Spring Branch school district, says it’s being sold to schools and parents dishonestly. “They say it’s to determine kindergarten readiness, and it doesn’t determine that,” she says.
The program began in 2005, when lawmakers called on the University of Texas Health Science Center’s State Center for Early Childhood Development to gather input from parents and pre-K providers to craft a “School Readiness Certification System.”
“What was the goal here?” Kellner recalls asking. “To make kids more kindergarten-ready and find the best way to assess that. To have that collaboration, to bring everybody together so the child truly is ready by 5. That hasn’t happened at all.”
What happened instead is that the UT Health Science Center turned around and contracted the job to OZ Systems, a health-care data management firm represented by influential lobbyists Erin Jones and Lara Keel. Jones is married to then-Deputy Education Commissioner Adam Jones—a potential conflict that worried legislators in 2011, when OZ seemed a likely candidate for developing that full-fledged pre-K accountability program that never passed.
In late 2011, the Texas Education Agency quietly yanked the existing pre-K certification program away from UT Health Science Center and asked the Region 17 Education Service Center in Lubbock to handle it instead. The School Readiness Certification System became the Kindergarten Readiness System. The contract to design it, of course, went to OZ Systems.
At a charter school conference earlier this month, state Rep. Mark Strama leaned into his microphone and asked the room for a show of hands. Of all the charter school founders, officials, teachers or organizers in the room, he wanted to know how many were from “in-district” charter schools.
While most charter schools in Texas get state approval, there’s a limit on how many the state can approve. State law also lets school districts approve their own “in-district” charters, too—but Texas has just 74 of those. None, apparently, was represented in that particular conference room. No hands went up.
So Strama wondered why, when some charter schools have such long waiting lists, more charter school boosters aren’t trying to win over local school districts and partner with them. One guy in the audience piped up to answer. “It’s just institutional resistance,” he said. ”They’re just different people. They are.”
That may sound a touch indelicate—but look at the drama around East Austin’s Allan Elementary over the last year, and the conflict is real.
A year ago, Austin ISD announced it would bring in IDEA Public Schools, a South Texas-based charter chain with just over two dozen campuses, to run Allan Elementary, a school where more than 95 percent of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged.
New East Austin parents’ groups and an off-shoot of the Occupy Austin protest sprung up to oppose the deal. They wondered why IDEA was suddenly taking over a neighborhood school 300 miles from its home base in Weslaco. The groups said Allan was being used as a guinea pig in a school district reform experiment. Education researcher Ed Fuller became a well-known critic of IDEA before AISD signed the contract last year—he’s gone to great lengths to debunk IDEA’s claims that 100 percent of its graduates go on to four-year universities, and that they’re well-prepared for college when they get there.
Many parents pulled their students from Allan before this year. To fill out its enrollment, IDEA marketed and recruited from around Austin, well outside the Allan neighborhood.
Last week, the drama ended when Austin ISD trustees voted to sever ties with IDEA once the school year ends, and return IDEA Allan back to the district. It’s been a nasty issue that dominated Austin’s school reform debate, spawned a handful of new education activist groups and got three school board members ousted—and now it’s over.
IDEA is one of the hottest charter chains in Texas today, based in the Rio Grande Valley, with a recent expansion into Central Texas. The chain just won a $29 million federal Race To the Top grant, an extremely competitive program that only one other Texas school won (another charter, Harmony Public Schools). The day after the board’s vote, IDEA leaders announced they’d find a way to stick around Austin next year by opening their own school, outside Austin ISD.
It marked the end of a particularly nasty charter school controversy, a cautionary tale about how not to create an in-district charter. It could also be something Texas sees a lot more of after next year.
The nasty fight over Allan could easily happen at any school where parents pull the trigger to turn their neighborhood schools into in-district charters. IDEA is part of a preferred class of charters in Texas today, along with KIPP, Yes Prep and Harmony. They’re popular, well-marketed, growing brands with institutional management cultures of their own. They’re the ones most likely to take over in a parent-trigger situation.
That’s how it’s gone in California, in the one case where a parent-trigger effort has garnered enough signatures to make a change. Parents there have selected—after a vote of 53 people—an outside charter operator to run the school.
The same night the Austin ISD board severed the IDEA contract, though, they also approved a charter built on another model.
The Travis Heights plan is the product of years of work from local education groups. It’s a lot tougher to pull off than handing over a school to a charter network that’s already looking to expand (especially when someone’s willing to hand them a school building). And it’s in a wealthy, historic neighborhood that doesn’t look much at all like the area around Allan.
The Travis Heights model—homegrown, locally managed—is the sort of scenario lawmakers will use to help get a parent trigger law passed next session. But with a blunt instrument like a parent trigger law, what we’re most likely to get are more turf wars like the one over Allan.