SELECT COMMITTEE EXAMINES VALLEY SCHOOLS
(BROWNSVILLE) — Issues facing Rio Grande Valley schools were the focus of a legislative committee today, July 14th, 2008. The Select Committee on Public School Accountability was in Brownsville hearing how state standards affected local schools. Senator Eddie Lucio Jr., and his son, Representative Eddie Lucio III, led off the day, welcoming the committee and telling them changes can be made to enhance education.
Senator Lucio warned against an overbearing load imposed by tests and paperwork on teachers and students alike, saying that they should spend time teaching and learning, not pushing paper. Representative Lucio said that where a child is born should not determine the quality of his or her education.
The first witness was Richard Rothstein, from the Economic Policy Institute. He told the panel that schools should not be held accountable for just one item, such as a particular standardized test. He said the danger is that when an institution is held accountable for only one item, it focuses on that item to the exclusion of everything else. He said that the very reason that public education was established during the late 18th century was so that citizens could determine the best policies for the country and make informed decisions as to whom their leaders might be and that as testing becomes more and more widespread, the basic goals of education are lost.
Brownsville School Superintendent Hector Gonzales then testified, telling the committee that despite being in an area where almost half of the students have only a limited knowledge of English and most are not financially well off, his district continues to meet all state standards and that most schools in his district are recognized for excellence, in spite of lower levels of funding when compared with other districts around the state. He said that the "playing field is not level", but that they perform better than other districts despite a relative lack of funds. He said that under the current system, districts achieve "recognized" status based upon where they are located and who their students are, not what the districts are achieving.
Committee co-chair Senator Florence Shapiro said that the Brownsville District is the "poster child" for everything that is wrong with the current accountability system, that it is "unconscionable" to think that as a state Texas is not meeting the needs of its school districts.
Invited testimony included Chris Dougherty, from the National Center for Educational Achievement. He told the committee that if one is going to rate schools one needs to use a model that gives weight to growth, and that districts across the state should be compared similarly. Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa warned against changing systems without great reason, saying people could be "confused" by changing standards, that "one size does not fit all". Mike Moses, of Raise Your Hand Texas, said his organization is committed to improving and strengthening accountability, and that while now is a good time for changes in the system, great care needs to be taken. "What do we do with the students who haven't been in the system?", he asked, saying that schools need to be given consideration for students that they have had only a short time, especially students entering at the middle school level or higher.
Co-chair Representative Bob Eissler questioned whether entering students who speak primarily Spanish should be given the standardized test exclusively in English during their second year, when it may take several years to learn the language. Committee member Salem Abraham reminded the other members that English as a second language issues are not confined to south Texas, that they exist across the state.
Public testimony followed, including Teri Alarcon, principal of Brownsville's Hanna High School. She told the committee members that English speaking students have no problems meeting state standards, but that students who enter speaking primarily Spanish simply do not have the time to learn English before being forced to take achievement tests in that language. Other witnesses told the members that while students are being taught English during school hours, their immersion in Spanish outside of school means they may not learn English as quickly as they might otherwise.
The Select Committee on Public School Accountability is Chaired by Senator Florence Shapiro and Representative Rob Eissler. Members include Senator Tommy Williams, Representative Diane Patrick, Education Commissioners Robert Scott and Raymund Paredes as well as public members Salem Abraham, Ronald Steinhart, Sandy Kress, Larry Kellner, Susan Lewis Dalia Benavides, Dr. David Splitek, Dr. Thomas Randle and Beto Gonzalez. The meeting recessed subject to call of the chair. Its next meeting is scheduled for August in El Paso.