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Rob Eissler

Are you ready for end-of-course exams?

A preliminary run of the state’s new end-of-course exams shows that student performance is not where we would want it to be yet.

Of the nearly 102,000 students who took the Algebra I test in May, for example, just 57 percent met the passing standard on the 50-question exam. Only 12 percent achieved “commended performance” for correctly answering most of the items.

Results were similar on the six other end-of-course tests administered in hundreds of school districts across the state. Some that were required to give the exams so the state could gauge the early performance, while others voluntarily tested their students to get a leg up on the new requirement.

[…]

Teacher groups said the scores are another indication that the state is putting too much emphasis on high-stakes testing.

“We are certainly concerned about the impact on students and those who are now on the bubble as far as graduation,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association.

But one of the lawmakers who led the push to convert to end-of-course tests said the scores aren’t a concern, pointing out the new tests are more rigorous than the single high school graduation test students have been taking for several years.

“The initial results are not a shock,” said state Rep. Rob Eissler, chairman of the House education committee. “We’re trying to raise the level of performance in each of those subjects, and we first have to find out where everybody is.”

Martha wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, so go see what she has to say for some background. The good thing about these tests is that they’re administered like final exams, at the end of the year in which the student took the course. That differs from the current TAKS graduation test, which may cover material from two or three years earlier for a given student. But there’s a lot more of these tests now, and while the increased rigor is a very worthy goal, the combination of more high stakes tests with a higher bar to clear is likely to exacerbate Texas’ already problematic dropout rate. It’s one thing to ask more of students and teachers, it’s another to provide them with the resources they need to achieve what you demand of them. What are the odds that will be an end result of this legislative session? I hope we’re prepared for the fallout of this, but I’m pretty sure we’re not.

Get ready for larger class sizes

Back in 1984, one of the school reforms that resulted from the Perot Commission was a mandate that elementary school classes could have no more than 22 students in them. Many things have changed since then, but that standard has remained. Now it may be a casualty of the current budget crunch.

Any statewide change in the standard could translate into hundreds of millions of dollars for the state and districts. The 22-pupil limit is costly because every time a class in the five affected grade levels hits 23 or more students, a new class must be created with an additional teacher and classroom.

One superintendent from the Houston area said each new class costs his district $100,000 to $150,000. Superintendent David Anthony of the Cypress-Fairbanks school district also said his district added more than 70 classes last year.

The legislative committee’s recommendations could loom large as lawmakers grapple with what is expected to be a record revenue shortfall approaching $15 billion. About 60 percent of the state’s general revenue funds are spent on education.

The leaders of the special committee – Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, and Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands – said class size standards will be scrutinized. Shapiro and Eissler also chair the education committees of their respective chambers.

“If a change seems feasible, we could try it,” said Eissler, who maintained that quality teachers are much more important than class size in improving student achievement. “The research doesn’t show any particular significance to 22 to 1. You really have to get below 18 to make a difference.”

Eissler said he understands, though, why teachers would be reluctant to see any change in the standard.

[…]

Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association said that if anything, the state should take the requirement even further by “pushing class sizes down further at campuses that are low-performing or in danger of becoming low-performing.”

Teacher groups also point out that school districts can get waivers to be exempted from the 22-to-1 limit if they claim they lack classroom space or can’t find qualified teachers for additional classes. But superintendents dislike the requirement that they must notify parents whenever they seek exemptions for larger classes and in some cases must hold a public hearing.

This school year, 144 districts received waivers from the state that allowed larger classes at 544 elementary schools. The Dallas school district had waivers at 31 campuses.

In all, nearly 1,800 classrooms – with almost 40,000 students – had more than the maximum number of pupils this year.

“The Texas Education Agency never denies waivers,” said Josh Sanderson of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, insisting that school districts don’t need to have the class size rule changed because they can get exempted from it when necessary.

There’s certainly room to argue over whether or not the 22-1 ratio is the difference-maker it was when it was first adopted. As Rep. Eissler points out, the right answer if you really want to improve classroom performance would be to reduce the teacher-student ratio even further. It’s likely the case that there are more cost-effective solutions for achieving that improvement, but that is a known solution. Allowing the ratio to be increased instead as a cost-cutting measure is just another reminder of what our priorities are as a state, and a reminder (as if we needed one) that the school finance question still hasn’t been answered. We do know how to do things more cheaply, because we’ve had a lot of practice with that. We’ll be doing it again soon. Doing things better never seems to be more than a theoretical option.

Friends and foes

The Texas Observer poo-poos the idea of “Best Of” and “Top Ten” lists, then gives us its stab at a Best and Worst tabulation by naming six of “The People’s Friends” and five “Foes”. Where Texas Monthly focuses more on effectiveness in getting things done, the Observer takes the position that it’s not just about getting results but working to get good results that matters. That will necessarily lead to a more subjective list, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The TPPF/TAB crowd can and do produce their own lists, too, after all.

The five Foes are all Republicans, not that this should come as a surprise. I will say this, the fall of the house of Craddick made this task harder than it might have been in other years, as some of the historically bad actors were at least somewhat marginanalized this time around. Still, there’s always room for the likes of Debbie Riddle, Leo Berman, and Dan Patrick, just on general principles. Perhaps they should have included those who just missed the cut as well, as Honorable – or in this case, Dishonorable – Mentions.

The six Friends are an even mix of Ds and Rs. The one that will surely cause some consternation is this one:

Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless

Todd Smith had a thankless job. As chairman of the House Elections Committee, he was tasked with shepherding voter ID through the chamber. Partisan Republicans badly wanted the bill to pass. Democrats were desperate to kill it. To Smith’s credit, he tried to find a compromise on an issue so polluted by partisanship that compromise might have been impossible. In the end, it did prove impossible, but Smith gets an “A” for effort. Later in the session, Smith broke again with the hardcore members of his party. Some House Republicans, suspecting a Democratic ploy, opposed a bill by Dallas Rep. Rafael Anchia that was designed to register more high-schoolers to vote. Smith spoke in favor of the bill on the House floor, informing his colleagues that registering voters was a nonpartisan activity that everyone should support. He was one of just two Republicans to vote for the bill, putting good public policy ahead of rank partisanship.

That’s a generous interpretation of Smith’s role in the voter ID debacle. I don’t really care to wade in on that, as I hope we’ve seen the last of voter ID legislation for the foreseeable future, but I will say that if one insisted on balancing the Ds and the Rs, I might have gone for Sen. Kevin Eltife, who did yeoman’s work in getting the unemployment insurance bill through the Senate, or Rep. Rob Eissler, who has been a key ally of designated Friend Rep. Scott Hochberg on education matters. Greg plumps for Rep. John Zerwas, on the grounds that saving a life = automatic inclusion on any Best list. Hard to argue with that. Be that as it may, I might have decided instead that there was no need for partisan balance here, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Anyway, it’s an interesting list and a good way to frame the discussion. Check it out.

Is there a problem with the stimulus funds?

I hope not.

The debate over whether Texas lawmakers can use federal stimulus money to boost education spending, including funding a raise for teachers, is heating up.

The Obama administration warned states Thursday it may withhold millions of dollars if they use stimulus money to plug budget holes instead of boosting aid for schools. Education Secretary Arne Duncan made the threat in a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, but it could have implications for Texas, Arizona and other states.

Texas state lawmakers approved a bill that included a minimum $800 raise for public school teachers, counselors, librarians, nurses and speech pathologists, but the money is contingent on approval from the Education Department to use federal stimulus funds. Legislators decided to use federal stimulus money to cover the funding the state puts into education over the next two years.

[…]

In the letter to Rendell, Duncan wrote he is displeased at a plan by Pennsylvania’s Republican-led Senate to reduce the share of the state budget for education while leaving its rainy-day surplus untouched. To do so “is a disservice to our children,” Duncan wrote.

Texas essentially did the same thing, increasing education funding for the next two years by $1.9 billion thanks to the boost from the federal government, while leaving the state’s rainy-day fund alone.

“That’s exactly the same thing Secretary Duncan said he has a problem with,” [Northside ISD Superintendent John] Folks said. House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, said if it wasn’t for the stimulus money there would be no extra money for education.

“The counterargument is that if we weren’t going to get that money we weren’t going to touch rainy day anyway,” he said. “We would’ve had to cut expenditures.”

I dunno, while the situations are similar, I wouldn’t say they’re the same, mostly because of that $1.9 billion in extra funding to the schools. I know Rep. Scott Hochberg had a big role in crafting that legislation, and I know he worked at ensuring its compliance with federal requirements. If Hochberg thought it was okay, I’ll trust him. If Secretary Duncan sends a letter to Governor Perry like the one he sent to Governor Rendell, then I’ll worry.

School finance bill advances

Has there ever been a legislative session that didn’t deal with school finance? This Lege is dealing with it as well, and the good news is they may have made some actual progress.

Texas teachers would get an $800-a-year raise and the Dallas school district would be protected from becoming a “Robin Hood” district for several years under a school finance bill that the House tentatively approved on Monday.

The measure also would merge the state’s two teacher incentive pay plans into one program and sharply reduce the amount of the merit pay that would have to be awarded based on student test scores.

Total state funding would increase about $1.9 billion over the next two years, with school districts required to spend at least half of their new state money on teacher salaries. The Dallas school district would see its funding rise $100 per student – just under 2 percent – for a total increase of about $17.5 billion.

School districts had sought more funding, but state leaders said earlier this year that a slowdown in state revenue would prevent a sizable increase.

“Every one of our school districts needs more money,” said Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, who laid out the school funding bill to the chamber. But even with the small increase, he added, “this is a fair bill and it is a balanced bill.”

One significant change in the bill would raise the threshold for determining which school districts must share their property tax revenue under the Robin Hood provisions of the school finance system. Last year, those districts were required to give up more than $1 billion to help equalize funding across the state.

Two of the biggest beneficiaries are the Dallas and Houston school districts, which are expected to join the ranks of high-property-wealth districts that must share their tax revenue next year. Under the House bill, both would be protected from becoming share-the-wealth districts for several years.

The bill is HB3646, and as of this afternoon it has passed the House, on a 144-2 vote. One additional benefit as noted in this AP story is that the plan is based on a calculation of current average statewide property values, so increases are reflected immediately. This isn’t perfect, but as House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler said in the Express News, it buys some time for the Lege to do more when the budget is in better shape. And this is surely a better deal than the schools would have gotten if Tom Craddick were still in charge. So we take what we can get and go from there.

Big education bills pass

Well, the SBOE may be doing its best to destroy public education in Texas, but the Lege took a step forward to make it better by passing omnibus school reform bills in each chamber.

Crafted by the education leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives, the bills aim to reduce the role of standardized tests, give schools more flexibility to help struggling students and focus education on readying students for college or the workplace.

Gone are many of the school reforms ushered in by then-Gov. George W. Bush, such as a prohibition on promoting a student to the next grade if he or she failed to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

That promotion decision will now be left to the school and parents.

[House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands] said the overhaul will end the one-size-fits-all approach of the current system and allow for schools to be judged on more than just performance on a single test.

The bills are HB3 and SB3, which are very similar but not identical and thus will go through a reconciliation. Both passed unanimously, so it ought to be relatively smooth sailing. EoW has more.

More on the end of the sixty-five percent rule

Here’s an updated story on the end of the sixty-five percent rule.

Gov. Rick Perry’s 4-year-old mandate that schools spend at least 65 percent of their money on classroom instruction is under fire from key lawmakers in Perry’s own party.

[…]

House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, filed legislation last week to erase the requirement. And though Perry defended the standard as the right thing to do at the time, he said he’s working with Eissler to come up with “new ideas to make our schools even more efficient.”

Eissler said he filed House Bill 2262 because the standard has not been feasible for districts that vary in enrollment and geographic size.

“There are better ways to measure instructional priorities,” Eissler said. “Why don’t we look at the school districts that are doing the best and see how they’re spending the money?”

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said she also wants to repeal Perry’s order. “Many of the school districts cannot meet that mandate,” Shapiro said. “There are so many other activities and so many other things that are not included in that 65 percent that it skews the numbers.”

Perry and his staff did not criticize the rule as strongly as Eissler and Shapiro. Allison Castle, a Perry spokeswoman, said he wants to scrap it only if it can be replaced with something that “maintains or strengthens the goals of the 65 percent rule.”

Perry used a 2005 executive order to put the rule in place after lawmakers failed in their regular session and two special sessions that year to change the state’s school finance system. “Even though the Legislature did not act, I will,” he said then.

And thus the handed down from on high approach failed miserably. If Rick Perry had cared about finding a way to achieve his goal in a way that met the needs of a broad and diverse body of school districts, we might now be measuring the progress of the legislation that resulted from that effort. But he chose to take the easy way out, and so four years later we have to start all over again. Well, to paraphrase a buddy of his, governoring is hard work. Clearly, we’ve got to manage our expectations.

Is the TAKS test at the end of the line?

If so, there’s a lot of people who won’t be sorry to see it go.

“We have counted on testing and testing only. And it’s caused a lot of angst in the schools,” Senate Public Education Chair Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said Wednesday about the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

“We’ll still test, but we’re using other variables to give us the results that we need.”

Shapiro and House Public Education Chair Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, plan to file the school accountability legislation on Thursday. The changes — which would start in the 2011-12 school year — aim to gradually elevate Texas into the top 10 states when it comes to preparing students for college or equipping them with workforce skills.

Texas ranked 46th in the country last year in the Scholastic Assessment Test scores and last among all states in the percentage of adult population with a high school diploma.

The bills in question are HB3 (Eissler) and SB3 (Shapiro). That’s quite a lofty goal they’ve set for this legislation, but a worthwhile one.

The legislative proposal contemplates a “Texas diploma” for college-bound students and a “standard diploma” for those seeking skilled workforce training and a related career. The standard diploma would require three years of English and one year of algebra.

“This diploma will be in a field that says you are certified and are skilled workforce ready,” Shapiro said.

Students would be measured by individual improvement instead of a single test score. Existing “exemplary” “recognized” and “acceptable” ratings for schools and school districts will be eliminated and replaced by an “accreditation tier” focused on individual student achievement based on readiness for college or career.

High school, middle school and elementary school campuses also can earn distinctions for excellence in a variety of areas, such as growth in student achievement, workforce readiness, second language learning, fine arts and physical fitness.

Student testing “will cover more than minimum skills,” Eissler said. Tests will be given in each grade level in an effort to get “an instant growth indicator,” Eissler said, measuring a student’s academic improvement from one year to the next.

We’ll have to see what the details are, but I like the general concept. The purpose of school is to prepare you for what comes next, and I think it makes more sense to evaluate them on that kind of metric than on a standardized test one, which is easy to game and doesn’t really measure anything useful. This is going to be a lot trickier to do, and I’ve no doubt there will be problems and disagreements with the implementation. But the direction strikes me as the right one, and so I hope this makes it through. EoW has more.

Sixty-five percent of nothing

So back in 2005, after the regular legislative session and two ensuing special sessions on school finance, Governor Perry issued an executive order that would require schools to spend at least 65 percent of their tax money in the classroom. It came out of the blue and was inspired by a national crusade being pushed by the guy who founded Overstock.com. According to the executive order, schools were to be in compliance by the 2009-10 school year or face “tough sanctions,” which were not determined at the time.

Now it’s 2009. What’s the status of that rule?

House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler said Tuesday that he informed Gov. Rick Perry – the original proponent of the requirement – that it probably won’t fit into the new school accountability system to be considered by the Legislature this year. The rule mandated that at least 65 percent of school funds be spent on classroom instruction.

“I told him the 65 percent rule doesn’t fit into this new scenario – and he agreed,” Eissler told members of his committee at their initial meeting of the session Tuesday. “So we might get that done, because we need to set better rules.” The governor ordered school districts to meet the standard in an executive order in 2005 and it was later incorporated into state requirements. But there was little punishment involved for not meeting the 65 percent benchmark and most districts were within range of the threshold anyway.

Thus the whole thing was pointless, ineffective, and will ultimately be ignored. If that’s not the entire Rick Perry experience in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.