Sunday, September 6, 2009

The truth about public education in Texas

A friend recently sent me a popular email forward about public education, one that I have seen before. Here is the text of that popular forward:

After being interviewed by the school administration, the prospective teacher said:

'Let me see if I've got this right.

'You want me to go into that room with all those kids, correct their disruptive behavior, observe them for signs of abuse, monitor their dress habits, censor their T-shirt messages, and instill in them a love for learning.

'You want me to check their backpacks for weapons, wage war on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, and raise their sense of self esteem and personal pride.

'You want me to teach them patriotism and good citizenship, sportsmanship and fair play, and how to register to vote, balance a checkbook, and apply for a job.

'You want me to check their heads for lice, recognize signs of antisocial behavior, and make sure that they all pass the final exams.

'You also want me to provide them with an equal education regardless of their handicaps, and communicate regularly with their parents in English, Spanish or any other language, by letter, telephone, newsletter, and report card.

'You want me to do all this with a piece of chalk, a blackboard, a bulletin board, a few books, a big smile, and a starting salary that qualifies me for food stamps.

'You want me to do all this and then you tell me. . . I CAN'T PRAY?

This was the essence of my reply to my friend:

Having taught math in two high schools, I can tell you that the email is a pretty accurate description of the situation. It is not exaggerated in any way. In point of fact, it is understated: they also expect you to teach-to-the-test instead of teaching the subject, while still accomplishing educational miracles. And, that test (in all its incarnations over the last several years) is a bonehead-level multiple-choice thing that never tests for anything beyond 9th grade, and precious little of that.

You see, I know exactly what is on the Texas 9th, 10th, and exit (11th) grade TAKS math tests. They differ only (ONLY!!!!!) in the number of problems. Start at 52, add 4 more each year. Same pool of nothing but 9th grade algebra-1 problems. No geometry, no algebra-2, nothing advanced at all.

The Texas state minimum salary for a beginning teacher is about $21 K /year. Only the richest districts pay more than minimum. The federal poverty definition for a family of 3 is over $27 K /year. No junior high ever hires a full-time math teacher to teach the critical junior-high math. Only coaches are used for that. By far, most of them "worksheet" the students, instead of instructing in the subject. A substantial fraction of them actually do not know the math themselves. Typically, coaches are paid twice what full-time instructors are paid. It's the only way to attract any.

The "accountability" of the test has completely backfired, as was already known over a decade ago. By linking school funding to test scores that no one can control, they encourage two very destructive things: (1) teaching-to-the-test, meaning only teaching how to check answers on a multiple-choice test with a calculator, instead of how to actually do the math, and (2) cheating on the test, which is really, really easy to do, and is very, very widespread.

In point of fact, the widely-touted "Texas miracle" that enabled Bush-43 to push through "No Child Left Behind" in Congress, was in reality a Houston school district that was later exposed as a blatant cheat.

I'm just glad I'm out of that game, instead now teaching college at Texas State Technical College in Waco, Texas, these last 2 years. Yet we have to deal every day with the product of that defunct public educational system. It was completely destroyed by a boneheaded "standardized" test and the related politically-motivated notions of "accountability" that were really nothing but a draw for votes. I am really pissed off that people (especially those here in Texas where I live) keep re-electing the assholes who did this.

The biggest on-going effort in TSTC's math department is "developmental math", meaning remediation of students, with diplomas, who were never actually taught anything at all. I know, I teach some of it as well as the "full-contact" college math. I have seen one student mis-placed into a college algebra class, who could not even add 2 and 3, and get 5, on his fingers!!!

Believe it. It is true. It was in my class that I saw this.

It is no different at MCC, at Baylor, at UT, at A&M, at Tech, or anywhere else in the state. There are a precious tiny handful of school districts that still actually teach. The rest just run "Friday night lights" as their main business.

This utter disaster is just another one of the little "open secrets" that no one has had the courage to reveal to the public. It would wreck too many still-ongoing political careers, I guess.

Here's the really frightening part. Now the politicians in Austin are making their first moves toward foisting this disaster upon higher education, too. You would not believe the pressures on me from high officials to pass students who do not deserve it. But it is true.

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