Nick Cooper
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Your Kids’ Teachers Are Pissed Off and Deserve a Hug

Your Kids’ Teachers Are Pissed Off and Deserve a Hug
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by Nick Cooper
Illustration by Blake Jones

One in five adults in Harris County are functionally illiterate. In 2011, Texas (which was already ranked 48th on education spending) hit schools with a double-whammy — cutting the education budget by $5 billion while implementing expensive new testing. Over the past 30 years, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled against these kinds of cuts five times, but legislators keep doing it. Around Texas now, some wealthier districts get over $60,000 more per classroom than some poor districts. Though there is a budget surplus in Texas this year, it won’t go to education. Instead, Republican legislators are fighting for voucher systems to pull even more money out of public schools.

Around Houston, teachers are trying to juggle what they see as the needs of their students with the limitations and requirements put on them by the system. The mainstream news is concerned with little more than the question of whether or not teachers should have guns. So this month, we wanted to give teachers an opportunity to teach the rest of us how the system works (and doesn’t work). For their protection, we are using their first names only.

Jenn is an interventionist for reading, math, and students with behavioral issues in kindergarten through fourth grade. For her, low salaries, limited resources, and bossy bosses can be a problem at any job, but all of those pale in comparison to the frustrations of standardized testing.

She works at a school in a low-income community, where the parents are often working full-time, single, homeless, non-English-speaking, jailed, and/or uneducated. Many of her students live in shelters. While she does her best to help these students succeed, some students are too burned-out to excel, and the standardized tests just make matters worse.

“Unfortunately, the state doesn’t look at ‘extenuating circumstances.’ Our students’ scores are compared to those of students in River Oaks. Even though, as teachers, we might see a three- or four-year growth in our students, they still won’t meet state standards, and our teachers and students feel like failures.”

One of her students, who cannot speak and is permanently in a wheelchair, “must take the same test the rest of the students are taking. Dyslexic students must read their standardized tests, and we cannot assist them. I just wish that the state would come in and actually look at what is going on.”

Ed, a Social Studies teacher and a mentor to troubled and at-risk kids in 7th & 8th grade agrees. “They have been doing benchmark tests [every week or two] all year long. As a teacher, I don’t get to cover a lot of material in that time – especially because the reading levels for these middle schoolers are very low. If we complain, the typical response is that they are following the ‘experts’ on this matter.”

Working in the charter school, Ed feels additional pressures.

“The teachers have no annual contracts with the school. We can be terminated at any time, and they let us know this fact almost on a daily basis.”

Al, who teaches music at a local public elementary school, sees the testing being used to punish those who need the most help.

“Money goes to successful schools, not the ones that need it most. Everything has to be geared towards the tests. My performance review is heavily graded on how the kids test [though music isn’t even on the tests]. One day a week, I have to teach testing strategies in reading or math. When I have children who are exceptional musicians, they can’t play unless they pass their tests.”

For Rachel, a public school administrator in the Houston area, it is the frequency and type of testing that is the problem. Data-driven instruction could potentially be very helpful to educators, but “there is the constant barrage of edicts and mandates that come from the central office that may or may not be in your campus’ best interest.”

She says the state and federal man

dates that come in are even more out of touch.

Despite lack of resources, being buried in tests, paid little, and often treated poorly, these educators work tirelessly because they feel a calling to teach, as well as a love for their students and their job. However, Texas Republicans would rather congratulate themselves for cutting funding to education instead of taking the time to meet with these educators on the front line.

Erin, a middle school educator in HISD sees public education inequality in America increasing by design, with for-profit, private, and charter schools cashing in.

“It’s a set-up,” she says. “They’re setting us up for failure so they can say we have to be fixed.”

  • Torry Mercer

    The main consultant for HISD and the TEA is an older woman with a consulting firm who retired years ago from HISD. Her ideas are what all public teachers in Texas are suffering through right now. It is amazing how she is going against all the new ideas from the past 20 years of how humans learn best, which is with an individualized program a la Dr. Paulo Freire. Her ideas are so Republican and old fashioned it is unbelievable. I watched in amazement as a basketball court full of principals scurried with her binders full of bullshit to comply with a program of complete standardization. Basically, every student in every school is on the exact lesson, from the same Republican chosen textbook, on the same day. The logic is very simple. To get good measurements all the variables must be eliminated. No one complained or asked a question other than “what page are we on now?” in the cumbersome manual. It was like watching Barbara Bush trying out her recipe for clones. It is a very corporate thing – the emphasis on data driven everything. That works in a lab or financial report – it is what makes science and big business work – but humans are too dynamic in every way, socially, economically, biologically, culturally, and intellectually for this. We need more variation in instruction, not less. Schools should specialize and have their own cultures based on the diverse philosophies of their most dynamic teachers. Schools should be like shoes. Students should find the ones that fit them.

    Historically we have had private and religious schools, then small do-it-and-pay-for-it-yourself community schools (think one room schoolhouse farmer’s schools), and then the Socialist-square-peg-in-an-industrial-capitalist-round-hole public schools. What we need now are non-religious and non-profit community based schools paid for with public funding. We need to get rid of governments, corporations, and religions running education. Parents and their communities need to take responsibility for their children’s education. All we need is for the government to collect the taxes and distribute them evenly to community based organization set up and dedicated to facilitate learning. Then let the universities set the bar for admissions with a standardized base.