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[/one_half]
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.”