Thomas Ratliff Writes… We’re Asking The Wrong Questions

The following is a reprint of a letter written by Texas State Board of Education Member, Thomas Ratliff (R) to the his constituents.  It is a great document that cuts through the lies and half-truths about education that are dominating the rhetoric of campaigning politicians.

We’re Asking The Wrong Questions

If they can get you to ask the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about their answers.”  This statement captures the rhetoric surrounding public education in Texas.

President John Kennedy, “To often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”  This also captures the current rhetoric about public education in Texas.

We hear opinions like, “Our schools are low performing.”  “Children are trapped in low performing schools.”  “Too many kids are not ready for college.”  “We are dumbing down standards.”  “We can’t keep throwing money at the problem.”  “We spend too much money on overhead and not in the classroom.”

These “comfortable” opinions really don’t get anywhere close to the real challenges facing our schools.  So, what follows is a Q&A about Texas public schools that, unfortunately, bring about the discomfort of the REAL challenges facing our schools.

Q:             How many teachers are certified to teach the subject they are teaching?

A:             Here’s the breakdown of the percentage of teachers who are teaching a subject in which he or she is NOT certified.  They are called “Out of Field” teachers.

CTE – 37% Computer Science – 48% English – 24% ESL – 50% LOTE – 19% Math – 21% SPED – 60%

In other words, students in Texas have, at best, a 1 in 5 chance of having a teacher in their class that is not certified to teach that subject.

Q:             Why are there so few certified teachers in Texas classrooms?

A:            There are many answers to this question.  College is too expensive and/or student loans are too much to support on teacher’s salary.  Teaching is much different than it was due to discipline and funding issues.  Teachers aren’t valued and/or are blamed for problems in public schools today.

Keep in mind that these numbers are actually lower unless you count “alternatively certified” teachers, not just those graduating with a college degree in teaching-related field of study.

Q:            How much money do schools spend on “overhead” instead of “in the classroom”?

A:            First, we have to come to an understanding about what’s “in the classroom” and what’s not.  Are counselors, nurses, librarians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, utility bills, gasoline, buildings, buses, or food considered “inside” or “outside” the classroom?

Second, here are the actual percentages from TEA’s 2012 Snapshot Report:

Central Admin. – 1% Campus Admin – 3% Support Staff – 9%

Teachers – 51% Aides – 9% Aux Staff – 27%

Central admin:  superintendent, business mgr., personnel mgr., etc.

Campus admin:  principals, asst. principals, athletic directors, instructional director

Support staff:  counselors, librarians, diagnosticians (does not include secretaries)

Aides:  interpreters, translators, aides that work under teacher’s direction

Aux. staff:  bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria, secretaries, etc.

Q:             Why do so many students need remediation during and after high school?

A:            There are at least three problems that impact this.

1.                    Our standards are too long.  We are giving our students a “Wikipedia” or “Cliff Notes” education.  This teaches students to learn something long enough to fill in a bubble sheet at the end of the school year, but they don’t master or retain that information.  For example, our math books cover 5 times more material than German or Japanese math books.  Both countries out-rank the US in math scores.  Coincidence?

2.                    As shown above, there are too many teachers teaching subjects they aren’t certified to teach.  This impacts learning, period.

3.                    Our student body is increasingly economically disadvantaged.  When programs like Communities in Schools are cut back, kids suffer.  Hungry kids aren’t worried about their next test.  They’re worried about their next meal.  What does it mean to be “economically disadvantaged?  To receive a FREE meal, a student must be from a family of four with an annual income of $30,615 or to get a REDUCED PRICE meal, a student must be from a family of four with an annual income of $43,568.  There are other measurements as well.  This is the maximum income/family figure.

Q:            How does today’s statewide student body compare to 10 years ago?

A:            The student body is changing and the cost of educating the “average” student is increasing.  ESL and CTE kids cost more to educate.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the school finance formulas.  Those students are “weighted” more than others due to the cost.  Bottom line, school funding challenges are getting worse, not better.

Hispanic +9% (51%/2.6M) White -10% (31%/1.6M) Eco. Dis. +10% (60%/3M) ESL +3% (17%/850K) CTE +3% (22%/1.1M) Percent Tested +5% (69%) SAT Avg. -9 pts (1600) ACT Avg. +.3 pts (36)

Q:             Are children “trapped in low performing schools” in Texas?  Would vouchers help?

A:             The short answer is, “Yes there are low performing schools and yes, some children are trapped there.”  Now let’s fill in the blanks.  In 1995, Texas established the PEG (Public Education Grant) Program that allows students of low performing schools to transfer to another public school district.  Currently there are 892 out of 8,529 (10.5%) campuses that are under the PEG program due to underperformance on the state accountability system.  This affects approximately 300,000 students (6%).  Why don’t they transfer or “escape” these schools?  There are many reasons:  Lack of transportation, their demographic sub-group may not be low-performing, work, family, community, or available space at neighboring district, just to name a few.

A voucher is a “false promise” to any child who doesn’t have transportation or the financial resources to bridge the gap between the voucher and the total cost of tuition at a private school.  Additionally, a voucher can’t even begin to solve the transportation, work, family, community or available space issues.

Q:              Are we really “throwing money at the problem” in public education?

A:               No.  Our finance system has been found to be unconstitutional on all three measures (inadequate, inequitable, and inefficient) for the first time ever.  Previous lawsuits have determined the state was only out of compliance in one of the three measures.

Let’s look at the number from the Legislative Budget Board.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, the TOTAL (local, state and federal) funding per student for public schools in Texas has decreased by 17% over the past 10 years (from $7,222 in 2002 to $5,998 in 2013).  This decrease is happening at the same time our school population is getting more expensive to educate.  For example, the price of gas 10 years ago was $1.50, or less than 50% of the current price.

Keep in mind that Texas spends an average of $11,923 per prisoner to keep prisoners behind bars.  Which do you think is a better investment?

Q             What’s on the horizon?

A:             We will face a significant shortage of certified teachers in Texas if something doesn’t change.  This will have far-reaching ramifications across K-12 education and across the state.  Consider the breakdown of the teacher workforce today:

First year – 15,000 1-5 years – 93,000 6-10 years – 72,000 11-20 years – 86,000            20+ years – 58,000 
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