An Interview with Rob D’ Amico: Education Cuts in Texas

Jan 27, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)      Rob, there was a recent Texas AFT release that really discussed the fact that students, as well as teachers and schools are going to be impacted by recent cuts. Could you briefly summarize the report?

The report looks at impacts from $5.4 billion in cuts to state funding for Texas public schools, based on a survey of school superintendents. While there are some hard numbers reported (e.g. how many positions districts cut), many of the survey questions were open-ended and allowed superintendents to make some pretty candid comments on the dire state of their schools due to funding cuts.

2)      How many superintendents were surveyed and how many responded ?

We mailed surveys to all 1,051 Texas public school superintendents, and 241 responded (23%). Although the survey respondents remain anonymous, we do have responses indicating the size of the student population respondents serve, which represents about one-fifth of all Texas public schoolchildren.

3)      Tell us about these STAAR tests and how student performance  may be impacted ?

The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) replaced the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) this year as the state’s standardized test for accountability ratings. According to the Texas Education Agency, STAAR is more rigorous than TAKS, is better aligned with curriculum, and does a better job at measuring “college readiness.”

There are a couple other major differences from TAKS, namely that STAAR is timed (four-hour limit to complete each test) and that the system uses end-of-course exams at the high school level to graduate. (There’s also a battle being waged on how to count end-of-course exams for grade point average. You can read more about that here: http://texasaftblog.com/hotline/?p=1529 )

Districts have obviously worked for years on perfecting their strategies for ensuring high achievement on the TAKS exams, since accountability ratings can be punitive in several areas, resulting in closed schools or in some cases teacher terminations. So, with a new test that is more “rigorous,” superintendents are extremely concerned about meeting desired achievement levels. Adding to the anxiety is the fact that many districts did not receive textbooks and other materials in a timely matter this year, class sizes have skyrocketed (giving teachers less time to spend on individuals needing help), and services and positions that were designed to help kids in danger of failing standardized test have been cut in many instances.

For example, in order to avoid teacher layoffs, many districts cut reading specialists, which could be crucial in getting a student help in passing the reading exam. So, many of the superintendents’ comments noted their fear about doing well on STAAR.

4)      What were the KEY FINDINGS of the survey?

Respondents reported 6,480 school employee positions cut this school year, with the largest number (3,052) being teaching positions. If you extrapolate the data, that means there’s probably about 30,000 positions cut total, a pretty big hit to Texas schools. This is in line with a recent survey from school finance consultants, Moak/Casey, which reports a similar number.
Much of the survey dealt with how superintendents are going to deal with budget shortfalls, which will get worse this year, since the state funding reductions are actually bigger in year two of the state budget. They’re looking at more layoffs, salary cuts (9%), health benefit cuts (9%), stipend cuts (20%) and furlough days (6%). We’re a bit cautious about these numbers because superintendents don’t like announcing possible cuts like these—even in an anonymous survey—until they begin their budget process in February/March.

One interesting finding is that superintendents by a large majority (60%) say they intend to use their fund balances (reserves) for next year’s budget.

But again, it’s not the raw numbers as much as the comments that tell the story, and there are dozens of references to increasing class sizes, problems with STAAR implementation and low teacher morale.

5)      Could you include a few comments from superintendents to give readers a “feel“for what they are dealing with?

Here’s a few:

“Everyone will suffer. Struggling students will be left behind, strong students will be leveling off with little or no time or resources for enrichment. Teachers and staff will be stretched and stressed to meet performance standards.”

“The increase has detrimental effects, particularly with respect to achievement of SES [Supplemental Education Services] and minority students, especially in the lower grades.”

“Teachers have more to do with less time and resources, which will negatively affect their ability to do their job. And it will have a negative impact on student performance.”

“Increased class sizes will lower performance, especially on STAAR.”

6)      Is this report available on line ? Can you provide the link?

 Yes, at http://www.texasaft.org

7)      I am going to use a word that many people do not like to hear- but here it comes—morale—how will this impact morale?

There were scores of comments on low teacher morale, burnout and even apathy. Some of them are really disheartening, like:

“I believe more experienced teachers (about to retire) will leave the profession and many younger teachers will do all that they can to find jobs in other professions. Why go where you are not appreciated?” And … “Morale will decrease; willingness to come to work will decrease, eventually leading to an exodus of teachers and fewer college graduates wanting to enter education.”

Others were even more blunt, noting that teachers can’t leave, because they’re afraid they won’t find jobs anywhere, so they’ll stick it out and suffer until the economy improves, then they’ll bolt. I found this part of the survey extremely upsetting, because I have two schoolchildren, and I certainly don’t want them in a learning environment with burned out teachers, casualties of large class sizes, extra duties, excessive paperwork and an obsession with test data.

The overemphasis on testing is creating mechanized babysitters whose professional abilities are honed primarily to succeeding at tests. What does that do to our kids and their inspiration to learn and ability to be creative thinkers?

8)      Are some superintendents thinking about charging for after school extra-curricular activities? For Example, football, basketball, track, cross country events and the like?

 Yes, 5% of respondents reported that they are currently charging for extra-curriculars. We saw recently that one district—Premont ISD in South Texas—went the other direction and is just getting rid of all extra-curriculars and sports in an effort to boost its low-performing rating.

9)      What about class size? And how will this impact instruction and learning ?

Regardless of what some of the state leaders tried to sell the public, class size does matter—a lot! Some like to note that teacher quality is much more important and not to worry about class size, but that’s really a stupid argument, because even the best teacher’s effectiveness will be reduced when you start piling more kids into the class. Imagine having 24 kindergartners, the majority of which are impoverished, are English language learners, have a variety of social issues affecting their schoolwork or perhaps are special-education inclusion students. Take away six of those students for a class of 18 and you have a much better chance helping them succeed.

And when you get to the secondary level, imagine having 180 students total, and trying to grade their papers, meet their needs and communicate with their parents. It’s really insane.

Thankfully, I think superintendents get this. Publically during the legislative session they wanted “flexibility” to cut teacher positions and increase class sizes. But they’re backs really were against the wall, and I think the comments show that they understand the terrible consequences of large class sizes, particularly with teachers trying to get that many kids ready for STAAR.

10)   What have I neglected to ask?

My shoe size? Oh, how about what can concerned citizens, parents and educators do about the challenges? Get plugged in, take action in letters, phone calls and at rallies, and let lawmakers that represent you know that you won’t stand for devastating cuts to education. Our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/TexasAFT is a great place to get involved.

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