Throughout the legislative interim, Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) has visited each of the 55 schools in his district. Many anticipate the 2017 state legislative session to be an uphill battle for school finance and accountability reform. To prepare, Bernal educated himself by embarking on a listening tour during which he let professional educators explain what matters in education.
“If you want to know what works and what doesn’t, how you can help out or if you need to get out of the way, you should go to the people who do it for a living every day. That’s what we did,” Bernal said.
His collected findings, accompanied by direct quotes from educators, are published in his report, “What They Said: What I Learned from Conversations with Texas Educators,” available now on Medium.
Bernal said that he was surprised by what he learned. The priorities listed by educators did not align with one political philosophy or another. At the same time, most priorities were similar, even across the diverse campuses. House District 123 is one of the most economically diverse districts in Texas and includes campuses from the three largest school districts in Bexar County: San Antonio ISD, North East ISD, and Northside ISD.
When Bernal saw such nonpartisan agreement across wide demographics, he knew that he was getting to the heart of what matters in education.
Major themes emerged when it came to getting the right people into the right positions with the right resources. Educators want to see more experienced professionals on high-need campuses. They see the need for professional social workers and case managers as well, so that teachers are free to teach.
“According to these educators, providing social services for students is one of the most important public education investments we can make,” Bernal wrote in the report.
While the report does touch on technology infrastructure, the value of and need for pre-K, and enrichment such as art, music, and field trips, the most valuable resource for educators – and the one under the greatest threat – is time. High-stakes testing and inadequate social and special education services steal valuable time from teachers. Programs intended to help often come with additional time burdens as well, and the more a school struggles, the more accountability measures add to the time burden.
All of this makes it difficult for great teachers to stay at struggling campuses. Great teachers want to teach.
Staffing and leadership problems are the result of under-resourced campuses. Consequently, high turnover in leadership destabilizes campuses and hampers progress. Educators want to see increased incentives and professional development as well as the ability to ensure that the right teachers are in the classroom.
Throughout the listening tour, Bernal repeatedly heard about the high cost of chronic hunger and the need for wrap-around services. Educators are held to standards that assume kids are coming to school with a certain set of resources at their disposal. More and more, this is not the case. As one quote in the report states:
“Call it whatever you want: ‘socioeconomically disadvantaged,’ ‘free & reduced lunch,’ ‘Title I,’ ‘at-risk’… these students are poor. They don’t come with the same advantages middle-class students come with, but they do come with different problems, more challenges, and more work. They’re just as smart, just as bright, but you have to get through all of the life-issues before you can get to the learning. If you don’t do that?– help them with life? – ?if you don’t see that, then you can’t expect them to meet the same standards as everyone else. Treat the child as a human, and what you’re left with, and what the teacher is left with, is a student who is ready to learn.”
The disconnect between the actual student population and the idealized student population assumed by the education system is the a rppt cause of systemic issues, including poor test grades and “failing” schools.
“The inequality of the current school finance system all but ensures that a campus’ letter grade will align with the wealth or poverty of the surrounding area, but the students will carry the weight of that grade in a more personal, internal way,” Bernal wrote in the report.
The full report includes direct quotes and summaries of the themes repeated by educators across the district.
Top image: Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) reads to children at one of the 55 campuses he visited during his education listening tour. Photo courtesy of Diego Bernal.