Patrick Kobler, 24, is one of nearly 200 young people who finished college and committed to spending the next two years of their lives in San Antonio making a difference as members of Teach for America, the nationally acclaimed program that seeks to give children raised in poverty access to an excellent education.

Kobler’s an inner city high school social studies teacher and charter corps member for Teach For America San Antonio.  He is the first TFA teacher to write for The Rivard Report. He recently founded Solutions-for-Schools.com, an education reform website that seeks to bring all backgrounds and viewpoints to the table for thoughtful solutions and bold actions to end America’s education crisis.

He’s a Dallas native who grew up in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, a small town turned suburb of Milwaukee. Kobler graduated from Southern Methodist University in 2010, where he majored in political science and served as Student Body President as a senior. His term at Sam Houston High School on the city’s East Side runs from June 2010-June 2012. His future remains open.

by Patrick Kobler

One word will dominate local school boards, classrooms and dinner table discussions for the next month: “STAAR.”  These conversations won’t focus on the constellations of the night sky; rather, students, parents, educators and city leaders will spend countless hours obsessing on the newly implemented State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness, or STAAR examinations, and what their impact will be on the future of our city’s schools.

Texas public schools began administering the STAAR tests this year, replacing the TAKS tests, which were used to assess student learning in Texas from 2003-11.  Initial reactions indicate few Texans are properly prepared for the more rigorous measure of student knowledge and educator accountability, even though the change has been in the works for some time, and this year marked the tenth anniversary of No Child Left Behind.

The immediate response toward the more difficult assessment of student learning has been largely negative:

“It’s too hard.”

“It’s unfair to hold schools and teachers accountable in this manner.”

“My students/kids were unprepared, it’s the [insert lower grade level’s] fault.”

Several Texas principals and school boards have gone so far as to sign a letter condemning the newly instituted tests.  What a raging waste of time and resources and what a horrific example of whining being set by adults for students.

San Antonio should resist the effort to just teach to the test

I urge San Antonio not to join in with the naysayers. Local school districts should resist the temptation of spending the summer creating curricula designed specifically to teach to the new STAAR tests. We can and must do better.

21st Century Skills Tracker: Work Ethic, Writing, Critical Thing, and more
21st Century Skills Tracker: Work Ethic, Writing, Critical Thinking, and more

San Antonio has been presented a unique opportunity to rise above the endless debates about state assessments,  and instead create school systems that aim higher than a multiple-choice test.  We can lead the way in implementing higher levels of learning in our classrooms. We can prepare students for a state test, but more importantly, we can prepare them to be leaders of a 21st century global economy.

Extensive studies – most notably from the education research book Understanding by Design (Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. 2005. Understanding by Design, 2nd Edition. ASCD p. 42-43) – have shown the strategy of teaching to a test does not work.  In fact, educators and schools who teach beyond a state-issued, end-of-course examination produce far better student scores than those focused solely on having students hit enough correct multiple choice answers to get over the pass bar.  Teach kids to think and they will perform. Teach them to be zombie bubble fillers and they will not.  Teaching beyond a test is better for both students and the reputation of our school districts.  The former being much more important and the latter still benefitting by doing what is right for our young people.

Student brochure on the Crusades
Students became “travel agents” and developed a brochure on the Crusades.

If we only teach our students – the city’s next leaders – what school districts believe will be “on the test,” their future and the city’s future will suffer.  Low-level thinking will birth a crop of low-level citizens.  Creativity will become an endangered species, innovation will decline, and the general belief in San Antonio’s education system as a pillar supporting tomorrows ‘s leaders will crumble.

San Antonio is the largest major majority-minority city in the nation and, therefore, a model for America’s future.  When formulating district curriculum, we must ask: Does San Antonio want to be a model of success that inspires other American cities, or will it stand as a model of failure?  I am only 24 and have no political stakes influencing my personal views, but I do believe everyone in San Antonio wants to become a model of success, to be part of something bigger, a city that shows the rest  of the country how to prosperously evolve with a changing demographic.

Students created a story board on checks and balances of government

The major economic initiative of Mayor Castro’s SA2020 campaign is to be “recognized as a leader in business that prospers through innovation in 21st century industries.”  This bold movement of progress includes these benchmarks:

  • increased reported per capita income.
  • maintain steady job growth.
  • increase quality of life index.

These are all wonderful ingredients in the recipe for a model American city, but none of the goals will be realized if our city’s students are taught only how to pass a state test.  How will San Antonio become a leader of innovation and industry if students are taught the bare minimum required to pass the STAAR?  How will our city fill jobs at the five new energy-based companies our Mayor successfully recruited to San Antonio if students aren’t trained to think beyond a Scantron bubble?  Who will fill the new jobs being created at the Pearl?

This answer is no one, unless San Antonio creates a curriculum designed to instill high order thinking and 21st century skills.  The new companies? They’ll either hire from outside cities or, eventually, leave.  We must learn from our history, both the good and the bad, and not repeat the same glaring mistakes. To bring in new business and then not teach our students how to thrive in innovative environments is akin to one of those Chinese cities that build apartments nobody lives in.  A well-designed emptiness and a city marked with a scarlet letter; a bright red “U” for unemployable.  Is this what we seek?

Instead of spending the summer guess analyzing what may be on next year’s STARR tests and then creating curriculum, teacher trainings and lessons based on this analysis, let’s do something drastic and different.  Let’s create curriculum that teaches students how to create, how to think and how to be leaders of a 21st century global economy.  Let’s create lessons that teach students real-life skills in numeracy and civic engagement.  If a lesson calls for measurements, turn students into aspiring engineers who appraise buildings and create models.  If a state standard centers on government, have students write to their congressmen and the Texas Legislature.  Teach students to be a part of the process that affects them.  Teach them to be the next great generation. Bring community and economic leaders into classrooms, have them interact with and inspire students.  Show our kids what they can be.  Demonstrate in human – not paper – form so our students can aspire to achieve it.

Student map of how their government works
Could you do this? Draw a map of how government works

I propose this: school districts creating the new curriculum, shouldn’t even look at analysis of the STAAR tests.  Be bold in order to achieve bold results. Resist the urge to play it safe – that will not bring our city to any prominence. It won’t work, either.

Instead, bring everyone to the table: parents, students, educators, professors, district and city leaders to help formulate a curriculum.  Most importantly, involve the leaders of new and major San Antonio based businesses in the discussion of what our students need to learn.  Ask, “In ten years, what knowledge would a student need to be hired by your company?” and then form a curriculum based off the answer.

To prepare all of our students to help usher in San Antonio’s Renaissance, we must teach beyond the STAAR test.  In 10 years, we will look back and ask, “Did we try the same thing and fail, or did we innovate where it matters most – the classroom – and prepare a generation to succeed?”  I hope the answer is the latter.  The Mayor has called our city to greatness.  Let’s answer his call and do so by creating a curriculum that will produce not only the next leaders of San Antonio, but the next leaders of our nation.  Teach our students to be stars, not simply to pass the STAAR.

Patrick Kobler is just about everywhere. Reach him on Twitter: @Solutions4Schlz.

His Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/solutionsforschools

His website: http://solutions-for-schools.com/

Want to learn more about Teach for America? Click on the link or read the book, “A Chance to make History,” by Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America.

Want to make a donation to keep the TFA program alive and well in San Antonio’s public schools? Connect with the local TFA executive director, Laura Saldivar. It’s money well spent. It will make a difference. It will make you feel good.

Monika Maeckle

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...