It sounds nuts, but over the past 10 to12 years, we've all but given up local control of our schools. And if you're inclined to think that's not such a big deal, consider the following:
As we acquiesce to the bureaucrats in Austin and Washington, we lose more and more of our local identity, and ultimately, we lose a clear and unique vision for Port Aransas schools. In fact, that vision gets so clouded by red tape and countless measures of accountability that we begin to co-opt these things as part of our local school culture, even when they contradict our needs.
Over time, folks hundreds of miles away set our agenda. They determine our policies, write our curriculum, and tell us how to spend our money… all in the name of improving school accountability.
And don't get me wrong; accountability is 100 percent necessary for maintenance of public trust, and as public officials, we whole-heartedly embrace the need for transparency and disclosure.
But the issue isn't so much a need for more accountability as it is the need for local schools to have flexibility in serving local constituencies (i.e., locally shaping vision). In Port Aransas, that means taking advantage of everything our unique location affords us.
Most of us have a pretty good idea of what we want to see in our schools, but simultaneously, we are confined by a state ratings system of accountability that seriously undercuts our local distinctiveness and ability to develop schools that best fit our kiddos.
Each year, when the Texas Education Agency releases "accountability" ratings, the apologists come out en masse. School administrators across the state (i.e., myself included) circle the wagons and begin spinning the designations of "Academically Acceptable", "Recognized", and "Exemplary". And believe me, every one of us can provide precise explanations for our results.
But do local folks really understand what it means for a school to be rated "exemplary"? And what's the difference between an "exemplary" school and one that is rated "academically acceptable"?
For example, in July, PAHS was rated "recognized". If a school in Houston, with completely different demographics, receives the same
designation, does it mean we essentially deliver the same type of education? If so, doesn't it beg the question, "Why are we educating students in Port Aransas the same way they do inHouston?"
Or take the case of Eanes ISD. Believe it or not, last year, all nine of their campuses were rated "exemplary" by the state, yet their overall district rating was "academically acceptable". Unfortunately for that district, their administrators, teachers and all of their kiddos will live with the label "acceptable" for an entire year because a single subpopulation of kiddos performed poorly on a portion of a state assessment.
So, how are communities supposed to know whether or not they have quality schools when the state's own accountability rating system is so confusing and contradictory?
It makes you wonder why we give so much credence to these ratings if all they provide is a very distorted and limited picture of who we really are. Yet, we so obsessively make them our primary milestone for achievement. We suffer locally diminishing returns just so we can jump through the state's ratings hoops, and our local values become the sacrificial lamb of "exemplary" status (as if that somehow defines who we are).
Fortunately, some of the state's most influential educational leaders have finally begun to fight back, as 35 superintendents (representing 1.2 million students) from across the state have developed The Visioning Institute for Public Education. The group is the first of its kind and is backed by big business and the Schlechty Center for Leadership and School Reform. It has initiated new momentum for advancing school accountability to include multiple, locally based objectives.
So, folks in Austin are finally talking about the importance of rating schools on more than a one-shot, high-stakes assessment (i.e., TAKS). And at last, perhaps we have an opportunity to trade a broken system for one that clearly conveys school quality and provides us more input on running our schools at home.
In Port Aransas, such a shift would directly impact our classrooms by nudging resources toward more engaging and appropriate student experiences. Curriculum developed primarily for test taking/TAKS would be augmented to tap into the curiosity and imagination of students with a wide range of abilities and needs. Parents, students, and compassionate, dedicated educators would again have a say about student performance, curriculum development, and program evaluation.
And that doesn't mean we would have to throw out the gains we've made over the past decade as the result of school accountability reform. The bureaucrats got that part right after years of unresponsive, inflexible public schools that were more concerned with status quo than with public trust.
However, now the rhetoric of No Child Left Behind and TAKS is being distorted to justify the overregulation of schools. And what began as a noble cause has morphed into a state accountability system that rewards schools for achieving mediocrity. Rote curriculum has minimized thoughtful planning, and benchmarking has gobbled up instructional time. Our kids have become "widgets" on an assembly line of standardized test production, and our teachers, assembly line workers.
While we wait on our state and federal officials to make policy changes, what will be our mission in Port Aransas? Will the bravado of "exemplary" status divert us from our true potential? Or will we bravely allow locally elected officials wake us up from the trance of state accountability ratings? The most successful and progressive districts across this state are already doing it.
Travis Longanecker is principal at Port Aransas High School.