Embracing Our Dumbness: Bills Before Legislature Would Turn Back the Clock on Education Standards

So in the end will all of the public school principals and teachers with the worst test scores for minority and poor kids wind up in a big political wet kiss with the Tea Party? Wait, am I naive? Have they always been smoochers?

While we spend our time worrying about job security for public school principals in Dallas, the Legislature is about to yank the rug from under poor and working-class kids all over Texas. A bill voted out of the House Public Education Committee last week and paired with a similar bill in the Senate will gut rigorous testing tied to grade advancement and graduation. Its author, Representative Jimmie Don Aycock, a Killeen Republican, is peddling this whole Tea Party line about college prep being a waste of money for most Texas kids.

The Texas Association of Business and 16 major corporations and chambers of commerce are calling Aycock's HB 5 a truly bad idea for Texas: "Lowering graduation requirements would send the wrong message to our students, create fewer pathways to additional education and threaten Texas competitively," the TAB said in an open letter to the Senate five days ago.

Aycock is the most visible spokesman at the moment in our TP-dominated Legislature for the idea that most kids would do just fine with some job training instead of all that reading, writing and 'rithmetic that they cain't hardly get no-how anyhow. That old ghost has been a Texas rural line of thinking since forever: It's exactly what Ross Perot and Tom Luce had to fight in the early '80s when they first introduced Texas to the notion that literacy might be even more important than football. Now the hard bigotry of no expectations is back to haunt us, and it seems to be making common cause with the worn-out pissed-off teachers and principals of the world and their spokespersons.

The point the corporate community makes is that reading, writing and math are the only job training that's worth anything today. Kids who have not mastered those skills better be good with a shovel. (I think those jobs are taken, actually, but let's not go there right now.)

Dallas Morning News editorial columnist Bill McKenzie did a Q&A a few days ago with Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund A. Paredes, who said: "Texas is 48th in SAT Reading and Writing scores, 38th in Math scores and 33rd in ACT scores. ACT data show only 25 percent of Texas high school graduates are college ready across the board. Among the 10 largest states we are eighth in college participation. That doesn't sound like too much emphasis on getting kids ready for college."

Yeah. All of the bitching about teaching to the test might have more credibility if the complaints were about specific tests rather than the whole idea of testing. In fact, some test critics, like Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment (TAMSA) are saying the worst thing about state tests is their egregious tendency to over-report achievement when compared with results for the same students on nationally normed tests like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

So, sure, if we're going to ditch the bad tests, let's put that much more emphasis on nationally normed tests like the ITBS and the SAT that aren't written by Gomer legislators. But that's not where Aycock is headed and, judging by some of the comments here (should we judge by those?), it's not at all what's driving the fury among DISD staff at underperforming schools. Instead we get this whole paranoid parallel universe in which testing itself is a CIA/Illuminati conspiracy to enrich Sandy Kress, an Akin-Gump lawyer, former Dallas school board member and former White House adviser who is now on the faculty of the George W. Bush Institute.

A plot to enrich a guy named Sandy Kress? Hmm. There's something in there I could almost like. OK, let's say it's true. That would still leave us with this basic problem: Life is a test. L-I-F-E. Life. It's a T-E-S-T. Test. Doing good on tests is ... well, it's just really good. Doing bad on tests is quite bad. A bad thing. If testing is really a conspiracy to benefit Sandy Kress, then Sandy Kress must be God, in which case we better do what he says.

The world is full of people right now who want to stop pushing poor kids to achieve. They don't want the competition for their own kids. Some of them want to take America back to 1950 when white people didn't have to be all that smart in order to be smart. But, look, remember what I said about the smooch. Looming just as large on this horizon is the line I heard loud and clear at Madison High School last week, that high-stakes testing and tough accountability for teachers and principals are a white plot to screw black people out of their jobs.

What was that saying? Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan? That's bullshit. Judging by what's going on in Dallas and Texas right now, I'd say success is a wallflower and failure is more like an orgy.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze