COLUMN: Schools not all to blame

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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As I type these words, I have an excruciating toothache. And it’s made me realize that we blame schools too much for our children’s problems.

(Keep reading. That’ll make sense eventually.)

Earlier this month, a research arm of UNICEF issued a report dryly titled, “An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries.” Its goal was to measure how children in 21 well-off nations – mostly the U.S., plus much of Europe – compared with one another. It took dozens of measures from each of the countries and compiled them into a series of ratings.

The results were pretty miserable for fans of the Stars and Stripes.

Overall, children in the United States finished 20th, beating out only Great Britain.

Gather the torches and pitchforks, right? That sort of pathetic showing surely must be the fault of lazy teachers, incompetent principals and administration bureaucrats!

Not quite. Actually, in the one UNICEF rating that schools have some impact on – what the study calls “educational well-being” – America does OK. Not great, mind you, but our 12th-place showing in schooling was easily the best we did in any category.

Our test scores are below average, and we have more dropouts than we should. But according to UNICEF, our schools are earning a solid C-minus.

It’s the rest of society that’s dragging down our grade point average.

How about “material well-being,” a measure the richest country in human history should fare well in? We finished 17th. We have more of our kids living in poverty than any other rich country. We’re near the bottom in how many books our kids have in their homes.

How about “health and safety”? We all care about protecting our kids, right? Then why do we have the second highest rate of infant mortality in the study, barely edging out Hungary? Why are we second from the bottom in the percentage of our kids who die from accidents or violence? Why does UNICEF rate us dead last out of 21 nations overall?

Maybe you think we’ll do better in “family and peer relationships.” Sorry – try 20th place. We have more of our kids living in single-parent homes than anywhere else. We’re near the bottom in how often kids eat dinner with their parents and in how many of our kids rate their friends as “kind and helpful.”

The final category the United States was rated in was “behaviors and risks.” (Or, as those Euro-loving UNICEF types spell it, “behaviours.”) Again, we finished second to last. Our kids lead the most unhealthy lifestyles, eating more and junkier food. They also smoke more pot and, by far, have the most babies of their own.

I’m sure there are ways to quibble with UNICEF’s numbers. (And I’m sure the tinfoil-hat-wearing portion of our readership won’t believe anything that comes from the U.N.)

But the story line is clear: Our kids are in trouble, and for reasons that have nothing to do with schools and teachers and superintendents. By the time a kid turns 18, she’s only spent about one-eighth of her life on a school campus. The rest of the time, she’s at home, at the mall, with her friends – places a teacher can’t easily reach.

As the Texas Legislature meets in Austin, they’re considering a number of changes to the state’s school rating system. The assumption behind some of the proposals is that schools need more pressure to perform well. Set higher standards on the TAKS test, the argument goes, and schools will find a way to meet them.

The testing and ratings systems of the past decade have led to student gains and helped in some ways. But I wonder if we’re hitting the ceiling for how much good more pressure can do.

There have been any number of studies showing that between 70 and 80 percent of a school’s academic performance is based solely on the socioeconomic background of its students – whether it’s handed poor kids, middle-class kids, or rich kids.

Let’s say the quality of a child’s parenting takes up another 10 or 15 percent. That doesn’t leave much space for schools to maneuver in.

So what does all this have to do with my tooth? (My left maxillary second molar, if you must know.)

Because of a poorly done root canal six years ago – finally come home to roost – I’ve spent much of the last week in various states of agony, shuffling back and forth to the dentist’s office. I tried to work on a few stories I’m writing, but the persistent firebombing in my mouth kept distracting me. Then I remembered reading a study a couple of years ago that found access to dental care was a small but significant factor in how kids did in school. If a family can’t afford regular trips to the dentist, there’s a good chance their kid will have toothaches. A federal study found that poor children are three times more likely to have an untreated cavity than middle-class children. And a kid with a toothache is going to have more trouble concentrating in class than his pain-free neighbor.

Would universal dental care boost our test scores? Maybe a little, but that’s not the point. The point is that there’s not that much teachers can do, on any sort of scale, about their students’ teeth – or any of the other factors that keep kids from being teen Einsteins.

Blaming schools for problems beyond their control doesn’t help. And putting more pressure on schools to solve them won’t, either.

TEA official’s ouster planned; Documents show effort to remove TEA employee who oversaw test

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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When the state employee in charge of the TAKS test resigned last month, the official word was that she would be missed.

Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley called Lisa Chandler “a tremendous asset to the field” and said her exit was “a great loss for the agency.” A Texas Education Agency representative said that Ms. Chandler’s departure was of her own volition and that the agency was happy with her performance.

But documents obtained by The Dallas Morning News tell a different tale. They show that her departure was engineered by Dr. Neeley herself. At least as far back as November, top agency officials were planning to remove Ms. Chandler because of complaints from school districts, other TEA officials and her own staff.

The documents include typed and handwritten notes by Tom Shindell, an agency human resources official, from meetings both before and after Ms. Chandler was pushed out. They provide a unique window into TEA’s efforts to remove her from her post.

“Was I a scapegoat?” Ms. Chandler asks at one point, after she’s been told to leave. Then later: “Where was the due process?”

Ms. Chandler has since found new work – with Pearson, the company that produces the TAKS test and whose $279 million contract with TEA Ms. Chandler managed. Pearson officials have said her work with the company will not involve the Texas contract.

She did not return messages left at her home in Austin.

Ms. Chandler, a 20-year employee of TEA, oversaw a number of successes at the agency, including the transition from the old TAAS test to the new TAKS. But she has also overseen the agency’s response to the cheating scandals of the past two years.

“She was a valued employee,” TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said. “The program was operating and she was running it effectively. But her people skills were not all somebody would wish for.”

An internal memo dated Nov. 29 states that “the Commissioner has decided to terminate Lisa” and gives the reasons as complaints “that Lisa is difficult to work with, rude, etc.”

Officials decided to create a six-month job for Ms. Chandler in another department as a way to ease her out. A description of the job notes that she wouldn’t even have to come into the office often, as it would be “a telecommuting position.”

According to Ms. Ratcliffe, Ms. Chandler chose instead to resign.

One set of notes says that the agency would “let her announce that she resigned to pursue other interests.” It also promises that Dr. Neeley “will provide you with a good reference letter.”

But despite the agency’s efforts to sever ties, Ms. Chandler kept asking questions. She requested two meetings with Dr. Neeley, on Jan. 19 and 24 and, according to handwritten notes, asked why she was being removed.

The commissioner cited “complaints from field” – meaning school district personnel – “and your staff and A.C.s,” which likely means associate commissioners.

In response, Ms. Chandler said: “My staff loves me.”

Mr. Shindell’s handwriting is not always clear, but it appears in the notes that the commissioner’s response was: “No, they are scared of you.”

Ms. Chandler then told the commissioner she was “lied to” and asked for another meeting. At the second meeting, five days later, Ms. Chandler argued that “due process” had not been followed and that she needed “closure.” “Was I a scapegoat?” she asked.

No, Dr. Neeley answered. Since then, in a separate reorganization, responsibility for the state’s testing program has also been shifted to a different part of the agency. State officials said the change was not related to performance concerns.

Advocate for school vouchers plans to make a public push

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Saying he is tired of being labeled a “caveman” and a “recluse,” voucher supporter Jim Leininger is ready for a public relations offensive.

“I think I have a moral responsibility not to stick my head in the sand,” he said Thursday in a meeting with The Dallas Morning News editorial board.

Dr. Leininger and a group of supporters are on the stump to push a voucher pilot program that they expect will be proposed in the current legislative session.

The San Antonio businessman funds two scholarship programs for poor public-school students in San Antonio, the first of which began in 1992. He has been an active supporter of voucher programs, which would be similar to his but funded with state tax dollars.

In past years, his support for the cause has come primarily in supporting candidates for the Legislature; Dr. Leininger has mostly stayed silent. But a number of candidates he supported lost in November – despite more than $4 million in donations by Dr. Leininger – and he said he is shifting to a more public role to sell the program to citizens. That includes radio spots and billboards in urban areas.

“The politics of school choice are kind of toxic, but the merits, we think, are compelling,” said his spokesman, Ken Hoagland.

The proposed bill Dr. Leininger supports would affect nine large urban school districts, including Dallas and Fort Worth. Low-income students in those districts would be allowed to take up to 90 percent of the money their public school spends per student and use it as tuition at a private school. They would be eligible regardless of their schools’ academic performance.

Critics have long said such a program would weaken the quality of public schools. In response to these arguments, the proposed bill includes a small amount of extra funding for schools whose students choose to leave.

Dr. Leininger’s legislation does not have a sponsor, and it is unclear when it would be introduced. A variety of other voucher proposals have been debated in the Legislature over the past decade. None has passed.