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Educators, business leaders say public school system needs changing

By Christina Lane
Feb. 28, 2012 at 11 p.m.

From an overemphasis on state-mandated testing to inadequate funding, East Texas educators and business leaders came to the consensus Tuesday that it is time for changes to the public education system in Texas.

"We need to make a fundamental decision - what does it take to educate a child?" New Diana ISD Superintendent Joyce Sloan said. "We cannot assume it will take any more or any less in Spring Hill or Longview than it will in New Diana. We need equity."

Sloan was among the dozens of superintendents, school board members, administrators, principals, teachers, state officials, Longview city officials, business leaders and others in the community who on Tuesday attended the Longview Economic Development Corp's public education conference.

School representatives came from across East Texas, including Longview, Pine Tree, Spring Hill, Hallsville, Gladewater, White Oak, Sabine, Gilmer, New Diana and Tatum to attend the conference at Pinecrest Country Club.

State Board of Education member Thomas Ratliff delivered a keynote address while LEDCO Board President and Spring Hill ISD School Board President Dan Droege said the conference was intended to keep local officials informed about education in East Texas and statewide.

"We all agree testing students is important and necessary," Droege said. "But schools are dealing with burdensome reports, too much testing and inadequate funds."

H. John Fuller, past president of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said a strong notion that a reform to public education was needed came in 1983 when a document called, "A Nation At Risk" was released. The report put forth an idea that American school systems were failing and discussed a variety of reform efforts. Fuller said since that time reforms have continued but most have been state mandates - "not things we had ownership in doing."

Begining in 2006, a group of 35 Texas superintendents have met periodically for two years asking if what the education system was doing would carry society forward into the future, Fuller said.

Their answer was "no," he said.

So they came up with a new vision for education that calls for a digital learning environment, new learning standards that reflect the digital learning environment, assessments in learning, accountability for learning, organization transformation, and a more balanced and reinvigorated state and local partnership.

"We've got to get a handle on how we're going to handle the digital world," Fuller said.

With the help of the Internet, Google and iPads, information is constantly at students' fingertips, he said. Educators must be concerned with helping students learn to analyze and synthesize the information they are receiving, he said.

Spring Hill Superintendent Wes Jones said a challenge for school districts in the coming years will be finding and retaining teachers who can reach students given the amount of technology that is available today.

"We believe we will and can educate every child who walks into our district," Pine Tree Superintendent T.J. Farler said. "We have to find the educators who can do that."

With regard to state-mandated testing and accountability ratings, Longview ISD Interim Superintendent James Wilcox said the score of one student can determine the academic rating for an entire campus or district.

"We get focused on the idiosyncrasies of the test and lose focus on educating the child," Wilcox said.

Wilcox said the focus on standardized testing hurts the goal of developing a strong, educated workforce - as does the loss of financial money from the state.

In 2011, the state legislature slashed $5 billion from the public education budget, causing a loss in funding of hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars for each district in the state.

Jones said Spring Hill receives about $4,700 per child while nearby Union Grove ISD receives about $5,300 per child.

"You might say that $600 is not much, but when you multiply it by 2,000 - which is about the number of students we have - that's about $1.2 million, and that's about how much Spring Hill was cut last year by the state," Jones said.

The state cuts caused districts to slash their budgets - eliminating positions, including teachers, staff and aides; reducing funding to programs; and a variety of other measures.

"Which child are you affecting the most - the child who needs the most help," Wilcox said.

He noted that in a school district, there are intelligent students who will be academically-motivated regardless of their situation; however, there are students who struggle and by eliminating teachers and support staff, those are the students who will be most affected by the cuts.

"We have self-imposed a handicap to Texas," Wilcox said. "If it lingers on, it will damage Texas and our economy for a lifetime."



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