Podcast Transcript: Education Experts Go Deep on Texas Second Annual Public Education Poll

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Charles: …It’s a call to action, right? …There are real kids whose futures are at stake here. …We’re never going to answer the call to action unless we stare the problem much more acutely in the face. 

Victoria: From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Victoria Wang, and this is IntersectEd, where the stories of Texas public education policy and practice meet. 

In this episode, we’re taking a break from our legislative agenda series to talk about our 2021 Foundation Poll – one of our research initiatives that has implications for education advocates, policymakers, scholars, and practitioners. 

I’m joined today by Lauren Cook. We work in the Strategy & Evaluation department at Raise Your Hand. Along with our department leader, Jennifer Jendzrey, our team is responsible for developing and promoting our annual poll. 

Lauren: Thanks, Victoria. So, a little bit of background about the initiative. This is the second year of our annual poll, and it’s modeled after the national PDK poll. The fieldwork was conducted in October of 2020 in both English and Spanish among a random sample of 1,034 Texans. The survey was produced by Langer Research Associates, a firm based in New York that also produces the ABC/Washington Post poll. Here is Gary Langer sharing his thoughts about the uniqueness of our Foundation Poll. 

Gary: The Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation study is, as far as I’m aware, quite unique. There are a few national surveys that delve deeply on an ongoing basis into public attitudes on public education. Prominently, the PDK survey – it’s gone on for more than 50 years annually – is one of them, and there’s a couple of others more recent.

The depth of this study in general, about attitudes toward education, and specifically, on the impact of COVID-19 in the schools in Texas is really unparalleled, and I think quite remarkable. Really worthy of consideration by practitioners, policymakers, educators, and all those with an interest in public education in the state, which probably should be all of us. 

Lauren: We asked Gary why polling is such an important way to hear from diverse Texans, why in essence, it promotes equity and democracy of voice. 

Gary: You know, we tend to all live in our own little bubbles. We have our peer groups and our friends and our workgroups, and we don’t break out of them. We don’t really know what other people different from us in different pursuits and walks of life and geographical areas, educational backgrounds and all the rest, our feeling, doing and thinking. I think that great exercise of democracy of giving everyone a voice that is really truly reflected in survey research in a way that it’s really rarely done elsewhere. I think it’s really rewarding and interesting and also valuable to society more broadly.

Victoria: So now let’s dig into the 2021 poll. We covered a range of issues, including a lot of questions about our schools’ Pandemic Response. We also covered equity issues, funding, testing, teachers, charters, and vouchers. 

For this episode, we brought four experts on Texas education to a roundtable to discuss their reflections and insights about the poll findings, as well as how they felt the results connected to their work moving forward.

You already heard from one of them, Dr. Charles Martinez, at the top of the episode. Let’s meet them all:

Heather Sheffield: My name is Heather Sheffield. I am the Board President of Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment, emphasis on the “meaningful.” I’m also a current sitting Eanes ISD trustee.

Chandra Kring Villanueva: Hello, everyone. My name is Chandra Kring Villanueva. I am the Economic Opportunity Program Director at Every Texan, formally the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Charles Martinez: My name is Charles Martinez. I’m Dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Kevin Malonson: My name is Kevin Malonson. I am the Texas Executive Director for Teach Plus.

Victoria: We began our virtual discussion by having our guests share what struck them in the poll findings. 

Moderator: We’d love for this to be just kind of a free flow conversation. I know on Zoom sometimes it’s hard, but please feel free to talk to each other. Does anybody want to start with an initial reaction?

Kevin: I’d love to. I was really heartened to see that more Texans this year than last would give their local public schools an A or a B. I mean, from our perspective, it has been the weirdest school year ever. It has been stressful on teachers. It’s been stressful on students. It’s been very stressful on administrators. I’m just surprised to see the perception of local schools going up. That really speaks to the schools doing a good job when oftentimes a lot of what you hear is not always the positives.

Chandra: Yeah, I’d like to just add to that, Kevin. That’s exactly kind of what popped out to me is just that Texans really recognize, as a whole, the excellence within our education system. To see that so many people were giving an A or B grade across demographic breakdowns, across party breakdowns, it really did show that our schools have been able to pivot in amazing ways during crisis and that Texans are really recognizing the role and the commitment that our schools have to our communities and our students.

Charles: Likewise, it seems, you know, in addition to those grades given to schools, the appreciation for public schools also, those data are really impressive. We saw huge numbers in terms of the more appreciation of schools this year, a very low percentage of people that had less appreciation for schools during this particular poll. 

Kevin: When you look at the perception of schools from Black Texans and Hispanic Texans. We know that these are the largest number of folks who have been affected by ancillary effects of the pandemic, things like food insecurity, a lack of broadband access. It’s very interesting to see the people who have really been suffering the most and need the most support from public schools really rally and feel just as strong about public schools as the others do. 

Charles: I’m wondering if that last point that Kevin made might be part of what we’re picking up, what the best they can do right now looks like. I do think there is a recognition of the effort. No district, no state education system, no teacher preparation program was adequately prepared to give the skills and knowledge necessary to navigate a catastrophe like this has been. We face other kinds of challenges like natural disasters and things like that, and we sort of rally around them, but those are always acute. The event happens and then you move into recovery mode, and that’s not what’s happening now. We have this chronic, terrible, unrelenting source of stress and strain in the system.

I do think that what you’re seeing in part is the grace of Texans and recognizing how important education is. Sometimes when you see it under fire, you see what happens when your kids are not able to access all the supports, you recognize its value more strongly. So, I think we’re seeing that.

Victoria: I think you all did a really great job of starting to touch on some of the issues that we want to dive deeper on. Was there anything else that you all saw as a big surprise or a shock that you wanted to share with the group before we move on?

Heather: It was interesting to me to see how people kind of flipped and really started to appreciate teachers. So many of them jumped right in and didn’t even hesitate with being the frontline people to help our kids and make sure that they got what they needed. I mean, the teachers really put themselves out there, and they went above and beyond in every way, including putting their health on the line. So, I can’t speak more highly of our teachers right now.

Charles: And, those teachers are asking to let them tell their stories in a much more acute way. And, the stories are sometimes heart-wrenching challenges, but they’re often extraordinarily inspiring stories of resiliency and effort and difference that teachers are making. So, I’m definitely picking up that vibe, too, that Heather’s describing. And, I think it’s time for us to center their voices. 

Kevin: The one last thing, Victoria, that I’ll point out is that 8 in 10 folks are concerned that education funding, a cut in funding, would impact the quality of public education. I don’t think that people were aware or cared so much prior to the pandemic about the specifics of education funding in the state of Texas.

Chandra: That was one of the things that I was really happy to see as well, that, you know, money in education matters, and Texans overwhelmingly recognize that cutting our education is going to impact the quality because we know that money matters. That was also reflected when they said that they recognize that costs go up, not down, when you’re dealing with a crisis. There was a very firm understanding that our schools need additional resources to make it through this COVID challenge and that cuts will be detrimental to what our schools are able to do and offer our students.

Lauren: So, Victoria, I thought that was an interesting point Chandra made where she was connecting how much Texans appreciate their schools with how much they also realize that money matters in education. And, if we were to cut funding, it would also impact quality. 

Victoria: Yeah, I agree, Lauren. And, I also found Dr. Martinez’s theory on Texans’ increased appreciation really interesting, that we might not have valued our schools as much until we weren’t able to access all the supports and resources that they provided.

Lauren: Great point. And, here’s a reminder about a few poll findings that relate to the discussion we just heard: 

  • 92% of Texans have the same or even greater appreciation for their community’s schools this year. 
  • The percent of Texans who gave their local schools an A or B rating rose by 8 points from last year. 

Victoria: Thanks, Lauren. Let’s get back to the roundtable discussion. Next, we dug into some really interesting education topics. The first was testing and accountability. Our poll found that only 12% of Texans think public schools should be graded entirely on state standardized tests. And, 56% of Texans lack confidence that the STAAR test effectively measures how well a student is learning. 

Now, back to Dr. Martinez, Dean of the UT Austin College of Education.

Charles: This is obviously a hot issue in terms of accountability systems and things like that. There’s not a lot of confidence in the STAAR, and I think people recognize right now how the use of summative assessment does not give us actionable data that we need in real-time. The need for real assessment that is useful to teachers in creating knowledge for students.

Moderator: Heather, I also wanted to ask you, our poll showed that 68% of Texans. So, a strong majority, think accountability grades should come from a combination of standardized testing and non-test factors. I was wondering if that tracks with kind of what you hear about what Texans want. Can you speak to that?

Heather: Sure. Yeah, I think communities find it very important to make sure that we are using a local accountability system and really measuring what matters in our own communities. And, there are so many different things that go into it, and each school district is vastly different; each school is vastly different. And so, we really need to make sure that we’re not putting kids in just a one-size-fits-all system and that we’re really figuring out where they excel, where they need additional support, and using a true diagnostic measure to figure that out. And then, working with our students and not having to worry about just if we’re going to get an A on the STAAR, on this one day, this one time a year. So, there’s much more that goes into it, and I think that the majority of the communities are supportive of that.

Charles: We all understand the challenges of trying to create a transparent system by which we can evaluate at the state level. As a former chair of the State Board of Education and someone who thinks a lot about data, I really recognize the need for us to have a statewide system to some extent. The challenge is when that statewide system does not have face validity for teachers, for building leaders, for families, for communities, then you have to completely change course. 

But, people care about high-quality schools. The challenge is creating useful measures, and I think it requires more than just a STAAR score to do it. I think that’s what these data are speaking to. What does that look like for Texas? What would innovation look like would be a very interesting challenge. There’s an opportunity here, and the data are pressing – should be pressing legislators, state policymakers – to really rethink the accountability system.

Victoria: As the Dean of the UT College of Education, which provides a large part of our teacher workforce here in Texas, we’re wondering what your thoughts were on the equity barriers and the results. Specifically for barriers based on student race or ethnicity, 69% of Texans thought that inconsistent placement with experienced or well-trained teachers was a large barrier for a lot of students. Then also 43% of Texans saw that lack of access to teachers who are the same race or ethnicity as their students was also a pretty significant barrier. So, we’re hoping to hear, what were your thoughts on those results?

Charles: I’m really grateful to Raise Your Hand for asking these questions. Nothing I saw in those results surprised me, which is disheartening. So, those two things are actually really hard to say. I think these data highlight what are effectively long-standing, structural inequities that pre-exist inside the education system.

I think what’s unique here is how little we shine a light on these data in Texas. So, districts don’t routinely ask these kinds of questions. We don’t routinely disaggregate disadvantage, or by race, ethnicity, and ways that can help tell the story. And, we’re never going to answer the call to action unless we stare the problem much more acutely in the face. As someone who’s relatively new to Texas, that’s one of the things that surprised me is there’s a lot of data, but people aren’t really looking at it, and they’re not really disaggregating it. Other states are looking at the data and then hand-wringing. But, Texas isn’t quite even really looking at the problem squarely in the face. 

It’s a call to action. There are real kids whose futures are at stake here. Right?

When we talk about things like the representation of different racial-ethnic backgrounds in the teaching workforce and the leadership workforce, that’s a call to action among those of us that think about teacher preparation.

Kevin: Yes, I love the idea of shining that light, Dr. Martinez, on these data because anybody who works in education with marginalized children, you know that all these things are going on, you know the kids who need to be in front of the best, most experienced and well-trained teachers aren’t.

Chandra: We’re not seeing the kind of representation in our schools that reflect the students that we’re teaching at all. So, when you look at the leadership in our schools, the higher the leadership goes, the whiter it gets and the greater the paychecks go with that. Where we see that the lowest earners in our schools are people of color, and we’re not creating enough representation for our students. 

I think it’s really important to be bringing up those issues as well because so many of these issues that we are seeing in our schools is because of how we’ve created our schools to begin with. Because of how we’ve drawn district boundaries and how much it’s tied to housing policy and our histories of segregation in this state, we know that our students of color, particularly our Hispanic and African-American students are at much greater risk of being in a high poverty school than our white students.

Charles: I just want to highlight this: You can’t look at just the bricks and mortar of a school building or the boundaries of a district to solve these structural inequities, and Chandra and Kevin both are making these points. A superintendent or school board is not going to fix school-level segregation by moving school boundaries within a district or by opening and closing schools. The problem exists because of things like economic development, housing segregation.

If you don’t think about the solution from a multi-sector standpoint, we’re never going to solve it as superintendents, school board members, don’t have enough bandwidth to really deal with these bigger issues. We can’t solve this by one silver bullet intervention inside a school. It requires a community response.

Kevin: Can I add one other thing that may be quasi-controversial? As the only black man here in this discussion, it really makes me sad to see that black Texans are above 80% in their perception of ineffective or biased disciplinary practices, lack of social-emotional support, and school environments that are racist. 

I feel like we’re in an inflection point. I think this pandemic is going to be that spotlight to say, “Hey, you all, we’re leaving a whole group of people behind. It is incumbent on all of us to reach back, grab these folks, become one, and let’s move together as a society.”

Lauren: What an amazing discussion about the equity barriers students face. 

Victoria: Yeah, Lauren, and I especially appreciated our roundtable experts connecting these education-related barriers to broader, systemic structures in our state.

Now let’s turn to our next topic: funding and state revenue. 

Lauren: Here were some of the key results from the poll about those issues: 

  • 84% of Texans are very or somewhat concerned about the impact of a funding cut on school quality. 
  • When the survey dug into possible new revenue options to support public school funding, here were the results: 
  • More than 60% of Texans support legalizing and taxing casino gambling and marijuana. They also support an increase on alcohol taxes. 
  • More than 70% support a tobacco tax increase and a new tax on vaping devices and products. 

Now, back to the roundtable. 

Moderator: I want to go back to Chandra and ask about the revenue part of the poll, which was interesting. When you look at the popularity of certain new revenue tax options, did anything surprise you? Are we pretty much tracking what other surveys and polls have shown statewide and nationally?

Chandra: Yeah, I think it’s definitely tracking what I’ve seen nationally. Vice taxes, in the south, you call them “sin taxes,” but the taxes on bad behaviors are the low hanging fruit, and they are usually pretty popular taxes overall.  But, my big warning with these is that they’re not growth taxes. The whole point of taxing these behaviors is to make those behaviors decline.

So, what we really need to look at is our revenue system as a whole and how is it interacting with the economy. One of the issues that we have is that we have a sales tax-based economy here, our revenue system, basically, in Texas, the vast majority of our revenue comes from the sales tax.

And, the sales tax is very much based on consumption overall, where our economy has turned into a service-based economy. And so, there’s a lot of activity happening in our economy that’s not being subjected to tax. And, that gets a little bit more complex than what an average poll taker would maybe want to know about or think about on a daily basis, but we do need to really look at our revenue system as a whole and look at outdated tax cuts and other things.

Victoria: And now our final topic: charters and vouchers. 

Our poll showed that more than half of Texans oppose adding charter or voucher programs if it means reducing the amount of funds distributed to local public schools. 

Let’s hear from the roundtable on this issue. 

Heather: I understand that parents want to be able to choose the best school that they can for their students, and that is so important that parents have abilities to make decisions for their kids. However, I don’t understand the concept of putting more money in a separate system when we could use that money to improve the one we have. 

It’s a misstep to allow expansion in charters and fund them when we can’t even properly fund the system that we have. 

In terms of vouchers, I think it’s a slippery slope because especially if a special needs family accepts a voucher, they’re basically saying that they no longer want the rights that they have under the federal IDEA provisions, and that is troubling also. You know, whereas our school districts are required to provide services to our students with special needs.

Victoria: That’s really interesting, and what was really fascinating about this section on charters and vouchers is when you split it by Texans’ perceptions of their local schools. So, for the Texans who gave their local schools a D or F rating, a much higher percentage of them, a majority of them supported adding charters or establishing vouchers. For those who gave their schools an A grade, only a third of them supported charters and vouchers. I’m just curious if anyone had any thoughts or comments on that.

Kevin: What’s just interesting to me is what type of experiences folks would have that would make them want to check out of the traditional ISD system. I have very mixed reviews on charters and vouchers, but I really resonate with where Heather was coming from. I’m all for choice, I think in certain places that don’t have ISDs serving them, certain places where the ISDs have just consistently failed, there may be places for charters. But, right now in the pandemic, if money is tight, let’s focus on the main ISD system and get that right.

Heather: There are some charter schools that I think are truly innovative, and that was the whole point of charter schools to begin with. For instance, there’s one here in Austin that is for students who have substance abuse issues and wouldn’t feel comfortable going back into a traditional high school.

Chandra: I appreciate you, Heather, for bringing that up because – and that’s what we should really look for our charters as – is coming in and filling an actual need in our communities and not just creating competition for competition’s sake because that leads to two inefficiently-run parallel systems, and nobody wins that way.

Charles: The only thing I’ll add – I’ll put on my policymaker hat for a second – if you understand what the value of it is, it should be addressing an unmet need, which is pointed out here, but it also should be a bastion of innovation. If the reason that we think about charter schools as a disruptive force for education reform is that it allows innovation, it should create better outcomes.

And so, if charter schools could say, “We’re doing as well as the neighborhood schools,” we’d say, “That’s not enough.” So, I think our conversations about charter schools often become politicized rather than really focusing on – if you go to the core reason that inside an education system, a strong education system – why you’d want innovation, and what a charter school could do, it does change the conversation a lot to think about it in that way.

Moderator: Our last question was really just to try to kind of look forward, right? Taking this data, is there anything that it makes you want to dig in deeper on? Is there anything actionable that this data helped you get to that place and/or what data should we think about digging in deeper on for 2022? 

Heather: I was definitely happy to see that you guys dug into broadband because that is an equity issue for all of Texas, especially rural Texans. 

Charles: Yeah, it’s a really good point. I’ll add a little bit to the need for us to understand digital equity and how it plays out because the other thing about Texas, of course, is the massive geography has made the challenges around things like broadband very disparate across the state.

The other thing I’ll highlight is the family-school partnership, deepening the connections between what goes on in the school building and what goes on at home. We pay really short shrift to family-school partnerships, maybe districts have a family liaison position or that kind of thing, but we don’t really have deep connections at a state level with some, of course, local exceptions. I think this idea of how we more fully integrated them in a much more collaborative way, our family and community partners, to this academic encouragement of what we need for students, we need a deeper network in a much more serious way.

Lauren: What a great discussion. I love how our experts took the poll data and really applied it to their work. And, they’re even thinking about how future poll data can inform these big education issues that we’re all thinking about.

Victoria: And to our listeners, we hope this conversation has inspired you to ask more questions, reflect, take action, and innovate to strengthen our Texas public schools. 

If you want more information on the poll, please visit RaiseYourHandTexas.org/2021Poll. If you’d like a printed copy of the report or have any additional questions, send a request to [email protected]

Lauren: Thank you again to Heather Sheffield from Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessments, Kevin Malonson from Teach Plus, Chandra Villanueva from Every Texan, and Dr. Charles Martinez from the University of Texas at Austin College of Education. Thank you also to this group for serving on our 2021 Foundation poll advisory council. 

Victoria: Today’s podcast was produced by Lauren Cook and Victoria Wang with Executive Producer Laura Mellett and Sound Engineer Brian Diggs. To get involved in supporting Texas public education, visit RaiseYourHandTexas.org.


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