Educational reform is a never-ending enterprise and we witness it daily in thousands of schools districts across America. Efforts to improve our schools are not only endless, but they also take place in many different forms. While many schools concern themselves with classroom size and student-teacher ratios, in nearly every school, retaining good teachers presents one of the biggest challenges. This essay addresses the learning gap in San Antonio and the importance of good teachers.
Texas and San Antonio, in particular, have a long way to go in providing better educational opportunities and in closing the gap for all its young citizens. Texas ranks among the bottom ten states of the nation’s fifty in terms of most educated in America. According to Wallethub, Texas ranked 39th of 50 states when it comes to most educated. Interestingly, the majority of the states ranking in the bottom 25% of educational attainment were southern states.
Several Texas cities have done well in ranking among the most educated cities in America. Wallethub ranked 150 American cities and listed Austin as #8. Dallas-Fort Worth came in at a respectable #77, but Houston at #92 and San Antonio at #107 did not fare as well.
Given that there is so much to do in improving schools, where should we begin? My five decades as an educator have allowed me to meet hundreds of school administrators, teachers, school board members, and students. I have learned much from them, and their viewpoints are reflected here. Thus I offer a few suggestions regarding educational reforms we should address and activities and policy reforms we should prioritize.
First, we should begin by making sure that every child at the age of four attends a full-day pre-k program with a qualified teacher. Schooling four-year-olds in Pre-K classes is not a new concept, but in recent years educators have determined that it is one of the most important methods for improving overall educational achievement.
In San Antonio, the push for quality early education began in 2012 with Mayor Julian Castro’s Pre-K 4 SA initiative. That year, voters approved a 1/8th of a cent increase in the city sales tax to be set aside for Pre-K programs. This additional funding allowed over 2,000 four-year-olds, mainly from low-income families, to attend pre-school classes.
Sarah Baray, Pre-K 4 SA CEO, told Texas Public Radio that 2018 test results “show that San Antonio’s investment in early learners is paying off.” Students enrolled in Pre-K 4 SA scored at or above the state average in reading and math. Only seven percent of the Pre-K 4 SA students were placed in special education, compared to 23 percent of students who did not attend preschool.
Dr. Harriett Romo, who helped start the pre-k program at Navarro School in the Westside of the city, found that the biggest challenge to educating children at that age was that many programs only offered a half day program. For working parents, getting children to school and returning to pick them up at mid-day is a hardship.
School reform means trying many things often simultaneously. Education experts know that not all things work well for everyone. Testing is one example of that. Testing has become a billion dollar business in America and far too many school districts operate on the assumption that school success and teacher success can be measured by how well students perform on standardized tests. Michael Mazenko, an Advanced Placement (AP) English teacher in Colorado, disagrees with this approach and offers a different line of thinking. He proposed that we “decrease the emphasis on standardized testing as a measure of rigor and accountability, and replace that with support for a child’s whole education, including social-emotional needs. Included in this is devoting funding and resources to providing social supports to students and families in terms of nutrition, health care, child care, counseling, supervision, etc.”
Financing schools has been a top priority for nearly every state. State support of education in Texas has been generally lacking and no one expects this shortfall to be solved overnight. Almost all educators agree that teachers are not paid enough. This is especially a problem in low income and minority communities. I began my teaching career in Los Angeles where salaries were significantly higher for high school teachers than my home state of Texas. California was unique in that it paid teachers extra if they continued their education. Teachers with a Master’s degree were paid extra, but even with good wages, teachers needed to work over the summer months to make financial ends meet. I worked in a summer camp for young teens earning about ten dollars an hour in today’s wages.
Teaching was also my wife’s chosen profession and the two salaries enabled us to buy a home in California. Much has changed since the 1970s. Teachers in most California cities do not earn enough to realize the American Dream of homeownership. The lack of good pay often means that talented young teachers stay for only short periods in the classroom. Yet experienced teachers can make a difference in student achievement.
Higher pay is only part of the solution. Teachers also need smaller classes and more time for developing their skills. I have heard it said by many educators that we could retain good teachers not just by higher salaries, but also by giving them more respect for their contribution to improving the lives of young people. All teachers deserve respect and recognition, and teachers who demonstrate excellence merit rewards. Humanities Texas based in Austin has decided to make a difference by rewarding outstanding teachers in the Humanities. Erin Gutierrez recently was awarded $5,000 for his outstanding teaching of World History as part of the Humanities Texas initiative.
Gutierrez teaches AP World History courses at Lanier High in San Antonio’s Westside. Lanier High School enrolls 1700 students, 88% of whom qualify as Economically Disadvantaged Students. This year Gutierrez won the prestigious Humanities Texas Outstanding Teaching Award, one of the few won by a San Antonio teacher.
I serve on the Board of Directors of Humanities Texas and grew up in the Lanier High School neighborhood. The average family income is below $15,000 and Lanier neighborhood has the lowest educational attainment of any zip code area in San Antonio.
Gutierrez impressed the selection committee with his “can do attitude”. He noted: “I have heard my share of negativity. However, every time I enter my classroom what I find are students who are passionate and ready to learn. It is my job to provide them with the skills they will need to fulfill their amazing potential.” Gutierrez manages to find that potential and more. Last year his students earned recognition after completing the year with the highest AP scores of all comprehensive high schools in SAISD.
Gutierrez has applied the concept that learning is about analyzing information, a skill which leads to better understanding. In addition, Gutierrez emphasizes creative thinking, which is superior to memorization. If we expect our students to attend college, school tasks should include solving problems as well as improving communication skills. Our very future depends on how well we educate the next generation of students. Providing all students with well-paid, well-trained and dedicated teachers is an important step in that direction. In a future essay, I will discuss what parents and concerned citizens can do to add to the learning process. Young people are counting on us and I believe we can do more.