Archives for category: Texas

The Texas State Board of Education approved applications from five charter chains, including the Gulen chain (Royal Public Schools) operated by Soner Tarim, who was compelled to leave Alabama because of community protests. It rejected three charter chains, including Rocketship, whose “pedagogy” puts children on computers for half the day, overseen by inexperienced and low-wage teachers.

Among those approved were the Florida-based Doral chain, operated by the for-profit Academica corporate giant. Learn4Life is a California-based chain of drop-in centers with high attrition rates and low graduation rates. Heritage Classical Academy, CLEAR Public Charter School and Rocketship Public Schools will not be able to open schools in Texas, after traditional public school usleaders and advocates argued the state could not afford to fund new charters during a destabilizing pandemic. The board’s actions are just the latest in a longstanding political debate in Texas over the growth of charter schools, funded by the state but managed privately by nonprofits. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath recommended the eight charter operators at the end of an in-depth process, including mandatory public meetings in target communities and interviews with state officials. The other five —Brillante Academy, Doral Academy of Texas, Learn4Life-Austin, Prelude Preparatory Charter School and Royal Public Schools — will be allowed to open schools next academic year, unless Morath or the board takes further action within the next 90 days… Texas is one of the largest charter authorizers in the country, with 171 charter districts in operation as of June. Texas caps the number of charter operators, but doesn’t cap the number of schools each operator can open.

Charter opponents warned that the expansion of charter chains would drain badly needed funding from the state’s underfunded public schools, but the state commissioner of education Mike Morath (a software executive, not an educator) supported all the applications and promised that the charters would introduce much-needed innovation.

Never mind that charters in Texas and elsewhere are not noted for any innovations, other than “no-excuses” discipline. Never mind that the critics are right: the funding for the charters will decrease the money available to the state’s real public schools.

Texas seems to have a special affinity for Gulen charters, which are typically managed and staffed by Turkish men who are connected to the Turkish Imam Fethullah Gulen, who lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania.

Walter Stroup is chair of the department of STEM education and teacher development and an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. In 2014, as a professor at the University of Texas, he publicly testified that the state was wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on standardized testing because the only thing that was measured was skill at passing standardized tests. This was hugely embarrassing to Pearson, which had a $500 million contract with the state of Texas. Recently Professor Stroup sent a letter to the Houston Chronicle, supporting its editorial calling for a pause in standardized testing For 2020-21.

I asked if I could post his response here.

He wrote:

[Response to July 22, 2020 “Editorial: What Gov. Abbott should do about STAAR testing this year for Texas schools.”]

As researchers and longtime education advocates, we support the conclusions of the July 22, 2020 “Editorial: What Gov. Abbott should do about STAAR testing this year for Texas schools.” Before our school system can run as normal, it will need to learn to walk again. And we shouldn’t keep objects in its way that may make it stumble.

We agree that state-mandated standardized exams should be the “last thing” student and teachers need to worry about. But that’s not enough. To support our schools and teachers, the next question has to be: if not STAAR, then what?

There is indeed a substantial body of research showing that current tests are “invalid indicators of student progress and ineffective in closing the so-called educational achievement gap.” We also agree with Commissioner Morath that we need shared measures of student progress if we are all to be held accountable for the educational outcomes in our schools.

To start our thinking about what might come next, we should ask whether STAAR tests are useful to teachers – the first responders of our school system. For that matter, are the products from one of the largest non-high-stakes test vendors in Texas, Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), useful to teachers?

We believe the answer is a resounding, No.

Although well intended, these tests measure the wrong kind of growth. Not only does this make them the wrong kind of tool to evaluate student achievement and institutional quality, it also means the tests themselves have become an instrument in preserving inequities in students’ educational outcomes.

When it comes to test development and scoring, two kinds of growth can be assessed.

“Growth” can be evaluated relative to achievement – how much students have learned. Or “growth” can be evaluated on a scale similar to measurements of height. Just as children get taller with age, they also get generally better at certain kinds of problem-solving tasks.

It makes a world of difference which kind we use if we want to help schools recover.

The first kind of growth – in achievement – is the only kind for which schools can, and should, be held accountable. We send children to school because we know that’s where we learned to read, write and do mathematics and we want the same for our children. Tests, to be useful in improving student outcomes, must be highly sensitive to differences in what schools do – sensitive to good teaching.

Unfortunately, current test development methodologies give us tests that behave, in almost every significant sense, like measures of biological growth, not measures of achievement.

If we buy a thermometer to measure temperature, put it in a pot of hot water, and the numbers barely change, that’s a problem. If we buy a box of these thermometers that all do the same thing, then that makes it a bigger problem. Our current box of tests has been shown to have very little sensitivity to temperature change — to differences in the quality of instruction.

When it comes to the issue of what kind of growth is being assessed by current tests, the evidence is equally clear. The grade-related growth curves the test vendor NWEA shares on its web site are remarkably similar to curves pediatricians use to chart children’s height.

Age-related or grade-related mental growth metrics can’t be used to improve educational outcomes – they simply aren’t meant to help us become mentally “taller.” Compounding the problem, they have a long history of lending support to oppressive ideologies and practices. In effect, tests fully intended to help address structural inequalities in our educational system end up having the opposite effect: keeping groups of students in the same relative position year-after-year, and across subject areas.

What are the alternatives?

Here are just some of the possibilities. Pattern-based items (PBIs) provide up to eight times more achievement-specific information per question than current items and have been deployed at scale across Texas. Performance-based assessments are being used in New Hampshire. “Badges” are being used in a number of industries as part of digital credentialing programs. Portfolio-based assessment has a long history of use in a wide array of educational settings.

The last time our legislators gathered in Austin, they passed a bill, HB-3906, directing the Texas Education Agency to “establish a pilot program” in which participating school districts would “administer to students integrated formative assessment instruments for subjects or courses for a grade level subject to assessment.” Now is the time to pilot alternative assessments that will help schools and teachers do what they do best – educate our children.

Walter Stroup has his home in Austin, Texas and is chair of the department of STEM education and teacher development and an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Anthony Petrosino is associate dean for research and outreach in Southern Methodist University’s Simmons School.
Link to Editorial we were responding to:

Related links (links are also in the text above):

What was published in the Houston Chronicle

An Op-Ed in Dallas Morning News discussing research on current tests

NWEA’s growth curve

CDC growth curves used by pediatricians

The IDEA charter chain hopes to double its enrollment in Texas. This is the free-spending chain that planned to lease a private jet for $2 million a year but backed off after bad publicity; that flies its executives and their families in first-class; that bought premium box seats for professional basketball games; that pays its executives exorbitant salaries; that has received more than $200 million in federal funding from Betsy DeVos.

If the expansion plan goes forward, the IDEA enrollment will grow from 50,000 to nearly 100,000; its annual budget will grow from half a billion to one billion. This is larger than the budget of the University of Texas at Austin. Just in the past five years, IDEA’s budget has tripled.

One state representative called for an audit, but was careful to praise the organization that is gobbling up public dollars and sucking the life out of community public schools.

STATE REPRESENTATIVE TERRY CANALES CALLS FOR COMPREHENSIVE STATE AUDIT OF IDEA PUBLIC SCHOOLS

For Immediate Release
August 18, 2020
Contact: Curtis Smith
(512) 463-0426 office

AUSTIN, TX – In a letter addressed to Commissioner Mike Morath of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Texas First Assistant State Auditor Lisa Collier, State Representative Terry Canales calls for a comprehensive and multi-agency audit of the IDEA Public Schools (IDEA) after recent disclosures of lavish expenditures for its executives. These disclosures included leasing of a private jet solely for the use of top IDEA officials and their families, chauffeured limousines, advertisements during the Super Bowl and World Series, travel expenses of over $14 million, and many more similar expenditures.

IDEA receives approximately half a billion dollars a year from the State of Texas to educate students. It has plans to almost double its enrollment to 97,000 students and add 27 new campuses by the end of 2021. If approved, state funding could double to approximately $1 billion annually. Additional state oversight is needed to ensure that state dollars are spent for their intended purpose and to prevent questionable use of state funds in the future.

“As public servants, the State has an obligation to ensure that taxpayer dollars are used for their intended purposes, and the recent disclosures of the expenditures at IDEA are alarming—to say the least,” said Rep. Canales. “Texas must ensure that our tax dollars are not being used for purchases like private jets and Super Bowl advertisements. I believe IDEA’s recent actions have raised clear and pressing concerns surrounding IDEA’s financial decisions. Other contracts, state agencies, and even universities that receive far fewer state dollars than IDEA receive more state oversight. So, given IDEA’s questionable expenditures, a financial audit of IDEA only makes sense,” continued Canales. “Let me be clear, I do not believe any of our neighborhood schools are at issue here. I salute the hardworking teachers and students of IDEA, and I wholeheartedly support the work that they are doing. I believe this issue is solely at the executive level of the school district.” said Rep. Canales.

A state audit conducted jointly by the Office of the State Auditor and TEA may ensure that public funds are used efficiently for their intended purpose and may improve public trust. An audit also may reveal the need for possible legislative changes to increase oversight and reduce risk to the State of Texas. For more information, contact the Office of State Representative Terry Canales.

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, is the Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and a member of the Sunset Advisory Commission. Rep. Canales represents House District 40 in Hidalgo County, which includes portions or all of Edinburg, Elsa, Faysville, La Blanca, Linn, Lópezville, McAllen, Pharr and Weslaco. He may be reached at his House District Office in Edinburg at (956) 383-0860 or at the Capitol at (512) 463-0426.

Is Commissioner Mike Morath in IDEA’s pocket? Stay tuned.

Anette Carlisle, public education advocate in Texas, describes how State Commissioner Mike Morath, a non-educator, bought into the anti-democratic strategy of killing local school boards and privatizing public schools. He swallowed whole the disruption program of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, one of the Gates-funded think tanks that call for the abandonment of public schools.

Despite a full decade of failure, phony “reformers” claim that education will improve if private corporations and entrepreneurs take over from elected school boards. It hasn’t worked anywhere, and it won’t work in Texas.

Carlisle writes:

Texas has chosen to abandon our local public schools, locally elected school boards, superintendents and our 5.4 million schoolchildren in favor of a “my way or the highway” single system directive by Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath. That’s why I’m standing up to say, “Whoa! Hold your horses, please, Mr. Commissioner.”

It’s an effort that’s been building for years, right under our noses. People said, “Surely not,” but here we are.

Look back to 2019 and the Center for Reinventing Public Education’s (CRPE) report centered around the System of Great Schools (SGS) concept. The System of Great Schools “starts from the premise that local school districts are ill-positioned to improve schools directly,” and local districts should “get out of the business of managing instruction in schools.”

Morath, according to the CRPE, “prioritized the SGS initiative as a signature project” and even “smoothed the path for the SGS team to work inside the agency” when other TEA staff disapproved.

It’s just one example of the state telling school district leaders to take a hike and locally elected boards to get out of the way.

Earlier this year, The Texas Tribune interviewed Commissioner Morath, and his thoughts on local control came more clearly into focus. Asked about the state’s takeover of Houston ISD, Morath said, “This is basically a grand, philosophical question that is a right for state legislatures around the country to try to answer. Why do we have schools? Do we have schools to teach children, or do we have schools to have elected school boards?”

The takeaway? Local communities don’t know what’s best for kids. The state does.

Who knew that a conservative Republican Governor and his ignorant State Commissioner would launch a state takeover of public schools?

The New York Times declared that its coverage of the pandemic would not be locked behind a paywall, so I’m assuming this article is available for free use.

It focuses on the fight to contain the virus in Harris County (Houston). One obstacle is the defunding of public health services in this country, which left us unprepared for the pandemic. Another obstacle is the actions of politicians who follow Trump’s lead and minimize the danger to the public. A third obstacle is the stubborn refusal of a large minority who insist on their “right” to do what they want without regard to the community.

This combination has crippled the nation’s response to the pandemic and will cost many thousands of lives.

Candace Valenzuela is one of the most inspiring candidates in the current election cycle. She won her primary in Texas on Tuesday.

Please watch her campaign commercial, in which she describes her difficult childhood, when she was homeless. What saved her was that she always had a “home” at school, where her teachers encouraged her. She went on to finish high school and college, to run for and win a seat on the local school board, and is now likely to become the first Afro-Latina in Congress if she wins in November.

If she makes it, she and Jamaal Bowman will be powerful and well-informed voices for public schools in Congress.

Claudia MacMillan is the director of the Cowan Center for Education at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

I met her several years ago when I was invited to speak at the Institute. At that time, Claudia allowed me to sit in on seminars where public school teachers were discussing the Iliad, Shakespeare, and other great classics. I met with school superintendents from Dallas and the surrounding region. I also met Louise Cowan, the scholar who had inspired the work of the Institute (she called me (“an education warrior”).

I invited Claudia to share with you what the Institute is doing now. I was astonished to find this wonderful oasis of learning and knowledge in Dallas. May it grow and prosper!

Learning to Love the World

Claudia MacMillan

“You are the guardians of culture,” my teacher said in a melodious voice to a small auditorium filled with teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. That was 1989. I was among those school teachers, and Dr. Louise Cowan’s words, her vision, changed the course of my life.

​I would not bother sharing this anecdote or the words that follow if my experience had been an isolated one, or if I were the only one whose life had been transformed by this educational philosophy of generosity, openness, intellectual integrity, and communal grace. But for forty years at the Dallas Institute, the hearts and minds of primary and secondary educators have been lifted up and treasured, and I believe that this message of love and hope needs to be in the world.

​In 2004, I had the privilege of assuming responsibility for the programs that changed me in what is now the Dallas Institute’s Louise and Donald Cowan Center for Education™. Since coming, I and others have spent our time and energy trying to shape and share this ennobling vision that the Drs. Cowan conceived and taught. Their aspiration was that every child in America receive a liberal education of the quality that only privileged students in the nation’s highest-tiered private schools typically receive.

​The Cowans created a work at the Dallas Institute designed to foster this sea change. And in the public schools of Fort Worth, Texas, a bold educational experiment that is modeled on their philosophy—on their love of learning, of teachers, and of human life—is currently underway.

​In three public schools in the Fort Worth Independent School District, students are enrolled in Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes. The results have been impressive and hopeful. In the first year of classes (2018-2019), at the high school where all students are enrolled in Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes, teachers, administrators, parents, and the students themselves saw and felt the impact of this unique experience and the quality of community that it seemed to inspire.

​Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes were piloted in three 8th grade classes in this same year in one Fort Worth middle school. Students with all ranges of abilities were invited to join the class. The only prerequisite was that they be willing to do the work.

The Cowan Academy® in the Humanities Educational Model

I should begin with a nod to what drives public school education. So for those who consider standardized test scores important, although little test prep was introduced into these classes, in both original Fort Worth schools, scores the first year (2018-2019) were outstanding. The 8th grade averages in every category in reading and social studies were above the rest of the campus and above the district averages. Some of the strongest gains were for “English Language Learner” students. Regarding the benchmark tests given in December 2019, one middle school student reported, “Everything we read in this class is so much harder than those test passages, so the test was so much easier than it seemed before.” In the high school, where every student is enrolled in Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes, the 9th grade English I scores ranked the school among the top in the state of Texas, and this in its first year of operation. In the category of “closing the achievement gap,” their English I scores earned them a 100%, tying for third in the state! Granted, this is the new magnet school in the district, but the district has wisely required the school to represent the district demographically, and in addition, the school has very generous entrance requirements. So although it is a magnet school, students with a wide range of abilities are enrolled.

​There are a few critical standards worked into this educational model designed to help it to succeed.

1. In order to learn to read by writing—a luxury that most public school students are not given—Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students must receive their own personal copies of the books (not the textbooks) so that they can read with pen in hand. Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes are very low-tech, teaching students, rather, to engage with the texts and with one another in conversation daily. The Fort Worth ISD has been wonderfully generous in providing books for each Cowan Academy® student.

2. In addition, Cowan Academy® teachers who teach history and English must not have more than 75 students a year so that they can tutor and mentor their students like their peers in a private school. However, this usually works out easily for those who are teaching a Cowan Center™ humanities course. Technically, they are teaching 75 English students and 75 history students. Their total is 150 students like many of their colleagues in the district.

3. Perhaps the most important feature of a Cowan Academy® or a Cowan School® (another trademarked educational model certified by the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Center™) is that the principals who lead both educational models have the exact same certification “training” requirements as their teachers so that they can foster the community of the school in this human vision and support the vision of liberal learning overall. The educational vision that gives shape to this work is vastly different from what the bureaucracy knows or provides. And this is not a “do as I say” kind of “training.” It is a “do as I do” vision.

​Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students have largely responded with pride about their achievement. They have even sensed the importance of community that this philosophy seeks to foster. After their first year in a Cowan Academy® class, 8th graders like Eduardo stated, “Thanks to humanities, writing essays is easy, and I am not afraid to talk out loud in front of my speech class.” Madison explained, “This class gives me an advantage for my future. I have learned to see many different perspectives,” while Ke’Onna observed, “we work hard, but the class is getting us ready for high school.” According to the Cowans’ vision, non-competition and community are daily fostered in each class, making a burgeoning human community one of the most common features in a Cowan Academy® class that is observed both by students and by the grown-ups in their lives. As Fernando stated, “I feel a part of a large community in this class.” His classmate, Uriel, proudly claimed, “Humanities makes me feel like I’m part of something so important.”

Cowan Center® Humanities Curricula

Next month, the Cowan Center™ will begin its third year of Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes in three Fort Worth ISD schools and will be serving students in grades 6-11. All three campuses have chosen to use the trademarked Cowan Center™ curricula. These daily syllabi are modeled on an integrated history/English curriculum used with great success for more than twenty-five years in a private school in Dallas. Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students in the Upper School level, grades 6-12, write and present original speeches to sharpen their powers of persuasion and their public speaking skills. They read aloud daily. They study grammar and rhetoric, write often in journals and frequently compose and revise formal essays on literature, history, and philosophy. They participate in formal small-group seminars that are guided by their own text-based questions or responses. They memorize and recite at least five lyric poems each year. Students do art projects and presentations based on ideas or images from the readings that have captured their imaginations. In addition, students at each level view, sketch, and study the form and meaning of art, architecture, and monuments from around the world. In each grade, then, Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students are tenderly taught to read, write, listen, think, and speak at a high level of sophistication about ideas and situations that have challenged and inspired humanity in every age.

​At each grade level, Cowan Academy® in the Humanities curricula are organized historically around the epoch studied in that year. Freshman Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students study world history and geography from prehistory through the early modern period launched by Machiavelli’s thought. Titles here include The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Ramayana, the Odyssey, Plato’s Apology, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, One Thousand and One Nights, The West African Mwindo Epic, Dante’s (entire) Divine Comedy, and Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly. Connections and comparisons are steadily considered among themes and cultures throughout the year. Apparently startled by the continuity, one 9th grade Cowan Academy® in the Humanities student asked her teacher in the second half of the year, “Are we ever going to stop talking about The Epic of Gilgamesh?” The answer is no, and why would we want to?

​An example of the continuity of the curriculum is found in the way in which freshmen are guided to treat primary documents. Throughout the year, as they read passages from The Code of Hammurabi, the 10 Commandments, Confucius’ Analects, Laozi’s Way of the Dao, The Code of Justinian, the “Beatitudes,” the Tang Code of China, Shotoku’s Constitution, the Magna Carta, Luther’s 95 Theses, and Machiavelli’s The Prince, the class compares the new code or set of laws to preceeding ones to consider what the new codes reveal about the people who wrote them. Ninth grade student also read primary texts to trace the historical development of the three “Abrahamic” religions— Hebrew, Christian, and Muslim—to help lay the foundations for a better understanding of the complex relationship that exits among these traditions even to this day. Lyric poetry by Rumi, Petrarch, and Shakespeare complement one another and deepen in the daily reading of lyric poetry in every class. For their end-of-year speech, each freshman choses an image or idea and traces it through the major historical epochs in at least three different cultures.

​Carrying forward both the content and the modes from their freshman year, sophomore Cowan Academy® in the Humanities students build on this, picking up world history and geography in the early 17th century to study through our time. After Don Quixote, students study literary works such as Hamlet, Candide, Frankenstein, Hard Times, Bartleby the Scrivener, Notes from the Underground, Heart of Darkness, and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, making additional connections to the history and the readings from the 9th grade class. The epic creation story theme continues here from the freshman year with the study of the Popol Vuh. From John Donne to Newton, from Kant to Kobayashi’s haiku, from Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft to Frederick Douglass, from Marx to Mill, from T.S. Eliot to the Harlem Renaissance, from Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Churchill’s and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches, from James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Gabriel García Márquez, lyric poetry, political documents, and philosophical works are considered from within the frames of the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, the age of industrialization and the Romantics, and up into modern times. The sophomore end-of-year speech requires students to reach back into the freshman curriculum to trace the idea or image from ancient times to modern day.
​On the high school campus, the original Cowan Academy® students are now going into their junior year, a landmark being initiated with Moby-Dick for their Summer Reading. This level of expectation is not new. Students are assigned Volume I of Don Quixote for Summer Reading going into their sophomore year. But these students going in their third year of Cowan Academy® classes are beginning “The American Experience and the World™” with a broad yet deep foundation from reading, discussing, and writing about world history and geography, as well as about literature, philosophy, political philosophy, religion, and art history from around the world. The junior course is framed by Moby-Dick and Invisible Man, epics whose themes and images will allow students to recall, discuss, and write about works studied in both the freshman and sophomore Cowan Academy® classes. Among the authors studied here are Walt Whitman, Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, DuBois, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Elie Weisel, Zora Neale Hurston, Frost, Hemingway, Pound, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, William Carlos Williams, Toni Morrison, O’Connor, Neruda, Baldwin, César Chávez, Malcolm X, Gloria Steinem, Lorca, Faulkner, Borges, Cortázar, Paz, Momaday, Barack Obama, and Jumpa Lahiri. In addition to nonfiction essays and speeches, in each of the four parts of the curriculum, political documents include rulings from important cases from the Supreme Court of the United States to help students understand how the political, cultural, social, and spiritual landscape of America has been created and sustained.

​Middle school Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes are conducted using the same integration of modes and disciplines as their high school counterparts, with a daily dose of in-class poetry memorization celebrating joyful recitations and readings. On one of the two middle school campuses, all the 6th graders will be enrolled in Cowan Academy® in the Humanities classes beginning in August and the comprehensive Cowan Academy® classes will roll up with the students each year in this neighborhood school.

​In the 6th grade “World Myths: Mappings and Meanings™” course, students review the basics of grammar, of language and form in writing, in speaking, as well as practice active listening and reading deeply by annotating texts. Rather than history, the focus here is on learning world geography and on reading broadly from around the world novels, short stories, and folk tales. A steady diet of beautiful images of the world in power point presentations and beautiful picture books about creation myths from Virginia Hamilton’s In the Beginning and D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths fill students’ hearts and minds with the wonder and complexity of the planet and the human condition. The end-of-year assignment in this grade is an original short story about a child from another culture that includes a focus in the plot on a significant geographical feature from that particular region.

​In the 7th grade “Texas Myths™” course, students study the history and epic spirit of Texas, its glories and its blunders. A book of Texas Indian myths and selections from J. Frank Dobie’s Texas Tales provide a touchstone throughout the year. These works are deepened by the study of significant historical documents and with novels such as Juneteenth, Old Yeller, Summer of the Mariposas, and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. Enfolding the idea of Texas in its mythic terms is the study of Virgil’s Aeneid, which these students read in class in its entirety. This ancient poem evokes a timeless landscape from which to consider Texas’ (six!) foundings, the struggles and the achievements thereof. Historical figures in Texas are compared to Aeneas and to other major figures in the poem through formal essays, speeches, and journals. The 7th grade end-of-year assignment is an original “tall tale,” Texas-style, to present to the class.

​In the 8th grade “American Myths™” course, students study American history from Jamestown to Reconstruction, with an emphasis on primary historical documents and nonfiction writers such as John Smith, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Olaudah Equiano, Alexis de Tocqueville, Thoreau, Emerson, Douglass, Harriot Jacobs, and Abraham Lincoln. Lyric poetry and short stories bathe the year, including authors such Native American poets, Anne Bradstreet, Phillis Wheatley, Jonathan Edwards, Jupiter Hammon, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Emily Dickinson, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and Walt Whitman. The final assignment for these students is to write and present a formal speech considering the difference between “freedom” and “liberty.” Students must use primary sources that go back to the original colonies and that include the voices of at least three different peoples from the diverse American “myths.”

The Cowan Vision of Liberal Learning for All​

Out of the depths of the pandemic lockdown this spring, messages of inspiration and hope issued from Cowan Academy® students, galvanizing our commitment to the work in Fort Worth and to the splendid teachers and principals who guide it. Missives such as Carlos’, a 7th grader who explained, “Humanities has not only been a class to learn history but a life lesson in itself. I think it is very safe to say that this is a great class that not only one school district needs but the whole country needs in every single school.” A 9th grade student remarked to her teacher, “As the year progressed, I started to view humanities as my little opportunity to really understand the world. I had assignments and lessons that didn’t teach me how to read or annotate for a grade, but to look deeper into the ancient worlds to understand what life meant for anyone at any point in time. I was starting to learn how to read for the experience. The experience to live someone else’s life, and to know what it meant for them to be human.” And an 8th grade Cowan Academy® student sagely observed, “Through our class I have learned that we have a great life because others went through difficult things before us.”

​There are many, many more such comments from our Cowan Academy® students, and we are grateful for every one. They are proof, to me, that the Cowans were correct in their estimation of human possibility and in their confidence that liberal learning truly does set one’s heart and mind free.

​I could go on in great detail about the Cowans’ philosophy of liberal learning. They were profound intellectuals and thinkers, and their vision is what I am privileged to consider and apply every day. But in closing, I would simply like to point out what I believe to be most essential to their vision—what they contributed to the tradition of liberal learning. Their most concrete contributions are Donald Cowan’s—a physicist—emphasis on the purpose of a liberal education—-to cultivate a “poetic imagination” first through the proper study of literature.

The other indispensable feature of their mark on the tradition is the loose yet sturdy frame of Louise Cowan’s literary genre theory in which she teaches how to read for understanding, for broadening one’s views and ideas about life. But just as important as their rigorous academic theories are their insights into the impact of what Donald Cowan calls the “spirit of liberal learning.” They believed that the effect of liberal learning is to help enable a person to achieve the true form of his or her life. They taught the unpopular reality that the deepest understanding almost always comes from the greatest struggle. They taught that true learning always begins with submission. They believed in the power of the well-educated imagination, in society and in one’s life. And they believed that wisdom was connected to mystery and beauty along with the search for meaning and truth. Most importantly, to me, what distinguishes their vision of education from cynical educational and social theories is that they believed that an education better fits a person to be in the world, particularly to be in a democracy where a liberally educated citizenry is critical.

And even though they were constantly elevating their sights to transcendent ideals—such as myth and meaning—in order to couch their understanding, I have never known people so deeply in love with people, in love with the frail and glorious human condition. It was this that motivated them, this love that guided their educational dreams and ambitions, and because of this great gift, love and hope motivate and fuel every aspect of the Cowan Center™ work. Because although the Cowans believed that there was something beyond this world, beyond this life, they also believed that until we “shuffle off this mortal coil,” to quote Hamlet, “earth’s the right place for love,” as Frost’s narrator claims. An education, they taught us, should not only prepare us to make our way through the world in work and in society. At its foundation, an education—like the one we strive daily to provide our precious Cowan Academy® students—should prepare our hearts and minds not only to see and judge clearly, an education should prepare us to live open to wonder, and ultimately, to love this world.

Two states—Texas and Florida—are moving forward to open their schools for five-day, in-person instruction, even though the rate of coronavirus infections in both states is rising.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has demanded that schools across the nation restart and become fully operational, although she has no power to force schools to reopen when local officials believe it is unwise and unsafe. She and Trump are trying to force schools to open as if there were no pandemic and no risks to students and staff. They think that opening schools will be good for the economy and help his re-election. It’s hard to see how it will help his standing in the polls if the pandemic continues to spread and claims more victims.

DeVos made a point of praising Florida Commissioner Richard Corcoran (former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives who has no background or qualifications in education and has expressed his desire to totally voucherize every school in the state) for ordering every school to reopen fully in mid-August.

As reported in Education Week, Corcoran left a loophole:

Corcoran’s Monday order says that, when they reopen in August, “all school boards and charter school governing boards must open brick and mortar schools at least five days per week for all students.” But those decisions are “subject to advice and orders of the Florida Department of Health, local departments of health” and other state orders.

Calling on schools to open “at least five days per week for all students” seems to eliminate the possibility of hybrid remote learning plans that have been among the most popular models for districts around the country. While the Trump administration has not clarified what exactly it expects from schools, DeVos has criticized hybrid plans as inadequate.

The school boards in Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade have announced that they will seek exemptions and continue remote or hybrid programs rather than reopen fully.

Texas has been promoting reopening, but local boards and teachers in hard-hit areas of the state are resisting.

The Trump administration has been citing the American Academy of Pediatrics as its justification for forcing schools to open, but AAP President Sally Goza pushed back and said that schools should not reopen without the financial resources to do so safely.

She told NPR that the AAP does not support rigid state mandates:

“We will be sticking to what our guidelines say —that if it does not look safe in your community to open schools, that we need to really have that looked at. We also need to make sure that schools have the needed resources to reopen safely so that a lack of funding is not a reason to keep students home, which we’re hearing in a lot of communities—to do what we’re asking people to do to make schools safe is not really financially feasible in some of these communities.”

It is with great sadness that I inform you that our dear friend Bonnie Lesley, leader of Texas Kids Can’t Wait, died of pneumonia.

She was a champion for children, and we will miss her friendship and her guidance. She was beloved by everyone who had the good fortune to know her.

Her son Bruce posted this notice today on Facebook:

Our family is devastated and heartbroken that my mother, Bonnie Lesley, who has loved, inspired, and impacted the lives of so many, has passed away this morning from complications related to pneumonia in Waco, Texas.

Our family is immensely grateful for all the love, support, prayers, and best wishes her various communities have provided to her, us, and to each other through this terribly difficult time.

My mother loved you all (“y’all” from our Texas friends). Her boundless love for family, students, colleagues, neighbors, and those dedicated to improving the lives of others is so apparent in the outpouring support she received in return.

Although not normally one who liked people reading to her, she loved to hear each and every post that I read to her via texts, email, Facebook, and Caring Bridge. She was so pleased to hear the kind words she got from people all over this country. It give her some much needed peace and happiness through this crisis.

We are going to have a graveside burial service for her in Her hometown of Hedley, Texas, this coming Friday. More information on this is forthcoming as arrangements are finalized. In lieu of flowers, we would ask that people consider donating to the The Network for Public Education Action, Planned Parenthood, or the Alzheimer’s Association.

Recognizing this will be very difficult if not impossible for people to attend, we are planning an on-line “Celebration of Bonnie’s Life” in the coming weeks. We will let people know when and how to participate in the near future.

Thanks again to all of you for your love, kindness, and support of my mother and our Thanks again to all of you for your love, kindness, and support of my mother and our family.

-Bruce Lesley

I share this quote (slightly modified) that my Mom loves from Gabriela Mistral:

“Many things we need can wait. The child cannot. Now is the time his or her bones are formed, his or her mind developed. To them, we cannot say tomorrow, their name is today.”

The IDEA charter chain has ambitious plans to expand, with the help of more than $200 million from Betsy DeVos’s charter slush fund (also known as the federal Charter Schools Program, which was created to help start-ups, not to expand corporate empires).

The IDEA profile is a business model, not a public school model. It pushes into new markets aggressively and spends lavishly on executive perks, like leasing a private jet, first class travel, self-dealing, and season tickets for sports events. And paying huge salaries to leaders. Betsy DeVos loves the model, but it didn’t play well to the public.

When the news broke about its free-spending ways, public reaction was swift and negative.

The chain, which currently operates 92 charters and is set to expand in Houston and elsewhere, funded by taxpayers with a mission of “disrupting” and replacing public schools, was co-founded by Tom Torkelsen and JoAnn Gama.

The board rewarded them handsomely. In 2018-19: Torkelsen was paid $817,395, CFO Wyatt Truscheit received $507,887, Gama collected $482,930 for Gama, and six others earned at least $250,000. When Torkelsen recently stepped down as CEO, he was promised severance pay of $900,000. Not exactly the kinds of salaries paid in the public sector. IDEA gets high test scores the usual charter way: by recruiting the students it wants and setting standards high enough to push out those it doesn’t want.

The Houston Chronicle wrote:
When the leaders of IDEA Public Schools gathered last December to vote on an eight-year lease for a private jet, the charter network’s then-board chair, David Guerra, thought of the nearly $15-million deal in business terms.

As president and CEO of International Bank of Commerce, Guerra and his team had used six corporate jets to grow the multibillion-dollar company’s business beyond its Laredo-area headquarters. The same premise would hold true for IDEA, he reasoned, as the charter school network based in the Rio Grande Valley rapidly expanded across Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

“We cannot fulfill our commitment to such a large geographic area without having this type of transportation,” the retired banking chief told IDEA’s governing board in December.

IDEA board members unanimously approved the lease, but reversed the decision two weeks later after charter school opponents and some of the network’s supporters denounced the aircraft as an irresponsible extravagance.

The episode triggered a wave of headlines, oversight changes and soul-searching at the state’s largest charter school, which now is grappling with how to maintain its corporate-like culture while abiding by some more-traditional expectations about how public school districts should be run, IDEA leaders said last week…

Beyond the charter jet lease, IDEA has drawn scrutiny in the past several months for multiple financial practices: spending hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on tickets and luxury boxes at San Antonio’s AT&T Center; making business deals with members of IDEA’s leadership and their relatives; and reaching a separation agreement with co-founder and CEO Tom Torkelson that will net him $900,000 following his resignation in May.

IDEA officials do not appear to have violated any laws, and the charter’s leaders have defended each practice at various points.

Still, IDEA’s governing board announced several reforms last month. They include banning private air travel, curbing executive benefits, ending business deals with leaders and family members, and requiring additional spending approvals from the governing board and chief financial officer.

“We don’t want to have execution that’s just like a traditional school district, because we want to have innovation and take some risks and be more aggressive,” IDEA Board Chair Al Lopez said. “But after 20 years of policies and practices helped us get to the point we’re at, we felt like we were at an inflection point.”

The stakes are high not just for IDEA, but the entire charter school movement.

Advocates for traditional public schools have seized on IDEA’s spending as an example of lax oversight of charters, which largely are funded by taxpayers. Texas American Federation of Teachers leaders blasted IDEA officials for the jet lease, accusing them of “flying adults around the state” instead of directly funding classroom programs. State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, deemed IDEA’s practices “nonsense” that “absolutely underscores the problem…”

“IDEA has operated outside the public eye with little transparency while still receiving taxpayer dollars — and it shows,” said Patti Everitt, an education policy and research consultant who monitors Texas charter school operations. “IDEA can’t have it both ways…”

The charter’s leaders credit IDEA’s success, in part, to a culture that borrows from the business, nonprofit and higher education worlds. The organization employs a regimented, highly centralized model that emphasizes student and employee performance data.

Critics, however, argue the network indirectly screens out children with greater academic and behavioral needs by emphasizing advanced-level courses, inflating the organization’s results. As an example, they note IDEA’s enrollment of students with disabilities totaled 5.4 percent in 2018-19, compared to 9.6 percent in other Texas public schools.

Still, IDEA schools remain in high demand, helping fuel the network’s ambitious approach to expansion. IDEA added more more students in the past five years than any other Texas charter operators, and it plans to hit 100,000 students across the southern United States by 2022-23.