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The Q&A: Linda McSpadden McNeil

In this week's Q&A, we interview Linda McSpadden McNeil, director of the Center for Education at Rice University.

Linda McSpadden McNeil is director of the Center for Education at Rice University.

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Linda McSpadden McNeil is professor of Education and a Co-Director of the Rice University Center for Education. Her research encompasses issues of urban schooling, teaching and learning, school curriculum, school organization and policy and educational equity. She is the author of Contradictions of Control: School Structure and School Knowledge, which has become a classic volume in the field of education for its analysis of the effects of bureaucratic schooling on the quality of teaching and learning. Her second book, Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing, released in 2000, is having a strong impact on public understanding of the consequences of legislated standardized testing.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: We are now one year out from the Legislature passing HB 5. Do you think the reforms in the legislation are a good step toward fashioning a better accountability system in Texas? What would you have done differently? How long will it take to see the effects of the HB 5 reforms?

Linda McSpadden McNeil: To put it in context, it was actually June 1994 that the testing system became high stakes for school administrators. … From the beginning, this has been a focus on the technicalities of an accountability system and a management compliance system. And it’s never really been a vision for high quality and equitable education.

When you look at HB 5, I think the parts that most parents and teachers think is positive is, first of all, that it did away with 10 of the 15 end-of-course exams that high school students were supposed to take. … The downside was it almost gave legitimation to keeping the accountability system itself. We still have our five tests.

The good thing that happened was not just that legislators were moved to change those requirements. But that came about because of specific, informed activism from parents, from civic groups, from teacher professional organizations. Many parents took the lead. And it was one of the first times that people started to ask questions. Where does this come from? And, how much is it costing?

Sometimes, things have to come close to home before you really start to ask the big questions. Before, most of us who studied the system … have looked at the impact on the least well-served kids. The newest immigrants. The kids learning English. The kids who are triaged out because practice test scores are low and the principal figures out, you know, you’re a liability to our school rating. … But when parents of some of the kids who are already thinking college and already taking high academic classes started to ask these questions, that really snowballed because they started going to all kinds of meetings and talking to legislators and looking at what was happening in legislative committees and at TEA.

The really good news of HB 5, which I hope will be sustained, is greater transparency and a refusal to sit back and let things just be dictated from on high … I think the fact that many more people, individually and in organized ways, are gathering information and sharing it with each other, holding meetings, holding symposia … hopefully holding legislators’ feet to the fire … that is something we haven’t seen in Texas because things have been centralized for so long and there’s this fatalistic sense that “they” are doing it to us again.

Trib+Edu: Did lawmakers draw the wrong lessons from what the parents were saying? Or did they misunderstand?

McNeil: I can’t really generalize to the whole Legislature but I do know that testing companies, especially Pearson and its lobbyists, are so strong. … Many people didn’t know that the state pays Pearson testing $100 million a year on a five-year contract and the best we can figure out is that if you add up all what the school districts pay for the extra staffing, the test prep materials, the test security … is probably another half billion.

We need to completely dismantle the accountability system, shift the hundreds of millions of dollars that now go to testing companies and into maintaining this cumbersome system back into instruction. … There are also very sound, proven ways to assess schools and their programs — peer review teams like those that assess university degree programs, among others. Right now, the first billion goes to a system that is watering down quality right at a time Texas kids reflect the coming face of the nations’ children.

One thing HB 5 does is to almost create an opening for asking those questions. What are we spending money on? And why?

Is this one more thing that sounds like we’re doing something but, in fact, more of the time and effort and thinking has gone into the technicalities? The big picture is missing, which is, what is the most robust, powerful and engaging education we can give the children of Texas?

We need to look at this as a wonderful opening in terms of being smarter about asking questions and asking very specific questions about what things are costing and who benefits. Hopefully that momentum can carry over into the next sessions because I think our kids can do anything. And we have the most extraordinary kids in the country and they come from all over the world. They deserve that kind of education.

But when we pen these bills, they just seem to be technicalities and rules and not very well thought out. And it’s certainly not an invitation to put down and craft a really rich education for our kids. I think if nothing else … we really have to all stay very active. I think that’s one of the legacies of HB 5 that has been unleashed.

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