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(DV) Moses: A Gold Standard for Texas Education







A Gold Standard for Texas Education: Portales on Education
by Greg Moses
July 2, 2005

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Rita and Marco Portales
Quality Education for Latinos and Latinas: Print and Oral Skills for all Students, K-College
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005)
ISBN 0-292-70633-2

This brand new release from two long-time Texas educators reminds us once again that the most important relationship in education is the one established in classrooms between teachers and students. If everyone in the education establishment from principal to governor could keep this single idea at the center of attention and organize their philosophies accordingly, then "quality education" would be a more likely result.

"But few education systems are actually set up to empower teachers," write Rita and Marco Portales, "and few endeavor to do everything possible to promote the one central relationship on which the education of the young either succeeds or fails."

With the Texas legislature now convened in special session to solve the problem of public education -- and with a Texas Supreme Court hearing on school funding coming up in early July -- the new book by Portales and Portales might encourage a policy discussion organized around the central relationship of teachers and students in the classroom. Yet, in speeches and press releases by various stakeholders in the 'school funding debate' we see how far the language and organization of ideas have strayed from the gold standard encouraged by Portales and Portales.

A brief internet survey of important websites in the school funding debate shows a unanimous lack of coherence. Everyone is already speaking in mid-stride, huffing and puffing to draw the breath they need today, but nowhere do we find anyone taking the needed time to mark the course that needs to be run in terms of educational ideas. This made-in-Texas book therefore arrives right on time.

It is not too late for stakeholders in the debate over public schools to state clearly how their various strategies for school budgets express coherent philosophies of education. And with that challenge in mind, it is not too late for all discussants to respect the considered opinions of two experienced Texas educators and scholars who argue that in the archaeology of education, we need to organize our policy around the single most important idea: that education finds its proper foundation in the transaction, the relationship, the encounter between students and teachers in the classroom. The cost of NOT recovering this idea is quite high.

"Since many young people are not being taught how to use the energies of their minds to solve problems, many learn to face life indifferently, or, worse, some even develop a desire to destroy what is around them," write Portales and Portales. "Often they turn to living by seeing what they can get away with instead of learning from their errors, improving both themselves and society by employing their energies for the public good."

In passages such as these, Portales and Portales remind us that when we organize our ideas for public education we in fact lay the framework for the social health of the people. The Portales gold standard -- by emphasizing the nourishment of one crucial human relationship -- begins to suggest how an exhausted political economy of human relationships can be refreshed. Is it idealistic to speak this way? If we think first about the kinds of relationships we want to see between students and teachers, why would we not want a robust idealism to flourish?

The Idea

"The idea," say Portales and Portales, "is to promote ideas that most people embrace hypothetically but few are in a positions to implement, mainly because the bureaucratic ways that are often in place keep our education system from benefiting all students."

Instead of tending to the student-teacher relationship as the gold standard of public life, Texas has drifted with the rest of the USA into the care and feeding of other social relationships: cops and criminals, prisoners and guards. While we spy with suspicion money spent to support other people's education, we applaud without hesitation political initiatives to further criminalize and incarcerate (see Gitmo, Texas below.) Furthermore, as mandatory punishments rise and budgets for rehabilitation fall, the relationship between officer and citizen has been intensified in its harshness.

In our encounters with the Portales gold standard therefore, we are challenged to ask each other: do we believe anymore in the redemptions of human relationships, or are we going to continue pounding each other into oblivion? And if we believe we ought to be making a turn toward hope and education are we going to put our money where our mouths are?

The problem with the bad faith of social trends today is that it is really too easy to see how many of us and our so-called political leaders have become the grown-up students of bad education: "facing life indifferently -- seeing what [we] can get away with." As a public we have forgotten how to dream of better selves in better days, refusing to gamble on the significant lottery of human potential. Instead, the lotto tickets that are supposed to raise education money signify all the chances that we are not willing to gamble directly on education itself.

"People may disagree," write Portales and Portales, "but we believe the reasons there are so many problems today is that the educations received by our own citizens, including the current forty- to sixty-five-year-old group of people, have been inadequate for the needs of society. If people had been properly educated to respect others in previous generations, we would have considerably fewer problems today. For good leadership seeks to lessen the problems and to smooth out the paths as much as possible, keeping problems to a minimum. If we spent more time as a society addressing problems before issues turn into crises, fewer people would be in jail, and we would have less graft, dishonesty, corruption, and selfishness. We would then be engaged in producing more law-respecting citizens." (Who, we might add, would be nurtured by more citizen-respecting laws.)

Because I have worked with Professor Marco Portales as a colleague, I can hear in the quote above a complaint about the friction that educators feel when they campaign for curricula of inclusive human respect -- the much-derided multicultural movement. Teachers who have worked the fields of education in Texas (and elsewhere) know the palpable, career-disabling resistance that one can feel when insisting that education should lead (not follow) social trends of human respect and toleration. Educators have a duty to resist age-old social habits of ethnocentric exclusion. The fruits of education's refusal to be more aggressive on this front become for Portales part of the explanation for the political framework that continues to freeze out progressive education for Latinas y Latinos today.

For classroom teachers themselves, Portales and Portales offer a pedagogical plan centered upon "print and oral skills." What is important about this pedagogy for readers who are not teachers is the relational commitment needed to practice this pedagogy. In other words, there is just no substitute for teachers spending time with a student -- each and every student. In the end, what this means for educational policy is that the time teachers have to spend with students is the heartbeat that animates the priorities of any budget.

The Effect

I wonder if there is some way to calculate how various budgets affect the contact time with teachers measured on a per-student basis? I do see lots of claims made by budget makers that they have put "the children first", but in the Portales gold standard we may have a method for quantifying what that means. A budget that puts "children first" will be a budget that measures contact time that will be made available for each and every student. Class size may offer a rough approximation, but class size figures do not reflect the weights of non-teaching burdens that are placed on teachers in a given day. In order to keep the Portales gold standard in mind, we may want to specify teaching-contact hours.

Keeping attendance records, making out grade reports, filing lesson plans, attending meetings, reading memos, filling out surveys, all these things may be counted as "teaching" on some scale, but not on the Portales gold standard, because none of these activities involve the crucial relationship of educational contact between teacher and student.

The Governor's press release of June 21 promises a budget that will be: "helping teachers and rewarding schools with large numbers of economically disadvantaged students that succeed. And it provides stronger accountability measures, so more money will go directly to the classroom and more taxpayers will know exactly what gets spent in the classroom." If the Governor is talking in terms that we can translate into the Portales gold standard, then his office should be able to state clearly, what difference in contact hours will the plan enable?

In the practical experience of teaching, policy announcements about "accountability measures" signify distractions from student contact that intensify pressure upon teachers to show more results for spending less time with students. Furthermore, "accountability measures" also mean that students are more likely to be compared with each other according to increasingly abstract scales of development that prevent teachers from exploring and nurturing the individualized potentials that may be discovered in each and every student talent.

Teachers reading the Governor's promise to "reward" schools who "succeed" with "economically disadvantaged students" may notice that the Governor says nothing about providing resources to make those successes possible in the first place. Comparing what the Governor says with what he does not say, teachers may very well conclude that when it comes to the education of "economically disadvantaged students" the Governor is handing down a reform that in the jargon of labor history will count as "speed up" -- the technique of increasing productivity by asking workers to exhaust themselves in a shorter period of time.

The Challenge

For Portales and Portales however, the pedagogy of "print and oral skills" involves so much teacher time, because the skills to be developed are so multi-dimensional. In the interpretive relationship between "print" and student, between student and "oral skills" one encounters galaxies of possibility in which the teacher must prepare to lead and to be led. In students, the engaged teacher finds the usual counterproductive resistance to education, so the teacher must continue to lead. But from students, the involved teacher also learns from constructive resistance, too. The teacher who has no time to change course cannot have time to teach -- that is, if teaching is an actual relationship with a student.

So the general problem of education -- that we are usually missing the main idea in our adult policy battles -- comes to rub especially hard against students for whom the ethnocentric habits of public education (K-college) have never found the flexibility to respect. To engage Latino and Latina students as a group (exceptions such as Richard Rodriguez notwithstanding) teachers have to be ready to change course. And policy makers have to be prepared to follow the teachers who are following the students. But alas, this is quite the opposite of what anybody (including the Governor) means when they talk about "student centered" education. In the world that we live in today, any teacher caught following students will be disciplined and punished. But we digress from the student center.

”Aside from the discouragement that most students of color feel from teaching approaches that do not encourage them to master school disciplines, we need to understand that white students are usually more successful in school precisely because they are adequately taught to read, think, write, and talk in closely related ways that do not require the kind of language adjustments that Hispanic and other minority students have to make between the home environment and school.” In other words for white students as a class, the relationship between education and world is much less of a puzzle to be solved. And white folks who have done well in such environments (lawyers and legislators) cannot even begin to conceive what the experience of “disconnection” would mean.

The so-called “inherent” usefulness of a curriculum is in fact historically embedded in ways that very few folks take the time to understand. Where the obviousness of the value of education is not reflected and reinforced in the student’s world of experience, then the value has to be problematized as part of the education. But typical education practice merely insists upon orders from high above that all students must be brought into unproblematic relations with existing curricula, and this is quite different from insisting that all students must be educated.

In their proposal of a "print and oral skills" pedagogy, Portales and Portales seek to demonstrate (one more time) that if profound education is to become more widely shared among students, it must also become more multidimensional and flexible. But for all this to happen on a massive scale, teachers must be empowered to teach from within the relationships they establish with their students. This is one reason why policy makers cannot ignore what Portales and Portales insist -- that pedagogies are to be adopted by teachers for students.

"The purpose of the print and oral approach in education is to impart a new kind of confidence to all students," write Portales and Portales. "This confidence needs to rest not only on a teacher's assessment of students' work, but increasingly on the students' sense that they are now being successfully taught how to interpret and analyze all forms of written language and the signs and symbols that are used to communicate throughout society and the world. Students should also be convinced that the knowledge and skills they acquire are showing them how to express themselves clearly, both orally and in writing."

What it All Comes Down To

I think I know what Portales and Portales are talking about here. At a recent public hearing in Austin, a predominately Latino/Latina community gathered to meet city officials concerning an 18-year-old who had been killed by police. During a five hour hearing, the intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom of the community was placed on public display. Yet the hearing was portrayed as a kind of noise or collective emotion. Nobody was really listening to the community. Instead, the value of the "hearing" was said to lie in the ability of the community to be "instructed" as a group by the power figures of the city. Yet the community was not capable of being "instructed" and for very good reasons. What counted for "instruction" by power figures was interpreted as bullshit. In fact the "instruction" made no sense.

But during the hearing, visitors were treated to oral presentations by many of the peers who shared with the 18-year-old victim some histories of crime and probation. The wit, wisdom, and eloquence of these speakers was stunning. As I watched the long night of presentations, I often thought to myself, where are the college recruiters? When presented with a problem relevant to their life world, there was nothing to corroborate official studies that would mark these speakers as deficient. In fact, they were exemplary. And my fear today resides in the thought that these brilliant thinkers and speakers, so full of youthful freshness and sass, would soon enough be tossed aside by a social order incapable of changing directions.

I apologize if my example is too subversive to help the book sales or political influence of the work to be found in Quality Education for Latinas and Latinos. Why those peers of Daniel Rocha were on probation rather than honor roll is the best reason that I can think of for why the legislature should put up or shut up without any further delay. Any teacher worth the name would love to have that talent in class. It is time for Texas policy makers to come up with the funds to support those teachers and then get out of their way.

Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. He can be reached at:

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