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Home | Tag Archives: texas education agency

Tag Archives: texas education agency

Texas Wants Schools to Pay for ACT, SAT Exams; Local Districts Say That’s Unreasonable

A battle is brewing between the Texas Education Agency and school districts over who should shoulder the costs of federally mandated ACT and SAT exams for certain high school students.

At the center of the funding battle is a group of 109,000 students who completed high-level state math and reading tests before entering high school. Federal education law now requires those students to take another assessment while they are in high school to measure their achievement.

In a proposed change to its administrative rules, the TEA said it would use the ACT and SAT — two standardized tests administered for college admissions — to test those students in high school, and that school districts and charter schools should pay for them.

School districts disagree, and they fired back against the TEA during a public comment period for the proposed amendment.

“It was unfathomable that [the TEA] wouldn’t agree to pay for these tests,” said Casey McCreary, the associate executive director of education policy at the Texas Association of School Administrators, one of the organizations that is opposed to the proposal.

The proposal applies to students who, prior to entering high school, took the Algebra I or the English I and English II end-of-course assessments, which are part of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, program. Administering the ACT or the SAT to those students would cost districts across the state a total of $5.45 million each year, according to TEA estimates, assuming the tests each cost $50. Prompting the change is the Every Student Succeeds Act, or the ESSA, the federal act that replaced the controversial No Child Left Behind Act and that aims to give states more freedom in setting goals for school districts.

During the public comment period for the proposed amendment, McCreary submitted a memo to the Texas Education Agency recommending that the agency add the $5.45 million cost for the first year of tests to its list of funding requests to the Legislature.

A spokesperson for the TEA did not immediately answer questions about why the agency thinks local school districts should pay for the tests. However, the agency said on the website outlining the proposed amendment that it is exempt from a rule in the Texas Government Code that says a state agency cannot impose a cost on a local government because the proposed amendment is necessary to comply with federal law.

HD Chambers, the president of the Texas School Alliance and the superintendent of Alief Independent School District, wrote in a separate memo to the TEA that the money should come from a $78.5 million fund that the Texas Legislature has appropriated each year for the student testing system.

“I can’t help but believe that the state has the capacity to fund $5.45 million in exams,” Chambers told The Texas Tribune. He said the state already spends large sums of money on the STAAR tests, which he said are “not nearly as necessary as the ACT or the SAT.”

Currently, the state pays for STAAR end-of-course assessments in math, English, science and history, which the state’s 1.5 million high school students must complete to earn a high school diploma, according to the TEA. Most students complete the STAAR assessments during high school, not before. About 214,000 public school graduates took the ACT, SAT or both in 2015, the latest year of data available on the TEA’s website.

Chambers said he appreciates that the state wants to use the ACT and the SAT to fulfill the mandatory federal testing requirement, adding that he has previously worked with Mike Morath, the state commissioner of education, to boost the use of the ACT and the SAT in state assessment methods.

But he said it is “unreasonable” to force districts to pay for the tests since some districts cannot afford them.

McCreary agreed with Chambers, saying it would be “detrimental” to students if districts are asked to divert money away from areas that are “huge for students” like school safety, special education and Hurricane Harvey recovery.

Dax Gonzalez, the governmental relations communications manager of the Texas Association of School Boards, called the plan “yet another unfunded mandate” and said “it starts getting pretty burdensome when you take the cumulative effect and when you start redirecting all those resources to these little mandates.”

The conflict over who will pay for the tests comes as the TEA plans to decrease state funding to public education and use local taxes to fill the gap. This has prompted angry reactions from educators who want the state to invest more in public education.

The spokesperson for the TEA said the agency received nearly 200 public comments, which are currently under review. The agency will post its responses to the comments after the review process ends, and the amendment will still need to go to the commissioner for final review.

The Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Author: MATT ZDUN – The Texas Tribune

Brown New Tech Earns T-STEM Designation from TEA

Active Learning at this West Side school got a boost of science, technology, engineering and math thanks to a new designation from the Texas Education Agency.

Brown Middle School is now an official T-STEM Academy and is one of a selective number of campuses in Texas who offers a curriculum focusing on those important subjects.

“This is an amazing opportunity for our students,” said principal Laurie Enloe. “Our teachers are also excited about being offered this type of rigorous and innovative curriculum to this community.”

The school was invited to apply for the designation as part of Franklin High School’s T-STEM designation process, creating a 6-12 pathway for students.

“Our teachers are so excited about the opportunities they have to engage students in new ways,” principal Laurie Enloe said. “I can’t express more how exciting it is to be a bulldog.”

Brown qualified for the T-STEM designation by implementing a blueprint of instruction that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math. The middle school was invited to apply for the designation as part of Franklin High School’s T-STEM designation process.

“This creates an opportunity for students to have a pathway in STEM from the sixth-grade to high-school graduation,” Enloe said.

At Brown, the program starts in sixth-grade with Gateway to STEM and continues with Pathways to STEM and Applications of STEM in seventh and eighth grade, respectively.

Science teacher Ryan Edwards has already started using project-based learning in his classes.

“Out-of-the-box thinking comes with students taking control of their own learning,” Edwards said. “When you have a project-based classroom and students answer questions in their own way that stimulates innovation. I think it’s crucial because then students feel connected to the material they are learning.”

Brown student Juancarlos Escobar is excited his fellow peers will be implementing project-based learning in the traditional classroom.

“It’s more hands-on and you get to do your own thing. You can talk to other students and collaborate more on projects,” the seventh-grader said. “You learn to be more responsible and have more agency in your learning.”

Socorro ISD Earns Tech Lending Grant, Expands Laptop Distribution to More Students

Thursday afternoon, Socorro Independent School District officials announced that the district  had been awarded the 2018-2019 Technology Lending Grant by the Texas Education Agency to provide more students access to high-quality digital resources and courses.

The $150,000 grant has allowed SISD to expand its Digitally Nurturing Academics 1:1 program (one student to one laptop) to sixth-grade students at Salvador H. Sanchez Middle School, making it the first middle school in the district to give 100 percent of its students personal laptops for 24/7 access to digital learning.

“We are very excited to be the first middle school to provide laptops to every student,” said Iris Jimenez, the school principal. “All of our students will have the opportunity to experience and engage in blended learning through the many technology tools that are available to them.”

Along with the laptops, students at the school will have access to 65 hot spots for access to digital instruction materials off campus. The devices can be checked out for five days during the school year and as often as needed in the summer. Students will have the laptops in their possession every day, all year long.

“This will be my first laptop ever,” said Katia Chaidez, sixth-grade student. “I’m very happy because I will be able to learn new skills, gain knowledge, and get ahead.”

Students say the personal learning devices will prepare them for high school, where they also have portable computers for students at all grade levels.

“I feel excited about getting a laptop because I can learn more about technology and it makes learning fun,” said Aaron Sanchez, a sixth-grader at Sanchez Middle School. “It will prepare me for high school and college.”

The DNA 1:1 program started in 2014 with freshmen at Socorro High School receiving laptops to use for 24/7 learning. The DNA program and conversion to digital learning has expanded every year since the launch.

This year, all students at Socorro and Pebble Hills high schools received a laptop. Seventh- and eighth-grade students at SPC. Rafael Hernando III Middle School, eighth-grade students at John Drugan School, Socorro Middle, Sun Ridge Middle and Ernesto Serna School also were given laptops for the 2018-2019 school year.

The district will continue to expand the DNA program for all students at every high school and continue growing the middle school program, as well.

“Technology contributes to student success,” said Miguel Moreno, instructional technology coordinator. “SISD has always played a role in ensuring students have equitable access and resources to technology to prepare them for college and careers. We level the playing field for students with diverse backgrounds and needs.”

Texas Will Soon Release A-F Grades for Schools. Educators are Organizing in Opposition

In exactly a week, Texas will give its school districts official grades for the first time, rating them on a scale from A through F, with state officials promising a more transparent system that will show parents how their schools are educating students.

But the discussion about the new grades, which replace a pass/fail system, is already getting messy. Superintendents and educator advocacy groups, historically opposed to the graded system, are already organizing a campaign to fight it — arguing that letter grades cannot accurately reflect their work or factor in the challenges of educating a student body with diverse needs.

The state will use the grades to judge school performance and make policy decisions about their management.

“Parents want their children to do rigorous, engaging work that sparks a lifelong love of learning, not prep for a multiple-choice test that colleges and businesses don’t even consider,” said Kevin Brown, the new executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, which has released a set of talking points for educators to rally against the system.

At a House Public Education Committee hearing Wednesday, lawmakers questioned Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath about his plans for calculating and rolling out the controversial grades. Morath said the agency was given a lot of leeway to make decisions on the calculations and worked to build a holistic grading system.

The state Legislature made final revisions to the accountability system last spring, replacing a pass/fail system of rating schools and districts. This August, school districts will be graded in three categories: student achievement, student progress and closing the gaps. The state will use standardized test scores to grade elementary and middle schools, and a range of additional factors — such as graduation rates — to grade high schools.

Schools will receive pass/fail ratings this year before transitioning to a graded system next August — a compromise lawmakers made last spring to appease critics of the new system. But the Texas Education Agency will release numeric scores for schools next week, which can be easily translated to letter grades.

The student progress category is broken down into two subcategories, one that looks at how well students are improving on their standardized tests and another that looks at how students are performing at their school compared with similar schools.

Schools or districts that receive three or more F grades in those subcategories and the other two categories will automatically receive an F grade overall.

That rule informed the latest wave of criticism against the graded system. Calling the rule “forced failure,” the association of school administrators sent a letter to Morath Monday arguing educators were not given the chance to comment on it.

State Rep. Diego Bernal, a San Antonio Democrat, asked Morath to explain the decision at Wednesday’s Public Education Committee hearing. “In the rule, we’ve created a scenario that’s not in the bill,” he said. “We’ve created a scenario where a campus will get an F.”

Morath warned against looking at any specific part of the grade calculation in isolation and said the rule helps provide a more accurate depiction of a school’s performance. His agency will also unveil a new website next week that breaks down the calculations for each rating for both schools and districts.

Disclosure: The Texas Association of School Administrators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Author:  ALIYYA SWABY –  The Texas Tribune

Ysleta ISD Superintendent De La Torre Appointed to TEA Committee

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Commissioner Mike Morath announced that Ysleta Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Xavier De La Torre has been appointed to the agency’s Policy Committee on Public Education Information (PCPEI).

The PCPEI is an influential committee comprised of a small group of school leaders from around the state that provides guidance affecting all Texas public schools. Specifically, this advisory committee addresses policy issues regarding information and data requirements that support students’ educational needs statewide.

This appointment is the second statewide position for De La Torre. Earlier this year, he was elected to serve as the 2019 chair of the Texas Urban Council of Superintendents, a network of the state’s largest urban school districts that meets regularly to discuss governance, leadership, management, governmental relations, and other topics relevant to traditional urban public schools.

Via a news release, YISD officials said, “De La Torre has taken an interest in education policy to ensure that El Paso and West Texas are properly represented on important issues that affect our schools.”

“He plans to use these positions to ensure that future policies do not have adverse consequences that may negatively impact students,” officials added.

The other superintendents appointed to the PCPEI include: Andrew Kim (Comal ISD); Orlando Riddick (Midland ISD); John Wink (Blue Ridge ISD); John Allen (Frankston ISD); Clark Ealy (College Station ISD); Cody Newcomb (Center Point ISD); Patti Blue (Gustine ISD); Kevin Worthy (Royse City ISD); Kathy Rollo (Lubbock ISD); Jason Marshall (Palestine ISD); and Brian Stroman (Bloomburg ISD).

Special Education Caps Were the Texas Legislature’s Idea, Educators Say

After a federal report blasted Texas for failing kids with disabilities, educators and public education advocates are pointing the finger directly at state legislators who, they argue, first suggested capping special education to keep costs low.

The U.S. Department of Education last week released a monitoring report, after a 15-month investigation, finding that the Texas Education Agency effectively capped the statewide percentage of students who could receive special education services and incentivized school districts to deny services to eligible students. Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement soon after that criticized local school districts for their “dereliction of duty” in failing to serve students — which touched a nerve for educators.

“We weren’t derelict: The state of Texas was derelict, the Texas Education Agency was derelict,” said HD Chambers, superintendent of Alief ISD and president of the Texas School Alliance, an advocacy group. “We were following what they put in place.”

In a statement sent to TEA and Abbott on Sunday, the Texas School Alliance and school administrator groups dated the creation of a special education cap back to a 2004 Texas House Public Education Committee interim report, which surveyed how other states fund special education and which made recommendations to the Legislature for how to discourage identifying too many students with disabilities.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.

“Another method that states use to control special education costs is to impose caps either on the number of students who can be identified as eligible for special education services or amount of available state dollars,” the legislative report said, as part of a breakdown of how Texas funds special education compared to other states.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires Texas to identify and provide services for all children with disabilities between ages 3 and 21 in the state. The federal government is currently paying about 16 percent of special education costs across the country.

The committee’s report recommended the Legislature “determine what aspects of our current funding mechanism for special education encourage overidentification; and then investigate alternative methods for funding special education that decrease any incentives to overidentify students as needing special education services.”

It also recommended reducing state and local administrative costs in overseeing special education in order to direct more money to students with disabilities.

That same year, TEA implemented a system to monitor and evaluate how school districts were serving kids with disabilities. The percentage of students with disabilities served plunged from 11.6 percent in 2004 to 8.6 percent in 2016. The U.S. Department of Education found last week that the agency was more likely to intervene in school districts that provided services for more students with disabilities, incentivizing administrators to cut back on services.

Chambers was a central office administrator at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in 2004 and recalls receiving direct and indirect instruction from the state to serve fewer students. “We were under the impression that we were out of compliance if we were identifying more than 8.5 percent of our population,” he said.

TEA continued Sunday to deny allegations that it told districts to cap special education services at 8.5 percent. “The Texas Education [Agency] has been consistent with its position regarding this indicator. Our agency’s focus now is meeting the Governor’s directive to draft a corrective action plan to address the issues identified in the monitoring report,” said Gene Acuna, TEA spokesperson, in a statement Sunday.

Soon after the federal report came out last week, Abbott demanded Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath develop a remediation plan for special education within seven days. “The past dereliction of duty on the part of many school districts to serve our students, and the failure of the TEA to hold districts accountable, are worth criticism,” he said.

School groups immediately pushed back against that characterization, arguing that educators were following TEA’s demands to cut back services, and had faced state cuts that limited the quality of special education.

“Special education administrators are tasked with leading their staff to provide the best possible services with limited resources, limited training, and inconsistent guidance. It is not a dereliction of duty to follow a directive from your state regulatory agency, while at the same time trying to meet the needs of all students,” said Kristin McGuire, government relations director of the Texas Council of Administrators of Special Education, in a statement last week.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • A U.S. Department of Education investigation concluded Thursday that Texas violated federal law by failing to ensure students with disabilities were properly evaluated and provided with an adequate public education. [Full story]
  • Now that the Texas Education Agency has terminated a controversial no-bid contract aimed at improving special education services, critics are questioning how a relatively unknown Georgia company got the job in the first place. [Full story]
  • Rio Grande Valley parents and educators told federal and state officials Tuesday that school districts lacked knowledge and resources to get students special education services that comply with federal law. [Full story]

Author:  ALIYYA SWABY –  The Texas Tribune

Eleven Texas School Boards Ordered to the Classroom

The Texas Education Agency told 11 school boards and superintendents they must take special training because their plans for fixing underperforming schools haven’t made the grade.

The superintendents and elected school boards of 11 Texas districts — including Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth — have been ordered by the state education agency to attend two-day training programs to learn how to fix their failing schools.

Deputy Commissioner of Education A.J. Crabill sent letters to the 11 school boards Oct. 10 saying they need additional governance training because their districts submitted unsatisfactory plans for turning around floundering campuses. All 11 superintendents and boards have agreed to the training, with several members expressing frustration about what they saw as an unfair and vague request.

The letters were sent about two months after TEA released 2016 accountability ratings showing that 467 campuses statewide — including 42 in the targeted districts — were labeled “improvement required,” a decrease from 603 campuses last year. The notices were sent to Brazosport, Corpus Christi, Dallas, Fort Worth, Hearne, Houston, Lubbock, Midland, Nacogdoches, Tyler and Waco.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has promised to crack down on low-performing schools and to halve the number of failing schools over the next five years.

State law requires districts to submit detailed plans in the spring to fix problems at schools labeled “improvement required” for two or more consecutive years. The districts are supposed to include parents and the community in drafting the proposed fixes.

Morath has the final say on approving the plans — by mid-to -late June, according to a TEA timeline — so districts can start implementing them the following school year.

But for the 11 school districts, that implementation will have to wait until board trustees and superintendents attend a two-day, 24-hour governance training session.

In the letters, Crabill said he wasn’t sure the plans the districts submitted would address problems — including low test scores, low graduation rates, high dropout rates, and poor college readiness — within two years. The training sessions will help trustees identify and fix weaknesses in their plans, the letter said.

If Morath decides not to approve a plan, he can replace the board of trustees, replace the principal of a school or shut the school down completely, Crabill wrote.

Houston Independent School District’s board of trustees told Crabill it will likely vote to attend the training. But it also admonished the agency for leaving little time to actually turn around its schools. The commissioner said he would respond to the plans in June, and now may not approve them until trainings are completed in December.

“Our ability to make significant changes to the plans for these seven schools at this date may be somewhat limited,” the Houston board wrote Oct. 25. “Since TEA has missed its own published deadline for responding to the turnaround plans by four months, we ask that you provide us with specific concerns that TEA may have with the plans for these seven schools, so that we may begin considering how to make any appropriate adjustments in a way that will cause the least disruption during the school year.”

At an Oct. 27 Dallas Independent School District board meeting, a few trustees said the request for training was too vague.

“While I don’t have a problem with training, I do have a problem with a demand that I implement what it is we are going to be trained on, when I don’t even know what it is,” said trustee Joyce Foreman. “We need to know the specifics of what is wrong. We need to know specifics about the training. We need to know specifics of why these eight schools.”

The commissioner did approve campus turnaround plans in other districts around the state, TEA spokesperson Lauren Callahan said. She could not say what the difference was between those plans and the ones the commissioner flagged.

After receiving a flood of questions from district officials across the state, Crabill included a few key explanations in a follow up email to all 11 superintendents. He slashed the training from four days to two, after trustees said it was too hard for them to fit into their schedules. He presented six different dates and locations for the training, in Kilgore, Waco, Fort Worth, Midland, El Paso and Houston, on weekdays and weekends between Nov. 9 and Dec. 17.

All trustees and superintendents from all 11 boards must attend the entire workshop, Crabill said.

“This is a team event so just like in other team events, the whole team has to win together. Completion means that all trustees and the superintendent were present at the same workshop for the entirety of the workshop,” Crabill wrote.

Though all 11 boards have agreed to attend the training, it is not clear whether all trustees will show up.

A veteran Lubbock board trustee said he voted yes to the resolution agreeing to training – but now he’s not sure whether he will actually attend. He called the demand for governance training “unprecedented” in his 14 years on the board.

He said he is not sure whether he can get away from his day job for two 12-hour days. Districts have to cover the cost of any travel required for board members to attend the training session.

TEA does not have a plan in place in case board members don’t show up, Callahan said. “So far, TEA is receiving confirmation that board members will attend and complete the training. As a result, discussions on failure to participate have not been necessary,” she wrote in a statement Tuesday. “Any talk of penalties is premature.”

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Tuesday outlined plans to crack down harder on chronically low-performing schools, saying he wants to cut in half the number of them that end up on the state’s failing list over the next five years.
  • More Texas school districts and charter schools are failing in 2016, though the number of individual campuses that received that label decreased.

Author:  ALIYYA SWABY – The Texas Tribune

State Representative Calls for Suspension of Texas’ STAAR Exam

A state representative who has passed legislation aimed at reeling in Texas’ standardized testing regime is calling on the state to ditch required STAAR exams while it “tries to iron out STAAR’s many kinks.”

State Rep. Jason Isaac’s proposal comes the week after the Texas Education Agency announced it was penalizing the New Jersey-based company that develops and administers the controversial exams more than $20 million over problems that surfaced during springtime testing —including computer glitches that caused students to lose answers. It is the first year Educational Testing Services has overseen STAAR administration after the state scrapped the bulk of its longtime contract with London-based Pearson Education.

“Flawed testing practices threaten the State of Texas’ ability to fulfill our education system’s goals — and our children’s futures,” Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, said in a statement Monday. “The litany of errors being uncovered about STAAR is simply a disservice to our students, hard-working teachers, and families.”

While the state works with ETS to resolve the issues, Isaac suggested “schools be given the freedom to choose from a variety of nationally normed standardized tests.”

“School districts should not be hampered by an inefficient and ineffective system,” Isaac said. “Adding a dose of free-market philosophy to education by allowing a variety of standardized test options can only drive down costs and improve quality.”

Isaac told The Texas Tribune he will file legislation next year that would allow school districts to use something like the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills instead of STAAR. He filed a similar bill in 2013.

Last year, Isaac co-authored a bill that passed overwhelmingly requiring that 85 percent of elementary and middle school students be able to complete STAAR exams within two or three hours (two hours for 3rd through 5th grade; three hours for 6th through 8th grade.) House Bill 743 took effect last June.

A group of parents is suing the education agency, alleging it did not comply with the law this year.

“I hope my colleagues will join me when the 85th Legislative Session convenes in seeking transformational changes that will ensure that testing is a benefit, not a burden, to Texas’ students, teachers, and families,” Isaac said.

The legislative session begins in January.

Read more about the contentious STAAR exams:

Disclosure: Educational Testing Service and Pearson have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Author:  – The Texas Tribune

Education Chief: Texas’ future depends on success of “Brown and Black Kids”

Mike Morath, a 38-year-old North Texas businessman-turned public education devotee and school choice advocate, is Texas’ new education commissioner. Gov. Greg Abbott last month named the sophomore Dallas school district trustee to head the massive Texas Education Agency, lauding him as a “proven education reformer” and “change agent.”

Known for his controversial — and ultimately unsuccessful — effort to free the Dallas school district of most state controls, Morath’s appointment was a tip of the hat to the school reform movement, a diverse group of homeschoolers, business-backed accountability groups, charter school advocates, and voucher proponents.

Meanwhile, teacher and school groups — offended by Morath’s effort to turn the Dallas school district into a home-rule district — have mostly decried his appointment to a position overseeing the state’s more than 1,200 school districts and charter schools.

But in a wide-ranging interview with The Texas Tribune this month, Morath spoke passionately about empowering — and learning from — teachers and principals. One of the first big things on his to-do list, he said, is soaking up “the knowledge and wisdom of the practitioners of the field.” He also said he wants to focus limited state resources on struggling schools while leaving high performers alone.

Morath said he has no plans to implement any of the reform policies he pushed in Dallas statewide, contending that the state is too diverse for any one-size-fits-all approach — aside from its accountability system.

He said he will spend much of his first year on the job developing rules for legislation passed last year that made big changes to the state’s accountability system — greatly reducing the weight standardized test scores are given in measuring public school performance — and also requires school campuses be publicly labeled with A-through-F letter grades based on academic performance.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Texas Tribune: What is on your to-do list? And what’s your general, 30,000-foot-view vision for the job?

Mike Morath: There’s much that I have to learn about the agency, in particular — so much that I have to learn from superintendents. But generally, I think the three priorities that I want to spend most of my attention on are this accountability system — the framework for outcomes discussions for our schools and for our students is pretty critical, so I want to spend a lot of time around that. I want to make sure that the agency is as effective a resource as possible in the area of supporting educators — you know, we live and die with the efforts of our teachers. They are the lifeblood of our school systems, and so: Are there ways for us to better support educators around the state — and how? And then, last, just the agency itself — blocking and tackling of the efficiency of the agency, the culture of the agency in terms of being of service to school systems around the state, having a mindset that focuses on improving performance rather than compliance.

TT: When you talk about better supporting teachers, what do you mean?

MM: Certainly the professional development and resources that we offer and make available for them, providing the best-in-class instructional materials for them. One thing that I think is important is simply stability. Teachers get yanked around a lot because we change this standard and we change this instructional practice or we change this or that and so is there a way that we at the agency can say, “Let’s try to go in one direction for five years so our teachers are not toyed with in that fashion.”

TT: Before Gov. Abbott appointed you to head the Texas Education Agency, he had appointed you to head a special legislative commission that will recommend new ways to assess students and hold schools accountable. What were you planning to bring to the table in terms of school accountability? And what approach will you take in developing this new, A-through-F accountability system? 

MM: This is the big conversation. If we want to improve outcomes (for students), we need to have some sort of shared framework — a common vocabulary, if you will — to discuss outcomes. Otherwise, we don’t know whether we’re improving outcomes. In order for us to get there, there are three pretty critical ingredients. It’s got to be clear — people have to understand what it is. It has to be fair to account for the diversity of the state of Texas. And it has to be sort of precise or nuanced enough to differentiate between ‘good, better, best’ kind of performance. Specifics I’m not prepared to talk about today, but that’s the general framework through which we need to look at that discussion.

TT: As far as student assessment goes, what can you say about the state’s current testing regime, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR? Do you agree with your predecessor’s decision to increase passing standards despite stagnant performance on that exam?  

MM: I absolutely support the direction that the agency has been going.

I think I need to have a lot more conversations with educators around the state. We want these assessments to be helpful for teachers, for principals, for school district officials, for school board members, for parents. If they’re not helpful, then what can we do to make them more helpful? And perhaps they are helpful, they’re just not helpful for everybody right now, so there’s a lot of nuance that has to be learned.

TT: In announcing your appointment, Gov. Abbott described you as a “change agent” and “proven education reformer,” referring to your work as a trustee on the Dallas school board. Are there any policies you pushed in Dallas that you think should be implemented statewide?

MM: The diversity of the state of Texas is such that I don’t think it’s wise to think of anything being deployed statewide, with the exception of a broadly understood outcomes framework. The way that you achieve those outcomes is going to have to be adapted to the conditions of local communities all over the state, so I’m certainly very proud of certain things that we’ve done in Dallas, and I think that those are replicable, but not necessarily everywhere.

TT: There were a lot of mentions — even by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — at a recent policy forum about your age and how young you look. Your detractors note you have only served one full term on a school board. What do you say to people who think you’re too young, too inexperienced to do this job?

MM: Clean living and a pure heart keeps me looking young. [Laughs.]

I think I’m going to have to prove it in my job performance, so let me let my work speak for itself. And if they’re right, then hopefully they’ll find somebody better than me, and if they’re not right, then our kids will benefit. I have a variety of things that I could say as to why that’s not necessarily true, but what I say isn’t important, it’s the actions that I take to try to help kids in this state.

TT: Did serving on the Dallas school board prepare you sufficiently for this job? 

[Pauses.] Yes. [Laughs.]

TT: What things did you learn in that role that will help you in this one?

MM: I learned massive volumes of things in that role. (Dallas ISD is the) second largest school system (in the state) — about 225 campuses that range from a few low-poverty to a large number of high-poverty campuses, different academic focuses, different grade configurations, all kinds of logistical issues, all kinds of community communications issues.

TT: The state’s K-12 student population has become increasingly poor and diverse in recent decades. How should the state address this trend?

MM: The future of the state is delivering great results for brown and black kids, period. So we need to focus on delivering great results for brown and black kids while ensuring great results for everybody.

TT: What’s the biggest problem with the state’s education system? 

MM: There’s not an answer to that question. Again, I think you have to have a comprehensive framework. Anybody that tells you that there is a silver bullet — that you do this and our schools will get better, you do this and our kids will get better — I don’t think they know what they’re talking about. You have to have a comprehensive, thoughtful, long-term approach. You have to move with a burning sense of patience on behalf of our kids.

TT: You’ve talked about the need for the state to focus resources on low-performing schools. Can you elaborate on that?

MM: The state is not all-powerful and has limited resources — the state agency, in particular — and so we need to try to get out of the way of all of our school systems that are getting results and focus our effort on the schools and the systems that are truly struggling.

TT: I have to ask about the mountain climbing. (In announcing Morath’s appointment, Gov. Abbott specifically mentioned Morath’s experience leading climbs as a reason he would be good for the job.) 

MM: I love climbing. So much of what I do is too complicated to see results in a very clear period of time, but with mountain climbing, it’s simply you and God’s creation, and it’s extremely painful and very rewarding. It’s a religious experience.

Author:  – The Texas Tribune

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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