When Curtis Culwell got his first job in education more than four decades ago, he said it was considered high-tech to have an overhead projector and colored chalk in the classroom.
Now, after education posts in 11 different cities across the state, including a 10-year stint as the superintendent of the Lubbock Independent School District, the South Texas native who started out as an English teacher in Garland ISD is retiring after 12 years of leading the same suburban Dallas district where he began.
Culwell is stepping down as public education in Texas is on the cusp of big changes. Schools are absorbing more than $5 billion in cuts made to the state’s education budget in 2011, and they will struggle to persuade lawmakers to restore that funding in 2013. As a rocky transition to a rigorous new assessment and accountability system produces anxiety from parents, educators and administrators — and backlash from lawmakers — the state is facing six lawsuits over the way it funds public schools that could result in a dramatic restructuring of the school finance system.
The superintendent talked to The Texas Tribune recently about how to prepare students for college and the workplace, the weighty decisions coming up for state leaders, and standardized tests’ potential for “cognitive bludgeoning.”
What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of the conversation.
TT: You began your career in education in 1976. Would you still go into the profession as a young person today?
Culwell: I can't think of a better way to spend one person's life. It's not easy, and it's never been easy, and it's much more complicated that it ever was. But it has meaning, and there's so many things in life that don't have meaning in terms of what you do for a vocation. And I tend to be very optimistic, and I’m very hopeful about public education. We need our best and brightest minds in the classroom, and we need to make sure the environment for our best and brightest to be educators is one that is safe, that's hopeful and has enough financial support that it's a wise career choice.
TT: Why are you optimistic about the future of the public education system in Texas?
Culwell: First of all, the almost 5 million children that comprise it. When you are around those students you are impacted by their creativity, their potential, their belief that they can make a difference. But also what compounds that is their reliance on adults to make good decisions regarding their future. That is where the confluence of all of this settles. We are in a very important period in these next four years in this state as the adults make good decisions for the future of students.
TT: Talk about what you think some of those decisions will be.
Culwell: They are going to be about coming to grasp with what our future is going to look like. All you have to do is go to a Texas public school classroom to know what our future looks like. And it's going to look very different terms of diversity, in terms of the makeup of our children, and that brings significant challenges that we have to meet. And we need to have a coherent discussion about where we should be in terms of standards, in terms of assessment, and have a very meaningful dialogue about workforce development, and the levels of acceptable education that is a standard across the state.
TT: What should we discuss when we look at those standards for college readiness and workforce development?
Culwell: We can talk about career-ready, we can talk about college-ready, but that's a hazy definition that has a lot of different meanings in a lot of different places. In that conversation we have to elevate career with college, which we are not doing. Our current structure in particular terms of graduation plans, it makes it very difficult to equate career with college.Once we elevate the career part and we have a discussion about what that means, we need to have a very frank discussion about college accessibility in terms of affordability. When we open the door and talk about every kid in Texas being ready and having the opportunity to go to college, affordability should be mentioned in the same sentence with accountability and readiness.
TT: And what about assessment and accountability?
Culwell: Everyone that's been involved understands the testing system and accountability system have been helpful. But I think everything runs its course. What we have now is a system that if we aren’t careful is going to be one that is going to continue to breed some unintended consequences. We need to look at it with a more open mind about how we assess students and how we assess schools' performance. That doesn't mean throwing out our total system, but you've got a Texas testing establishment that is unyielding as any education association has ever been. More testing doesn’t necessarily lead to higher performance. It doesn't necessarily lead to a more efficient or adequate or productive system. It's like we used to have corporal punishment in schools and we came to the realization that it wasn't the way to do it. If we continue with the rate of increasing testing as we are now, I liken it to cognitive bludgeoning. If we aren't careful, it is going to dull us down.
TT: Are these the kinds of conversations about education policy that will happen during the upcoming legislative session?
Culwell: Accountability and testing will probably be the first out of the chute. There is a significant backlash against our current testing system. I believe in parental choice, and I believe that parents are going to make the choice to support legislators who are open to adjusting our system. That doesn’t mean abandoning accountability or abandoning assessment; it means taking a different look. When you put the court case in the picture, I think finance is going to be part of the overall budget when you talk about the cuts that were made. Then hopefully we'll be able to restore some of the cuts that have been made to public ed.
TT: Some folks believe — including possible Senate Education Chairman Dan Patrick — that this is the session that the state will finally pass a form of private school voucher legislation. What are your thoughts?
Culwell: I think it will be part of the legislative agenda. But everyone has to remember that choice systems are a two-way street. They aren't just parents choosing schools; it's also institutions choosing their parents. We’ve seen that happen unless voucher systems are carefully structured. I think we have strong public school system, and I don’t think we need a voucher that is given for a nonpublic school. But I do strongly believe any voucher that is given [for a private school], the state testing and accountability system goes with it. I think anything beyond that is a complete act of hypocrisy. If someone takes a public dollar, then the state public accountability system and the state testing system goes with it. I think most honest voucher advocates would not argue with that. If we have a robust charter school system and good public school choice, which is continuing to grow in this state, I don’t think you need a voucher system.
TT: Looking forward beyond just the legislative session, with your experiences in public education over the past four decades, what do you think will be the biggest challenge facing public schools in Texas?
Culwell: In a really broad context, the viability of public schools and the institution itself and those that do good work in that system. There are certain elements that would like to see the institution dismantled, and I think that is a tragic and very dangerous notion. There is also the continuing commitment of older Texans to pay for the education of younger Texans that look very different from them. I do believe what citizens in Texas want to see is a good return on their investment. They want to see an educational system that produces opportunities for children.