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Teacher Quality is Focus of Group's Reform Effort

A report released Wednesday, the result of a year-long effort from a commission of top education thinkers, offers a sweeping set of recommendations aimed at improving the teaching profession in the state.

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A report released Wednesday, the result of a year-long effort from a commission of top education thinkers, offers a sweeping set of recommendations aimed at improving the teaching profession in the state — and sparking reform during the next legislative session and beyond.

The package of policy priorities from the Texas Teaching Commission, launched by Educate Texas, a nonprofit funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Communities Foundation of Texas, takes up teacher recruitment, compensation, evaluation and retention. It proposes changes at the state, agency and district level to address the challenges of getting and keeping the best educators in the classroom.

Among the proposed reforms: eliminating the minimum salary schedule, which dictates pay for teachers based on their number of years in the classroom, and developing a more rigorous, annual teacher evaluation system that significantly accounts for student growth through multiple measures, including state standardized tests.

“We wanted to give honor to teachers in this,” said Mike Moses, the former Texas Education Agency chief who led the commission. “We also wanted to say, 'Here's some things that we may need to do to reinvent the way we think about teachers and teaching in Texas.' And we had some pretty robust discussions about how we can do that.”

The discussions were so robust that if any of the suggested reforms go forward, it will be without the support of the four major state teacher associations who participated in the commission and refused to sign on to the final result. Their objections primarily stem from the report’s positions on teacher evaluation and compensation, according to Holly Eaton, who represented the Texas Classroom Teachers Association at all of the meetings.

Eaton said she thought it was a “good concept” to discuss the issues in a lower stakes environment, but that they could not agree on major points important to the educators the associations represent.

“There are so many components in the teacher quality pipeline that are big thorny issues that probably the agenda was a bit ambitious with this commission to try and flesh out all of those, to take the time that might have been needed to do that,” she said.

Another association representative who attended most of the commission meetings for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, Jennifer Canaday, said that there were aspects of the report she supported, like the need for high admissions standards and quality mentoring, but the commission did not focus enough on those reforms. By concentrating disproportionately on changes that would save the state money, she said, it also failed to make a strong statement to the Legislature about prioritizing state investment in education.

While Moses said he regretted that not all of the commission members were able to agree on the final recommendations, he added that he valued their participation in the process. He also disputed that the report did not encourage an investment in education, saying that all of its priorities would ultimately cost money from the state. A particular recommendation that the state raise teachers’ minimum salary to $41,000 annually, he said, was “a ringing endorsement in our book that the state needs to financially prioritize teachers and education in Texas.”

In addition to the teacher associations, the commission was made up of more than two dozen members of the education community across a variety of backgrounds. Members included former state lawmakers like Florence Shapiro and Rob Eissler, Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes and former Texas Education Agency commissioners Robert Scott and Jim Nelson. Former state senator, Texas Tech chancellor and General Motors executive John Montford, Haynes and Boone founding partner Michael Boone, and representatives from Teach for America and the education reform group Stand for Children also participated.

John Fitzpatrick, the executive director of Educate Texas, said the commission gathered over the course of a year with a single goal in mind: to develop a fully aligned set of priorities that would advance the teaching profession. While they hope their recommendations will make an impact on lawmakers convening for a new legislative session in January, Fitzpatrick emphasized that the report represented a long-term plan for reform in the state that would extend beyond the 83rd Legislature into the next two decades as a new generation enters the profession to replace retiring baby boomers.

That plan includes challenging some of the more established elements of state and district policy on compensation, evaluation and teacher hiring practices.

“There were some things that commissioners who served felt like needed to be said and we've done that,” Moses said. “We've said the things that we think are important not to be hurtful to teachers, but in fact everything we've done has been to elevate teachers, elevate the profession and elevate their compensation.”

Other possible reforms in the report include creating a differentiated pay system that allows schools to offer better salaries in high need areas like math, science and special education; lifting the required base salary to $41,000 from the current $27,000, and allowing districts to award subsequent raises based on merit alone; and setting aside a portion of the Foundation School Program, the state funding that goes toward districts’ general operations, for merit-based compensation to ensure districts have access to the resources to do that. 

The full set of recommendations will be distributed to lawmakers and major education stakeholders in the state.

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