We have liveblogged each of the session's from The 2013 Texas Tribune Festival's Public Education track. The sessions featured panel discussions on early childhood education, charter schools, innovations in teaching and public education reform.
Featured speakers include Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, state Reps. Dan Huberty, Diane Patrick and Mike Villarreal, KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige and Frank Hernandez, dean of the College of Education at the University of Texas-Permian Basin.
Look below for highlights of the sessions, which were held on the University of Texas at Austin campus.
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With: Julián Castro, Libby Doggett, Gene Green, Carol Shattuck and Sherri Greenberg (mod.)
Dr. Doggett is our first speaker and is glad to be back at UT, where she got three degrees. She talks about how research has shown that low-income children who received early childhood education were more likely to pursue higher education and have many other benefits.
Doggett mentioned new technology in brain mapping that shows quickly that early childhood education has the benefits she has listed. Early childhood education is "critical." Twenty-three U.S. governors, from both parties, have been discussing early childhood education and have been focusing on pre-K. The business community has also begun to note that the best returns on potential investments come from people who have gotten pre-K education.
Carol Shattuck gave a state-level picture of the early childhood education system. The state funds a half day of pre-K to 4-year-olds, and many local Texas districts have funded the other half day. She says most young children are in child care, not pre-K.
Shattuck said that the current grants only are available to fund one out of nine eligible students. Pre-K is one of the only systems where if you are eligible, you should be served. Some districts are space-limited and have to seek partners in the community, like Head Start, in order to serve as many pre-K students as possible.
Shattuck says that many pre-K instructors are only required to have a high school diploma and 24 hours of training. There are different standards, depending on what many people can afford.
Castro formed a task force in 2011 with business and educational professionals in order to improve education in San Antonio. He was working on using the last 1/8th-cent sales to "move the needle of education." They decided that the best way to invest the money was to make sure students "didn't get behind in the first place." They are investing $31 million a year. There are 22,400 preschool kids in the San Antonio area, and 5,700 weren't getting high quality pre-K. Part of the problem is the 15 independent school districts in San Antonio.
The initiative is encountering some difficulties because of the increased sales tax and because some people view pre-K as "day care." Castro says he has worked to provide subsidized prices in the pre-K for families that weren't under or near the poverty line.
Greenberg asked Shattuck what is being done in Houston to increase pre-K. Shattuck replied that there have been research initiatives and business partnerships. She tried to get a "one-penny increase per $100 valuation on property tax in Houston" initiative on the ballot in order to fund pre-K, but because of some minor issues, it was not put on the ballot.
Greenberg asked Doggett what President Obama has been doing to improve early childhood education. Doggett replied that Obama has a four-part proposal that he brought up in a national address. The first part is high-quality home visiting in which "moms who want support can go and get help. ... We can teach them [how to take care of their children]." The second part is funding better quality care for children the first three years. The third part would add $75 billion over 10 years to states that have applied for it in order to add funding to preschools in states that currently have it but are underfunded. The final part is helping the 10 states without preschools work to get preschool for their 3- and 4-year olds. The bill itself will be presented in a few weeks.
Shattuck, in response to Greenberg's question on people's qualms that these initiatives are expensive, said that the return on investment in one of the major studies was 17 to 1. Castro said that every dollar investment is paid back to the city, state and country. He said that "brainpower is the currency of success" and that helping children develop into leaders is important for everyone.
Greenberg said that many teachers in early childhood education are not well-trained, and she linked it to the low salary of these teachers. Castro finds paying teachers well a priority. Shattuck mentioned that in Houston, "a good child-care salary is $20,000 to 25,000 per year" and that it is a challenge because there is not one system. Dr. Doggett said that at the federal level, there is a "race to the top" program that states are working on that will rank child-care systems and eventually work to unite different kinds of pre-K to make sure that whenever parents enroll their child in early childhood education, they are assured that it is a quality education. Apparently Texas was not going to apply for the "Race to the Top" program.
In response to a bilingual education question issue, Castro said that he is very sensitive to the special needs of bilingual and ESL students, and Dr. Doggett added that new research has shown that students from Spanish-speaking homes have a more difficult time than other students in English-only pre-K and expressed that she desires for "all people in Texas [to speak] both Spanish and English, and another language as well".
Shattuck emphasized that quality instruction is the best way to spend money in response to a question about educational priorities given a limited amount of money. She said that Texas is the only state that does not have a ratio for pre-K students to teachers and that creating a ratio of around 10:1 or 12:1 like other states have is very important to improving the quality of early childhood education.
Greenberg wrapped up by thanking the audience and thanking the speakers for their expertise and time.
With: Yasmin Bhatia, Mike Feinberg, Richard Middleton, Diane Patrick and Morgan Smith (mod.)
Smith opens the panel by asking speakers whether they are happy with Senate Bill 2, which overhauled many regulations on charter schools, including the enrollment cap. Bhatia said she is happy with the bill, but would like more funding for facility improvements in charter schools. Some panelists say charter schools don't get as much money for facilities as public schools.
Smith asks panelists whether public schools and charter schools are pitted against one another. Middleton said charter schools will continue to grow and be a hotbed of great new ideas, but public schools also have great ideas. "Wouldn't it be an interesting situation to have it incentivized by law that the two can work together?" Middleton said the focus should be on cooperation and meeting the needs of children.
The discussion has now shifted toward accountability in charter schools. Feinberg said charter schools are often thrown under the bus for a few bad schools that get the biggest headlines in the news. Bhatia said SB 2 has made it easier for the state to keep charter schools accountable. Panelists add that there is now more clarity on what will cause a charter school to close.
Smith asks Bhatia about Uplift Education's 100 percent college acceptance rate and how it is possible. Bhatia said there is no reason all schools can't have all students get into college. She said Uplift provides an innovative and flexible road to college programs. "There is nothing inherent in us being a charter schools that allows us to do that," Bhatia said. Middleton said that Bhatia has a point, but that charter schools have a flexibility others don't. Public schools need to have the same flexibility, he said.
State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, makes a guest appearance and said he wants the Legislature to give public schools the flexibility they give charter schools. Deshotel also remarks on the success charter schools have in getting parents engaged. Feinberg said this is because charter schools don't just post a notice telling people to sign up, they knock on parents' doors. Middleton said charter schools need to have more flexibility in how many students they can enroll. Currently, state law says there must be a 22:1 student-teacher ratio.
Panelists now address for-profit charters. In Texas, charters are required to be run by a nonprofit organization, but there are some instances in which for-profit companies run virtual schools. Feinberg said this is troubling because the for-profits do not only have an obligation to students but also to shareholders. Bhatia said she is concerned about what accountability measures for-profit schools would follow.
Some want children to receive the same education in public schools that they get in charter schools. Feinberg said charter schools hope to be models for public schools. Feinberg said KIPP wants to be the school of choice for poor families, but as it grows, charter schools could also serve families who are not socioeconomically disadvantaged. Middleton said public schools and charter schools should work together to provide a better education and have the flexibility to do so.
With: Elisa Villanueva Beard, Frank Hernandez, Rod Paige, Pat Wasley and Alana Rocha (mod.)
Beard is not in attendance, and joining the panel instead is Monty Exter of the Association of Texas Professional Educators.
Hernandez describes innovations in education as solving problems with a different mind-set than the problems that created them. He encourages his staff to think creatively, like someone “on Project Runway”, in order to solve problems.
Wasley thinks there are three things that prevent teachers from growing. One is that they work alone and are not exposed to others teaching to see new ideas. The second is teachers not cross-grading work, like what happens in other countries, which creates a community environment. The third thing is that teachers do not get enough feedback.
Paige finds that many of the parts of the educational system are antiquated because they are not keeping up with the advances outside of education. He thinks the pedagogical sciences need to be looked at to see if it fits with the diversity found in today’s classrooms. He finds that “nothing we are doing now should be saved from scrutiny”. He finds three different areas for innovation: quality, quantity and finding reasons that students should learn. The last is quite often neglected because many students do not see a reason to put forth effort and that is a reason why cheating is so rampant.
Exter says that “the state is always doing a balancing act when it comes to rigor and relevance”. He thinks that it can always be improved, but Texas does a good job now. He finds that there can always be improvements in curriculum.
Paige thinks that compensation should have some weight on tests in the classroom, but weighing too heavily can be an issue because there are so many factors. Student performance and teacher compensation should be linked in a way, but not too much.
Exter said that “testing can be used as a hammer…over-relying on testing to evaluate teachers and schools creates a problem from an intellectual system”. There is less focus on students in test analysis and more on how educators are doing, it is more of an “accountability tool” and that is a big issue in public education.
Wasley thinks the relationship between testing and teacher development has a missing link because investments in testing and curriculum are not matched by investments in teacher development, but it is being improved and teacher support is increasing significantly. Many teachers want to develop a more sophisticated repertoire of teaching methods, but they do not have the resources to do it. There are teachers who are working on doing this themselves without the support, but it is not as widespread as it could be because it is difficult to test and implementing without support.
Paige thinks that community morale and the idea of teachers feeling like they are part of a group are being torn down by many policy writers because they do not see the reality of everyday school life. He says that “we need to find a way to have more practitioner input in the policy-writing process”, to which the audience applauded.
Exter finds that the differences in teacher-training levels are problems and that teachers all need to be held to high standards statewide so that “we can get a quality teacher in front of every single student”.
Exter says that teachers don't have time to talk to one another because 90 percent of paid teacher time is spent teaching. In China, Wasley states, teachers spend four hours a day teaching and four hours working with colleagues, which may be a big reason why America is falling behind in worldwide education. Improving the standard of teachers in society can have direct impact. Having teachers work together more and learn from one another can help everyone do better.
Paige pointed out that of the 90 percent of time spent teaching, much of it can also be crowd control, which can have a negative effect on the learning process as well.
Hernandez finds that finding a balance between flexibility among teachers teaching the same subject to different students and making sure that students all leave the classroom with a certain amount of knowledge within given parameters is one of the most important things that can be done.
Wasley finds that when people are studying to become teachers, they need to learn to use new technologies as well as new and diverse information and teaching methods and can lose some of the course content that has been around for 100 years.
One of the audience members (a former Texas teacher of the year) asked, "How do we keep the profession of teachers as a profession and a respected profession?" to which Exter replied that looking at the models of other countries can help by focusing on raising the standards for teachers to get into the profession in the first place instead of focusing on testing assessment. To raise the standards and raise the pay to what someone with a master's degree would expect would be the one-two punch, for Exter, to attract and keep the best and the brightest people as teachers.
To the question, "How do you facilitate innovation when teaching new teachers?" Wasley replied that helping teachers to see five different ways to teach one lesson and improving the emphasis on different teaching methods and keeping things exciting for students is something that can help both teachers and students enjoy school.
With: Dan Huberty, Dan Patrick, Mike Villarreal, Michael Williams and Morgan Smith (mod.)
Smith asks what public education reforms were the highlight of the session for each lawmaker and what they wished would have passed. Huberty said the Legislature did not completely address school finance. To recap, more than half of Texas school districts sued the state claiming it did not provide enough funding to educate students. Villarreal said he wishes the Legislature would have passed a bill authorizing universal pre-K.
Panelists are now talking about the concerns that students won't have to take as many math classes under House Bill 5, which axed the state's "4x4" curriculum and now only requires students to take four years of English and three years of math, science and social studies. Villarreal said the choice should be left to students and parents. Williams said counselors play an important role in helping students choose which classes to take. He said the state does not have enough counselors.
Villarreal said the schools cannot water down curriculum for students pursuing a technical education. Public education stakeholders have worried that students will not be taking rigorous classes under HB 5. The State Board of Education is currently considering what courses to approve for the new curriculum. They are scheduled to make a decision by January.
Smith pivots the conversation to focus on the state's new accountability standards. The state used to have a four-level rating system and now has two ratings: meets standards or needs improvement. Williams said that the ratings system change was a legislative directive and that people should give this new system a chance. Williams said the Texas Education Agency will be able to rate individual districts A-F beginning in 2015.
Villarreal said he has problems with using standardized tests to judge a student's excellence. He said his daughter passed the math STAAR test at the beginning of the year. If all students pass the exam at the beginning of the year, Villarreal asked, does that mean the school is exemplary? Villarreal said standardized tests have stakes that are too high for the student.
Smith asks about the state's No Child Left Behind waiver. Williams said he is hopeful to get an answer from the U.S. Department of Education in the next week on whether that waiver would be granted. Williams said the education department wants him to be able to order teacher evaluations, which he does not have. However, Williams said teachers in about 80 percent of Texas school districts are evaluated already.
An audience member asks Williams whether he feels he is qualified to be education commissioner even though he is not an educator. Williams said he does not need to be an educator to close charter schools that he sees are failing and deal with other issues plaguing public education. He said he served as assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education.
Huberty said there are opportunities for children in the urban school district and vouchers are not the answer. Huberty said the state has to take small steps to fixing education and that the Legislature did a great job fixing these issues in the regular session. Villarreal said he believes in some school choice within the district. He said flexibility to attend other schools allows diverse students to come together.
Williams said school choice vouchers are not all that bad. He said many poor families who do not have a choice are trapped in their school system, which is why the state needs to work to improve schools. Williams said he went to a Catholic school growing up.
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