We're liveblogging the sessions from the 2014 Texas Tribune Festival's Public Education track. The sessions include panels on education reform, the new math requirements for high school graduation, early college high schools, and insight from superintendents.
Featured speakers include state Sens. Kelly Hancock and Royce West, state Reps. Dan Huberty and Mike Villarreal, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, Democratic State Board of Education nominee Erika Beltran, Texas Education Agency Chief Deputy Commissioner Lizzette González Reynolds, and University of Texas of the Permian Basin President W. David Watts.
Look below for highlights of the weekend's sessions, which are being held on the University of Texas at Austin campus.
With: David Anthony, Erika Beltran, Kelly Hancock, Julie Linn, Royce West, Michael Williams and Morgan Smith (mod.)
Smith starts out with a question about Williams' recent comments that the system needs to catch up. Williams says there's no doubt rigor was increased in move from TAKS to STAAR, and districts have needed time to catch up. We just haven't gotten there, he says, but we will.
Anthony says standards must be higher. We need high-quality professional development, which has often been cut amid budget shortfalls, he says. He says we also need high-quality full-day pre-K, which he says research shows would decrease achievement gap by one-half. Linn says there's not one solution but many, including higher-quality teachers, a better teacher evaluation system and more public school choice.
West says fixing chronically underperforming schools will be a focus for him in the upcoming legislative session. Hancock says that while he was a board member in the Birdville ISD, a push for more school choice proved effective. He says state test results lagged behind the reality on the ground but that it gave the district early warning signs to help prevent schools from underperforming.
Beltran says we need to think more broadly about getting teachers into the profession. Texas, she says, doesn't have enough rules on tracking teachers' performance once they get into the profession. She says evaluations she got while a teacher were fairly minimal. She says she's also concerned about the equitable distribution of teachers — i.e., lower-performing teachers ending up in lower-income schools.
Williams says state must provide better information to let teachers know how they're performing. West says there's long been a discussion in the Legislature about basing teacher evaluation on student performance — and that there ought to be a middle ground by now.
Anthony says teacher evaluation is just one piece of the puzzle to fixing low-performing schools. We have one of the best student information systems in the country but barely anything useful to gauge teacher performance, he says. West says he's tired of the "same old same old" and says we should be able to find common denominator for underperforming schools and deal with it, like lack of parental involvement. Anthony: We still lack comprehensive data- and research-driven approach to solving these problems.
Hancock says many school leaders are not concerned enough with providing an honest assessment of teachers. Beltran says school leaders must be equipped to evaluate teachers. She also cites Dallas ISD's Teacher Excellence Initiative, which is focused on instruction.
Anthony says we want fiercely competitive school leaders who won't just pursue the status quo. Linn notes that there's been a shift in the state from principals as leaders of instruction to leaders of business, which could benefit schools looking to find a more structured way to improve teacher performance.
Of low-performing schools, Williams says state has learned that it's not an easy process. Linn says that in recent education legislation, making good charters scalable was just as important as closing low-performing ones.
Question from the audience: With state's large Hispanic population, what are you doing to provide quality dual-language education in public schools? West cites immersion programs. Beltran says part of teacher-quality conversation needs to include working with teachers of diverse backgrounds.
Questioner, who says she's been teaching for 44 years: How do we bring in high-quality teachers who won't just leave after two or three years? Williams says we have to rebrand the teaching profession. That may mean compensating them more, and giving them more support, like professional development. Teaching should look like a profession, he says, not something people do because they couldn't do other things. West: "Duh." He says we say the same things over and over again, but that we must act on those things. Williams says public may be ready to raise levels of compensation if they're convinced that they're going to get something in return.
West tells Williams that if increased compensation is something he thinks is important, he should push for it.
Questioner: What can we do at a state level to focus resources on fixing lowest-performing schools? Linn: We need to bring in a combination of potential fixes, like allowing parents or schools boards to intervene, for example. Anthony: Good charter schools have the flexibility to innovate and experiment with new approaches.
With: H.D. Chambers, Bill Hammond, Dan Huberty, Lizzette González Reynolds, Mike Villarreal and Morgan Smith (mod.)
"The Algebra II Debate" panel is about to begin — follow along here, and follow on Twitter with the hashtag #TTFpubliced.
Chambers said the driver behind H.B. 5, which amended the education code in several ways, was the concern that there was limited and strict offerings to students under the four-by-four system.
"It came about because we were trying to create meanginful flexibility," Chambers said.
He said there was "never a war" on Algebra II.
Hammond said he was opposed to removing Algebra II as a requirement because it is one of the best courses that can indicate success at community college.
Huberty, who helped author the legislation that struck the requirement of HB 5, says he argues students do not necessarily need Algebra II to find success.
My opinion is kids learn different today,” Huberty said. “We understand that math is important. But we’re also recognizing that there are pathways we want to create for students."
Reynolds, who has a role in developing alternative courses to Algebra II, says the new courses are in development right now. She says it is important to ensure the pathways of these new courses do not result in dead ends.
“For us at the agency, the Algebra II debate is over,” Reynolds said. “It isn’t about Algebra II — it is where we go from here.”
Hammond continues to criticize no longer requiring Algebra II — but Reynolds cuts him off.
“Bill, again, we have what we have," Reynolds says.
“Well, we can change it,” Hammond responds.
Reynolds said the focus now should be helping kids get ready for Algebra I so they can ace the end-of-course Algebra exam and feel comfortable making the decision to take Algebra II.
How is Chambers addressing the challenges he is facing in getting students ready for Algebra I? He says the first challenge is not with math, but with English.
“Before we get into quantitative reasoning or Algebra I, we have to help a large percentage of our student population understand the English language,” Chambers said
Smith asks if there is a way for the state to view and watch all school districts, and see if they can offer the options set forth in HB 5. Reynolds says that touches on the accountability system education commissioner Michael Williams is talking about, and says many districts are able to offer all five endorsements outlined in HB5.
"We're hearing about rural school districts, who were supposedly going to be most hard press to offer endorsements, and they’re saying 'we can do it,'” Reynolds says.
Reynolds added it was up to the state to ensure the endorsements would help students succeed after high school.
"If we allow any of these five endorsements to become a dead end for kids, then shame on us," Reynolds says.
Hammond says he is doubtful the state holds school districts accountable. He says just 8.5 percent of school districts "needs improvement," which is not a harsh critique.
“My wife tells me I need improvement everyday of my life,” Hammond said.
Smith asks Reynolds if the state’s hammer on school districts is adequate.
“We don’t have enough information yet,” Reynolds said. “What is the state of education in Texas? We don’t know.”
Reynolds says if Texas takes away any more of the assessments, that is going to hurt the school and students.
“At the end of the day, we have to make sure those kids are achieving in an advanced manner as opposed to just passing in the ninth grade," Reynolds said.
Huberty says there are “serious problems” with special education in Texas — it needs more reform. Reynolds agrees. She says it is a high priority for the commission.
An audience member says Texas puts a lot of focus on high school, and asks why Texas is not putting more in Pre-K and Kindergarten. Chambers says the audience member is “dead on.”
Hammond says his organization supports quality Pre-K, and Huberty notes there are a lot of private dollars going into Pre-K.
An audience member asks what the panelists’ opinion are on the school finance case’s ruling.
Chambers, smiling, says he is happy with the ruling. Reynolds says she is not going to comment. Huberty says he expects a different ruling from the Supreme Court, should it go there.
“It’s a very simple thing,” Huberty said. “It’s a judge that is deciding in Travis County that the whole system is unconstitutional.”
The last question comes from another teacher: What is the agency doing to educate teachers about HB 5?
Reynolds says her agency is not the greatest at communication.
“We’ve seen great materials coming out of the associations,” Reynolds said. “So it is really about working with our school districts.”
Chambers says the concern that teachers do not understand HB 5 is a concern that many other districts has as well.
With: Daniel King, Shirley Reed, Wynn Rosser, Victor Sáenz, William Serrata, W. David Watts and James Henson (mod.)
The "Why Early College Works" panel is kicking off now — follow along here, and follow on Twitter with the hashtag #TTFpubliced.
King gives a background of the early college high school concept, which allows high school students to earn credits to complete an associate degree or approxmiately two years of college. King says the idea was to target communities with high populations of students who would be the first in their families to go to college "not by talking about college, or by getting students ready for college, but to have them start college."
Now Reed is giving an overview of South Texas College's partnerships with high schools in the area: "We felt in our region we simply had to create a college-going culture. It simply didn't exist." About 48 percent of all student have earned an associate's degree when they leave high school, she says.
The original early college model required the high school and college to be near each other, but that's not feasible in West Texas, Watts says, where UT-Permian Basin is located. So instead schools in the region decided to do a distance-based program that is about 80 perecent online. "The most amazing thing is that it's working," Watts says, adding that though the school hasn't graduated its first class yet, the pass rate for the early college high school is higher than the pass rate for early college students.
Watts says UT Permian Basin's model is targeting the school districts that were "systematically left out of early college movement" — those in rural, isolated areas of the state that aren't located near colleges or universities.
"It is not the silver bullet but it is part of the silver buckshot," Serrata says of the early college model, which data have shown increase students' likelihood of earning a secondary degree. Part of that is because the costs of going to college are substantially reduced — the first 30-60 hours of coursework are paid for by either private or public funds.
More reasons why early college high schools work from Saenz: they are accessible, affordable for both students and the institutions , and transferrable — meaning the credits students earn can transfer to colleges and universities across the state.
A challenge for the growth of the model in King's district is capacity. There is such a high demand for early college courses, King says, it can be a struggle to provide enough qualified instructors. He says it's also important to make sure high school students aren't taking seats away from those enrolled in the college.
Serrata now addressing ways in which EPCC is tackling the capacity issue, including providing low or no interest loans for teachers to earn their masters' degrees so they can then become instructors.
Watts shifts the discussion to rural areas, where he says the need for early college programs is the most. Distance learning model works there, he says, but is it also scaleable across the state and even outside of Texas. "That's not to say human relationships aren't important," he adds. "If you are going to rely on high tech, as we are, it requires an enormous touch to ... successfully retain these students. But it's certainly possible."
Sharing resources helps the South Texas early college high schools handle the volume of students they process, Reed says. School districts pay for faculty, textbooks, and transportation while colleges provide the facilities and curriculum, she said.
Henson's last question: Aside from appropriations what can the Legislature do to help grow early college schools? "Don't screw up a good thing that we already have in place," Reed says. King says: making credits more universally transferable, and providing funding for transportation, technology, and textbooks. Serrata says: avoid making "one-size-fits-all" policies for early college high schools — for instance, requiring all of them to charge tuition.
With: Wanda Bamberg, Juan Cabrera, Paul Cruz, Mike Miles, Brian Woods and Brian Sweany (mod.)
Intros now underway for the last panel of our public education track. Follow along here and on twitter with the #TTFpubliced hashtag.
"Every year has been more complicated and more challenging," Bamberg says of how public education has changed since she first entered the classroom in 1982 — primarily because of changing community attitudes and state policies.
"I'm probably one of the first superintendents to spend quite a bit of time with the FBI, the TEA" in my first few months in office, El Paso ISD super Cabrera says. "It was about trying to assess the damage and listen to people and build some trust," he says, adding that regaining the trust of the community in El Paso after the cheating scandal is going to "take years."
An unexpected part of the job for Woods: the amount spent in the public policy arena. He says that has been both "good and bad." It's a balance between improving public education policy in the entire state but also making sure your local district is doing well, he says.
On the topic of funding, Miles says that "you always have enough money to do the things you prioritize." But he says "catching up kids who are behind does take resources." A large part of the job, Miles says, is "showing the public you can make good on your responsibilities." Bamberg says that her constituents care more about quality and whether their children are safe at school — not necessarily about how money is being spent at the local level. Woods and Cruz echo her, saying the top issues they hear about from parents in their districts are about raising student performance and the programs they offer.
Sweaney asks all panelists whether the Legislature has been a good partner. "The answer is pretty clearly no," Woods says. He starts with the issue of funding. Dietz's ruling is the "most comprehensive indictment" of the public school finance system in all three decades of litigation. It lays out a roadmap of "how badly we've gone wrong."
Miles says he is an optimist and doesn't "put all the blame on them." He says citizens also haven't done a good enough job of showing elected officials they care about public education, but that is changing. In Dallas, he says, he's seen communities uniting around prioritizing programs.
Bamberg says there's been "some positive movement" in the Legislature on the issues of testing and accountability. She cites HB5, which reduced testing requirements and change high school graduation plans.
"It's always an issue of capacity and expectations," Miles says of the challenges of working with increased numbers of English language learning students and impoverished students. With 90 percent economically disadvantaged students, Dallas ISD is one of the largest high poverty districts in the country. There is a need to invest in the "zero to five space in huge ways if we don't want to put so much money in remediation and tutoring down the road," he says.
Now we are on to audience questions — are you open to non-grade level based education? Cabrera says he is "very much in support" of allowing students to learn based on their competency. Miles says his district has programs where students are allowed to learn at their "own pace." Bamberg says in Aldine a few campuses offer Montessori education. Woods says that it's actually hard to find educators who are against that approach, but that the education code creates obstacles for districts to expanding such programs.
Next audience member asks what panelists wish people better understood about the challenges they face in their jobs.
"If more people were engaged in a school, the school closest to them in any way...the things we would want them to know and understand would come to them," Woods says.
Cabrera adds that "most folks are focused very myopically" and only want to deal with the problems that most directly affect them closely. He says a superintendent has to look at the big picture from all angles.