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.