Texas Education Commissioner believes that teaching Texas’ kids is the “hardest work” that he’s ever seen on the planet — but sees the state making important strides in accountability, educational strategy, and teacher pay.
Morath shared those thoughts as the keynote speaker at Monday’s State of Public Education luncheon, held by the Dallas Regional Chamber at Dallas’ Hyatt Regency Hotel.
Here are a few takeaways from Morath’s 45-minute presentation:
Accountability: Making sure it’s “worth it”
Morath didn’t openly discuss the merits of the state’s new accountability system, which grades districts and campuses on an A-F scale largely on their performance on the state’s standardized test.
But Morath made it clear that he was an evangelist for holding schools accountable by using data — including test scores.
“It’s important when you consider the breadth of public education, the breadth of the state, to ground all of our work in information about performance — because we do spend $63 billion a year on public education in the state of Texas,” Morath said. “So, the question is: Is it working? What about it is working very well? What about it do we need to concentrate on to improve?”
While noting the positive trends in a number of various indicators — including pre-K readiness and STAAR scores in 3rd grade reading — Morath admitted that the state’s performance was not good enough.
The central challenge of public education, he said, is to “drive more growth faster than ever before.”
Morath did not discuss any issues swirling around Houston ISD. The state’s largest district is in line for a possible district takeover by Morath and the Texas Education Agency after one of its high schools — Wheatley — missed state accountability marks for the seventh straight year. He did say, however, that the current system is designed to be instructive, not punitive.
“We do this because if we don’t know where we stand, how do we know where we’re going?” he said.
Teaching profession needs a boost
Time and time again during his presentation, Morath talked about the daily challenges that classroom teachers face, calling the profession one of the most challenging jobs out there and likening teachers to brain surgeons at one point in his presentation.
Not only does the state need to be “relentless in how we support, recruit and retain teachers and principals,” Morath said, there needs to be a mindshift in how America views its teaching force.
“And it’s not easy to do that in a country where our entire view of the teaching profession has become broken,” he said. “This cliche … where those ‘who can do, do’ and those ‘who can’t do, teach’ — it’s a broken view of the profession.”
Morath heaped praise on the most recent Texas Legislature, calling the state’s new school finance bill, House Bill 3, ‘game changing.’ Specifically, the commissioner praised the new teacher incentive allotment, which could offer significant additional funding for school districts that identify their top teachers and place them in their highest-poverty schools — campuses which tend to be the most challenging.
Districts can get as much as $32,000 per teacher with the new allotment, Morath said, allowing for significant salary increases for those teachers and potentially making programs like Dallas ISD’s turnaround plan, Accelerating Campus Excellence, sustainable long into the future.
Boosting pay would hopefully keep those teachers in the classroom and away from higher-paying administrative jobs, he said.
Morath also praised Dallas’ teacher pay and evaluation system, TEI, which allows high-performing teachers to make larger salaries earlier in their careers. Prior to becoming the commissioner, Morath helped install TEI during his time on the Dallas school board.
Speaking in front of an audience largely made up of business and education leaders from around the area, Morath stressed the importance of getting more students into college
One of the trends did not tick up in the recent year was the state’s six-year postsecondary graduation rate. Only 31% of students graduated with a college diploma, associates degree or meaningful trade credential within six years of completing high school.
While it’s a far cry from the state’s goal — 60% by 2030 — some perspective is needed, Morath said.
“The interesting thing is: This is as good as it has ever been,” Morath said. “Our memories are deeply flawed. We actually just didn’t care about half of our kids in the good ol’ days. The good ol’ days weren’t good for everybody.”
Morath praised school districts from around Dallas and Fort Worth for their willingness to take part in early college and P-Tech programs, which provide job skills and connections — and in many cases, associate degrees — for high school students when they complete those programs.
“North Texas is leading the way,” Morath said.
DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa and Richardson ISD Superintendent Jeannie Stone took part in a panel discussion after the keynote, sharing the stage with executives from Texas Instruments and Frito-Lay. The educators highlighted their districts’ efforts in engaging with students, getting them ready for the workforce by drawing parallels between instruction and future employment.
“It’s about culture,” Stone said. “We’re building relevance for our kids — and it starts at Pre-K.”