2015: An agenda for public education

Photo by Robert W. Hart

Texas lawmakers last session passed significant education reform legislation of which they can be legitimately proud.

House Bill 5, which reduced onerous end-of-course testing and significantly reshaped high school graduation plans, may be one of the most significant pieces of education legislation passed in the last 25 years. The Legislature also passed Senate Bill 2, another piece of landmark education reform legislation that provided for moderate charter school growth while enhancing quality oversight. Raise Your Hand Texas is proud to have worked with legislators to advocate for these significant changes, which benefit all Texas students.

With a new session underway, Texas legislators will consider a variety of legislation under the banner of “education reform.” I urge legislators to build on the successes of last session, seeking consensus and avoiding divisive, silver-bullet education solutions such as school vouchers in favor of research-based proposals that will strengthen our public schools for all Texas students, not just a few.

Start early

Leaders in many states, including conservative ones, and business leaders across Texas are advocating for public pre-kindergarten as the educational foundation for opportunity. If Texas wants to give every child a fair shot in school and life, and if we’re serious about improving schools and shrinking the achievement gap, we must start early with high-quality, full-day pre-K.

I applaud Gov.-elect Greg Abbott for his commitment to increasing pre-K quality. States across the country are operating high-quality, cost-sustainable public pre-K programs that are producing meaningful results. Texas has no required quality standards for pre-K and very little data on the quality of its pre-K programs.

But increasing quality without increasing access to full-day enrollment for currently eligible students is not enough. Evaluations of state pre-K programs confirm that full-day, educationally focused programming delivers the greatest early-learning benefits to children. It comes down to a simple question: Do we want more quality learning time for our children or less?

Focus on talent

Research confirms that a quality teacher leading every classroom and a strong principal leading every school are two of the greatest influencers of student achievement.

To build the strongest education system in the country, we need to better understand our educator workforce and better use data to benchmark and plan. Information about educator preparation, career paths, turnover and recruitment, and key shortage areas is maintained in separate silos across state agencies and is not readily available to policymakers, the public, or current and future educators.

Texas should create a Texas Educator Data System to make this information transparent and accessible to guide us in supporting educators and making Texas the best place in the country to be a school teacher or leader.

Texas should invest in creating state or regional academies to equip principals with the unique competencies needed to turn around struggling campuses. Texas should also create incentives for more experienced and highly qualified teachers to serve on campuses where their leadership and expertise are needed most. Texas Education Agency data shows that poorer schools have lower percentages of experienced teachers.

Free public schools to innovate

Texas school districts and public schools are burdened by a highly centralized, compliance-driven system impeding their ability to innovate. States and districts around the country are granting more autonomy from state and district regulations to empower educators to better meet the unique needs of students, and drive more decision-making to the campus level. One lesson learned from our highest-performing charter schools is that freedom to innovate with appropriate accountability can produce excellent results for students.

Last session’s charter school reform legislation, SB 2, included a provision allowing districts to operate campuses with the same freedoms as open-enrollment charter schools. More districts should take advantage of this opportunity.

Texas should build on this foundation and pursue a comprehensive approach to public school autonomy, giving individual campuses, networks of autonomous schools or entire districts access to the freedoms enjoyed by charter schools. Texas should maintain strong state accountability standards while granting districts and campuses more autonomy in meeting those goals. This can be achieved without undermining local school board governance.

Address chronically low-performing schools

TEA tracks the number of years in a row that a campus has been rated Improvement Required under the state accountability system. In 2014, 436 campuses were added to the Improvement Required list. The number of campuses rated on the list for two consecutive years drops by nearly half to 225 campuses, and the number on the list for three years in a row drops by more than two-thirds to 65 campuses. In a statewide system of more than 8,500 campuses, only seven campuses have been rated academically unacceptable for four or more years in a row. TEA historical data reveals that this pattern is largely consistent over time. 

Our goal should always be zero campuses entangled in the accountability system, but the data shows that interventions implemented by TEA and local districts are largely successful in restoring campuses to academic stability. Our focus needs to be on prioritizing those truly chronically low-performing campuses ensnared in the accountability system for the longest period of time where the district has been unable to restore acceptable levels of academic performance.

A small and manageable number of these campuses should be placed under the authority of the state’s education commissioner, who should prioritize those campuses with the longest records of academically unacceptable performance, take quick and dramatic action to restore them to academic stability and return them to local control as soon as possible.

If we set our sights this legislative session on better preparing our students from an early age, focusing on developing our talent, freeing our public schools to innovate, and providing swift and targeted interventions for chronically low-performing campuses, we’ll be well on our way to real school reform that works.

Disclosure: Raise Your Hand Texas is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

David Anthony

CEO of Raise Your Hand Texas