Closing the Gap

As more than five million students return to public and charter schools this month, we talked with Michael Williams, commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, to discuss the agency’s work and what we can expect this school year.

 Q:  What is the role of the TEA?

We are a state that has 5.1 million youngsters, 8,600 campuses and 1,200 school districts. The dollars that we spend on education—federal and state dollars—flow through us.

We just finished the 84th session of the state legislature. They passed 98 education-related bills. We develop and enforce the rules.

We also have some delegated responsibilities from the federal government, particularly as it relates to students that are English language learners and special needs students.

We also approve charter school applications.

Q:  What happened in the recent legislative session that will impact Texas schools?

House Bill 4 will expand the capacity of the state to provide high-quality pre-K. There are three elements: having a curriculum that is evidence-based, having solid professional-development training for pre-K providers and having a way to measure progress. I’m not talking about testing 4 year olds, but there are ways you can identify whether a youngster is getting it or not.

Another set of bills [Senate Bills 925, 934 and 972] relates to bringing back the reading and math academies. A decade-plus ago, we spent hundreds of millions of dollars teaching educators fabulous strategies about how to teach reading and math concepts. I think many people believe that much of the reason that our reading and math scores were on the incline is because of those academies.

The decriminalization of truancy [House Bill 2398] is going to be particularly helpful to youngsters who’ve been spending a lot of days in court. There are other ways we can build campus communities where kids will want to be there.

Some educators and administrators would argue that there are just too many rules related to public education. So innovation districts [House Bill 1842] allow districts to recreate themselves and have much of the same flexibility that charter schools have under current law. Now, there’s a predicate. They have to be well-performing districts before they get to take this on.

[House Bill 2804] is the changing of the labeling in our accountability system, from “Exemplary” and “Recognized” to A through F. I think more people, since that’s the way we were graded when we were in school, understand what an A is. They may not understand what “Recognized” really means. They surely don’t understand what “Met Standard” is.

Q:  How does the TEA work with the State Board of Education?

The State Board of Education is 15 elected members from around the state, representing specific constituents. But they don’t have a staff. We provide the staffing for them.

The State Board develops the state curriculum: what do we want youngsters to know, in each grade and in each subject? Then we develop the assessment tools and accountability system.

Q:  Governor Rick Perry appointed you in September 2012. What have you learned that you didn’t know coming into this position?

Let me go back to my previous life. For 12 years, I was in this building, upstairs, as the Railroad Commissioner [who oversees the regulation of oil and gas]. You think of it as a fairly lofty position, because you’re elected state wide, and I had the great honor to be elected three times.

But on the Sunday after the governor appointed me to the TEA, I got three calls in the middle of the Cowboys football game. I never got a single call during a football game when I was the Railroad Commissioner.

So the first thing I learned is how much passion there is in this state for its public education system, and how engaged people are. They may or may not agree, but they are truly engaged in the learning of their students.

Q:  What challenges face Texas public schools, and what are our schools doing well?

We’re working hard. Of those 5.1 million kids, 65 percent are brown or black and 60 percent are economically disadvantaged. Our obligation to all 5.1 million kids is to ensure the highest quality learning experience for them so that each of them can reach the greatest potential. But within that, we have to close the racial achievement gap between our black and brown kids and our economically disadvantaged kids and their other counterparts.

And we’ve been doing that. We’ve got the highest graduation rate that the state has had ever. And depending on which year you look at, that’s second or third in the country. If you look at ACT and SAT scores, they’ve been rising over the years to the highest they’ve been.

What we’re doing quite well is closing that gap, teaching at a higher level of rigor than we have in the past and assuring that students that many people may not be thinking of—like that very gifted child—are getting what I call a high-octane learning experience, as well.

Q:  Both of your parents were public school teachers. What was that like, growing up?

My parents are retired teachers, Dad for 43 years and Mom for 40. Mom spent the early part of her career as a reading specialist, but the latter 20-plus years, she spent as a high school guidance counselor.

Dad was an algebra and geometry teacher for his entire career. He was also a football and track coach. He’s in the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Honor.

When I was younger, I was my mother’s guinea pig for all the assessments she did. She’d first learn how to do them by giving them to my sister and I. As you can imagine from a family of educators, I grew up with an enormously strong appreciation for learning.

Q:  Do you have any advice for the students going back to school this month?

The adults are there because they care for you. They want you to reach the highest potential you possibly can. Enjoy the time. Enjoy taking the direction and following the leadership of those educators.

By Sherida Mock.

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