Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath discussed some of the many challenges the state faces when it comes to educating more than 5 million children in public schools each year.
His remarks came while speaking at a luncheon hosted by the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce last Wednesday at Safari Texas Ranch.
“When you are around educators you are around people who have chosen to devote their lives, their time, their talent, and their energy to helping the next generation to do better than the last one,” Morath said.
He began by talking about his experience as a mentor in the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program. He said he was fortunate as a child, unlike some in the state, including a “little” he mentored.
“Our public schools, this is it; this is the great equalizer in America. This is the whole that we get to make sure that regardless of where are kids are from, regardless of the families they were born into … that we will give them the … highest bar possible to equip them to pursue the American dream. This is the grand tradition of public education in Texas,” he said.
Morath, a former school board member from Dallas, shared some alarming statistics about education in Texas.
“About 59 percent of our 5-year-olds are ready for kindergarten when they start kindergarten. Think about that for a minute. About 40 percent of our kids when they start kindergarten are not ready for basic lessons in pre-literacy and pre-numeracy,” he said. “Fully 40 percent of our students when they start kindergarten are starting that far behind.”
He said if people think those statistics are bad, they’ve been worse.
“The good old days were not that good for all of us. This is as good as it’s ever been but it’s still not good enough for our kids,” he said.
At the other end of the spectrum, “16 percent of our high school kids score high enough on ACT or SAT to indicate they’re ready for college. Only 16 percent of high school graduates are ready for college. This, by the way, is also the highest it’s ever been,” he said.
“Our graduation rate at 89 percent is epically high,” he said.” It puts us in the top five of all states in the country. It’s as high as it’s ever been.”
After providing more statistical analysis, he pointed out some conclusions.
“There’s two quick conclusions that you can draw from this. One, our system is getting better. But two, there are some very serious gaps between the haves and have-nots in our state. The trends would indicate we are not eliminating those gaps,” Morath said.
He said that 20 years ago, 17 percent of students graduated from high school ready for college, making it statistically the same as today.
“How is it possible that our middle income kids are doing better and our low income kids are doing better but as a state are the same or marginally worse?” he asked.
He answered that by noting a greater proportion of students are coming from low-income homes.
“Twenty years ago a little over 45 percent of our students qualified for free and reduced lunches. Now it’s about 67 percent,” he said.
As head of the Texas Education Association (TEA), Morath said he knows what must be done.
“What we have got to do, we have to significantly raise that level of improvement. We’ve got to get better faster than we ever have, especially for low-performing districts. And we must find the strategies that work most effectively,” he said.
“You don’t have to care about kids at all to recognize that this is the single most depressing, the single most existential issue facing the state of Texas, because if you think that our economy will continue to grow and perform as it has when the student population we have looks like it does, and the outcomes we have look like they do … ,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“This is the most important issue facing the state of Texas and we have got to improve results far more rapidly than we have in the past. We have to celebrate the achievements of our very hard-working educators,” Morath said.
He said he does have a plan.
“We listen, I listen as much as possible to parents, teachers, students themselves, school board members, policy makers, activists, business leaders, and from that we have crafted a plan at TEA to drive the progress in the state of Texas,” he said.
“We start with the goal in mind. We want every child, regardless of their background, from every village, every hamlet, to have access to an education that helps them to become successful,” he said.
To do that means the state must do a better job at recruiting and retaining teachers and principals.
He compared teachers to a neurosurgeon. The surgeon is able to prepare and focus on one brain, and it’s asleep.
“Our teachers walk into the operating room every day and there’s 20 brains and they’re very much awake and giving feedback during surgery,” Morath said. “Teaching is the most complicated job I have ever been exposed to in my entire life.”
He said when it comes to recruiting educators, he often finds a battle with an old cliché.
“Those who can, do and those who can’t, teach,” he said. “This is like a virus. This is the most toxic view of the teaching profession I have ever imagined.”
“The jobs of our teachers is incredibly hard,” he said. “And what are we doing to recruit the best and brightest minds to the profession? If you talk to any valedictorian coming out of a Texas public school today and you ask, ‘hey, are you thinking about being a teacher?’ are they going to answer yes or are they going to dismiss it as a career path? What are we doing to recruit the best and brightest minds?”
Recruiting is one thing. Retention, he said, is another challenge.
“Oh, by the way, 70 percent of the people who enter the profession are gone within seven years. … Gone … as in a different business,” he said.
Morath said he has become a proponent of vocational education in public schools, especially given the small percentage that are ready to go to college versus those who will go into the military or on to work.
When looking at some of the things that are working well in public education, he found inspiration in high school football coaches.
“Every Friday night in the fall there is a high-stakes assessment in Texas,” he said.
He explained that after each football game the coaches do an outstanding job of problem solving and equipping the players to improve. He said that model can work in the classrooms as well.