Category Archives: Commissioner

ATPE weighs in on proposed rules addressing out-of-state educators

ATPE submitted comments this week on new proposed commissioner’s rules regarding exempting certain out-of-state educators looking to teach in Texas from state certification assessments. Our comments acknowledge that “certain exceptions to certification testing may have a place in helping to get high-quality, experienced teachers in Texas classrooms,” but stress that “the focus must remain on high standards that help ensure we are limiting exceptions to only those educators with a proven track record of success in educating students.”

The new proposed rules stem from legislation passed during the 85th Legislative Session that gave the commissioner of education the ability to create this specific certification flexibility. In lieu of the current process overseen by the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC), which currently compares other state certification requirements to Texas’s standards before exempting out-of-state educators from certification assessments, the new proposed commissioner’s rules would instead outline a number of requirements an out-of-state educator must prove in order to receive the exemption. The requirements primarily entail obtaining certification in another state or country, but also include a one year experience requirement for all classroom teacher candidates.

ATPE argued in its comments that the experience requirement should be raised to at least two years of teaching experience. This is because the proposed rules don’t only exempt these out-of-state educators from certification assessments, they also exempt them from preparation and certification standards Texas policymakers and stakeholders have deemed necessary. For instance, some preparation standards these educators would be exempted from include the minimum GPA requirement placed on candidates entering a certification program; the number of curriculum hours educators in training must complete; the amount of clinical training a candidate must possess before obtaining full certification; the amount of time new teachers must spend working with mentors and coaches to develop their craft; and training specific to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), the Texas educator standards, and the Texas Educator Code of Ethics.

“If we are going to exempt certain educators prepared out of state from these standards of preparation and certification, we should at a minimum be ensuring they bring valuable experience to Texas classrooms,” ATPE argued in its comments.

For more regarding ATPE’s position on the proposed rules, read ATPE’s full comments here. Commissioner Morath will now consider the public comments submitted before issuing the final rule.

Commissioner: 1.4 million students affected by Harvey

The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) kicked off its September meeting Wednesday with an update from Texas Education Agency (TEA) commissioner Mike Morath regarding the agency’s response to Hurricane Harvey.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath updates State Board of Education members on Hurricane Harvey response.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath updates State Board of Education members on Hurricane Harvey response.

The commissioner described the storm that smashed into the Coastal Bend as a category four hurricane as “pretty nasty.” More than 1.4 million students (roughly 1 in 4) attend school in one of the 58 counties designated under Governor Greg Abbott’s (R-Texas) state disaster declaration.

According to the agency, a majority of those districts have reopened or will soon reopen. Districts facing longer delays include Ingleside, Taft, Aransas County, Aransas Pass and Port Aransas in Education Service Center (ESC) Region 2 (Corpus Christi). In Region 3 (Victoria), Refugio ISD remains closed and Woodsboro ISD could possibly reopen by September 18. Houston ISD in Region 4 is implementing a rolling start for campuses, and Sheldon ISD is looking to reopen September 18. Finally, eight districts in Region 5 (Beaumont) are still determining potential start dates.

Commissioner Morath said the agency has been “feverishly busy” trying to support affected districts and charters, noting the invaluable role played by the education service centers play. The commissioner has conducted daily “war room” sessions with agency staff, and waived a number of state education laws under the agency’s purview. Those include a waiver for missed instructional days, adjustments for average daily attendance (ADA), submitting crisis code data and changing the PEIMS school-start window, reducing the minimum days of service and extending various deadlines. The commissioner has met with superintendents in Houston and is scheduled to meet with superintendents in Corpus Christi, Victoria and Beaumont.

Morath called Governor Abbott’s recovery efforts “quite remarkable,” and credited the governor with negotiating fund matching that would enable the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to cover 90 percent of recovery costs, leaving local districts responsible for the remaining ten percent. Between FEMA funds and insurance, the commissioner suggested districts and charters should be able to cover recovery costs without any additional money out of pocket. That said, Morath noted the storm “was not without cost,” and praised those who contributed “many small acts of heroism” to save lives in immediate aftermath.

In Houston, Morath said 35-40 schools quickly became makeshift shelters for storm victims. Many educators became first responders, including a Spring Branch teacher and ATPE member who joined the “Cajun Navy” rescue efforts. Praising the work of educators, Morath said, “What we saw was public service on an epic scale.”

The agency has set up a hotline (512-463-9603) for parents who aren’t sure what to do with their children after being displaced by the storm. Additionally, staff advised the board that approximately 340 individuals were scheduled to take the high school equivalency exam but were prevented from doing so due to the storm. Because board rules do not allow the state to provide refunds, the agency has asked test vendors to waive the administrative fee for those retaking the test. Agency staff advised that this would accomplish the same goal without requiring the board to amend rules.

Member Barbara Cargill (R-The Woodlands) noted that the College Board is waiving SAT fees for those affected by the storm. Cargill also raised a question about how the storm would affect the schedule for STAAR test administration. The commissioner indicated that the agency is unable to alter the schedule, therefore the STAAR will be administered according to the normal timeline.

Responding to a question from Member Pat Hardy (R-Fort Worth), Morath indicated that the agency has broad authority to tap additional funds in response to a national disaster. Such a move could be done with or without dipping into the economic stabilization fund (ESF), often called the “rainy day fund.” Morath suggested tapping emergency funds could be done without the need for a special session, although it could present legislators with budget challenges in the next legislative session.

Following the commissioner’s update, the board reviewed statutory changes from bills passed during the 85th legislative session, including legislation consolidating the instructional materials allotment into the instructional materials and technology allotment and ordering the creation of an instructional materials web portal. The legislature also expanded the board’s authority to approve or decline to endorse textbooks based upon suitability for the subject and grade level.

Members breezed through a new vendor’s proposal for a Mexican-American studies textbook, after a previous vendor’s offering generated controversy and resulted in the board declining to endorse the book. The board opened up discussions on aligning the education code to accommodate new courses created in statute by the 85th Texas Legislature, including advanced computer science, cybersecurity, and interaction with law enforcement officers. Prompted by an individual who spoke during public testimony, members engaged in a spirited discussion about the relative merits of personal financial literacy and economics. Some members indicated they would be open to a future discussion that would ponder placing more emphasis on personal financial literacy than on economics – which is among the courses eligible for college credit.

The governor signed legislation in May that removes sequencing requirements for English and math. Senate Bill (SB) 826 eliminated the requirement that advanced English and math courses be taken only after the completion of English I, English II, English III, Algebra I and geometry as appropriate. The legislature also passed legislation that will allow certain computer science courses to satisfy the requirement for students to take a language other than English. The board devoted significant discussion time Wednesday contemplating how to credit computer science courses that may satisfy either a language or a math requirement, and whether such courses should be allowed to count as satisfying both requirements. The board will face several such decisions over the next few months as it determines specifically how to enact certain legislative changes.

The board heard from representatives from the International Baccalaureate program Wednesday afternoon who voiced concern about a lack of PEIMS codes for IB courses. The conversation will continue over the next few meetings in which the board will likely undertake a deeper dive into IB coursework.

The meeting concluded with an update on the review process for Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). Members received an updated cycle for review and revision, and a recommendation from agency staff that the board delay the upcoming social studies TEKS review by one meeting in order to accommodate those who may have been affected by the storm.


ATPE settles lawsuit over state’s teacher evaluation system

ThinkstockPhotos-487217874_breakingATPE and other parties to a lawsuit over the state’s new recommended teacher appraisal system known as T-TESS have reached a settlement agreement.

ATPE and three other teacher associations sued the state in April 2016 alleging that new commissioner’s rules to implement T-TESS violated state laws and were against public policy. Through the Office of the Attorney General, which represented the Texas Education Agency in the lawsuit, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has agreed to revise the rules in exchange for the four teacher groups’ suspending their legal challenges.

The terms of the settlement agreement call for removal of language in the commissioner’s rules that require districts to employ four specific student growth measures in evaluating teachers under the T-TESS model. One of those four criteria was “value-added data based on student state assessment results,” often called Value-Added Measurement or Value-Added Modeling (VAM). ATPE has long criticized the use of VAM for high-stakes purposes based on concerns about the validity and fairness of the controversial model.

‘VAM attempts to use complex statistical calculations on students’ standardized test scores in previous years to predict how well a student should perform on future tests; the resulting test performance of an individual student – not accounting for myriad outside factors – is supposed to magically show whether that student’s most recent teacher was effective or not,” said ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday at the time the lawsuits challenging the rules were filed.

ATPE Member Legal Services Director Donna Derryberry described the compromise struck this week as one that “will give districts more local control over their appraisal process” without being required to use VAM. “This is a great victory for all Texas teachers,” added Derryberry, “and ATPE is proud to have been instrumental in this settlement.”

TEA wants your input on ESSA, comments due Friday!

tea-logo-header-2This is the final week for educators, parents, and taxpayers to submit their thoughts on best practices for implementing the new federal education law in Texas. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) and Commissioner of Education Mike Morath launched a survey tool last month, asking the public to share input on how the state should implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The survey is scheduled to close this Friday at 5 pm and can be accessed here.

In a press release announcing the survey, Commissioner Morath noted that the new federal education law, which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), returns a good portion of control back to states when it comes to the role previously played by the federal government in public education. As Texas begins to look at how its public schools will operate in light of the shift, input is specifically sought around “accountability, funding, school improvement, and grant-making systems.”

U.S. Dept of Education LogoThe new federal law requires that educators and other education stakeholders be involved in developing the plan that will ultimately be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) for review, but this may be the only chance for many to provide input. As educators and parents, your hands-on input is valuable; make your voice heard today!

The survey asks respondents to give input on a series of issues that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) will weigh as they determine how to navigate new stipulations and flexibility under the law. Among the input sought, stakeholders are asked to share thoughts on how Texas should measure school quality or school success, support the educational success of students with varying backgrounds, increase student access to effective educators, prepare students for college and career, and support struggling schools. The survey also allows respondents to submit any additional input on the state’s ESSA plan that is outside of the information sought.

TEA intends to consider data from the survey as the state develops its ESSA plan. The state must submit a final plan to the federal government by July 2017.

Commissioner adopts final DOI rules, incorporates ATPE recommendations

Throughout the past year, ATPE has reported on the implementation of a new law that allows school districts to exempt themselves from several state laws governing public education. The law, which was incorporated into last year’s House Bill 1842 by Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), sets forth limited parameters for so-called “Districts of Innovation” (DOI) that have met minimal accountability standards and allows them to claim exemptions from various laws.

Earlier this year, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath proposed a set of rules to implement the new DOI law. ATPE submitted input on the proposed rules and testified at a public hearing back in April. Today, Commissioner Morath released his final adopted rules for DOIs, incorporating some recommendations from stakeholders and ignoring others. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) received and responded to comments from several groups representing educators and school boards, individual school districts pursuing DOI status, and Raise Your Hand Texas, the advocacy group that was behind the push to enact the DOI law last year.

ATPE’s formal comments to TEA included a request that the rules clearly state that civil immunity protections in the Texas Education Code will continue to apply to innovation districts. The agency responded that it agreed with ATPE’s position and in order to address our concern has added the immunity statutes to the list in commissioner’s rules of laws that DOIs are prohibited from exempting. This ATPE-advised change will help ensure that educators maintain their immunity protections and will not face increased liability risks and insurance costs as a result of working in a DOI.

The adopted DOI rules take effect Sept. 13, 2016. For more on DOIs, be sure to check out ATPE’s DOI resource page here.

Final rule for video surveillance of special education classrooms

ThinkstockPhotos-126983249_surveillanceThe Texas Education Agency (TEA) has finalized a Commissioner’s Rule implementing Senate Bill 507 in 19 TAC Chapter 103, Health and Safety, Subchapter DD, Commissioner’s Rules Concerning Video Surveillance of Certain Special Education Settings, §103.1301, Video Surveillance of Certain Special Education Settings. The rule will be published in the August 12, 2016 issue of the Texas Register, and will become effective on August 15, 2016.

As we’ve reported on previously (here, and here, for instance), the 2015 bill by Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) mandated that certain classrooms serving students in special education programs be equipped with video surveillance systems, requiring districts to maintain the video footage on file. The agency worked closely with a diverse stakeholder group, including ATPE, in developing the rule. (Read ATPE’s written comments on the original proposed rule here.)

Stakeholder recommendations resulted in several changes to the regulation, including instances where the rule was made less broad or more specific as to which classrooms and classroom educators will be affected by a request for video surveillance under the new mandate. Examples of these changes were often as simple as changing “a” to “the” in some sentences. For example, in the following section the change of this one word narrowed the scope of the bill from any staff member working in a special education setting to only staff members associated with a classroom where a request for a camera had been made:

§103.1301. (b)(2)
Staff member means a teacher, related service provider, paraprofessional, or educational aide assigned to work in the [a] self-contained classroom or other special education setting. Staff member also includes the principal or an assistant principal of the campus at which the [a] self-contained classroom or other special education setting is located.

The final rule text can be viewed here. The red double underlines in the document represent changes made from the original rule proposal based on public comments received by the agency.

Note: The agency is still waiting for an Attorney General’s opinion related to notice and implementation time-frames that school districts must comply with under the bill.

Commissioner recognizes first batch of Districts of Innovation

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) today announced that eight school districts have become Districts of Innovation (DOI) under a new law passed in 2015. Included in last year’s House Bill 1842, the law allows acceptably performing school districts to propose local innovation plans and claim exemptions from numerous state laws in the Texas Education Code. Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has proposed rules to implement the DOI statute, which have not yet been finalized. ATPE testified at a public hearing and submitted written comments on the proposed rules, urging the commissioner to address concerns about consequences of the broad waiver authority being sought by some districts through their innovation plans.

Canton ISD, El Paso ISD, Mabank ISD, Palmer ISD, Point Isabel ISD, San Antonio ISD, Spring Branch ISD, and Victoria ISD were recognized in today’s TEA press release for having submitted their adopted five-year innovation plans to the commissioner. Commissioner Morath stated in today’s press release, “This initial wave of notifications is just the beginning of what will be many districts that elect to go through this innovative process.” The press release explains that DOIs cannot exempt themselves from some laws such as those dealing with curriculum, assessments, or the state accountability system.

TEA has established a new webpage with a list of school districts that have completed the DOI process and links to their innovation plans. You can also visit ATPE’s updated DOI resource page to learn more about the law, read examples of how some districts are using the DOI statute to take advantage of regulatory exemptions, and find out how you can help influence the DOI process in your school district.

Teach the Vote’s Week in Review: May 20, 2016

Important runoffs are happening in some parts of the state. We’ve got your election news and more in this week’s wrap-up:

Early vote pic from EAToday, May 20, is the last day to vote early in primary runoffs for Republican and Democratic races in which no candidate earned more than 50 percent of the votes on March 1. Polls close at 7 p.m. tonight. Several legislative and State Board of Education (SBOE) seats are up for grabs on Tuesday’s runoff election day.

Read our early voting blog post for a list of districts that have runoffs, tips on where to find your polling places, and more. Don’t forget to check out the runoff candidates’ profiles, including voting records and survey responses, using our 2016 Races search page.

Hotly contested runoffs capture attention of voters, political action committees, and media

Whether or not you live in SBOE District 9, chances are you’ve heard about the high-profile runoff contest taking place in that northeast corner of Texas. In the open seat to replace Thomas Ratliff (R), who is not seeking re-election, candidates Mary Lou Bruner and Dr. Keven Ellis are vying for the Republican nomination. Bruner attracted early attention from local and national media with her Facebook claims (as reported by The Texas Tribune and others) that President Obama had been a gay prostitute and drug addict. Those early Facebook posts have since been shielded from public view, but candidate Bruner has continued to shock voters with questionable assertions about public schools, including accusations about the number of substitutes holding teaching positions in a local school district and the percentage of students in special education.  Earlier this week we republished a story from The Texas Tribune about a meeting with area school superintendents who challenged Bruner on her dubious claims.

Following that meeting, an influential Tea Party group announced this week that it was retracting its earlier endorsement of Bruner. Grassroots America – We the People said in a statement, “We are all disappointed to have to take the strong measure of withdrawing our endorsement for a candidate. Since the institution of this organization in 2009, we have never had to take such an action; however, this organization requires accountability and personal responsibility from the candidates it endorses…. Unfortunately, once we viewed the raw, unedited video of Mrs. Bruner speaking to Region 7 Superintendents on May 4th and read her written statement, we had no choice but to start the process of reconsidering the endorsement.”

The fact that another Texas Tea Party group recently chose not only to reject Bruner but even to endorse Dr. Keven Ellis in this race underscores the serious concerns that many have expressed about Bruner’s ability to serve effectively on the SBOE. The publishers of the Texas Tea Party Voter Guide stated that Bruner “has gone too far and is making us all look like idiots. If she gets elected she will do more damage to the conservative movement than anything she might accomplish, so we are supporting Keven Ellis.” Interestingly, Ellis also earned the endorsement of Texas Parent PAC.

Bruner earned 48.4 percent of the vote in the March 1 primary compared to Ellis’s 31.05 percent. However, both candidates were relatively unknown at that time, and media interest in the race has put it on the radar of more voters and education stakeholders throughout the state. With Ellis appearing to capture increasing support from such diverse interests, this race will certainly be one to watch on Tuesday.

Also in the spotlight are runoffs for Senate Districts 1 and 24. SD 1 is an open seat, where incumbent Sen. Kevin Eltife (R) is not seeking re-election. Republican candidates and current state representatives David Simpson and Bryan Hughes are locked in a tight race with dueling endorsements, matching pleas for smaller government, and efforts to appeal to education voters. Simpson received the coveted endorsement of the pro-public education group Texas Parent PAC and is airing radio ads in which he touts his support for school funding and opposition to cuts to the public education budget. Hughes, meanwhile, is the only non-incumbent senator to be formally endorsed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), after Patrick originally stated that he would not get involved in the primary races. Education reform and pro-privatization groups such as the Texas Home School Coalition and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility (Empower Texans) have backed Hughes, but he’s also using campaign ads to try to appeal to retired educators by featuring photos of his meetings with local retired teachers. This is a winner-take-all race on Tuesday since no Democrats or third-party candidates have filed to run for the open seat; Tuesday’s winner will take office in January 2017.

SD 24 is another open seat race worth watching on Tuesday night. State representative Susan King (R) and Dr. Dawn Buckingham (R) are vying for this Senate seat currently held by Sen. Troy Fraser (R), who announced plans to retire. This race featured a crowded six-person field in the Republican primary on March 1. King earned 27.25 percent of the vote, while Buckingham brought in 24.76 percent. Expect another close match-up in Tuesday’s runoff for the Republican nomination. The winner will face Democrat Jennie Lou Leeder in November.

A few of Tuesday’s House runoffs are also winner-take-all races, in which the primary winner will face no opposition in November. In HD 5, Republicans Cole Hefner and Jay Misenheimer are in a runoff to determine who will succeed Rep. Bryan Hughes (R). HD 73 features a runoff between Rep. Doug Miller (R) and challenger Kyle Biedermann (R). In HD 120, the winner of the primary runoff between Barbara Gervin-Hawkins (D) and Mario Salas (D) will decide who takes this House seat previously held by Ruth Jones McClendon (D) in January 2017; this is despite the fact that another, separate election is taking place this year to determine who fills McClendon’s vacant seat for the remainder of this year. HD 139 is another open seat for which both regular and special elections are taking place in 2016. After a vacancy was left for the House seat of Sylvester Turner (D), now mayor of Houston, Jarvis Johnson (D) won a special election earlier this month to serve out the remainder of Turner’s term, but Johnson faces a runoff on Tuesday against Kimberly Willis (D) for the upcoming full term to begin in January 2017.

Check out profiles of these and other runoff candidates using our 2016 Races search page.

Related: Supreme Court’s school finance ruling highlights importance of 2016 elections

Josh Sanderson

Josh Sanderson

A week has passed since the Texas Supreme Court ruled that our state’s school finance system meets the constitutional minimum standards. ATPE Lobbyist Josh Sanderson writes about why your vote is the only thing left to compel legislators to take any action to improve the way we fund our schools. Josh also explains why discussions of two legislative committees this week about the possibility of new spending restrictions are another cause for concern. Check out his latest blog post here.

Kate Kuhlmann

Kate Kuhlmann


It was a busy week for education in Washington, D.C., as discussions continued over how to implement the nation’s new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ATPE Lobbyist Kate Kuhlmann has written an update on ESSA, including the latest debates over the law’s “supplement not supplant” language, as well as new legislation relating to school nutrition. View Kate’s blog post here.



In his first few months on the job, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath has put forth administrative rules pertaining to a number of controversial topics. First, the commissioner finalized rules begun by his predecessor to implement the state’s new recommended teacher appraisal system known as T-TESS. ATPE has filed a legal challenge against the T-TESS rules, arguing that they violate existing state laws, the Texas Constitution, and public policy expectations. That petition has been referred to the State Office of Administrative Hearings so that an Administrative Law Judge can decide the merits of ATPE’s case. In the meantime, be sure to check out our T-TESS resource page on to learn more about the new evaluation rules and how they might affect you.

Related: The Hawaii State Board of Education voted this week to remove student test scores from its teacher evaluation system. Hawaii was one of several states that had incorporated student growth measures into a new teacher evaluation system in recent years, partly in order to satisfy criteria for an NCLB waiver. Texas’s T-TESS rules were similarly design to match NCLB waiver conditions that are no longer applicable, which ATPE cited in our requests for Commissioner Morath to revise T-TESS and reconsider the student growth measure language in the rules.

Commissioner Morath has also proposed rules for Districts of Innovation (DOI), implementing 2015 legislation that allows acceptably-rated school districts to claim exemptions from numerous education laws. ATPE has submitted comments on the proposed rules, urging the commissioner to address serious concerns about implications for educators’ and school districts’ immunity protections in school districts that claim entitlement to blanket waivers of all exemptible laws in the Texas Education Code. We’ve got updated information on some of the districts that are pursuing DOI status on our comprehensive DOI resource page on

Also in the works at the Texas Education Agency (TEA) are rules to implement a 2015 law that requires video surveillance equipment in certain classrooms serving students in special education programs. Yesterday, TEA officials held a public hearing on proposed commissioner’s rules for implementing Senate Bill 507. ATPE previously submitted written comments on the proposed rules, which have not yet been finalized. Stay tuned to Teach the Vote for updates on these and other rules as developments occur.

Related: The Texas Tribune hosted an interview with Commissioner Morath on Tuesday. The event was sponsored in part by ATPE. View video from the event here.

Next week, the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability meets Wednesday at 10 a.m. in Austin. View the commission’s agenda here. We’ll have more on the meeting next week, along with complete results of Tuesday’s big runoff election day, here on Teach the Vote.

ThinkstockPhotos-485333274_VoteIf you live in a runoff district, don’t forget to go vote early today or vote on Tuesday!

ATPE files T-TESS legal challenge, asserts that new evaluation rules violate state law

ThinkstockPhotos-487217874_breakingThe state’s largest educator association is filing a petition today with the Texas Commissioner of Education legally challenging his recent adoption of rules creating a new state-recommended teacher appraisal system. The Association of Texas Professional Educators (ATPE) asserts that Commissioner Mike Morath’s rules for the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System (T-TESS) violate state laws and the Texas Constitution and are contrary to public policy.

View a copy of ATPE’s press release here. Below is additional background information about the legal challenge.

State laws call for the commissioner to recommend a system for annual teacher appraisals with certain criteria, but school districts are allowed to adopt their own appraisal systems instead and are also permitted to evaluate some experienced teachers less frequently. In challenging the new T-TESS rules, ATPE contends that the commissioner has mandated certain actions that exceed what state law requires for teacher evaluations and has improperly limited the local discretion school districts are afforded under the Texas Education Code. The new rules also restrict teachers’ ability to request a second appraisal, which is a right ATPE says teachers are entitled to by law.

The commissioner’s rules require that all teachers participate in certain elements of the appraisal process every year, despite exemptions that are carved out in state law allowing less-than-annual evaluations for some veteran teachers who have not shown job-related deficiencies. The evaluation components in the new rules that are required every year also include a controversial new student growth measure. Commissioner Morath is requiring all teachers to be evaluated based on student growth, and recommending value-added measures (VAM) as one of four such evaluation components in the new rules. ATPE believes VAM amounts to “junk science,” as its attorneys contend in the petition filed today.


Jennifer Canaday

‘VAM attempts to use complex statistical calculations on students’ standardized test scores in previous years to predict how well a student should perform on future tests; the resulting test performance of an individual student – not accounting for myriad outside factors – is supposed to magically show whether that student’s most recent teacher was effective or not,” said ATPE Governmental Relations Director Jennifer Canaday. “At best, VAM is an estimate or projection of a possible outcome. We are very disappointed that the commissioner is endorsing this complicated, extremely limited, assessment-based guesswork as a reliable and definitive formula for measuring a teacher’s value.”

Numerous academicians and researchers have questioned the reliability and validity of VAM, especially for use in high-stakes decisions, including the American Statistical Association, which warned that VAM has several significant limitations. ATPE has long questioned the fairness and efficacy of using VAM for teacher evaluations, particularly when the vast majority of teachers teach subjects or grade levels that have no state standardized tests and most policymakers have expressed a desire to place less emphasis on standardized tests.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has even acknowledged some of the drawbacks of VAM and maintains that it should be used to provide feedback to teachers within a formative appraisal process. In its “TEA Student Growth Overview — January 2016,” the agency wrote that VAM scores don’t account for teacher behaviors, since they are derived solely from test scores, and they provide feedback that is “less insightful at the instructional level.” ATPE points out that while VAM might potentially provide some limited feedback to a small group of teachers about how well their students are performing on tests, the difficulty with incorporating VAM into teacher appraisals lies in how schools are actually using those appraisals.

“If T-TESS were merely a formative tool to help teachers grow, we’d be having a different discussion,” notes Canaday. “However, schools are using T-TESS and similar appraisal systems to make high-stakes decisions about teacher compensation and employment. When teachers’ paychecks and contracts are dependent on the outcome of these appraisals, the validity and integrity of the appraisal process matters greatly.”

Canaday explains that to avoid having two discrete evaluation systems in use at the same time, most school districts employ only one appraisal system, and the majority of districts will opt to use the state-recommended model rather than developing their own. The problem with incorporating elements that TEA might expect districts to use as formative tools, such as VAM, is that the same evaluation instrument is being used for summative scoring of teachers and then making high-stakes employment-related decisions based on those evaluations scores.

“There’s a big difference,” Canaday says, “between districts saying, ‘This is an instrument that might provide slightly beneficial feedback to you as a teacher of a tested subject,’ and telling teachers, ‘This is the instrument that will be used to determine whether you still have a job next year.’”

TEA began developing T-TESS in conjunction with its request for a waiver of federal accountability requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). In 2013, the Obama administration offered Texas its requested flexibility in exchange for a promise to adopt a new teacher evaluation system that places more emphasis on student growth measures. T-TESS was designed to fit the parameters of the NCLB waiver and has been piloted in several school districts around the state ahead of its full implementation during the next two school years. In December, Congress repealed NCLB and replaced it with new federal law, making the conditions attached to the state’s old NCLB waiver no longer a concern. ATPE and individual educators involved in the development of T-TESS urged the commissioner to reconsider the design of the system in light of the recent changes in federal law, but Morath has moved forward with rolling out the new T-TESS rules as previously planned. The final rules were adopted this month and are scheduled to take effect in July, although the student growth elements of T-TESS are not required to be used until the 2017-18 school year.

“At a time when the federal government has taken important steps to decrease the focus on testing, there are widespread reports of flaws in the testing system, and parents are increasingly opting their children out of taking the tests, it makes no sense that Texas policymakers keep looking to test scores to determine if students, teachers, and schools are making the grade,” says Canaday.

ATPE_At_the_Capitol_VerticalThe Texas Education Code provides a mechanism for appeals of agency actions to the commissioner, who has primary jurisdiction under state law, after which point a lawsuit may be brought in district court if necessary. ATPE hopes that Commissioner Morath will take necessary steps to revise the T-TESS rules to comply with state laws, ensure that all teachers are evaluated fairly, and recommend a transparent and easily understood appraisal process that truly helps teachers improve their skills in the classroom.

From The Texas Tribune: Texas Education Chief Morath to Focus on Teachers

by Kiah Collier, The Texas Tribune
January 17, 2016

Texas' new education commissioner, Mike Morath, attended a keynote luncheon titled "Education Freedom and the American Future" on Jan. 7, 2016 at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation's annual policy forum. Photo by Shelby Knowles/ Texas Tribune.

Texas’ new education commissioner, Mike Morath, attended a keynote luncheon titled “Education Freedom and the American Future” on Jan. 7, 2016 at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation’s annual policy forum. Photo by Shelby Knowles/ Texas Tribune.

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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at  The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.