Tex. Ed. Comm. Mike Morath: The Latest Public-School News

Jan 27, 2021 by

“Tex. Ed. Comm. Mike Morath: The Latest Public-School News”

By Donna Garner


[COMMENTS FROM DONNA GARNER:  Unfortunately, I was interrupted at home today and did not get to watch remotely the first 20 minutes of Texas Education Commissioner Morath’s comments before the Texas State Board of Education.   However, here are my notes that I took on his comments after that time.

To watch Comm. Morath’s full presentation, please go to this site where his presentation should be available soon: https://tea.texas.gov/node/102883]

1.  At the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) put together an “unofficial” assessment of academic learning (based upon selected STAAR elements) and gave this assessment to Texas public school students.  Teachers needed to know where students were academically due to the COVID shutdowns in the spring.  Those assessments showed that (discounting the normal loss of learning during the summer months) public school students had 3.2 months of learning loss because of the COVID spring semester shutdowns.  Hardly any learning gains relative to normal showed up in the assessments.  The Commissioner said it will take years for students to make up their academic learning losses caused by COVID.

2. The good news is that because of the CARES Act and other COVID monies made available by the federal government, 4.5 million students in Texas now have technology devices. The technology device gap [“among the rich and poor”] in Texas has been closed.

3.  The bad news is that Texas still lacks the infrastructure to connect those devices to the internet, particularly in rural areas in Texas. The TEA is working to identity cellular/infrastructure problems throughout the state so that that data can be presented to the Texas Legislature [in session right now].  Comm. Morath said that a very real problem also exists where the connectivity is available in many places, but parents are not accessing it.   

4.  Definite progress has been made by the TEA in remote learning for Special Education students. The Agency was able to identity a particularly good remote speech therapy program, made 10,000 slots for students available, and filled all those slots within a week. The Agency has also seed-funded a remote dyslexia program and is now utilizing that in eight districts in Texas.

5.  A Board member asked how many public-school districts in Texas are in-person vs. remote learning. The Commissioner said that the TEA has been monitoring that data periodically; now 99% of Texas public schools are holding on-campus instruction.  Schools are permitted to shut down for up to 14 days if they have severe COVID problems and/or staff shortages.

6. A question was asked about the prioritizing of teachers to get the COVID vaccinations. Comm. Morath said he is not on the Texas committee that is deciding those priorities for the state but that right now anyone (including teachers) over 65 is on the priority list to get the COVID vaccinations.  

7. An SBOE board member, who has several daughters involved in sports, asked Comm. Morath about Pres. Biden’s recent executive order [i.e., that restores transgender students’ access to sports, bathrooms, and locker rooms in accordance with their gender identity] and how that order might impact Texas sports teams. Comm. Morath stated that all decisions governing sports issues come from the University Interscholastic League (UIL). 

8. Another Board member asked the Commissioner if the TEA ever looks at Best Practices in the state of Massachusetts. He stated that the TEA is constantly searching for Best Practices both in the United States and abroad and that they did find helpful phonics instruction and literacy expectations in Massachusetts before that state started using Common Core.  

9.  A Board member who lives in a rural area asked about recruitment of teachers.  Comm. Morath said Texas’ future teachers are to be found in the K-12 students sitting right now in Texas classrooms. When schools around the state hold Career Days, they need to put teachers in those booths to promote to students the value of the teaching profession.

10.  Comm. Morath stated that teachers are like “brain surgeons.” They mold brains just as brain surgeons do except that brain surgeons do it on one person at a time; teachers have an entire classroom full of students’ brains to mold. 

11.  The question was asked of the Commissioner as to whether he would ask the federal government for a waiver from the STAAR assessments. He said, “No.”

12.  Several questions were asked of the Commissioner about school funding issues. He said that not only did the CARES Act have large sums of money for education but that other pieces of legislation also have components that can go toward education funding. 

13.  The Commissioner made it clear that he is authorized to spend funds but not to appropriate funds.  Both state and federal allocations fall under the authority of the Texas Legislature. He realizes that school districts are anxious to know how much funding they will have for the next biennium but that the Texas Legislature makes those decisions which may not be known until the end of this legislative session.

14.  Questions were asked about the present rules on high-school students and End-of-Course (EOC) STAAR requirements.  The Commissioner said that normally those decisions are made by the Texas Legislature which meets every two years.  Last year because of COVID (while the Texas Legislature was not in session), Gov. Abbott made the decision that all public-school students (9-12) who passed their End-of-Course classes (i.e., Eng. I, Eng. II, Alg. I, Biology, U. S. History) would get credit toward graduation with or without passing the EOC assessments.

15.  One of the Board members commended the TEA for working hard to embed better reading questions into the STAAR Science tests.

She also asked Comm. Morath about opposing bills coming before the Texas Legislature that would support (1) attendance-based financial incentives or (2) enrollment-based financial incentives. Comm. Morath said both have their pros and cons.  Attendance-based means that school districts with many itinerant students would get more funding, but the advantage of enrollment-based is that there would be more predictability of funding amounts for school districts. He said the Texas Legislature will need to grapple with that decision.     


Donna Garner


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