Podcast Transcript: Teachers: Texas’ Greatest Asset

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Libby Cohen: With Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Libby Cohen, and you’re listening to Intersect Ed. Welcome back to our podcast series looking at Raise Your Hand’s key legislative priorities for the 2021 session.

When I started working with Raise Your Hand Texas two and a half years ago, I was pretty green when it came to public education in Texas. I’d been living outside the state for a number of years, I’d been working on other policy issues, and I just had a lot to learn. So I spent a ton of time on the road in my first six months just talking to people in and around public schools and one of my go-to questions, especially for superintendents and principals was, “What keeps you up at night?”

Now, I don’t know what I expected people to say, but I was not prepared for the consistency of the responses that I got and that response was “teachers,” specifically, “great, well-trained teachers.”

If you care about the future of public education here in Texas, the fragility of our teacher pipeline needs to be on your radar. Here at Raise Your Hand, one of our core programmatic efforts is Raising Texas Teachers, a $50 million initiative that includes scholars and partnerships with universities across the state to improve teacher preparation here in Texas. Cody Huie, Vice President of Programs for the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation works closely with the initiative, and he’s going to guide us through today’s episode on the necessity of a strong teacher workforce. Here’s Cody.

Cody Huie: At Raise Your Hand Texas, we believe how the state allocates funding this session is crucial to our schools and our state’s recovery. Educators are telling us that it will take lots of skilled, well-trained teachers to close the learning gaps sustained during the past year.

But will those teachers be there when the districts start to hire? The pandemic didn’t create the challenges facing the teacher pipeline in Texas, but it has certainly made addressing that problem more urgent.

The Texas teacher workforce, with over 368,000 teachers, plays one of the most important roles in our public education system. Effective teachers are central to student learning, emotional and physical well-being, and social development. That’s why recruitment, development, and retention of the most promising future teachers must be a top priority.

I spoke with Education Commissioner Mike Morath about increased challenges facing schools due to the pandemic and financial investments in teacher training. Here’s part of that conversation, which has been condensed for length:

Cody: I’ve heard you state before we shouldn’t let this historic health crisis become a generational education crisis. Can you expand on what that means and what the implications of not addressing that challenge would be?

Mike Morath: We did a beginning of the year assessment, an optional assessment about 300 or 400 school districts and almost three-quarters of a million kids participated in it. We drew some summative conclusions, which was that at the start of the current school year, kids started 3.2 months behind where they normally start on average.

That does not bode well for us. We don’t know exactly if they’re learning at the same pace this year that they normally learn at, but we have every reason to believe that that they’re not, which to some extent means that the problem is getting worse as the year is progressing. Then let’s look at a couple of what are the big picture implications of this?

After hurricane Katrina, the agency did a study of kids that came to Texas post-Katrina and found that after four years of targeted remediation, the targeted interventions in their school systems, they caught up to state average in reading, but they never caught up in math. That’s a problem. And the hurricane that we have today is actually much larger than Katrina.

Another study comes from Argentina in the early ’80s, there was a teacher strike in Argentina cut off about two to three months of school. They returned, there wasn’t any major systemic re-invention that happened in Argentina post-crisis. They returned to a school system that didn’t fundamentally change.

What researchers found is that cohort of kids had materially lower academic outcomes. You think about their grades, their grade level promotion, their high school achievement, their high school graduation rates, then college enrollment, college graduation was lower economists studied that their wages were basically lower. There was a 20-year GDP measurable decline relative to what it would have been because of a two and a half month teacher’s strike.

The impact of the disruption that we’re facing is much bigger than either of those and so we can’t come back to a system that doesn’t change. We have to and this is not a function of teachers working harder. If our answer to this crisis is let’s make teachers work harder, that is collectively the stupidest answer that we can do.

The answer is how do we set the days up? How do we set the year up? How do we set up the instructional design, the instructional experience for kids so that we can give them rigorous content while also remediating them?

There’s a huge infusion of resources coming for this certainly from the federal government. The legislature is maintaining its historic infusion of resources for this. Now, it’s up to us collectively. The 1,200 school system leaders out there that we have, me, the folks that can help drive operational change for our kids.

Cody: What do you think is key to strengthening the teacher workforce in Texas?

Morath: I have a personal goal, a grand vision as it were, which is I don’t think we should have any first-year teachers legally responsible for kids.

The job that is teaching is one of the most cognitively demanding, one of the most emotionally demanding and physically demanding jobs that I’ve ever been exposed to.

The work that we have to do to help teachers internalize all of the practices that they have, that they’ve been trained on, say, theoretically, internalize all the connections in the curriculum or to sit in an undergraduate program or a lecture on those concepts, it’s another thing entirely to like practice it over the course of the year. This is critical to ensuring that every child has the equitable experience that we want to be exposed to high-quality instruction.

We think that the work to bring people into the profession to train them up before they are then the only person left with the kids. This is such a critical move for us long-term to get to what we morally need to get to for our children.

Cody: In your legislative appropriations requests, you identified exceptional item funds targeted at improving the preparation of Texas teachers. For the listener that maybe is not aware that you asked for this exceptional item fund, can you talk a little bit about what you’ve asked for and what that would be used for specifically?

Morath: We’ve asked for things related to supporting high school students while they are in high school to prepare them for potential careers in teaching. The work to take existing teachers assistants and facilitate a rapid and rigorous acceleration to a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate to become a teacher of record. The work for people who are prospective teachers to give them a residency experience, much like we do in the medical field. We generally know all those things work, what we have less of is an operation roadmap. How do you implement that and do so with the budget that you have and resources that you have, and train up the people you have, and make the management decisions that need to be made? What the exceptional line item is is its building out case studies of that at a relatively small scale with a focus on facilitating rapid implementation support afterwards.

Cody: What about the use of the federal stimulus funds? Will any of that be going toward teacher workforce issues?

Morath: Likely. Some of that is still a bit of work in progress. There was round one teacher stimulus funds much of that decision has been made in terms of prioritization. A lot of that was actually built on teacher training, how to deliver virtual instructions, how to customize lesson plans for remote instruction, how school leaders can coach and support teachers who are doing simultaneously remote and in-person instruction, training teachers on how to support students who have been affected by trauma, even in a remote setting. A lot of that has already been built and been deployed with the first-round stimulus funds. Second and potentially third now round stimulus fund, decisions haven’t finalized yet. But, the single most important factor in a school that drives student success is the teacher in the classroom. So much of our work has to be focused on supporting our teachers.

Cody: At Raise Your Hand Texas, we agree. Investing in our teachers is the single best way to prevent this historic health crisis from becoming a generational education crisis.

We know the pandemic has amplified existing economic and racial equity issues harming the teaching profession and our students. A number of these disparities have existed for a long time.

To get a more expansive view of the challenges facing the teacher workforce in Texas, we reached out to Dr. Cathy Horn to conduct a ten-year longitudinal study on the teacher pipeline.

Dr. Horn is the Moores Professor and Chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Houston. She is also the Executive Director of the Institute for Educational Policy Research and Evaluation.

This teacher workforce report revealed a number of findings, some of which tell an unsettling story. Here’s Dr. Horn.

Dr. Cathy Horn: Texas is served by about 360,000 teachers. If we look at the racial and ethnic composition of our educator workforce. About 60% are white. We have just over a quarter of our teachers who identify as Latinx and that is a growing representation, which we’re very excited about. We also have about 11% of our teachers who identify as African-American and that’s also an upward trend.

Having teachers in a classroom who look like you, who sound like you, who look like your mom, or your granddad, or your cousin down the street, adds to the learning experience in really important and positive ways.

Our student body is really an amazingly racially and ethnically diverse group. In 2019, we had almost 53% of our student age population identify as Latinx, and about a quarter of our students identify as white, 13% black, and about 8% Asian.

Cody: This demographic data underlines the need for the state to expand its investments in strategies that cultivate a diverse teacher workforce, such as scaling grow-your-own programs, culturally and socially responsive curricula, targeted scholarships, and loan forgiveness programs.

Cody: Another state-wide challenge highlighted by the report is persistent teacher shortages in specific disciplines.

Dr. Horn: Career and technical education, bilingual education, math, science, special education, computer science, world languages. There is a consistent gap in the availability of teachers, relative to the need – not only over the last decade but in many cases over the last 15 to 20 years.

Cody: In response to the shortages of teachers in these particular subject areas some argue for opening and scaling preparation programs without regard to the quality of the program. Dr. Horn suggests this approach alone has not proven to address the shortage over time.

Texas is currently home to 129 Educator Preparation Programs that vary in quality. Let’s compare the two most prevalent types of educator preparation programs in the state.

Dr. Horn: Our two biggest producers are public universities and for-profit alternative certifiers. Over the last decade, we’ve seen a slow downward trend overall in the number of teachers being produced by our university providers relative to the uptick we’ve seen in the production coming from our alternative certifiers.

Cody: The report showed year-to-year retention rates of teachers prepared at traditional university-based educator preparation programs at about 78%, compared to 60% among alternatively certified teachers. That’s a significant gap.

Dr. Horn: What distinguishes, I think, the more traditional university-based approach from others are the really often very rich, extended opportunities to dive into craft, pre-service experiences that teachers get in schools with teachers and K-12 students …

Cody: One way to raise the bar for all existing teacher preparation programs is for the state to require a base-line of quality indicators including the two Dr. Horn just identified – pre-service clinical practice and strong partnerships with local districts.

Cody: Regarding equitable access to experienced or well-trained teachers, this report confirms students of color and students from low-income households are more likely to be taught by a teacher trained in for-profit alternative certification programs, which require very little training in a classroom before becoming a teacher and, as previously mentioned, have lower retention rates in the field than university-based programs.

Dr. Horn: There’s a lower retention rate overall among teachers who come into schools serving high concentrations of students with need, relative to teachers who are starting in low-need schools.

Cody: Here Dr. Horn defines need as economically disadvantaged. That has detrimental effects on the ways and the extent to which students are able to learn and grow intellectually. We, want to do everything we can to motivate, to support, and to celebrate our best teachers going into the places where they have the possibility of having maximum impact.

A final barrier to teacher retention confirmed by this report is salary. The study showed the purchasing power of a teacher’s average salary for the 2018-19 school year was roughly $1,200 less than it was for the 2010-11 school year. This means more experienced teachers are being paid less for their years of experience over time.

Dr. Horn: It is so critical to have a profession where teachers go into teaching because they’re passionate about it, but then it’s also a place for economic stability and growth.

We want our teachers to feel comfortable that this is a career-long profession that they can invest in. When our base salary rate is not only flat, it’s declining in real dollars, those messages are incongruent. We can’t have such a fundamentally important base of our social infrastructure and not understand that there is economic viability in making a choice to enter into that space. I think that big picture is really critical.

Cody: This last reflection from Dr. Horn on appropriately valuing the teaching profession was on Commissioner Morath’s mind as well.

Morath: The way I think about this is the broad cultural perception of teaching. This is I think the biggest challenge that we face. If we think about teachers as individuals that possess the highest degree of skill, that the most capable humans, that the job is very demanding but very rewarding in the broadest sense of the word.

There is this cliché that I know you have heard, I know your listeners have heard is like those who can do, those who can’t teach. I remember hearing this as a cliché growing up and there’s no more toxic view of the teaching profession than that. First of all, it’s completely inaccurate. Second, it’s demoralizing. How to make that cultural change, I think it’s a variety of things. It’s about pay and working conditions writ large and it’s about people understanding the pay and working conditions. We’ve made some major strides certainly on pay in the last several years with the resource infusion by the legislature. There are a lot of operational changes that I think still have to happen in school districts to get working conditions where they need to be.

Cody: As evidenced by this report and insightful conversation with the Commissioner, the state needs to continue its efforts to invest in and improve the teacher workforce in Texas.

At Raise Your Hand Texas, we believe it is our moral imperative to ensure that all 5.5 million students in Texas receive an education that helps them reach their full potential. That is why, in 2017, we launched Raising Texas Teachers, a 10-year $50 million project designed to improve teacher quality and elevate the status of the teaching profession statewide. After almost three years of working closely with current and future teachers and universities, we believe Texas can deepen and diversify the pool of teachers entering the field, promote continuous improvement in teacher preparation, and improve teacher quality overall.

We also know from our recent polling that, while support for teachers is high, Texans see the disparities in teacher quality as an issue needing to be addressed. While 92 percent of Texans report the same or more appreciation for their schools than before the pandemic, 69 percent said students not being placed with an experienced or well-trained teacher is a barrier to an equitable education.

Moving forward, we hope to work with the legislature, as well as other education allies, including the Commissioner of Education Mike Morath, on several targeted, long-term, systemic improvements in the area of teacher recruitment, development, and retention.

Every student in every classroom deserves an effective and well-trained teacher every year. And with the support from the public and our state leaders, there is no better time to tackle this issue. Together, we have the opportunity to move the needle on the persistent inequities that exist in our teacher workforce and ensure this current health crisis doesn’t become a generational education crisis.

With Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Cody Huie. Thank you for listening.

Libby: Thanks, Cody. Next in our series looking at Raise Your Hand’s key legislative priorities is an episode exploring the digital divide in Texas.

Thank you for listening to Intersect Ed. Special thanks to Commissioner of Education Mike Morath and Dr. Cathy Horn. This episode was produced by Anne Bannister with Executive Producer Laura Mellett and Sound Engineer Brian Diggs. To get involved in supporting Texas public education, visit raiseyourhandtexas.org.


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