The new education commissioner of the Texas school system’s over 1,200 districts is on record with plans of doing away with a statewide ratings formula that critics and educators alike term as “an all-or-nothing” doctrine that relies far too heavily on such variables as state-mandated tests and general performance.
Instead, Michael Williams, the first African-American to ever be so appointed, told the Houston Chronicle he envisions fully implementing a program that hands out system grades placing a greater emphasis on closing the states’ long-lingering, considered by many to be crippling to poor and minority students.
Just last March, districts from all across the state came together to draft and sign a resolution blasting testing practices adopted by the Texas Association of School Administrators as nothing more than “high-stakes tests strangling our public schools.” Upon his retirement and Williams’ appointment, even previous commissioner Robert Scott admitted the statewide testing system had become a “perversion” from its original intent.
“In a state that is 60 percent economically disadvantaged and 60 percent black and brown, we’ve got to be concerned about closing that racial achievement gap because indeed our demographics are changing,” said Williams, the son of two former school teachers. “I’m confident we can meet the growing challenge and better accountability should encourage improvement.”
According to the Texas Education Agency, currently 92 percent of all white students graduated on time in 2011, compared to 82 percent of Latinos and 81 percent of blacks. Of the pool of students deemed economically disadvantaged, the percentage looms at around 84 percent.
Besides the achievement gap, the new formula incorporates a post-high school readiness measure seemingly devised to weigh young adulthood preparedness. Just what barometers or processes slated to be used to gauge such readiness remain to be seen.
During his Chronicle interview, Williams would not specify whether schools will be given number scores, letter grades or new titles upon receiving grades, only stressing that current categories of “exemplary,” “recognized,” “acceptable,” or “unacceptable” will be soon be passé. Schools are scheduled to receive their first grades under the new guidelines in early August.
As a Houston Independent School District board member, Harvin Moore has made clear his willingness to accept the changes in focus and priority. He just hopes the ratings carry more teeth than those currently on the books.
In 2011, about 88 percent of the state’s districts were rated as “recognized” or “acceptable,” prompting Moore to lament “it was getting to where too many schools were rated at the top level, making things fairly meaningless.”
Beyond the obvious, Williams’ appointment comes at a trying time for the agency. Chief among its concerns is the state’s attempt to recover from a budget-cutting induced loss of nearly one-third of its work force just last year. In addition, the state faces as many as six lawsuits stemming from the way it funds the entire public school system and its 2009 implementation of the state’s Assessments of Academic Readiness program.
Statistics also reveal that more than half of the state’s public schools consistently fail to meet yearly benchmarks mandated by the federally enforced No Child Left Behind Act. To date, Texas remains one of only a handful of states yet to seek a federal waiver over its violations of such measures.
In recent years, the proportion of minority and economically disadvantaged students attending state public schools has also steadily increased and educators have stressed these students require more intense instruction as ever before.
That’s precisely the reason Steven Poole, executive director of the Fort Worth-based United Educators Association, hopes Williams will be even more diligent in hearing all concerned voices before he officially moves to act. “We hope he will really take the time to listen to those who are in the schools educating our kids,” said Poole.
In terms of additional policy, Williams, 59, is known as a staunch advocate of the school voucher system, telling the Texas Statesman earlier this year that he feels it is a “civil-rights issue for African-American children.” Citing a lack of necessary resources and adequate training, more recently an increasing number of parents of kids with special needs or learning disabilities have also began home schooling their children as opposed to continuing to enroll them in public schools.
The number of seventh- through 12th-graders who left their public schools in favor of home schooling increased 50 percent from 2003 to 2010 and the number of middle- and high-school special education students who opted out for private school increased 75 percent.
In Williams, school voucher advocates now hope to have a key and powerful supporter in pushing through such legislation during the state’s upcoming fall lawmaker’s sessions. Williams previously served as Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights under President George H.W. Bush, but that was his only official foray into education policy. In 1998, he was appointed to the Railroad Commission, which oversees the state’s oil and natural gas industry, by then-Gov. George W. Bush, a post he held until just year when he unsuccessfully sought the Republican Party’s U.S. Senate nomination.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.