What They Said
What I Learned from Conversations with Texas Educators
My commitment to public education is rooted in two core beliefs:
The first is that education can solve our most pressing problems — poverty, hunger, inadequate health care, the lack of affordable housing, unemployment, crime, the need for criminal justice reform, and many more.
It is the one issue that can affect all others.
Second is my belief that in order to unlock education’s immense potential it must be offered to all students fairly and equitably. The idea that educational opportunities are determined by zip code is un-American and falls short of the greatness of Texas.
Although the Texas Supreme Court recently ruled that the public school finance system meets minimal constitutional requirements, meaning nothing has to change, the inequity of the public school finance system — and the absurdity of this ruling — is obvious to the naked eye.
That reality, lived by more than 5.23 million students in every corner of the state, means that Democrats and Republicans alike have a moral obligation to find ways to improve public education in spite of the Court’s failure.
In politics it is often the case that elected people talk to other elected people and other “leaders.” There’s nothing wrong with that, and it can yield valuable information, but my team and I wanted to get to the core, to the bedrock, of public education. We want our work to be useful, to be felt and meaningful.
So we went local.
Texas House District 123 includes campuses from three school districts — San Antonio ISD, North East ISD, and Northside ISD. It is one of the most economically diverse districts in Texas, a fact reflected by the campuses and their surrounding neighborhoods. We wanted to know if there were similar experiences, issues, themes, and patterns that linked these schools and districts together. We wanted to start by identifying what they had in common.
We decided the only way to do that was to go to each campus and talk to educators- the people who do this work for a living every day. I asked my staff to set up meetings with the principals/educators at every public school in our District.
There are 55 campuses total. I met with them all.
Most of the conversations took close to two hours and they all began the same way: making sure that the educators felt safe, that they understood the conversation was confidential, and that at no time would I disclose anything that would identify them or their campuses. As a result of my promise of confidentiality, no statement in this document will be directly attributed to any individual source.
That is also the most powerful part of this exercise. The only ideas and recommendations that made their way into this report are the ones that I heard again and again, everywhere. Every point listed below was repeated, confirmed, and verified by educators during the 55 school visits, as well as by scores of individual teachers, parents, and students that I met and continue to meet with across campuses and districts.
Whatever assumptions and preconceived notions I had were quickly dispelled. To that end, nowhere in this document will you find my opinions (some observations are marked by an *asterisk). What you will find, however, is a collection of common themes from dozens of educators across HD123.
If educators from different schools, in different districts, are saying the same thing, there’s probably something to it.
And if they’re true across my diverse district, they are probably true across the state.
I view this document as a blueprint for nonpartisan, common-sense education policy in Texas, both in terms of practical action items and school finance priorities. During my visits I didn’t find Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals; I only found people who wanted the best for our students.
My hope is that my colleagues in the Texas Legislature will take this document to the principals and educators in their districts and ask them if what we’ve listed here lines up with what they see every day.
Ask them if it’s true.
Whatever they agree on, wherever there is consensus, THAT should serve as the foundation of our legislative efforts.
After more than 55 campus conversations and dozens of others, here is what they said:
Find ways to fit more quality instruction time into a school day:
Educators repeatedly stated that quality instruction time — more time teaching — is what matters most to a student’s learning. Teachers end up with less time dedicated to teaching and learning when forced to spend too much time on other responsibilities like filling out mounds of paperwork, managing large classrooms, and taking attendance. (This theme reappears in several other items below.)
“I bet you think I need more money, and I do, but it’s not at the top of my list. And I bet you think I need new technology, and trust me, an iPad for every student would be great, but it’s not at the top of my list. You know what I need? Time. Give me more time spent on actual instruction and I’ll show you a school that’s been turned around. You know what I do? I have my office take on as much of the teachers’ paperwork as possible. Anything we can do to lighten the load, we do it. You know why? MORE TIME! Teachers get to teach. Simple.”
Programs meant to help schools shouldn’t burden them:
Reporting and compliance duties often come along with grants, academic improvement programs, and data-collection. Well-intentioned regulations can take away instruction time if the logistics at the district and campus-level are not properly considered by the State.
“I can remember one time, recently, actually, where I left money out there, on the table, that was being offered to us, because I knew it would come with so many strings, reporting requirements, and paperwork that I was pretty sure it wasn’t worth it.”
“You guys [the Texas Legislature] give us so much to do, but don’t tell us how or when. You want fire drills for school buses, good idea, now tell me how to do it and when. What am I going to have to cut? We always have to ask ourselves these questions. These days, if I can get my teachers to spend 3 ½ hours on instruction a day, it’s a win.”
Districts and schools need the freedom to hire more support staff:
Co-teachers, social workers, behavioral health professionals, and additional staff can all take burdens off of educators and allow them to spend more time teaching. This idea is tightly bound with another below, “Find more ways to support students with non-academic challenges.”
If students arrive in the classroom well-fed, well-rested, housed, clothed, cared-for, and ready to learn, teachers automatically gain more quality teaching time.
Educators across districts asked for the ability to hire additional support staff to provide these wrap-around services.
Teachers and Leadership
Provide incentives for hiring exceptional teachers:
Good teachers, and excellent leadership, are important at every campus, but students and campuses with the most challenges require the best help. From a policy perspective, when advocating for the “best” teachers it is difficult to define with specificity what that is, although the general consensus is that experience is a common quality. Overall, principals and other teachers know talent when they see it and need the flexibility and authority to hire those educators.
“Let me put it to you this way: Give me middle class kids, middle class parents, a middle class school in a middle class area with middle class issues, and give me ‘teachers,’ and those students will be just fine. If you give me a blue-collar, poor school, with students, parents, and a neighborhood with those challenges — I need the best teachers money can buy. I need experience. I need veteran teachers. Don’t load me up with rookies.”
“If I had to choose between an iPad for every student or a few more top notch teachers, I would take the teachers in a heartbeat, every time.”
*I was always fascinated when I came across teachers, principals, and campuses that had achieved a level of continued success, especially in areas where, on paper, one might expect to find more challenges. When I asked one of the principals to explain that success he said, “I hire for poverty.” When he is hiring a teacher (the campus already has a very active MSW — Master of Social Work — community specialist on staff) he looks for poverty in their personal or family background. “If they’re familiar with it they know how to relate to the kids. They aren’t shell-shocked when they encounter hunger, a lack of clothing, or an eviction. They get straight to work. The teachers don’t always have to be the same race as the students, but they must understand them on a personal level. This builds trust with the kids and that leads to better relationships with the parents as well. I think that is why our PTA is so strong.”
Don’t pack high-need campuses with inexperienced teachers:
Principals across the District stated that a faculty comprised of a high percentage of Teach For America corps members, new Alternative Certification teachers, and recently graduated education majors is “not playing the odds.” Students and campuses that need the most help require the most skilled and resilient teachers. Experience was the primary factor principals considered when looking to hire the “best” teachers.
“If we’re talking about young teachers: Teach for America? Hit or miss. First or second year Alternative Certification teachers? Hit or miss. First or second year Ed. program graduates? Hit or miss. But if I’m in a Title I [read: economically disadvantaged] school, don’t force me to take all three. How is it fair to the kids if we compound inexperience with more inexperience? There should be a limit.”
Allow teachers to teach (also relates to time):
Quality teachers want to teach, not do paperwork, tend to administrative matters, manage behavioral problems, or act as social workers. Many teachers leave poor, minority, inner-city schools not because of a bias or lack of compassion for the students or their neighborhoods. Rather, in those settings teachers often find that they spend a tremendous amount of time doing things other than teaching.
“I didn’t leave because I didn’t like the kids. I didn’t like the adults. They wanted me to save the school, save the district, save their job… I’m here for the kids.”
Provide opportunities for professional development:
Opportunities for professional development are reportedly scarce, but are necessary to attract good teachers and counselors and to enhance the skills of the existing faculty. Professional development alone is not enough, it needs to be worthwhile, engaging, and reflective of the needs of the campus, faculty, and staff.
“We learn the most from the students, and then from one another.”
Reduce leadership turnover:
Stability is important for the performance and morale of both students and teachers. At a school with high principal turnover, where leadership is a revolving door, teachers lose faith in the viability of any plans to improve their campus, undermining efforts for change.
“I want to make changes, shake things up here, but there is a group of older teachers who are just looking at their watches waiting for me to be replaced. They’ve seen it before — principals coming and going.”
*Leadership matters. Strong, ascending schools usually have strong leadership. You can also visit a school and ascertain very quickly that the principal is completely checked out, and it shows everywhere.
*Texas should study the correlation between teacher & principal turnover and student mobility. Throughout my visits I was curious about the relationship between schools and their surrounding neighborhoods. The relative stability or instability of student populations occasionally went counter to my expectations. The most stable campuses, where families had been sending their children for generations, existed in communities of every socioeconomic situation, from the poor to the relatively wealthy. A common theme that ran throughout: longstanding teachers and principals. It is unclear which way this relationship runs — do stable neighborhoods make stable campuses, or do campuses help stabilize neighborhoods? Both? Either way, both types of stability seem to create better outcomes for students.
Special Populations of Students
Dual Language programs offer immense, measurable educational benefits:
Every educator at campuses with a proper Dual Language program could not stress enough the academic and social benefits of this model for both monolingual English and Spanish speakers.
“Everyone is helping each other. The English gets better. The Spanish gets better. Even the math gets better. I really believe these kids will see and interact with the world differently. They’ll probably save us all.”
Resources should be commensurate with the size of the student population and what the State expects of them:
Although the responses from educators varied in terms of priority, in almost every way possible, educators noted that generally the resources for English Language Learners and Special Education students were insufficient. From the dearth of certified teachers, instructional materials, and test preparation to class size and accountability, educators at nearly every campus lamented the general inadequacy in resource availability and quality.
“These students are capable. They can do the work, it’s just their English that’s the challenge. In every other way they’re on top of their game, just as gifted, and it feels like we’re punishing them. We’re failing them, really.”
Provide incentives for hiring teachers with special certifications:
Educators agreed that Bilingual and Special Education certifications were the best indicators of a teacher’s abilities and likelihood of success with these populations. Certified Bilingual and Special Education teachers are among the most sought after and scarce resources in public education. Districts and campuses, especially those with the greatest needs, need the tools and resources to attract and retain these educators.
*I visited one campus that housed a Special Education unit within the school designed for students with advanced challenges. There the principal introduced me to a new, young specialist in her early twenties who spoke enthusiastically about her commitment to the students and the potential she saw in the coming year. As soon as the principal and I walked out of the room and the door closed she stopped and leaned back against the wall. “She’s wonderful. Special. One of the best I’ve seen… and I won’t be able to keep her. [A wealthy district] is going to come around, offer her money I can’t match and resources I don’t have. I wouldn’t blame her, but it’s going to break my heart. I know it’s coming.”
Provide professional development courses for Special Education to all teachers:
All teachers benefit from learning these skills, even teachers that don’t work exclusively in special education classrooms. Providing this training aids teachers in identifying students who may need learning modifications and prepares teachers to appropriately instruct special education students in their general education classrooms.
“Special Ed is too broad a category; so many kids and so many issues fit under that umbrella. If that’s the way it’s going to be, we need the best teachers and resources for those kids and the best training for them AND the rest of us. Personnel and professional development — we need both. ”
Adjust policies so that campuses can better support homeless students:
Homeless children are the most vulnerable students in our state and deserve our concerted effort to help them succeed. Principals, however, often lament enrolling these students; they are often seen a resource burden on a campus, with unfunded transportation requirements accompanying understandably lower test scores (these students are often highly mobile and chronically absent). Changing accountability requirements for this population of students could ease this burden and encourage educators’ best efforts.
Change testing practices so that they help, not hurt, students:
The federal government requires specific testing practices in order to hold districts and campuses accountable. The State of Texas currently mandates additional layers of testing and adds higher standards and more curriculum requirements to these tests. Instead of helping to direct a student’s learning, these tests have taken over the school day and year, hijacking a teacher’s ability to be creative in the classroom.
Hitting testing benchmarks has become more important than the mastery of the subjects.
The stress of standardized testing is palpable at many campuses, especially at those with high-needs student populations.
*At one elementary school I found a laminated chart in the hallway that displayed math test scores. Each student was required to individually place a colored disk on the graph to represent their scores on each practice test section. All students had to do this, regardless of how well or poorly they scored.
Attempts to tie teacher ratings to testing outcomes hide inequalities:
Test scores, particularly those from high-stakes tests that students take once a year, can be used to measure a variety of things, but they are an imperfect and incomplete measure of the effectiveness and dedication of any one teacher. When test results can impact the career trajectories of teachers, students shoulder the additional stress.
“How do you expect to get teachers — the superstars you want us to bring in or even the young ones we know we’ll get — to come to the toughest schools when they know that the risk of being labeled a ‘bad’ or ‘unsuccessful’ teacher is so much higher?”
The A-F campus rating system harms students:
This district and campus rating system can ultimately shame students, branding them individually with their school’s score. Students might not be aware of the precise meaning of an “improvement required” campus, but every student knows what an “F” means. The inequality of the current school finance system all but ensures that a campus’ letter grade will align with the wealth or poverty of the surrounding area, but the students will carry the weight of that grade in a more personal, internal way.
“What are they grading? How much do you want to bet the grades line up with how much money the schools get? And why A through F? We’re using the language the children use. They may not know the exact meaning of ‘needs improvement,’ but they all know what an F is. You want them walking around thinking they and their friends earned their school an F? Way to go.”
Craft Special Education accountability so that success is based on growth:
Teachers and specialists across districts felt that meeting yearly academic growth goals is more important, and more telling, than “passing” the STAAR test for many Special Education students. Currently, a student can show over a year’s worth of growth, yet still be required to attempt to pass (read: fail) the STAAR exam multiple times. Emphasizing growth rather than thresholds makes testing more dignified and meaningful for students.
“I don’t see why a student has to fail the exam three times before we can decide if they move on. It leaves them defeated because they’re in a much better place than when they started the school year, but somehow that’s not enough. Failing the exam over and over drives home their feelings of being different, or just not as smart as the other students.”
Wrap-around Services (also relates to Time)
Find ways to help students with the non-academic challenges they bring to the classroom, i.e., support the whole student:
In the Community School model, campuses act as hubs for social services and community resources. In this wrap-around-services approach, schools serve the whole child; students and teachers can then focus on mastering the material together. This model has produced success stories at campuses across Texas.
According to these educators, providing social services for students is one of the most important public education investments we can make.
*John Reagan High School in Austin, TX offers a telling case study. The school resembles many of those in HD123: primarily minority, working class, significant immigrant population, older building, etc. Several years ago TEA threatened to shutter the school’s doors due to low test performance. The principal asked TEA for additional time to try to turn the school around and, if she was unsuccessful, the agency could follow through with the closure. TEA agreed. She then embarked on an aggressive effort to bring additional academic and social services to the campus, converting it into a true “Community School.” Working with a multitude of governmental and nonprofit partners, she brought everything from social workers, tutors, and graduation coaches to community liaisons, an on-campus suspension program, and teen-pregnancy counselors to Reagan. “If you give me money, I’m not going to spend it on stuff; I’m going to spend it on people.” By every measure the school demonstrated drastic improvement. Last year Reagan High School’s graduation rate was over 95%.
Hire more behavioral health professionals (social workers, family specialists, counselors, etc):
Principals and teachers across districts claim that social workers are invaluable and all say they desperately need more. The presence of a social worker, family specialist, or trauma counselor can be transformative for a student coping with difficulties outside of school. These positions should supplement, not supplant, current staffing levels.
“Call it whatever you want: ‘socioeconomically disadvantaged,’ ‘free & reduced lunch,’ ‘Title I,’ ‘at-risk’… these students are poor. They don’t come with the same advantages middle-class students come with, but they do come with different problems, more challenges, and more work. They’re just as smart, just as bright, but you have to get through all of the life-issues before you can get to the learning. If you don’t do that — help them with life — if you don’t see that, then you can’t expect them to meet the same standards as everyone else. Treat the child as a human, and what you’re left with, and what the teacher is left with, is a student who is ready to learn.”
Ensure that social/human services workers are full-time, salaried employees with experience and training:
Some districts have community liaison employees, but the positions are often not professionalized. These employees are paid by the hour, are ineligible for overtime, and usually can only work on-campus during school hours. Other districts have taken a different route, employing specialists who are degreed (ex: BSW, MSW, etc.) and salaried. Their primary responsibilities center on a student’s — and often their family’s — immediate, basic, social and emotional needs such as food, clothing, healthcare, utilities, etc. The difference in outcomes is significant. To be clear, this is not to say that there are not many skilled, dedicated, and super-heroic people in the liaison positions, but overall educators seem to have the most confidence in consistent results from professionalized positions.
“I don’t know what I’d do without her [the Family Specialist]. I can’t imagine it. Don’t want to. Honestly, I need two more. Will you please make that happen?”
Social services, community resources, and academic counseling structures need to work in concert with each other:
Most educators believe that many academic and behavior issues are symptoms of other problems facing the student, often at home. There is general consensus that addressing a student’s outside-the-classroom issues reduces them inside the classroom. Although discipline is often the immediate response, educators believe coordinated efforts and shared information get much closer to actual long-lasting solutions.
Maximizing Resources and Opportunity
Teachers and principals note the significant differences between students who attended Pre-Kindergarten and those who did not. Teachers can go further with Kindergarten students who have common academic foundations and learning habits, as well as an understanding of basic classroom norms. Pre-K sets up students for success; it is an essential educational foundation.
“It’s not a luxury anymore. It’s a necessity… if we want our kids to make it.”
Support efforts to improve school technology infrastructure:
Although there were some schools with limited access to computers, there were others that seemed ahead of the curve. A number of campuses, however, had all the hardware they needed but lacked the infrastructure — wiring, high-capacity wi-fi routers, etc. — to have all of the devices on at the same time. Managing which classes use what devices at any given time is an unfair and impossible task. Adequate internet connectivity is as important as the devices themselves. State-of-the-art computers are useless if they can’t go online.
“I got a grant to buy new computers, so in the library you’ll find a nice cart full of 78 brand new Chromebooks. Problem is we can’t really turn them on. Chromebooks only work if they’re connected to the internet. The wiring here can barely handle what we have now; add 78 Chromebooks and it’s completely tapped out. It can’t handle all the devices on at once, so they just sit there. Off.”
Make sure campuses and students are prepared for the technological demands of testing and the world at large:
Many educators (especially school librarians) remarked on the inherent difficulties of administering online tests, especially when campuses don’t have updated or adequate numbers of computers or internet connectivity. To perform well students need to be familiar and comfortable with the technology, and the technology needs to work.
“Don’t just count the computers, look at what kind of computers there are, how old they are, the chip they have, and what you can or can’t do with them. So, not only do we have fewer computers, I’m not sure the ones we have even count.”
Spend money on materials that teachers need and will use:
Instructional materials currently make up a distinct and significant part of a school district’s budget, and much of this money is spent on textbooks. Educators said that textbooks occupy a different place in today’s classrooms than they did before — they’re used far less and are often supplemental compared to other types of lesson materials. Districts need to evaluate their decisions to buy textbooks because they have more spending flexibility than they may realize. Further expanding those spending options would free up districts to spend money on what they really want: people.
“If I could spend the textbook money anywhere, I would spend it on people.”
“Sure we use our textbooks… to take up space and keep our supply closets and lockers full.”
*Although most of the conversations were not political in nature — that was one of the assurances I made at the beginning of each one — many educators mentioned the power and influence of the textbook lobby and lamented that the money allocated for textbooks would be better spent on other resources, namely personnel (teachers, social workers, etc.).
Field trips, internships, art, music, electives, and extracurriculars are far more important than any non-educator would imagine:
Again and again educators affirmed the essential role of field trips in helping students put their learning in context with their lives, understand how the world operates, and build common experiences with their peers. Often the first to be cut from budgets, extracurriculars and electives motivate students to care about school, while internships and trainings prepare students for the world. Schools that are worried about testing outcomes often hesitate to use class time on these types of programs for fear of losing test prep time (yet another reason to reform the high stakes testing regimes), but educators stand by the benefits. School districts need to be able to invest in educational experiences that broaden their students’ worlds.
“I believe that if you give a student another reason to go to school besides class, one other thing that attaches them to the campus, you can get through to that student. There’s a higher likelihood that they will make it. They already have to go; we should find ways that make them want to go.”
“[Field trips] make the world smaller, and make more sense. If we all go somewhere, we have a common experience I can draw on all year that makes sense to everybody.”
*One of the largest surprises during the school visits was the universal agreement among educators that field trips were incredibly important. When I first heard it I thought it was an isolated comment, but time after time educators confirmed how critical they are.
Acknowledge and address hunger among Texas students:
Almost every elementary and middle school reported having students who struggled with chronic hunger. Our educators see it every day.
*On one of my earlier visits I walked into a school and found that the principal and her leadership team had prepared for our meeting by creating two lists on a dry-erase board. One list was titled “Opportunities for Growth” — areas for improvement that could move the campus in the right direction — that included recommendations like increasing parental participation and full-time reading and behavioral specialists. The other list was titled “Challenges.” The very first item there: “food insecurity.” Read: hunger.
Ensure schools engage every anti-hunger resource available:
Hunger makes it more difficult to learn and focus, and can lead to behavior issues. Most school districts offer a variety of food programs, including breakfast, lunch, snack, and summer meals. However, many do not access the USDA’s school supper program and assume it is too costly. It is, in fact, fully subsidized. Districts should pursue this program as another way to address hunger among their students (and it essentially pays for itself).
“I didn’t always know what to do with the hungry students who came to see me later in the day because we’re not allowed to give them cafeteria food after the lunch period. There was one young man who came to see me more than a few times a week, so with him I took to us walking back and forth between the main campus and one of the portables in the back. There was a pecan tree there, so we’d walk back and forth and stop so he could pick and eat a few until he felt better.”
Create a standardized response to the “Friday-to-Monday” hunger crisis:
Districts don’t have a standard response for children who go hungry over the weekends. Some have programs that identify hungry students and provide them with packs of food on Friday afternoons, often partnering with a nonprofit to provide the food items. Some do not. The nature and depth of any campus program depends on how intuitive and aggressive principals and staff are, which can leave many students without options. Overall, there is no statewide response to, much less an acknowledgement of, this issue.
“There’s a little girl, about seven, who walks herself four blocks to school every Monday. She comes early and waits right outside the door, waiting for it to open so she can run to the cafeteria and get breakfast. We know she doesn’t get much food, or good food, on the weekends. We can tell.”
Collect and redistribute leftover food to hungry students from the same campus:
At the very campuses where there are programs to provide bought or donated food to help feed hungry students over the weekend, countless pounds of leftover food are thrown away every day. The complexities of overlapping district, state, and federal policies, along with a collection of myths and cautionary tales, have left campuses unable or incapable of addressing the issue. Texas needs common-sense policy to get leftover food into the hands of students from the same campus.
*Nearly every campus throws away untouched, unopened, ripe, perfectly edible food every day.
The concerns detailed in this report are just a snapshot of the common issues educators face across HD123. There are, of course, more. What is not in this document are those that may be school district, campus, or classroom specific. It also does not touch upon the nuances created by private and charter schools (both of which I am visiting soon).
That said, it is also irrefutable. It outlines what educators believe would make a difference in their everyday work. You don’t have to like or agree with what is here, but you would be arguing with what these educators have lived in their classrooms.
Instead, take this document to the educators you know. Ask them if what is in here is true. Ask them if they agree. If they disagree, ask why. To my colleagues who represent very different school districts than I do, particularly rural ISDs: I suspect that you’ll find more common ground than disagreement, but the more needs you can identify in conversations with your educators, the better. We stand ready to partner with you.
Let’s craft practical, pragmatic policies and shepherd our school finance conversations not based on what we believe to be true or what our parties say, but on the educational environment those decisions will create for our educators and, most importantly, our students.
I’d like to thank all of the educators, parents, and students who took the time to sit down with me, the school districts for their cooperation and help facilitating the visits, and my staff for their hard work and patience during the duration of the project.
As a graduate of public schools I believe in their purpose and promise. After this exercise I am now more convinced of that than ever.
Let’s get to work.
Diego M. Bernal
State Representative, Texas House District 123