Commissioner Morath touts part of HB 3 that provides funds for districts, charters to add days at elementary campuses

This article appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of The Classroom Teacher.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath discussed some of the Texas Education Agency’s policy initiatives during his address at TCTA’s 2020 Annual Meeting in February (watch the video and earn 1 hour of CPE at members.tcta.org). 

Morath began by outlining challenges facing the profession — fewer students interested in becoming teachers as well as difficult working conditions and a lower pay scale compared to other professions — that make it hard to recruit and retain teachers.

Only about 4% of high schoolers want to be teachers and only about 46% of parents want their children to be teachers. Morath said, “That’s an indicator that the health of the profession is not where we need it to be.

“We have significant challenges with retention,” he added, explaining that statewide about 35,000 new teachers are hired each year. “Teaching is a science and an art that has to come with skill and practice.”

Working conditions play a major role in the retention challenge. Morath highlighted the typical elementary school schedule, which keeps core content teachers in front of students about six hours per day. He said that without enough support from teaching assistants to do things like escort students to recess, music, art and PE classes, teachers often end up working with students for more than seven hours a day, leaving little time for planning and preparation. 

In first grade, there are 235 student expectations in English, math, science and social studies that need to be covered in about 180 days. “Is that even mathematically possible?” Morath asked. “We love kids and want them to learn all this stuff, but it eats away at us methodically every year.” Those expectations cause stress for teachers, he added, and they need time to reflect on successes and failures in student learning to make instruction as effective as possible.

In other countries with high levels of student performance, such as Japan, Singapore and Finland, teachers are only in front of students three or four hours a day, he said. That equates to about 35% of their employment time. Teachers in those countries also get time each week for group lesson planning and curriculum development. “Their scores are beating the pants off of us,” Morath said. “Their level of teacher retention is massively higher.”

Morath would like to see Texas districts and charter schools apply lessons from these countries to improve student outcomes and make working conditions better for teachers. He says this can be accomplished if districts modify daily schedules, add days to the school year and hire more teaching assistants. “(Students get) more enrichment, more broad activity exposure.” Teachers get more free time. 

House Bill 3, passed during the 2019 session, provides a half-day formula funding incentive for school districts and charter schools to offer up to 30 more days of instruction in grades pre-K through 5. Districts and charters are eligible after they reach 180 instructional days and meet the minimum 75,600 minutes requirement, not including waivers, starting Sept. 1, 2020, through the end of the 2020-21 school year. Morath said he expects districts that receive state funding should use it, at least in part, on teacher salaries. “If we all do this it’s an extra $1.8 billion (in state funding) coming into our school systems,” he said. “Your school board adopts a new calendar, the money shows up.”

Morath said he hopes districts and charters that take advantage of the Additional Days School Year program are able to improve student achievement by giving schools the opportunity to provide teachers with more planning time and breaks; give students increased time for brain breaks, play and enrichment (music, art, PE); and create additional time to cover required standards and improve productivity.

He projects that Texas elementary schools adopting the program could provide teachers with 255 hours of planning time in an expanded 210-day school year and give students 255 hours of brain breaks (recess, snack time). This is an improvement from the estimated 180 hours teachers and students get in a traditional 180-day school year. “The legislature has given us the ability to move (resources and time),” Morath said. “We can increase our resources and we can increase time. This is a once-in-a-century reform that we can use to completely change how we support teachers and how we support students.”

TEA’s guidance for districts considering the additional days program lays out three options for how to structure the extra days, although Morath said there is flexibility in how to implement the program.

Plan 1 is Optional Summer Learning. It would keep the traditional school year in effect, then add 30 days in the summer for enrichment to help prevent the summer slide many students, especially those in low-income families, face.

Plan 2 is the Intersessional Calendar. It spaces the traditional 180 days over a full year with intermittent breaks for targeted remediation with a subset of students.

Plan 3 is the Full-Year Redesign. As TEA’s preferred plan, a redesign would require districts and charters to rethink the school day to increase teacher planning and student play. Morath said schools using this plan would likely adopt a 7x6 weeks calendar for year-round schooling. This would create a 42-week school year with 10 weeks of breaks, likely a scenario where classes are held for seven weeks with a week or two off before the next seven-week session starts.

“This is a big change,” Morath said, explaining that it will be up to local district officials to decide how, when and if they want to expand the school year. “The legislature has made major investments in teacher pay. The legislature has set up an opportunity for a complete reformation in the teacher workday experience, if we’re smart enough to implement it well.”

He acknowledged that there are many obstacles that must be addressed locally to make a revised model work.

The first is funding. HB 3 only provides half-day funding for the 30 additional days, leaving districts to find local sources to fund the other half. This could mean higher property taxes or revised staffing models and pay scales, Morath acknowledged, but emphasized those decisions would be made by local leaders. Some districts may also need to modify facilities as they adopt the program. “It may require a bond program, it may require some actual long-term planning,” he said. “This is the reason why I don’t think this change is going to happen quickly.”

Local officials also must address the school start date. Districts that have not exempted themselves from the required start date through the District of Innovation process are still required to begin classes on the fourth Monday of August. They also must determine how to accommodate state testing windows, which at least for the next few years are not expected to change.

“This is going to be a local deal,” Morath said. “But it could be a breathtakingly big improvement both for students and for teachers.”

TCTA member Jennifer Richard of Sherman brought up another issue that could be a deal breaker for many districts. She asked Morath if TEA and legislators had considered how year-round elementary school would impact a district’s middle and high school campuses, both for families with children in different schools and for secondary teachers who have young children. 

Morath said decisions about schedules must be made at the local level, but he suggested perhaps a district would pass a tax ratification election to raise enough money to extend the school year at middle and high school campuses.

Richard asked Morath if he thought lawmakers would expand funding if the program is successful in elementary schools. “One would hope,” Morath responded, “But I can’t predict future legislative action. I think it’s going to be several years though before that conversation is entertained because they’re going to want to see some results,” he added. “This not a small-dollar infusion they have made in us. And so they’re going to want to know that it works before they try to expand it up grade levels.”

Despite these issues for local districts to address, TEA is already reviewing applications from districts seeking funding for the 2020-21 school year. The window for the Additional Days School Year planning and execution program opened in March and closed April 1.

Through this program, districts and charter schools will participate in a robust planning year and three-year execution process to implement either a voluntary summer learning program or a fully redesigned academic year. TEA will award grants of up to $400,000 for districts or charter schools implementing a full year redesign and is actively seeking funding from third parties to support those implementing a voluntary summer learning program. 

TEA will identify two cohorts of districts and charters for the program. Both will receive support from TEA to ensure high-quality planning and execution phases. TEA said the Voluntary Summer Learning Cohort will support approximately 25 districts and charters implementing a summer learning program with funding provided by third parties. More details will be given to districts once they are selected. TEA also will select up to 15 districts and charters for the Full Year Redesign Cohort. These grantees will get $200,000 to create a plan and may receive a second $200,000 grant to implement a full-year redesign based on an evaluation of their strategic plan by TEA.

TCTA encourages teachers to get involved in the planning process if your district is considering the Additional Days School Year program. Whether all teachers in the relevant grades will be asked to participate in the new program will depend on how the district structures the additional time. Members with questions or concerns about the process in their district can call TCTA’s Legal Department at 888-879-8282 to speak with a staff attorney.

Reading academies update: authorized providers named

HB 3 requires each classroom teacher and principal for grades K-3 to attend literacy achievement academies not later than the 2021-22 school year. (However, TEA recently indicated that the deadline may be pushed back to 2022-23.) New teachers subsequently must attend an academy prior to their first year of assignment in those grades. 

TEA has completed one of the first steps required to implement the reading academies — the selection of approved providers. All 20 Educational Service Centers in Texas have been named as authorized providers, as have 18 other entities: Houston ISD, The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at UT Austin, La Vega ISD, El Paso ISD, Literacy San Antonio, Dallas ISD, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, Fort Bend ISD, North East ISD, Clear Creek ISD, Uplift Education, Pre-K 4 San Antonio, Corpus Christi ISD, Fort Worth ISD, Conroe ISD, Katy ISD, Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD and Humble ISD. TEA hosted training for all authorized providers on March 2-4 in Austin.

Although TEA anticipated that the first cohort of teachers and principals could participate this summer, officials recently expressed doubt that the content for the academies would be ready. TEA now estimates that registration for reading academies will open in June.
School districts receive several new funding sources in HB 3 that can be used to support reading instruction, including paying for teacher attendance at reading academies. TEA strongly encourages school districts to structure the reading academies within designated campuswide professional development and/or professional learning community days to ensure staff members have an opportunity to complete the required content and to keep costs down. 

TCTA will continue to provide updates on HB 3 initiatives through our website and the biweekly eUpdate newsletter. Not getting eUpdate? Sign up at tcta.org/eupdate.