With 5.4 million students to serve, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is thinking innovatively to make certain all students and families have the opportunity to succeed. When COVID-19 disrupted the traditional model, Commissioner Mike Morath and his team quickly created policies to help ensure students would not fall through the cracks.
Last week, ExcelinEd hosted Commissioner Morath and Jennifer Esterline, founder and director of Educate Texas’ Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium, for a deep dive into about the state’s COVID-19 strategy and approach.
Texas schools are facing two challenges that Commissioner Morath focused on:
- How to make operational adjustments so schools are safe for students and staff.
- How to re-engineer the school experience so students reach high academic outcomes, with the same or better proficiency in 2021 as they did pre-COVID.
“We cannot allow this public health crisis to become a generational education crisis.” – Commissioner Morath
Baseline Conditions in Texas Prior to COVID-19
Texas had several assets and baseline conditions the state was able to build upon when school closures began.
The TEA’s strategic priorities focus on continuous improvement and refinement, which remained in place during school closures. “If we are not constantly learning and adapting then we are not serving our students well,” Commissioner Morath said.
During the 2019 legislative session, Texas lawmakers passed a historic education funding bill, which established a 7 percent per-student funding increase, on average. It also:
- Provides funding for full-day pre-K for all eligible four–year–olds;
- Allows elementary schools the flexibility to add additional instructional days (up to 210 days);
- Provides additional funding for schools serving communities with higher poverty rates; and
- Creates reading academies, a year-round professional development training system based on the science of reading, for all K-3 teachers.
Student-Centered Response to COVID-19
“This will require every ounce of creativity, energy and adjustment we have been able to marshal in the history of public education,” Commissioner Morath said.
Since Texas schools closed in March, the TEA has continued implementing new programs and providing resources focused on four key goals: designing new school models; innovating special education instruction; bridging the digital divide; and assessing anticipated learning loss.
Designing New School Models
In the spring, the TEA created Texas Home Learning, a set of knowledge–rich, high–quality, free instructional resources to supplement learning during the immediate crisis as well as over the summer and throughout the 2020-21 school year. The TEA also mailed books directly to students’ homes this summer.
With fall approaching, the TEA released Texas Home Learning 3.0, an updated resource that builds upon the existing Texas Home Learning materials. It includes a digital curriculum for full virtual, hybrid or in-class learning environments that districts may use, in full or in part, to customize and meet their needs.
Further, Commissioner Morath is encouraging districts to rethink their school calendar’s flexibility to include longer breaks throughout the year, providing flexibility and adding opportunities to make up for lost instruction.
Thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Rethink Education Grant, English Language Learners will learn alongside native English–speaking students in language immersion classrooms so they all can learn English and Spanish simultaneously.
Commissioner Morath imagines there will be more flexibility and learning models supported in statutes based on the success of these innovations.
“Too much education innovation has happened for us to go back. Finance funding for hybrid learning models in the future is a good thing,” Commissioner Morath said.
Innovating Special Education
The TEA partnered with AmplioSpeech, a leading provider of speech pathology technology, to equip school districts with digital speech and language therapy programs, ensuring that more than 270,000 students needing such services are receiving them via at-home learning.
They are also working on a platform to offer a similar service for remote dyslexia instruction as a part of Texas Home Learning 3.0, which will be available in the 2020-21 school year and beyond.
Bridging the Digital Divide
Texas has the most rural students in America – between 800,000 and 1 million – which makes closing the digital divide challenging. The TEA surveyed districts on their technology needs to understand how many devices and hot spots they need to close the digital divide in their district. Commissioner Morath said that while expanding fiber networks through rural Texas is the ideal long-term solution, providing “Wi-Fi hot spots” is the necessary immediate solution.
Following the survey, TEA convened a task force comprised of industry, technology, educators and policy experts to secure funding for bulk orders of laptops and hot spots. The state provided matching funding for low-income students.
To date, Texas has invested $200 million to provide 1 million laptops and 500,000 hot spots to students.
Assessing Anticipated Learning Loss
Under Commissioner Morath’s leadership, Texas added optional end-of-year and beginning-of-year assessments, along with extending the testing window for the 2020-21 school year to support calendar changes and is offering free real-time formative assessments as part of the Texas Home Learning 3.0 platform.
The real-time diagnostic and benchmarking assessments give parents and educators information on the COVID-19 slide to help school leaders deploy interventions and make the necessary adjustments to improve student outcomes.
“Lowering our expectations for our students is not going to do them any favors, because life does not lower expectations for us,” Commissioner Morath said.