Texas Commissioner Morath Cracks Down on Failing Schools

(Photo: David Woo, Dallas Morning News)

(Photo: David Woo, Dallas Morning News)

The Texas education commissioner is planning to cut the number of failing schools in the state in half within five years.

Commissioner Mike Morath told the Senate Education Committee at a hearing this week that the most productive way to deal with struggling schools is to go straight to the harshest sanctions.

"If the medicine tastes particularly bad, you're less likely to take it," Morath said.

He continued by explaining that the leadership in the district is responsible for the success of its schools.

A new law will give Morath authority to appoint a board of managers for an entire district even if only one school is not reaching state accountability standards for five years or more. Morath said the state would be seeing more and stronger interventions.

Both Dallas and Ft. Worth have one school that has been rated "improvement required" for the fifth consecutive year. Four schools in Dallas have failed for four years in a row and Ft. Worth has one, reports Eva-Marie Ayala for The Dallas Morning News.

Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa admitted that his district has had its share of troubles, but he also bragged about the new Accelerated Campus Excellence (ACE) program. Six out of seven of the ACE schools have been removed from the "improvement required" list this year. One campus fell just short of being eliminated from the list.

The ACE program works at improving failing schools by replacing leadership and teachers with the best educators, who also receive bonuses to work at these schools.

"What did we learn from this?" Hinojosa said. "Strong leadership, effective teachers and high expectations make a huge difference, but it takes courage to pull it off, and there's going to be a lot of heat when you do something like this."

On Monday, the Texas Education Agency's annual accountability report rated 66 districts and 467 campuses at a status of "improvement required." Fifty-five school districts and charters were in the failing category last year.

Morath added that the education agency is researching schools that have made improvements to discover if there are any commonalities in the variety of approaches. This monitoring will become easier when the new accountability system takes effect next year.

At that time, districts and schools will receive A- through F letter grades based on academic performances, according to Kiah Collier of The Texas Tribune. Currently, the ratings for schools and districts are effectively pass-fail. They are "improvement required" or "met standard."

Lawmakers cautioned Morath not to succumb to a one-size-fits-all approach. They also wanted to contribute additional solutions for the existing problem.

During the hearing, Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) and Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) were horrified that Houston's Kashmere High School had remained on the failing list for seven years.

"We've got to do something. We can't sit around waiting," said Garcia, although she later said she worried about the side effects of any "medicine" the state prescribes. "Sometimes the side effects are worse than the pain," she said.

When the state's high-stakes standardized exams were given in March, setbacks during testing included online testing glitches, misreporting of scores, and answer documents that tore easily and might have made reading the filled in answers difficult or impossible to read.

Because of the problems with the testing, the Houston region's superintendents asked Morath not to publish school accountability grades this year. It was apparent that Morath was confident enough that the issues had been resolved to release the ratings, reports The Houston Chronicle's Ericka Mellon.

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