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Teacher performance, failing schools under Texas Senate microscope

March 20, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas -- State senators listened studiously Thursday to testimony on a raft of education-related bills.

Earlier this month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R-Texas) announced a plan that would make sweeping changes to teacher evaluation, pay, school accountability and student assessment.

"Public education is a big priority in this state. We've got 5.2, 5.3 million kids in school," State Sen. Kel Seliger (R-Amarillo) told KVUE. Seliger's Senate Bill 892 aims to improve educator preparation programs and raise standards.

"The parent of every one of those kids wants them to grow and learn, and for that we absolutely depend on teachers," said Seliger.

The bill would raise the minimum average cohort GPA for teacher candidates from 2.5 to 3.0, increase required classroom training from 15 hours to 30 and limit the number of attempts to pass a teaching certification test. The bill was one of seven scheduled for testimony in a hearing of the Senate education Committee.

Opponents warned there's already a teacher shortage and that increasing requirements would shrink the pool of potential teachers, forcing districts to rely on less qualified substitute teachers.

Kate Kuhlmann with the Association of Texas Professional Educators testified in favor of the bill.

"We think that raising the standards for educator preparation programs will produce better teachers in Texas that will be better prepared for the rigors of the classroom and hopefully stay in the classroom longer," said Kuhlmann.

Senate Bill 893 by Seliger would allow districts to tie teachers' salaries to performance and increase the number and frequency of teacher performance appraisals. Ed Martin with the Texas State Teachers Association worries that means test scores.

"I'm confident that the majority of Texans agree we shouldn't be paying people based on test scores, because there's so many other factors," said Martin. "Why would a person go some place where the test scores aren't going to be as good? What we need to do is cut testing and start investing in our children."

Seliger explained that while testing is one factor, "A big, big part of it is classroom observation. How better can you tell if a teacher's teaching well than by watching how they interact with students?"

"Keep in mind if a teacher is hired by a school district, that school district wants that teacher to stay and to grow and do a good job and an even better job," said Seliger. "And so we're not trying to be too prescriptive because that teacher is an employee of the school district, not the State of Texas."

The most contentious issue was a "parent empowerment" or "parent trigger" bill by committee chair Larry Taylor (R-Friendswood). Senate Bill 14 would allow parents to intervene in a school that has failed for two or more consecutive years as opposed to five years under the current law. Taylor said Thursday options could include reconstitution of campus staff, repurposing the campus model, identifying alternative management, or closing the campus and transferring students.

"This law has turned out to be the opposite of a one-size fits all approach to turn around failing schools," said Gabe Rose of Parent Revolution, which successfully advocated similar legislation in California.

Yet if the state funnels students of failed schools into a charter organization, Martin warns parents could ultimately wind up abdicating their control once the trigger is pulled. Martin says models like Community Schools used in Austin have already been proven to increase parent and community involvement while improving troubled campuses.

"There's genuine parental involvement, and there's times when parents just get used," said Martin.

The bills are expected to clear the Senate committee, after which they will head to the floor for a vote. What's unclear is how much traction they will have in the Texas House of Representatives.