Straight Up Conversation: Texas Chief Robert Scott

Robert Scott has been the commissioner of education in Texas since 2007. Before that, he was interim commissioner from 2003 to 2004 and chief deputy commissioner from 2004 to 2007 until he was appointed commissioner. Of late, Texas has been in the news for any number of high-profile decisions, including passing on Race to the Top, not signing onto the Common Core state standards, and opting out of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Especially with Texas Governor Rick Perry now drawing attention as the newly installed favorite in the Republican presidential field, including some harsh words from the Secretary of Education, I thought it’d be a good time to chat with Scott about his take on things. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick Hess: As you know, Secretary Duncan recently criticized Texas’s schools, saying that they have “really struggled” under Governor Perry and that “far too few of their high school graduates are actually prepared to go on to college.” He said, “You have seen massive increases in class size” and that “I feel very, very badly for the children there.” Did Duncan get it right? What was your reaction to his comments?
Robert Scott: I corrected him because he made several glaring errors. He talked about our graduation rates being among the worst in the nation. I pointed out that if you look at the [National Governors Association] rate, which is the rate all fifty governors agreed to, out of only twenty-six states that had reported as of 2009, we were ranked seventh. And we have an 84.3 percent on-time graduation rate, which is far better than many other states. And I think this year, when you see other states finally having to report that, you’ll notice a significant increase in Texas’ position nationally. I also pointed out the NAEP scores bear out that our African American students tied Massachusetts for number one on the math NAEP, [and in eighth grade science] our Hispanic students were eighth [and] our Anglo students…were second only behind the Department of Defense schools. And so, I simply pointed out that his generalizations were wrong.

RH: Any idea what prompted Duncan’s remarks?
RS: I can’t speak to motivations. He might have just called an audible himself and decided he was just going to go off and criticize Texas. The unfortunate part about it was the timing. It was three days before we went back to school. I was trying to focus on back to school as a very positive time for kids and parents, and I think when you send that kind of message out right around back to school it’s counterproductive.

RH: Governor Perry’s decision to join the Presidential contest has turned the spotlight on Texas schools. What are one or two things you are most enthusiastic about having the nation see?
RS: I think continually raising standards…and continuing to do that with end-of-course implementation. That will present its challenges, but I think it’s the right thing to do. We’re implementing a brand new assessment and accountability system so that we are actually starting to evolve beyond what is just happening on a standardized test. Our new accountability system will reward school districts and acknowledge them for high-quality career and tech programs, high-quality fine arts programs. Those are the things I’m most excited about. Moving beyond just the core standardized test areas and talking about what else is going on in the school.

RH: So how does that look in practice? How do you do it?
RS: We’re putting together teams of educators in each of the areas that we’re going to have a distinction award in. They will come up with the standards that schools are measured by to show what is a high-quality career and tech program, what is a high quality fine arts program. We have our state academic competition for the university interscholastically. That may be a component. Making regionals or semi-finals, that might be a standard that we look to for recognition.

One other thing that we just implemented is called Project Share. It’s a statewide portal where educators and students can go online to access professional development and information. We’ve got ties to NASA, the Smithsonian, the National Archives, PBS. We’ve got about 355,000 teachers and 100,000 students with accounts now, and by the end of the year we’ll have one million students with accounts. And they’ll be able to create e-portfolios of their work. So if they are a career tech student or a fine arts student they will be able to document their successes and their work throughout the school year and throughout their academic career. So it will be about what happens [in schools] on every other day besides the test day.

RH: And is the plan that those materials can then be shared with their next grade-level teacher, or for college admissions?
RS: There’s that. And let’s say students get together and design a model of a bridge. The teacher can invite an architect to come in and critique the design. So they can get feedback and encouragement from both educators and professionals.

RH: What have been the biggest challenges for Texas schools?
RS: As with many other states, our changing demographics present a challenge. I also think we present ourselves with challenges by continuing to raise the bar. And the end-of-course exams will be a bit of a shock. They will be very rigorous, so that’s a challenge we’ve created for ourselves. And the big point will be where we set the cut score initially and how fast do we raise that over time.

RH: Some Texas teachers and parents have suggested that budget cuts have had a devastating effect. What do you make of these concerns?
RS: Well, I think the initial budget cut that was proposed was far different from what actually happened at the end of the legislative session. The supposed cut right now is actually a cut to an increase. It’s an age-old question of government, is a cut to a proposed increase actually a cut? What the legislature actually did was provide enough additional revenue to fill the hole left by the absent stimulus fund. So they actually put more for general revenue in and were able to level [school] funding. I testified before the finance and appropriations committee that the initial cut was too much, and asked them to restore six billion dollars. I said that was about what you’d need to implement the new assessment and accountability system, and they ended up funding it at that level. So I think you’re seeing more districts recognizing the cuts were not as severe as they [were expected to be], and across the state I have seen evidence of districts hiring back teachers.

RH: So, how big a cut was this?
RS: For an average district, it is anywhere from three to six percent per year [from what they had anticipated]. So it’s not a monumental cut to the proposed increase, but it’s still a belt tightening exercise for any district in the state of Texas. This is what I know about working in government. Government tends to grow upon itself. And every now and then it is very healthy to prune, just like you would to a tree or bush that’s growing out of control. It is a healthy exercise to occasionally trim back.

RH: Texas’ stance on Common Core has drawn a lot of attention. Can you say a bit about why you have chosen not to sign on?
RS: Initially they asked us to sign on the standards that hadn’t been written yet. Having been involved in standards development for over two decades this seemed crazy to me–signing onto something you can’t see. And then you look at our law. Our law requires that when we develop standards we include teachers, parents, the business community, and citizens across the state. I could not have fulfilled the requirements of my state law by adopting the Common Core because the people of Texas didn’t get a seat at that table. Parents and teachers and business leaders weren’t at that table to help draft those standards…I think they have a fine goal…But I also see the downside in that they are going to lock themselves in to a very monolithic system that is going to be very difficult to change and be very costly to change over time.

In essence they are going to be Microsoft. If so, I want to be Apple. I want to be adaptive, innovative. I told [Common Core supporters] to consider us the control group. I have no malice towards any of them; some of my dear friends are working on this project. I just said we were going to sit it out, and then the [Department of Education] came out and said…we have to do this for Race to the Top, and if you want a waiver for No Child Left Behind you have to do this in some way. So I was skeptical of it and remain skeptical.

RH: It raised eyebrows when you opted out of both rounds of Race to the Top. Can you say a little about what your thinking was? And whether it was a decision made by you, by the Governor, or whomever.
RS: It was a decision made by Governor Perry with my full support. And I made the recommendation after reading the application and seeing the things that Texas does really well receiving very little points. And the things we were going to opt not to do, receiving a number of points, including Common Core. It didn’t make sense for us to put that much effort into an application that we would not be favorably viewed upon. And in the end it worked itself out because the only state west of the Mississippi that won Race to the Top was Hawaii.

RH: You’ve expressed some concerns about the Obama administration’s School Improvement Grants strategy. Can you elaborate?
RS: Well, the four turnaround models are basically the same four models we have been using in Texas for years. In some cases they’ll work and in some cases they won’t. The key is flexibility. In one case in Houston we had a campus that went from five years low performing to the second highest rating you can get in our system within one year. That certainly worked. The key to that, I think, was the change in the atmosphere and climate on the campus. But also having someone in the central office who can cut through the bureaucracy… And we’ve learned that [it doesn’t necessarily work] when you try to lock in a model and say, “This is the model and to implement this model you have to fire the principal no matter what.” We look at that and say, “What if the principal just got there last year? Or we’re seeing pretty significant growth?”

RH: Broadly speaking, why does it seem that you’ve been so resistant to federal initiatives like RTT and SIG?
RS: Having worked in DC I understand firsthand what it feels like. You have access to enormous amounts of information, and I think over time people tend to mistake access to massive amounts of information for wisdom. And they tend to get that “inside the beltway” mentality. And I think my resistance has been that innovation begins at the local and state level. And I don’t think you can innovate from Austin, Texas, in a school district any more than you can in Washington, DC. I think you have to have local buy from your teachers and parents in order to really affect long lasting education reform.

RH: It sounds like you don’t have a particular problem with the Obama administration’s approach so much as efforts to drive reform from Washington more generally.
RS: That’s right. I even told [Duncan] this, the first time I met him, which was right after he took office and he laid out his four education reform priorities. And I walked up to him and said, “You are right on target, these are exactly the things I want to be working on.” My difference with the administration is how we get there. I think their target was right on for education reform; I just disagree on how we get there.

RH: Last question. During your time as commissioner, are there any big lessons that stand out?
RS: The big thing that stands out for me is that there is no such thing as a magic bullet in education. Anyone that tells you this one thing will change the course of your education system is either delusional or is lying to you. The other idea is that true reform is something that takes place over time and it has to be built upon and it isn’t something that happens overnight. Standards based reform is something that is a destination and it takes a long time to get there. But you have to be patient when you do it. You can’t just say we’re going to pass a ninety percent passing standard in year one and then scrap everything in year two when you don’t get there. You try to build over time. You try to meet the kids where they are today and then raise standards over time and push the system along as you go.

-Frederick Hess

(This post also appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

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