PANDEMIC PROBLEMS STILL LINGER IN PUBLIC EDUCATION
(AUSTIN) — Though all Texas public schools have returned to in-person instruction following two years of pandemic-induced hybrid learning, the state education commissioner warned lawmakers on Wednesday that students and teachers have a long road to get back to where they were before COVID-19 hit the state. Commissioner Mike Morath told members of the Senate Education Committee that the pandemic undid as much as twenty years of academic gains in some subjects. In math, for example, the number of eighth grade students performing on grade level in 2019 was 62 percent, according to state standardized testing. In 2021, that number had fallen to 43 percent. "Those math declines are equivalent to all improvement in public education that occurred over a course of about a ten to twenty year period," said Morath. "So every policy that has been made by the Legislature, every iterative dollar that's been invested by the Legislature to improve how we educate kids was all wiped out in a year and a half." Morath also put it in economic terms: with how closely math proficiency is linked to lifetime learning, the pandemic may have wiped out trillions of dollars worth of future income for the kids it affected. The numbers have improved recently, with end-of-course exams from last spring showing a rebound in math to 48 percent on-level performance, but still well below pre-pandemic levels.
Senator Brandon Creighton of Conroe held his first public hearing as chair of the Senate Committee on Education Wednesday.
To combat this learning loss, the Legislature passed HB 4545 last session, which ended the end-of-course exam requirement for grade promotion and instead mandated personalized, intensive tutoring programs for students that failed to meet standards. It may have been too strong a medicine, however, as it left districts scrambling to find the resources and personnel to meet the demands of the new program. "[HB] 4545 is no walk in the park," said Morath. "It is a significant operational shift for districts to implement." Part of the problem, he said, was the speed at which it was pushed into schools. "Had there not been COVID, a phase-in approach would've certainly helped with implementation, but we were trying to help as many kids as possible."
In preparing for the upcoming session, newly appointed Education Committee Chair and Conroe Senator Brandon Creighton toured school districts around the state to hear their concerns. He says implementation of HB 4545 was a top five concern for almost every superintendent.
The committee also heard from two classroom teachers to get their perspective on education in Texas. Schools are having challenges finding skilled and qualified classroom teachers, and at keeping those they do find. Georgetown ISD fourth grade teacher Teena Malina said that problem goes beyond compensation. "They leave because they are burning the candle at both ends keeping schools going during the pandemic and their mental health has suffered" she told members. "Teachers struggle to find any work balance with the enormous weight of our professional duties." Malina cited a recent survey of Texas teachers that found 77 percent have considered leaving the profession. She said that in order to find and keep good teachers in Texas public schools, teachers need access to mental health resources, better pay, and the state needs to continue to increase funding for public education.
Despite the challenges facing the state, Creighton was optimistic as he took the gavel for the first time as chair of the Education Committee. He encouraged members to approach issues this session with an open mind and a spirit of cooperation. "At the end of the day we all have the same goals: ensuring Texas schools are where teachers want to teach, where they feel valued, where they're safe, where parents want to send their children and our students are prepared for a 21st century economy." Creighton says he plans to build on recent landmark legislation, such as 2019's House Bill 3, which added $4.5 billion to state public education funding. "Now in the 88th session, we have the opportunity to support our parents and our teachers in an equally historic way," said Creighton.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, March 7 at 11 a.m.