Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott delivered a surprising speech to the thousands in attendance at TASA’s 2012 Midwinter Conference Tuesday afternoon, invoking a pull-no-punches tone and sharing his frank opinions on the state’s accountability program, his frustration with bureaucratic meddling – both the feds’ and the state’s - and even the names of a few folks who make him mad enough to want to stay in an incredibly difficult job that makes him lose sleep and miss meals.
Usually, Scott delivers a Power Point presentation full of AP participation rates, NAEP scores and graduation results to the crowd of district administrators. He started off by telling them he was dispensing with that today and instead told them about the book he’s reading: Carrots, Sticks, and the Bully Pulpit, a book critical of the role of federal involvement in K-12 education.
He said his frustration isn’t limited to the federal government, but also with himself for being complicit in the state’s overreaching influence in local school districts.
“I believe that testing is good for some things, but the system we have created has become a perversion of its original intent,” Scot said to applause. “The intent to improve teaching and learning has gone too far afield.”
He discussed the cuts made by the Legislature last year and said while he was glad that things didn’t end as badly as first projected – at one point lawmakers were considering a $10 billion cut to public education – he realizes that the cuts that were made were personal.
“They were personal to me as well,” Scott said. He had to lay off roughly a third of his staff at TEA because of cuts made to the agency. “For the fact that I was not able to get back every dollar, I apologize, but I did my best.”
Scott also said he’s completed a review of Education Service Centers – something districts have feared would be the target of massive cuts and potential closure – and he’s found them in a “remarkable” state. He said they remain vital and he’s very pleased to announce that none of them will be eliminated. He did say that boundary lines may be redrawn and he’ll be looking for input about ESCs and the services they provide from superintendents and other district leaders.
Scott addressed end-of-course exams and the 15 percent requirement that has stirred controversy of late. He said he’s met with his attorney to see if there’s any way he can waive the 15 percent requirement this year but he’s been advised he doesn’t have the authority.
“I would waive it if I could,” he said, to another round of applause.
Scott said he believes our system is on the cusp of change and the backlash to testing is reaching a boiling point. He talked about Senate Bill 1557, which will create the Texas High Performance Schools Consortium and give some districts the chance to design a new assessment system that is a more accurate portrayal of what’s going on in the classroom, and measures the skills important for a 21st Century education. The bill is the result of work by TASA’s Visioning Network, which this week launched Mission: School Transformation as the work moves from vision to mission.
The goal of the mission: Student-center schools, future-ready students. Hundreds of conference attendees are sporting bright buttons with that message.
Scott said if he’s looking a little under-rested and under-fed these days, it’s because he’s been in “fight mode” for four and a half years, so much so that the thought of resigning crosses his mind.
“And then Arne Duncan says he feels sorry for the children in the state of Texas…and then the Irish in me comes out,” Scott told the crowd. “And I say not just ‘No’ but ‘Hell, No, I’m gonna fight.’”
The commissioner also called out Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, who publicly criticized Scott last week saying that TEA has been “derelict” in not issuing uniform grading guidelines for the new accountability system. He also said school districts are “gaming the system” and that students will follow by “gaming the system.” Scott fired back with a news release that said that power rests with local school boards.
In the end, Scott said, he stays because he’s fighting for the children of Texas.
“We’ve got to keep climbing and we’ve got to keep fighting,” he said. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.