Guest Column: Todd Williams on Why STAAR Scores Are Stagnant, and What Must Be Done to Improve

We know what must be done to fix education; do we have the will to do so?


Todd Williams is one of the leading education advocates in Dallas. He runs a nonprofit, Commit, that works with Dallas County schools to find data-driven solutions to tough education problems. He is the mayor’s advisor on education policy. And he is one of the smartest people in Texas on education matters in general. He’s asked that Learning Curve publish the guest column below, which takes an in-depth look at the core issues behind stagnant test scores in Dallas County and Texas — and which makes recommendations for improving these scores.

Todd’s column is below:

There’s been much recent discussion on why 2015 STAAR scores were once again stagnant, both at the state and local level within Dallas ISD, continuing a trend over the past four years. The questions raised were consistent. “Is it the assessment? Do we have the wrong standards? Why aren’t we making progress?”

My immediate reaction was to simply ask, “What have we really done to expect anything other than what we’re seeing?”

In some ways, my analogy is the individual who desperately wants to lose weight. Despite knowing that the key fundamental drivers are exercise and diet, they instead want to question the integrity and appropriateness of the scale.

Having served on both a public school board and a college board for a combined 25 years. I’ve also been fortunate to help lead the Commit Partnership, a coalition of over 160 institutions (school districts, higher ed institutions, foundations, non-profits, etc.) with tremendous collective wisdom contained within its partners. Based on both their insightful input and analysis of data, I’ve come to believe there are three fundamental drivers critical in ensuring student achievement that we’ve yet to execute well … and it’s our inability to implement those strategies with fidelity to date that places us where we are today.

Other factors (poverty, parental engagement, etc.) are certainly important, but nothing within our own control exceeds the importance of these three basic strategies:

  • ensuring that EVERY child has a strong early childhood education, ready for school when they enter Kindergarten;
  • ensuring that EVERY classroom has a well-prepared and well supported teacher; and
  • ensuring that EVERY campus has a leader that’s supportive of their teaching staff and relentlessly fosters a high-expectation culture for ALL students, regardless of their demographics.

While there are many laudable efforts (tutoring, mentoring, after-school programming, etc.) to address our current shortfalls, many of these initiatives represent our community’s best attempts to remediate/overcome our failure to execute these three core strategies well.

In other words, too many of our collective efforts deal with remediating symptoms, rather than addressing root causes.

To visually help understand where our region (as a microcosm for the state) stands today and why so many feel so strongly that this problem is solvable with collective will, allow me to show a chart for the ~525,000 public school children in Dallas County (educated within 14 different school districts and 35 charter networks)…roughly 10 percent of all students in Texas.



First, let’s talk about school readiness.

  • Currently only three quarters of our low income children attend either public PreK or nationally accredited private PreK as a 4-year-old, evidencing a notable “access” gap of over 7,000 students. This number grows to a staggering 39,000 students annually when we include eligible 3-year-olds who also do not access. As a result, we leave over $145 million annually of state PreK funding on the table as a region due to a combination of lack of seats, lack of teachers, and the lack of a full-day option for working parents (the state only currently funds half-day, though some area districts take other funds to supplement in order to offer full day).
  • One year later, only 55 percent of all area 5-year-old students are judged “kindergarten ready” via an assessment given within the first two months of school, evidencing a notable “PreK quality” gap due in part to both the need for a full day programming as well as too many educators placed in PreK who’ve yet to be sufficiently trained in early childhood best practices.
  • Four years later, only 36 percent of our students can correctly answer ~70 percent of the questions correctly on their third grade literacy assessment — a level of proficiency that’s not exceeded in subsequent grades and subjects tested.

It’s here, in these critical years, where a child’s foundation is set. Because a child “learns to read” through 3rd grade in order to be able to “read to learn” going forward, their lack of early reading/math proficiency substantially hinders achievement in subsequent grades/subjects from exceeding the “ceilings” of Kindergarten readiness and early literacy. Collectively our children’s achievement per STAAR at the state’s “college ready standard” (per the chart above) remains in the high 30 percent range until high school graduation — yet we somehow manage to graduate 83 percent of our students.

But in Texas, high school graduation does not equal readiness for the next level. Only 14 percent of our area graduates (16 percent at the state level) manage to achieve a college ready SAT or ACT score per TEA…and it’s this lack of readiness (and resulting required college remedial classes), combined with insufficient college counseling and test prep resources and inadequate financial aid, that ultimately results in only 30 percent of our high school graduates ultimately achieving some type of post secondary education six years following graduation.

We need that number to be 65 percent in a 2020 economy. Today our pipeline is tragically only 30 percent. While we can attempt to continue to import talent (DFW now ranks 2nd in the nation in HB1 visas), we can’t “export” the thousands of students whose potential we fail to maximize every year, students whose demographics are primarily poor and Hispanic/African American. There’s a reason that Dallas now ranks third in the country in child poverty behind only Detroit and Memphis — two cities that area leaders can’t believe that Dallas is close behind.

The chart above highlights the fundamental source of our struggles – what happens during ages 0 to 8. Personally, none of us would ever build a house where less than 40 percent of the foundation (in this case early grade literacy and math) passed inspection and immediately commence construction of the second floor.  We would instead stop and work diligently to first fix the foundation.

Our failure to do so results in immeasurable costs, including:

  • Teacher burnout – as children enter at varying levels of proficiency, differentiated instruction becomes increasingly required as passionate teachers seek to keep students on grade level engaged while bringing students up who are behind.  That’s tremendously taxing if you’re well trained. It’s next to impossible if you received your certification through alternative certification programs more focused on volume than high-quality preparation and support (more on that later).
  • Higher retention costs – every year the state requires 100,000-plus of its 5.1 million students to repeat a grade, costing the state almost $1 billion annually in additional operating costs, primarily because of our failure to sufficiently create the necessary early foundation. This is wasted money that could be much better spent if deployed earlier for full day funding and teacher training. As the old commercial goes, “You can pay me now or pay me later.”
  • Higher dropout rates – every year roughly 45,000 students leave school across Texas in Grades 7 through 12, the large majority of them consigned to a career without the benefit of even a high school diploma. Their unemployment rates are four times the national average, and the lifetime earnings gap between a K-12 dropout and a college graduate can exceed $1 million per student. With roughly 45,000 dropouts annually, you get to ~$50 billion of lost lifetime earnings annually with each dropout cohort pretty quickly.

Think about the magnitude of that number. So tell me again why we’ve struggled to see the wisdom of investing another $3,000/student for full day quality PreK funding given what’s at stake?

But let’s be clear. Educators know what we need to do but are dealing with the hand that we as a community have continually dealt to them.

  • In 2011, we cut funding for education by over $5 billion, including eliminating statewide grants for PreK and reading academies for our insufficiently-trained novice teachers. Enrollment statewide continued to grow significantly, but in 2013 we only added back 60 percent of the funding we had previously cut. We now rank nationally in the bottom third in student spending, despite having one of the nation’s most challenging populations in terms of poverty and English language learners. Throwing money blindly at a problem never solves it; but investing in proven strategies focused on quality and best practices with accountability for results will do the trick every time.
  • In 2015, the Dallas County community actively sought to create an Early Childhood Institute within its community college system that would issue B.A.’s in early childhood educator preparation, substantially broadening our pipeline of well-trained EC teachers to attack our PreK quality gap. Despite its 144-0 passage in the House, it died in the Senate’s Higher Ed committee due to legislative concerns over “mission creep” by community college campuses into the four-year higher ed space.

Teacher production by institutions of higher ed continues to fall, both statewide and regionally, now equaling less than 50 percent of new teachers hired by Texas public schools and producing an annual 16,000 “new teacher gap” statewide that must be met primarily by alternative certification programs — 87 percent of which are rated “F” by the National Council on Teacher Quality due to the lack of required clinical experience or ongoing coaching/mentoring.






It doesn’t mean you can’t be a great teacher if alternatively certified. It just means more than likely you will have to learn the practice yourself due to the lack of support from entities that advertise on billboards (e.g. “Want to Teach? When Can You Start?) and who consistently push back against any and all efforts to raise their standards and the quality of their training. (If you struggle with Teach for America as a pipeline, then you must be absolutely livid with other state alt cert programs that spend one-tenth as much as TFA and produce 95 percent of all statewide teachers alternatively trained.)

So imagine you’re a superintendent of a low-income district (in Dallas County we have 12 of them). You know PreK is critical, but the state won’t provide full day funding, hindering student access for working parents. Even if they did, you more than likely don’t have enough PreK seats due to infrequent bond elections, or the fact that your seats are located where your students aren’t. There’s no specific early childhood endorsement to elementary education certification, so too many of your teachers likely haven’t received appropriate EC training. The overall teacher training pipeline from higher ed declines every year, and yet alternative certification programs created to fill the gap successfully push back against any legislative solutions to raise their standards.

Early literacy rates are stagnant as a result of all of the above, hindering any hope of real further improvement. So tell me again why anybody is confused on our inability to improve STAAR scores? 

If we sincerely want Texas academic outcomes to look ANY different, we must do the following:

  • Reintroduce a bill similar to Eric Johnson’s House Bill 1100 in the 2017 session, offering full day funding to those districts which implement research based best practices in student-teacher ratios and teacher certification. Have funding reduced if schools ultimately don’t translate that incremental spending into higher literacy rates by third grade for students they educate in PreK.
  • Strongly encourage area school boards to relentlessly prioritize the creation of sufficient PreK seats in their bond elections, even if it means that athletic stadium expansions and renovations have to wait. Is there any question which priority is more important to our future?
  • Require the state to create a specific EC endorsement to make sure that every PreK and K teacher receives age and developmentally appropriate training. Educating four year olds requires a much different knowledge set than teaching fourth graders. As long as we require teachers to be certified across a broad spectrum of grades (i.e., EC thru 6th) without also asking for an EC endorsement in order to teach PreK, too often our statewide teacher shortages will result in a teacher unprepared to teach age-appropriate curriculum to our youngest learners — and it’s the child that suffers the lifelong consequences.
  • Provide substantial scholarships and/or forgivable loans at the state level to high school students placing in the top third of their high school graduating class who receive quality training and subsequently agree to teach in a public school for four years post their college graduation. We can’t continue to have more than half of our teachers enter the profession with non-existent clinical training only to burnout and leave by the end of year 5. We would never let a doctor operate on us without robust “real life” training. Why is it okay when it comes to whom we place in front of our most disadvantaged learners?
  • Concurrently encourage public four-year institutions, thru formula funding, to actively recruit and graduate more students certified to teach under a robust, competency based program with substantial clinical experience. No institution has a more vested stake in helping K-12 outcomes (via producing high quality teachers) than the colleges and universities who increasingly struggle today to recruit sufficient numbers of college ready students from area high schools.
  • Expand best-in-class leadership training for principals and superintendents. Both are tough jobs, but if you have one that’s good, they’re worth their weight in gold. We have ~1,200 school districts and almost 8,000 schools across Texas — almost 800 schools in Dallas County alone. Every one of those 5.1 million children statewide need a well-trained teacher supported by a well-trained leader. If we don’t have one, our good teachers leave for other fields.
  • Once we get student interest and demand up, raise the rigor of who can become a teacher, train them with incredible rigor, and then empower them to teach with freedom. Finland, which leads the world in academic achievement for 15-year olds, reduced their schools of education to only eight and made them as selective as Georgetown and MIT. They train for six years and then are given substantial freedom to teach.

In the U.S. today, we instead let almost anyone teach and then try and script and test and evaluate to determine the ineffective (while clearly frustrating the best). As with other professions such as law or medicine, ensuring that the rigor occurs upfront reinforces the field as a profession (not everyone is good enough to make the grade) while raising retention.

  • Grow teacher compensation more quickly based on effectiveness. You will likely never build the political will to raise taxes in order to substantially bump teacher pay unless taxpayers believe that these raises are based on merit vs. seniority. Per a recent McKinsey study on closing our teacher quality gap, starting pay only ranks 13th on the list of items that top third college graduates consider in determining their career. However, the pace at which it increases, and the opportunity to be paid more if they do well, both rank in the top 10.

We know what we need to do. We know what this state will look like if we don’t change our approach. We just need the will to do it.



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