Michael Williams, Texas Education Agency commissioner of education, was appointed to the TEA’s top position by former Gov. Rick Perry in 2012.
Williams earned his law degree from the University of Southern California and went on to become a federal prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice.
He has served as deputy secretary for law enforcement at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and later served as the assistant secretary of education for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education.
In 1998 former President George H.W. Bush appointed Williams to an unexpired term on the Railroad Commission of Texas, and he was re-elected by Texas voters in 2000, 2002 and 2008.
What is the role of the TEA?
The TEA [represents]about 5.2 million students, 8,600 campuses and 1,200 school districts. The unique thing about us, and it’s becoming more evident every day, is that 65 percent of our students are brown and black, and 60 percent are economically disadvantaged, so there are some challenges. We are the regulatory arm for all the statutory requirements that school districts have. In addition, every dollar of state money comes through us. We spend about $50 billion per [year]from state, local and federal funds. We mete out in the vicinity of $20 billion per [year]from state dollars and another $4 billion from federal dollars. The locals spend about $26 billion. We are also the enforcement agency, so if there are violations on the state level then we are the arm that regulates that as well. We also manage the teacher certification program.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the TEA?
Dealing with the changing demographics in the state. As near as 2020, economists could suggest that 60 percent of the jobs created are going to require some level of post-secondary education. But if you look at where we are today, and particularly you look at that brown and black demographic of folks, we are in the 20th [percentile of residents with post-secondary education]. In order to close that gap we are going to have to do a much better job in terms of teacher education programs and continued professional development and training as well as focusing on areas of reading, math, social studies and English language arts. We’ve made great progress in the past 15 years. [Texas has] some of the highest graduation rates in the country when you look at our subpopulations, but the gap is still uncomfortably large.
What are some initiatives to close educational gaps?
We are working on revising and changing the teacher evaluation program. Today, in many places, the way a teacher gets evaluated is that the principal walks around in his or her room. [The teacher] is dressed nicely and she gets a number—89, 90—but she has no clue what that means. No clue how to be a better teacher. We are redesigning the evaluation tool to provide real feedback about how you [can]be a better teacher—how deep down did you get into the rigor of today’s lesson, and how did you assure yourself that the student in the back actually got it? All of those things are part of this new matrix on how we evaluate teachers. We are in the second year of a pilot program.
How would you sum up the discussion of school funding reform?
There are three basic issues. The first is adequacy—is the state putting enough money into the pot for public education? The second one is equity—are we sharing it among districts fairly [and]equitably? Are fast-growing districts getting enough? Are poor districts getting enough? How do you build a system with that much diversity that is fair? The last issue is the Legislature’s decision on where a district can put its property taxes. There is an argument that so many districts are at or near the cap that what we have is tantamount to a statewide property tax that is unconstitutional in Texas.
How do you think standardized testing has affected the curriculum and education standards across Texas?
I think standardized testing for us has been good. Keep in mind what we’ve done as a state, going back to the [President George W. Bush] days. We said we were going to educate every kid in every classroom in every district across the state with the same body of knowledge, so that kid had a college and career readiness standard. It was at that moment that we started seeing ACT scores and SAT scores rise. There was accountability. We knew that teachers were going to teach that subject material because they knew there was going to be a test at the end. But the test wasn’t driving the curriculum. I think the point of your question was, “Is the test driving instruction?” And the answer is, great teachers don’t teach a test; great teachers teach a curriculum.
What are your thoughts on technology in the classroom?
You can’t teach these kids the way we were taught. Many of our instructors are afraid of the technology, so we need to give them support on how to use it, why it is useful and the various ways you can use it, and [get]better support from folks who have used it in the past with success.
The 84th Texas Legislature earlier this year passed many bills relating to education. Michael Williams, commissioner of education for the TEA, mentioned some bills specifically.
House Bill 4
HB 4 establishes additional state support for prekindergarten programs including authorization for a grant program and expansion of early childhood education reporting requirements for all Texas public schools. Grants are expected to be made available in the 2016-17 school year.
HB 4 also adds new prekindergarten reporting requirements for all public school districts and open-enrollment charter schools, but Williams said parents should not worry because “there are other ways of measuring competency other than tests.”
House Bill 2398
HB 2398 takes away the criminal offense for failing to attend school and establishes a civil enforcement procedure in its place. “We know that every minute [a student is] not in the standard classroom, that is an opportunity to provide learning experience you are losing,” Williams said. He said the TEA is also working to provide incentives for school districts to provide healthy learning communities as a way to decrease truancy rates, and training for regions is ongoing.