A Complicated Profession
Interview by Jennifer Canaday and Elaine Acker
Mike Morath’s path to becoming Texas’s newest education commissioner was anything but predictable. After receiving a business degree from George Washington University and running his own software company, Morath was elected to the Dallas ISD school board, where he served for more than four years before Governor Abbott appointed him education commissioner. In January 2016, Morath took the reins of the Texas Education Agency, where he oversees the education of the more than five million public school students across the state. ATPE talked to him about his vision for Texas public schools.
ATPE: What motivated you to make the leap from successful tech entrepreneur to Dallas school board member to your current position?
Morath: I found my calling. I’ve always been passionate about kids. My software company was focused on streamlining a child nutrition program, so I spent a lot of time in the early education world, but I’ve been a Big Brother now for about 10 years. My first Little was a Dallas ISD student who bounced around to a bunch of schools in Dallas. It was both objectively fascinating and emotionally heart-wrenching to look at the juxtaposition of my life versus his. I was born to two parents who loved each other and loved me, and even though we weren’t rich, I never suffered from want. We moved to Texas when I was about ten, and my mom actually called TEA to ensure that wherever we moved, there would be a great school for their little boy. So we moved to Garland and I got a great education in Garland public schools. And then I compare that to my first Little. He didn’t really know his father. His mom wanted the best for him, but she wasn’t able to provide the kind of structure he needed. And even though we’re blessed to have so many angels dedicated to our kids working very hard in our schools, schools are big, and in Dallas, they are besieged with the forces of poverty. Both because my Little moved around a lot and because of the way the school system works, he just got lost in the system. Nobody really ever said, “You’re not going to get past me.” It really hit home when he was about 16 and wanted to apply for a job. I helped him fill out a job application at Braums. He didn’t have the level of literacy skills that you need to fill out a job application. There are tens of thousands of kids like him in Dallas, hundreds of thousands in the state of Texas, and I just could not let that continue. This was the challenge that I was called to do.
ATPE: When you visited the ATPE Board of Directors recently, our board members expressed concerns about student testing. What would you like to see happen as far as testing goes in Texas?
Morath: Let me start with the grand caveat that I am an employee of the state. I do what the legislature tells me. That being said, when I’m asked my opinion, I give it. Assessments are useful. Teachers do assessments of students all the time, both formal and informal. To the extent that assessments provide meaningful feedback on student performance that teachers can then use to adjust their practice, that’s critical. What we want is a system that encourages the kind of diagnostic feedback that shows where mastery has been achieved, where mastery is lacking, and where specialized differentiated instruction is needed. In addition to that, assessments should be aligned with our expectations for students across the board. With external assessments, you can have a common set of expectations for all Texas kids, and I think that’s a real value. ATPE: Do you think there’s too much testing, though? Morath: I don’t think that’s answerable in the abstract. If you have an assessment that is not being used to drive instruction, that particular assessment was too much. If you’re using assessments to help improve how we educate kids, that’s extremely valuable. A lot of it just depends on the context and how it’s used to improve outcomes for kids.
ATPE: There’s been an attempt to give districts and states a little more flexibility around testing and to allow for some innovative pilot projects. Is there anything that might happen along those lines in Texas?
Morath: It’s possible. We’re looking at the recommendations that come from the Texas Commission on Next Generation Assessments and Accountability as well as our marching orders from the legislature. To the extent that folks are interested in some sort of innovation under assessment, then we’ll go in that direction.
ATPE: What changes would you like to see for educator preparation and certification?
Morath: Teaching is one of the most complicated professions. Think about the process that a neurosurgeon goes through. A neurosurgeon is responsible for one brain that is asleep, and a teacher is responsible for 30 brains that are awake. You have to have the same kind of depth of knowledge of the craft. You have to have deep content knowledge if you’re interested in ensuring that students are reading at an appropriate level. You have to know everything there is to know about literacy and language, but you also have to know the research on brain development and how language acquisition works. This is an incredibly demanding profession, and what strikes me as necessary to prepare people for that task, first and foremost, is a high level of core content knowledge in the academic area that you’re interested in teaching. Think about what happens after medical school. You go through this intense four-year training process to develop deep content knowledge, but after you pass your boards, you’re not cracking open skulls. You have to go through a long-term process of preparing the tools of the trade. Once you’ve received deep content mastery, you need to have pretty intense vocational training to practice applying issues related to classroom management and the planning of a sequence of conversations with students so that lessons impart the maximum amount of impact. I’d love to see that sort of very aggressive residency embedded in teacher preparation as much as possible, so that when folks walk into the classroom and they are the teacher of record for the first time, the number of surprises they’re presented with is minimized.
ATPE: Do you think this level of professionalism and support is needed to keep teachers in the classroom and adequately prepare them for a career?
Morath: It’s necessary but not sufficient. If you walk in and your first day followed by your first year is a nonstop sea of emotion and problems, it’s going to leave a bad taste in your mouth for the profession permanently. So clearly we have to address that. But does that actually keep people in the profession long term? I don’t know. I think compensation is part of it. And there’s the working conditions that you’re in. Are you supported in a school to engage in the pursuit of mastery? You have doctors that publish and conduct research. They have a deep level of expertise because they end up becoming a master in one part of their craft. This is necessary as well for teachers. It’s human nature. You want to be empowered, to walk tall and stand tall in your field. So I think we need to address a variety of things simultaneously—preparation, continuous improvement, tools, empowerment to pursue mastery, compensation.
ATPE: What is the most important thing we can do to raise the prestige and the perception of the value of the education profession?
Morath: I don’t think there’s one answer to that, but there are a few answers that we have good reason to believe are relevant. One thing is entrance requirements. Think about what psychology tells us about satisfaction, prestige, and recognition. The harder we make the entrance requirements, the more people we attract to the profession, the more prestige the profession gets. A lot of people are afraid that if we do that, it will lead to a teacher shortage, but we have really solid evidence to believe that the opposite will actually happen. Another piece is compensation. You can say a lot of things about American culture for good and ill, but one thing we do respect in this country is money. We need to change the compensation paradigm so that a notable percentage of teachers are making salaries that people have a high level of respect for.
ATPE: How do we balance the need for higher standards at the state level with the new District of Innovation (DOI) law, which allows a significant number of districts around the state to ignore some laws like certification requirements? How do you reconcile those two objectives?
Morath: I don’t know that I see the same conflict that you do there. The state certification system is the key signal to what is required to be prepared to be a teacher, but there’s also a need for innovation across the board. If you abandon the concept of teacher certification requirements in its entirety, there may be a conflict, but that’s not really what the DOI law allows. It allows experimentation and innovation for alternative ways of preparing teachers. That may be necessary because the regulatory regime for teacher certification may be moving slower than what is necessary in terms of preparing people to be good instructors in the classroom, I think in the area of career and technical education in particular. To be a computer science teacher, you have to go through our certification process to reach the level of certification that’s required. I can certainly conceive of a situation, though, where you have a part-time teacher who is a skilled programmer by day, but in the morning that person comes in and walks a junior and senior level class through a whole series of algorithmic development processes that are pretty darn robust. And if you force that person to go through the certification process, you might not get there. Clearly, we need to create this signal that entering the classroom is something that requires a high level of rigor, but we also need to allow for innovation because we’re not going to get everything right in Austin. We never have, we never will.
ATPE: Is there anything else you want our members to know?
Morath: The single most important thing I want to say is thank you. I am tremendously grateful for your work, both in terms of the position that I have now and because I would not be the man that I am today without the great teachers I had growing up in this state.