As Pandemic Persists, the State of Public Education is the Biggest Challenge Facing Texas

Michael Wood, Director, Education & Workforce

The long-term economic impact of pandemic-driven learning loss in Texas could total as much as $2 trillion, said Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath during the Dallas Regional Chamber’s annual State of Public Education event on Wednesday, October 20.

“This is the largest problem facing the state of Texas, [and] it is larger than every other problem that we face, probably combined,” Morath said.

The startling figure is the result of an estimated 6% reduction in lifetime earnings for Texas’ pre-K-12 students based on current levels of learning loss. Academic achievement and future earnings are strongly correlated, particularly in mathematics, where the so-called “COVID slide” has been most severe.

Statewide, the pandemic has nearly erased a decade’s worth of academic gains. The number of students at grade-level standards or above plummeted 15 percentage points in math and 4 percentage points in reading. At 35%, the proportion of students meeting grade-level standards in math is at its lowest point since 2013. Reading proficiency, now at 42%, matches the state average from 2017.

Historical context suggests that recovering from these declines will be a significant challenge for the state.

“The last major disruption that we had in the United States where a group of kids lost about a year’s worth of instruction was, in fact, Hurricane Katrina,” Morath said. “After four years of intense intervention, they did catch up to state averages in reading. They never caught up in mathematics.”

Even outside of crises, the Texas’ track record in catching students up is poor. In fact, just 4% of students noticeably behind in any subject area eventually meet grade level standards.

Fortunately, there are material resources available to school systems to help accelerate learning. In addition to state funding for public education, which increased substantially because of the passage of House Bill 3 (HB 3) during the 2019 legislative session, more than $16 billion in one-time federal relief funds were distributed to Texas school districts this year.

This funding will aid school districts in standing up interventions to accelerate learning, such as improving instructional materials, supporting teachers, and providing targeted tutoring services. In addition to these strategies, many school districts are also leveraging federal funds to lengthen the school year and extend instructional time for students with the greatest need for help.

Federal aid will also build upon the strategic priorities supported by HB 3. Specifically, Commissioner Morath lauded the Teacher Incentive Allotment, which provides a pathway to six-figure salaries for the state’s highest-performing teachers, and efforts to equip high school students with postsecondary credit, including through models such as P-TECH (Pathways in Technology). Morath praised Dallas County’s commitment to P-TECH in particular, which was responsible for 13% of the total associate degrees earned by the state’s 2020 graduating class.

Still, North Texas school districts have significant challenges of their own to overcome. In a panel discussion following Commissioner Morath’s remarks, Duncanville ISD Superintendent Dr. Marc Smith detailed the pandemic’s effect on his student body.

“The pandemic really changed the game for us,” Smith said. “When I look at our math scores, we are at a 31% decrease from where we were. When I look at our third grade reading scores, we are at a 21% decrease from where we were.”

Dallas ISD, too, cited significant declines in important benchmarks: pre-K enrollment and Algebra 1 achievement. These measures, said Susana Cordova, Dallas ISD’s new Deputy Superintendent of Leading and Learning, are typically indicative of student performance in subsequent grade levels.

The pandemic has also impacted life for students after high school graduation. Yasmin Bhatia, CEO of Uplift Education, a local charter school network, noted a significant decline in alumni attending four-year universities.

“The percentage of our kids that chose to go to a four-year college this August is meaningfully down,” said Bhatia. “They’ve pivoted to two-year colleges, [which we know] they do not complete at the same rate.”

To address these challenges, local school system leaders are strategically investing their apportionment of federal funds. For example, Uplift has retooled its alumni support network to aid students attending two-year postsecondary programs. And Grand Prairie ISD is providing summer learning opportunities to help current students reacclimate to the school environment.

“We are having to look at things very differently,” said Linda Ellis, Grand Prairie ISD’s superintendent. “School is no longer [just] an academic setting. It is very much a social setting that we are trying to help our children and our staff [readapt to].”

Despite the additional funding, schools need support from their respective communities more than ever, a point emphasized by both Commissioner Morath and the panel of regional school system leaders. The business community, specifically, can uniquely aid school districts in preparing students for college or a career through initiatives such as P-TECH, internships, and career exposure, to name a few.

“It really is motivational for students when they see the real-world application of their learning because of the partnerships we have with [business],” Cordova said. “That makes school meaningful.”

The State of Public Education was presented by Toyota Motor North America and Wells Fargo. Thomson Reuters was a Gold Sponsor, and Dallas College, Oncor, and the University of North Texas System were Silver Sponsors.