TEA Commissioner Mike Morath addresses students at Whittier Middle School in February 2016 as Gov. Greg Abbott and San Antonio ISD officials look on.
TEA Commissioner Mike Morath addresses students at Whittier Middle School in February 2016 as Gov. Greg Abbott and San Antonio ISD officials look on. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Starting in August 2018, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) will begin grading school districts and individual public schools on an A-F system, showing a nostalgia for simplicity while doing nothing to enact real change. The grades will not build confidence within the schools and likely will discourage parental and community engagement. Inner city educators, however promising their reform initiatives, could earn Fs and Ds, and the occasional C.

The grades will measure four areas of achievement: student performance on state tests; individual student progress year-over-year on state tests; how effective educators are in finding ways to close the learning gaps between students who live in poverty and students from stable or privileged backgrounds; and how many students graduate from high school prepared for a higher education.

The new grading system was the work of the 84th Texas Legislature, which passed HB 2804 in May 2015, a largely partisan measure signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. It was yet another move by State legislators to concoct a system of accountability without making any real investment in public schools or education innovations.

Any Texas educator will tell you it is going to take investment and innovation to elevate Texas’ dismal record of preparing children for a productive and prosperous future. The new law is a distraction from the real problem: the State’s unwillingness to address systematic failings in funding public schools.

A parallel grading system of the Texas Legislature and the executive branch would yield the same failing grades. Texas ranks 48th out of 50 states in per capita spending on public school students, 43rd in SAT scores, and 33rd in education outcomes. We are adding 50,000 students to the state school rolls annually, but spending less and less on educating them. Only 30% of the state’s 28 million people enjoy a middle class standard of living or better.

The Texas Supreme Court found last May that the State’s system of funding public schools is constitutional – reversing yet another lower court ruling to the contrary – although justices had little good to say about education outcomes in the state.

“Texas’ more than five million school children deserve better than serial litigation over an increasingly Daedalean ‘system.’ They deserve transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid,” Justice Don Willet wrote in the majority opinion. “They deserve a revamped, non-sclerotic system fit for the 21st century.”

(Justice Willet presumably chose the term Daedalean – referring to Daedalus, an architect in Greek mythology – as a way to illustrate what an impenetrable labyrinth the Texas education funding system has become over the decades.)

Unfortunately, the ruling did nothing to mandate legislative action. Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is the only top elected official in the state to call for more fundamental change.

My prediction that no child would want to take future report cards across the state home to its parents is no exaggeration.

Click here to review the TEA’s present-day application of the new grading system (see Schedule D).

While these preliminary grades do not yet officially count, they are dismal across the board and seem more punitive than prescriptive in nature. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath called the new system a “work-in-progress” in a press release last week.

Click here to delve further into the TEA’s new A-F grading system.

Alamo Heights High School rocketry students pose for a photo with their rocket at White Sands Missile Range. Courtesy image.
Alamo Heights High School rocketry students with their rocket at White Sands Missile Range. Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Heights High School

Like many parents, I do not consider a C to be a good or even acceptable grade, and it’s made worse when the grade is unfairly imposed. Alamo Heights ISD (AHISD), for example, scores a B, A, D, and a C in the four “domain” measures. Alamo Heights High School gets an A, two Cs, and a D. Come on.

That wasn’t my family’s experience living nearly 20 years in the district. Our two sons both started and finished in AHISD schools and went on to attend good universities. After living and working outside of Texas for several years, they came home to San Antonio and are thriving today.

Property values in our former neighborhood suggest people are still doing whatever it takes to get into the school district. The home we bought in 1990 and later sold is now worth, conservatively, four to five times what we paid for it. People don’t bid up the value of houses because the local schools produce mediocre results.

I had meetings last week with individuals who happen to have children in Northside and North East ISD high schools. Both are pleased with their local schools and their children are applying to Tier One universities, even though NISD scored two Bs and two Cs and NEISD scored two Bs, a C, and a D.

The inner city school districts are rated across-the-board failures. San Antonio ISD scores F,C, D and F. Harlandale ISD gets a B,C, D, and an F. Judson ISD gets all Cs. This system will downgrade education performance across Bexar County, yet the same core issues facing inner city educators will not be addressed with any new resources.

Harlandale ISD students work on computers provided by Toyota. Photo by Scott Ball.
Harlandale ISD students work on computers during a S.T.E.M. workshop in 2015.

Perhaps we should take a page from that great early 19th century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and try shame. Legislators could tweak the law and require public school teachers and students to wear Scarlet Fs and Ds and Cs on their chests as a further reminder to themselves and everyone they encounter of how little faith our legislators hold in public school education.

How are inner city administrators expected to recruit and retain strong, dedicated teachers when the State declares their work a failure? How do school leaders explain to parents that significant improvements have been made in district performance and that individual campuses offer real promise to their college-bound children when the State’s grading system indicates otherwise?

It might be different if lawmakers were funding innovation, studying best practices in the highest performing states and in countries where public education outcomes are the highest, but nothing remotely like that is happening. Innovation, insofar as it exists, is funded at a trickle.

I had the opportunity recently to join a group of more than 30 Texas educators organized by Educate Texas that traveled to the Asian city-state of Singapore to study one of the world’s highest performing public school systems. What we observed and the ideas we brought home will be the subject of one or more articles we will publish in the coming weeks as the 85th Texas Legislature gets underway.

There are many steps legislators could take to lift the partisan stranglehold on public school funding and agree on ways to encourage a greater pace of innovation and reform in public school districts. There are solutions to problems, and there are best practices elsewhere that can be adopted. Subjecting everyone to A, B, C, D, and F grades is not one of them.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.