Full text of Greg Abbott's remarks as prepared for delivery at Sam Houston Elementary School, San Antonio, March 31, 2014
I’m proud to be here at Sam Houston Elementary in Weslaco to talk about the future of education in Texas.
Elementary schools like this are launching pads that propel children to achieve things their parents couldn’t even dream of.
My wife is a former teacher and principal. I’ve seen first-hand the commitment and calling that goes into teaching.
Sam Houston Elementary - like so many schools in Texas - is blessed with strong leadership and dedicated teachers. Your hard work helps you achieve your slogan: “Setting Standards for Success.”
Because of schools like Sam Houston, Texas is making strides in improving education. A record number of Texas students graduated from high school in 2012, marking the fifth consecutive year that rate has increased. And enrollment at our two and four-year public colleges and universities is up.
Despite those gains, Texas is still lagging behind where we should be in reading and math scores if we are to remain the vibrant leader of this nation.
I’ve traveled the state, talking with teachers, principals, administrators and parents to learn why students aren’t performing better - to learn what we need to do to improve our schools. I’ve gotten an ear full. Our public education system is too centralized with one-size-fits-all solutions being pushed down from the top. We have too many unnecessary, unfunded mandates from Austin that tie educator hands and limit parents’ choices. Our teachers need new tools to educate our children, and we must involve parents more in educating our children. All of this combined leads to mandates for mediocrity rather than expectations of excellence. Texas deserves better.
Texas is exceptional and our education system must be too. Texas has been the national leader in so many categories. We are number one in the nation for jobs. We are number one in the nation for energy production. We are number one in the nation for exports. We are number on in so many things. The time has come for Texas to set its sights on another number one ranking. Texas should become number one in the nation in educating our children.
As Governor, I want next year’s Pre-K class to graduate from high school in the top ranked school system in the country. To do that, we must aim to achieve the following things. In ten years, we will attain the highest high school graduation rate in the nation. We will elevate Texas to the top ten states in math and reading scores. We will double the percent of third graders who are doing math and reading at or above grade level.
When we achieve these goals, we will not only be leading the nation, we will be preparing more of our high school students to succeed in college, in high-paying skilled jobs and in our military. Maybe more importantly, we will be helping our children build a solid foundation for success in life.
So where and how do we start our journey to being number one? I’m reminded of a story told by Pastor Tony Evans in Oak Cliff. A man wanted to repair cracks in the walls of his house, so he called a contractor who patched the cracks and added a fresh coat of paint. The house looked good for awhile, but then the cracks reappeared. The homeowner called the contractor to come out again. Again, the contractor patched the cracks, painted the walls and the house looked good. After awhile, the cracks reappeared again. The frustrated homeowner calls the contractor to complain. The contractor told him that the problem is not with the walls. Instead, the problem is with the foundation. Until you first fix the foundation, the problems will never go away.
The same is true for education. Without a firm foundation, cracks often appear in later years. The foundation of education is grades K-3. If we want more children graduating from high school - if we want to elevate our students’ success - we must ensure our students start with a solid foundation in K-3. The cement that solidifies that educational foundation is reading and math.
Reading is the most fundamental and important academic skill children can learn in their earliest, formative years. There are lasting consequences from third graders not reading at grade level. A child cannot read to learn without first learning to read. If a student falls behind in reading after third grade, they are far more likely to need ongoing academic intervention and they are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Simply put - reading must be mastered.
To get that done, my plan focuses on helping K-3 teachers become expert literacy teachers. My plan will equip K-3 teachers - and their principals - with new and innovative resources. This is particularly intended to help districts with underperforming schools to advance young readers even faster.
One of the tools is literacy achievement academies. They will provide intensive four or five day programs at regional Education Service Centers. The academies will offer innovative reading, writing and technology curriculum for K-3 reading teachers. Teachers who attend the academies will have ongoing online access to the coursework, lesson plans and training to supplement their in-person training. Scholarships to pay for the course - and a stipend after completion - will be offered to encourage teachers to participate.
Another tool is reading excellence teams. These teams will offer skills coaching for K-3 reading teachers in the classroom during the school year. These highly-trained master reading teams will be deployed when and where principals request them.
Advanced literacy efforts work. On Saturday, I visited with a third grade teacher in San Antonio. He told me about a student who entered the third grade reading at barely above first grade level. By using the kinds of tools and training I’m proposing, the teacher was able to help that third grade student finish the year reading above third grade level - advancing two full grade levels.
In addition to reading, math skills are a cornerstone to the future of Texas. To ensure we are educating our students for the more than one million new STEM-related jobs, we must advance their math skills. To do that, my plan offers Math and Technology Achievement Academies. Like the Literacy Academies, these will be intensive programs offered at regional Education Service Centers. This tool is particularly helpful for principals at underperforming schools to provide added support for K-3 math teachers. The program includes scholarships and stipends for teachers and follow-up online materials that teachers can use in their classes.
Part of improving our K-3 program is improving our Pre-K 4 program. The current, taxpayer funded half day Pre-K program is not at the level it needs to be if it’s going to truly prepare Pre-K 4 students to achieve lasting results throughout K-3 and beyond.
There’s been much public debate about the longterm learning gains from Pre-K programs. Most studies - including President Obama’s own Department of Health and Human Services study - found that most Head Start programs provide little lasting results. However, some studies have shown that high quality Pre-K programs can have measurable benefits - not just as the child advances in school - but also in an increase in lifetime wages and a reduction in crime and dependence on public assistance.
The problem with some taxpayer-funded Pre-K programs is that they are little more than advanced daycare centers. We need our Pre-K 4 programs to be genuine learning centers that advance children academically, developmentally and holistically to prepare young minds for the foundation of knowledge to come in K-3.
To transform Pre-K 4 into genuine, pre-literacy and numeracy programs that prepare children for kindergarten, my Educating Texans plan will create a Gold Standard for high-quality, accountable Pre-K 4 programs. My plan provides additional funding to any state-funded Pre-K 4 program that adopts the Gold Standard Plan.
To be a part of the Pre-K 4 Gold Standard requires Pre-K 4 programs to adopt the most rigorous of the already existing Pre-K instruction guidelines. All Pre-K 4 teachers must hold a bachelor’s degree - or above- plus a Child Development Associate credential. Teachers and staff must develop a culture of inclusion to engage families and increase active parental involvement in their child’s education. Program effectiveness must be measured and shared with parents, teachers, school districts and the TEA.
Districts that adopt the Pre-K 4 Gold Standard will receive an increase in per-student funding. However, the districts will have flexibility to determine the most effective way to use that funding to meet the Gold Standard requirements. Some districts may choose to hire more teachers. Others may expand to full day Pre-K 4. Others may choose to expand their existing partnerships with private providers.
Districts that adopt the Gold Standard will also receive funding from Pre-K 4 teacher training to ensure the highest level of teaching skills for our youngest learners. Professional development programs for Pre-K teachers will be offered during summer through regional Education Service Centers.
The bottom line for what we want to achieve in Pre-K 4 is creating the most advanced Pre-K 4 program in America. We will fund schools that meet high standards. We will give schools flexibility to achieve those high standards, allowing them to be the laboratories of education innovation. We will assess the results to see what works and what doesn’t work.
Today, I’ve outlined the first of my four education plans that will elevate Texas schools to the very top in this country. My plan offers even greater detail than what I’ve outlined today. You can learn more about my plan by going to GregAbbott.com and clicking on Townhall254.
As Governor, I want to see the Texas education system rise to its rightful place to be number one in the nation. We will no longer patch the cracks in our education system every few years. Instead, we will achieve lasting results by giving our schools and families the tools they need to create a solid foundation for learning in Pre-K 4 through grade three and then building on that foundation, all the way through graduation from high school. We will cultivate a culture of aspiration and achievement. That means setting expectations of excellence for our children, our teachers, our principals and our parents, and then giving educators the flexibility to achieve them.
Those who say we can’t reach high expectations should hear the success stories our teachers share. One is about a young girl in fifth grade who was reading at only a first grade level. Her writing was unintelligible. Her family life, challenging. But one teacher made a difference. He expected more of her. He worked with her on her reading and writing skills. In turn, the young student worked hard because her teacher expected her to excel - and she did. She has now graduated from the University of Houston. And she has a job - as a teacher.
We can - and will - replicate stories of success like this in every corner of the state. We can - and will- build the best education system in America. It starts today. And it starts in Pre-K.
Thank you, and God bless Texas.