AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Wednesday, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath presented the 2021 Annual Report to the State Board of Education, showing just how much student learning was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state has been aware of the ‘COVID slide’ for a while now, but with this report, the state is able to compare STAAR testing scores from the year before the pandemic (2018-19 school year) to the year coming out of the pandemic (2020-21). STAAR testing was not issued during the 2019-2020 school year due to the onset of the outbreak.

It shows testing scores for reading and math, in particular, have significantly decreased. This chart below shows the percentage of students who meet STAAR grade level standards. For math scores in particular, for third graders, it decreased by 18%. For eighth graders, it decreased by 19%.

Morath went on to explain how the state is planning to tackle the slide, which starts with addressing the teacher shortage.

“We know that teachers are, in fact, the most important in-school factor impacting student outcomes. In-school is important, because there are other factors in a student’s life,” Morath said.

Earlier this year, the governor established the Teacher Vacancy Task Force, with the TEA leading its efforts. Part of that task force’s goal specifically focuses on retention.

“Besides identifying practice recommendations at the local level, are there any policies at a state level that are worthy of attention that can potentially improve both recruitment and retention?” Morath said Tuesday.

Coretta Mallet-Fontenot, a teacher with Houston Independent School District for the last 23 years, said her district feels the impact of the increase of teachers leaving the workforce.

“One of the things that I find challenging is the exodus of younger teachers,” Mallet-Fontenot said.

Wednesday, Morath said those new teachers, or novice teachers, make up the biggest portion of teachers statewide.

 Source: SBOE Hearing on April 6, 2022.
Source: SBOE Hearing on April 6, 2022.

Overall, he said those newer teachers are less effective than teachers with more experience, shown below.

“One thing to bear in mind is that while the average new teacher is less effective than the average, say, six-year teacher, there are significant differences among individual teachers,” Morath noted.

 Source: SBOE Hearing April 6, 2022.
Source: SBOE Hearing on April 6, 2022.

Those novice teachers are also more likely to teach low-income students, and Morath said they leave the profession at a much higher rate than anyone else.

“This churn that we see at the beginning of the profession, not only does it cause significant challenges to districts in terms of who they have to recruit and hire, it causes significant challenges for students in terms of their academic growth.”

Source: SBOE Hearing on April 6, 2022.
Source: SBOE Hearing on April 6, 2022.

Mallet-Fontenot said she hopes the state starts addressing the issue with pay increases. She said the state could also consider incentives for teachers who stay at their districts.

“I’m hearing my colleagues leave the district every day going to surrounding districts, because they’re being paid $10,000 more,” Mallet-Fontenot said.

The Association of Texas Professional Educators agreed the state should start by increasing pay but could also do more to prepare student teachers.

“If we can increase the rigor of high quality, educator preparation programs, then I think we’re going to leave teachers better prepared when they get to the classroom,” Mark Wiggins with ATPE said Wednesday.

“More than half of our teachers are prepared by alternative educator preparation programs. And what we know is that the more rigorous the educator preparation program, the more likely they are, the educators are, to stick around after that first year,” Wiggins added.

Morath noted improved preparations during Wednesday’s hearing as well.

“If novice teachers are prepared, saying in a fashion analogous to doctors or nurses, where they have practice-based experiences that are very equivalent to what they face on the job, initially, then those novice teachers, when they start the job, initially, they’re not overwhelmed,” Morath said.

Changing those requirements can take time, though. The next legislative session doesn’t begin until January 2023. In the meantime, Wiggins said state lawmakers can start by keeping politics out of the classroom.

“Get out of the way, stop micromanaging teachers, stop politicizing their jobs and treat them like the professionals they are,” Wiggins added.

Aside from addressing the teacher shortage, Morath outlined three other priorities, including establishing foundations for math and reading, better connecting high schoolers to career and college and improving low-performing schools.