By George Slaughter, news editor
Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath shared strategies for improving reading skills at a meeting April 14 at Embassy Suites, 16435 Katie Foy.
While his Katy talk focused on building a foundation for reading, Morath spoke briefly, after the meeting, about his agency’s takeover of ISD in Houston. TEA officials gave an overview of their plans at the ISD Trustees meeting in Houston on April 13. Morath said he spends a “healthy amount” of time focused on the agency’s acquisition, and is in Houston about one day a week.
As part of the acquisition, the agency is seeking to hire people to serve on a board of directors that will oversee the district’s affairs and, hopefully, make improvements. Morath said there are what he called an “enormous number of people” who want to serve in some capacity, including on this board, and the ISD in Houston.
“I think we have 375 applicants close to it,” Morath said. “It’s great to see so many people with character and a desire to progress.”
Speaking of Katie, Morath described the agency’s four priorities. He said teachers are the number one priority and districts must be relentless in hiring, supporting and retaining teachers and principals.
“The most important factor in a school is having a teacher in the classroom,” said Morath.
He said the second major priority is focused on the early grades, making sure schools build a foundation of reading in mathematics. In this way, he said, the youngest learners will get along with the basics and have no loopholes as they continue their educational lives.
The third priority, he said, is making high school relevant to students, which he said must be rigorous. He said that senior year in high school should not be just “prom and sailing for the chicks.”
“It has to be very tough because you’re trying to send in life and life is terribly complicated,” Morath said. “So, what we’re doing is making sure that the high school experience is designed to be the most rigorous and most relevant from the point of view of what the child will do to take care of themselves and their family when they’re done. That’s the key.”
Morath said improving local schools was the fourth priority.
“The public schools are this tremendous institution in which we believe in the American dream,” Morath said. “This general diffusion of knowledge. But our vision sometimes does not match reality. When adults’ expectations of children are too low, where work does not meet our children’s needs. What do we do to correct that? Wrap its arms around that school or move quickly and precisely to change the course of each of the students.” And the adults on that campus.”
As for learning to read, Morath said decoding, which includes phonics and reading skills, multiplied by language comprehension, which includes knowledge and vocabulary, equals reading comprehension.
“Decoding comprehension times equals reading,” Morath said. “You’ll notice that the times, and for the mathematical disciplines here, are zero in whatever equals zero. So, you have to have both sides of this equation.”
Expanding on both sides of the equation, Morath said that phonetics is a kind of decoder.
“You have to be able to decipher the written word, and then it turns out that understanding the language is somewhat more complicated, but it’s every word you know,” Morath said. “The fact that you can listen to what I’m saying and you can understand syntax and grammar and vocabulary and the basic knowledge of what they mean. That’s what it is. If we understand that this is what drives the train in reading, we can adjust our curriculum. We can modify our practices in schools and start giving endowment Reading to all of our children.”
When discussing language comprehension, Morath asked the audience to think of the word “fine”. He said the word has many different meanings.
“When I ask my kids when they come home from school how was school today, they always tell me it’s OK,” Morath said. “It’s like pulling teeth to get a legitimate answer from my kids. Anyway, that’s fine. We’re all familiar with that answer.”
However, the very different meanings that people attach to the word “fine,” can be confusing if students do not understand the context in which the word is used.
“If our kids don’t understand what words mean, they can say them all day long, but that’s how their brain processes it from a meaning perspective,” Morath said. “We take the words from him.”
Morath made his point by putting “decoding” in a yellow box and “understanding language” in a blue box.
“Our goal in public education is to make yellow and blue green,” Morath said. “We want to make sure kids have strong decoding skills and a solid amount of basic knowledge. And what this requires, what we know from cognitive science is our approach to curriculum design, and our approach to what happens while they’re in school needs to be well designed around those key points “.
The Katy Area Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event.