Changing the Culture: One Effective Educator's Experience Transforming Student Outcomes

At our recent legislative briefing day at the Capitol, InvestEdTX was honored to host 4th grade teacher Josue Tamarez Torres, to share his experience working at Annie Webb Blanton Elementary, and how it can inform the creation of student-centered school finance reform. His words were so powerful we wanted to print them here in full.

“My name is Josue Tamarez Torres. I am a 4th grade math teacher in Dallas ISD. I am an ambassador for the Teacher Excellence Initiative, and the 2017-2018 Dallas ISD Teacher of the Year.

I am here to advocate on behalf of two of the recommendations provided by the School Finance Commission in their final report: the effective educator allotment and compensatory education allotment.

By any measure, Texas is an economic success story; we employ more people than anybody else; we have one of the lowest unemployment numbers in the country, and our economy is thriving. However, the same success hasn’t been replicated in education.

That’s why I am here today. I realize that my proposals are not the only panacea to our problems in education, and I am not asking for a one size fits all approach. Instead, I am here to share what has worked in Dallas ISD.

The single most important factor to improve students’ academic achievement is an effective teacher in front of them.

The word “effective” should be stressed. It is important that every educator in Texas makes a livable wage; that’s why I applaud Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and support his bill for an across the board raise for teachers in Texas. But in my opinion, it is equally important to reward the highest performing educators in every school district, hence my support for an effective educator allotment.

In America, results matter, and they should matter. If you look at any other profession, those that perform the best, make the most money: the salesperson who sells the most, makes the biggest commissions. The surgeon who has a proven record, gets to charge more for his/her services; and the star athlete gets the biggest contract in the team.  We expect educators to get paid the same, regardless of the amount of time they invest and regardless of results.  What if we treated education as we treat other sectors of our economy?

That’s where initiatives, such as the Teacher Excellence Initiative, called TEI, come into play. I love the children I teach. I decided to teach because I wanted to show my students that it is possible to overcome poverty with a good education. Most of my students remind me of myself, an immigrant, who was born in a poor family. During my third year as a teacher, 98% of my fifth graders passed their Math STAAR assessment, up from 33% the previous school year – and 50% of those students reached the Masters level (called advanced level at the time). I was happy I was having a real impact on my students’ lives, but I was reassessing my commitment to education. My salary was under $50,000, and it would have taken me years to reach at least $60,000. I graduated from college with a degree in Finance and Investments, so it was tempting to leave the education field to make more money.

TEI allowed me to stay in the classroom, doing what I love. 

I am not alone. Dallas ISD has been able to retain over 90% of their Distinguished teachers in the last few years. And because of it, Dallas ISD has reduced its number of Improvement Required, or IR, campuses from 44 in 2014, when the initiative started, to 4 as of last year. You see, it’s a lot easier to focus on teaching when you don’t have to worry about providing for your family. Educators feel valued when they realize that their positive results are being rewarded. Dallas ISD has brought the American system to public education: you get results, you get rewarded. TEI is not throwing good money after bad money. This is a strategic, intentional, metrics based, merit pay system. I am convinced that providing extra funding to school districts across Texas would allow them to emulate the success Dallas ISD has had the last few years. San Antonio ISD, Houston ISD, Fort Worth ISD are ready to replicate some of those successes. Texas is already leading the way economically. I don’t know about you, but I am greedy. I am competitive. I don’t want to be a top 5 state in unemployment, jobs, or taxes. I want it all. I also want Texas to be a top 5 state in education and in healthcare. We have a once in a lifetime chance to lead in education. TEI is a great start.

My second ask for you today is an increase in funding for compensatory education allotment, which would provide more funding for the highest need students, especially those who are living in areas of concentrated poverty.  This would give districts the flexibility to do innovative and creative things to ensure that our highest need students can achieve the Texas dream.

One example of innovative and targeted programs is the Accelerating Campus Excellence, or ACE, program in Dallas ISD, which I joined four years ago. The initiative offered a $10,000 stipend as an incentive for highly effective teachers who were willing to move to the lowest performing campuses in Dallas ISD. Annie Webb Blanton was one of those campuses.  Blanton had a reputation of being one of the worst campuses in Dallas ISD, and the state of Texas. For 5 consecutive years, the school was designated IR. The school went through multiple leadership changes and couldn’t retain effective teachers. I remember my first group of students when I moved to Blanton; many of them had failed all their state assessments the previous year, some with extremely low grades. Every year, I start with a PowerPoint presentation in which I compare my students’ scores with Highland Park ISD scores. The reason is simple. I want my students to understand that they might be growing up under difference circumstances, but we cannot use it as an excuse. I want them to understand that with hard work, your brain can grow, and you can overcome any challenge. I don’t know whether my students believed we could make it happen. After all, it is difficult to convince a student who got a 23% in his math assessment the previous year that this time it would be different. But I know I believed it, and even though I had not accomplished my personal goal of outperforming Highland Park, I was always convinced that this year was the year. If you are a Cowboys fan, you know what I am talking about. For some reason, it felt different. This time I was surrounded by a group of effective educators who shared my passion.

We didn’t outperform Highland Park that school year, but what a year it was! 86% of my students were successful in the STAAR test, with 45% at the Masters level. Blanton saw its scores rise double digits in every area. The school got off the IR list after only a year, and the news spread across Texas and beyond. We received educators and administrators from Fort Worth ISD, Houston ISD, San Antonio ISD and even a delegation from the state of Colorado visited the school to understand what Dallas ISD was doing to accomplish these results. The answer was simple; Dallas ISD leveled the playing field. They allocated more resources and funds to the schools that needed it the most. The $10,000 helped bring some of the best educators to these campuses. It is not about the money, but let’s be honest: if given the opportunity to teach in one campus working regular hours or in a campus working extra hours, for the same amount of money, most of us would probably pick the former. It’s human nature. Today, Blanton is still on the news, but for totally different reasons. In the latest report by TEA, the campus got an A rating.

What seemed impossible 3 years ago is now a reality.

Last year was my third and last year at Blanton. I taught 5th grade math. My students were in third grade the year Blanton started its turnaround. They received the same pitch I give to my students at the beginning of the school year: “this is the year we outperform Highland Park.” Last May, I got an email from my school principal. There was another positive article about Blanton written in D Magazine and the Dallas Morning News. The highlight? 82% of 5th grade students at Annie Webb Blanton met grade level compared to 79% of students at Highland Park. We had outperformed one of the wealthiest school districts in Texas. In the third year of the ACE initiative, Blanton had overperformed Highland Park. I remember sharing the news and the article with my students; the class erupted in cheers. I don’t know if my students understood the magnitude of what they had accomplished – let’s remember 90% are living in poverty - but I hope my students use this as motivation moving forward. Think about it. The school was the same, the community didn’t change, but the culture did. Bringing and paying talented educators made all the difference. The ACE initiative has been a huge success. Last summer, Titche Elementary got off the IR list after being there for 5 years and J.W. Ray got an A rating the same year. We are moving in the right direction.

The ACE and TEI initiatives have one thing in common: extra money was allocated to make them possible.

They both prove that when you reward educators and strategically allocate extra funding to the students that need it the most, results are possible. These initiatives make it possible for teachers like me and my colleagues to stay in the classroom without worrying about our finances. Instead of thinking about how they are going to pay their mortgage, the focus turns to teaching, as it should be. Texas prides itself on its competitive spirit- the can-do mentality. Everything is bigger in Texas. It is time to go big in education. Dallas ISD, with verifiable data, has shown us the path forward. Our students can’t wait. The time is now.”

Joshua Kumler