Averting a Reading Crisis - A Conversation with Kara Belew

Kara Belew: It's nice when you're doing something you care about professionally and personally and in your heart.

This is Kara Belew.

Kara Belew: I am with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and I am Senior Education Advisor and so work very hard on trying to improve things for our Texas children.

Prior to arriving at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, or TPPF for short, Belew had a long and varied career in Texas education policy-making.

Kara Belew: I was very honored to be selected as a clerk for the Texas Supreme Court and at that point in time they were working on school finance litigation in 2006. And then-Governor Perry was looking for some people who were familiar with the holdings to come over and help his team with some of the implementation. Then, from there, went to work for Governor Abbott when he was attorney general and another school finance case had come out. And I served as a strategic attorney working on some of the strategy for the state of Texas on that case.

Belew followed Abbott to the Governor’s Office, working as his budget director for the state.

He had wanted some reading academies, for example, to help our teachers bolster their reading skills in the classroom.

She then went to the Texas Education Agency to serve as Deputy Commissioner of Finance before coming to TPPF.  Throughout all of this work, one thing has remained constant for Kara.

In my professional career and in my free time, I spend a lot of energy trying to help children in Texas learn to read.
— Kara Belew

Belew recognizes the impact early literacy rates can have on future outcomes- and the urgency with which we need to act in order to improve them.

Kara Belew: We have a reading crisis in Texas. I mean, there's just no other way to put it. 67% of our economically disadvantaged children read below grade level. We're talking about hundreds of thousands of children who are not able to read. And reading is so fundamental to children. They cannot do well in other subjects, science and social studies, if they cannot read. It even impacts mathematical performance, but more so it really impacts the way they feel about themselves in school and their self esteem. And we really want all children doing phenomenally well and able to read, and able to participate in our society, and able to be prepared for college or the workforce or the military, whatever their dreams are, we don't want reading to be holding them back.

That’s why Belew and her colleagues at TPPF were excited to see the Texas Commission on Public School Finance recommend a statewide goal of 60% third grade reading proficiency by the year 2030.

Kara Belew: We need to get our school boards and our schools and our teachers focused on: how are we ensuring our children are reading? I have watched a lot of school boards be trained on reading results and one of the first recommendations in the report is that our school boards actually know reading results at every single campus and set clear, time-limited, public goals to improve reading at every campus, so parents actually understand what's happening with the reading results at each of their schools. That's an innovative idea that some school boards are already doing and others potentially could look at as an option.

Another option recommended by the Commission would financially reward districts for improving those reading results. Belew is wary of this idea, primarily because of the method we currently use to assess those results. But she recognizes that the Commission’s recommendation, ultimately, is about student outcomes, not standardized tests, and doesn’t want to see anything taken off the table just yet.

It is not just on the state’s test, the STAAR test, where we’re seeing this reading problem. We are seeing it also in the nation’s report card examinations and our ACT and SAT scores. And so there’s multiple proof points that indicate we have a real problem.
— Kara Belew

Kara Belew: So there's a lot of changes that could be made and I think that ideas that were put forth by the school finance commission that are innovative and trying to move things in a direction where there's focus on reading are all things that we need to continue to talk about.

That’s why Belew is supportive of another proposal from the Commission’s report: the creation of an Effective Educator Allotment that would encourage school districts to create educator-driven, multi-measure evaluation systems that reward teachers for improving student outcomes.

Kara Belew: Most Texas teachers, no matter how effective they are, will make between $45,000-65,000 a year. No matter how long they work, no matter how great they are with children, no matter what those children's outcomes are. And so a good teacher who's doing a great job has to either leave the profession or leave the classroom to make more money. And what we could do as Texas is put things in place that would encourage our best teachers to stay in classrooms. And Dallas ISD is proving that when you do that, when you pay your best teachers substantially more to stay in the classroom, helping kiddos, you impact hundreds of children, you improve your retention, and you see student outcomes increasing year over year.

Belew is referring to the Teacher Excellence Initiative, a locally-crafted educator evaluation system that uses student achievement, classroom observations, and student surveys  to reward excellence in the classroom. With the implementation of this system, effective teachers can expect to make over $60,000 in just five years, as opposed to the over 20 it may take in a traditional step-and-ladder system.  The district now retains more than 90% of its effective teachers.   And student outcomes have been demonstrably improved.

Kara Belew: Dallas is recognizing that the community and the parents want things from their school district and Dallas ISD is being highly responsive in trying to provide some options and opportunities and also focused on results. How do we ensure our children are reading? How do we ensure they're graduating high school ready to take their next path, be it college, career or the military, and be successful? And the Texas Commission on Public School Finance is focused on what Dallas is doing too, because the results are so incredible.

By not only evaluating effective educators, but strategically placing their best on campuses where they’re needed most, the Dallas school district is producing remarkable gains in student achievement.  But this highly successful programming requires additional resources. Like many others in the state, Dallas ISD had to push its property tax rate to the max to cover costs.

It’s emblematic of the circumstances that have made “school finance reform” a top priority for state legislators: local property owners are calling for the state to spend its “fair share” on public education so they can experience some tax relief.  But as Kara is quick to point out, “the state,” ultimately, is still us.

Kara Belew: When you're saying that the state should be spending substantially more, what you're really saying is state taxpayers should be spending substantially more, and state taxpayers are the very same taxpayers that are paying sky high property tax bills. It's all the same businesses and families, for the most part.

Belew has a point: when we talk about school finance in Texas, we shouldn’t be preoccupied with “the state’s share vs. the local’s share.”  In the end, the responsibility to Texas students is ours, collectively. And it isn’t productive or pragmatic to simply call for “more money” without strategies in place to utilize those dollars in the most impactful ways possible.  

Both the Texas Senate and House, in their recent budget projections, have committed to providing additional dollars to education. Districts across the state, including Dallas, are demonstrating the best practices with which to use those dollars to improve outcomes. It’s up to us to spread what works.

Kara Belew: What the Texas Education Agency data shows us is that there are many school districts in this state that are doing good things within existing tax dollars. They are implementing best practices. They may be focused on reading, they may be doing some things that other school districts could learn from. So are there things we could do to ensure our children are reading and doing math at grade level? Are there better practices that we can be putting in place? And I think the answer to that is yes. And there are many school districts and individual schools around Texas that actually prove you can do more with less if you're focused on the things that actually move the needle for children. I think that any ideas that are being put on the table that are trying to encourage school districts to focus on reading results campus by campus, how many children are reading at this particular school, what are some effective practices that we can put into place at this school, which might include taking some of our highest performing teachers and moving them to our hardest to teach schools.

Instead of waiting until third grade to really focus on reading, start focusing on reading from kindergarten through second grade.  We really want all of our school districts and our school boards to be focused on student outcomes.
— Kara Belew

Only four out of ten Texas students are literate by third grade.  These numbers get worse for our low-income students, English language learners, and students of color.  The data is clear -- students not reaching this critical goal become four times more likely to drop out.  These numbers are unconscionable. They’re also changeable if we provide the financial resources, and the strategies, to make change possible.

On our website, InvestEdTX.org, we’re featuring a tool that allows our listeners to explore third grade reading scores by legislative district.  We encourage you to look into current outcomes for this crucial academic benchmark in your hometown, and across the state as well. And if you’re not satisfied with the early literacy of the children in your community, we urge you to reach out to your state legislators and ask for additional resources, coupled with policies that can ensure those resources are spent in ways that benefit all our students.

Kara Belew: All children, in our suburban districts, in our urban districts, from wealthy families, from poor families, in many places across the state are struggling to read by third grade. And it is just so critical for their whole life time outcomes. And for the state of Texas. So give money to local school districts, but make sure the money that they are getting is spent wisely on things that help kids and can have dramatic impacts on children’s ability to read.

The Twisted Saga of Texas School Finance is powered by InvestEd TX, and produced by me, Joshua Kumler.  It is executive produced by me, along with Kathryn Mikeska and Rob Shearer. Mixed and mastered by Adrien Palmer.  Music by Trevor Yokochi. Special thanks to Kara Belew and the entire team at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. They have their own podcast, The Foundation, that you can learn more about at their website, texaspolicy.com. Our website is InvestEdTX.org, where, again, you can check out an eye-opening map that illustrates third grade reading data across the state.  Once you’re there, you can also sign up for action alerts that will keep you up to date on school finance reform this legislative session. This podcast is dedicated to two groups of hard-workers who don’t get paid enough for all they do: teachers and Texas legislators. The future is in both your hands. We’ll be back soon with more of the Twisted Saga.

Joshua Kumler