Education Reform

On Tuesday, May 7, 2019, the Texas Senate Education Committee, chaired by Senator Larry Taylor (R), heard public testimony regarding the student, mental health-related legislation House Bill 18 (HB 18; Price et al.).  HB18 requires teachers, counselors, and principals to receive professional development related to student mental health every year.  This training is to focus on how mental health conditions, including grief and trauma, affect student learning and behavior and how “evidence-based, grief-informed, and trauma-informed strategies” support the academic success of students.

HB 18 will also require districts to utilize mental health-related educational programs and services and to implement mental health-related curricula.   Additionally, mental health TEKS are to be embedded in grades 6-12 health classes.  Another feature of HB 18 is that school districts will be required to publish in their student handbooks and on district websites the following:

  • the policies and procedures adopted to promote the physical and mental health of students;
  • the physical and mental health resources available at each campus;
  • contact information for the nearest providers of essential public health services; and
  • contact information for the nearest local mental health authority.

In light of the latest string of student mass shooting in Texas public schools, HB18 appears to be a bold move for Texas legislature to ensure that educators are better prepared to identify the warning signs of student mental illness and that school districts are equipped with curricula, programs, and services to address the needs of students suffering from mental health and trauma-related issues.  It also appears as though Texas legislators want to use HB 18 to destigmatize mental health issues in the communities they serve.

It is not difficult to see how this bill would be received with open arms by most educators, and this was evident by the supportive comments shared during the Senate Education Committee meeting.  At first glance, I agreed that the requirements brought forth by HB18, if implemented with fidelity, could impact the growing number of students suffering from mental health and trauma-related problems in Texas public schools in a positive way.  However, after reviewing HB 18 in its entirety, I realized that there are a few potential issues with the legislation that could have some unintended, negative consequences for parents, the most salient of which is a potential student and parent backlash.  Lines 21-27 on page 23 and lines 1-3 on page 24 of HB 18 indicate that a district employee or employee of a mental health service provider (physician or nonphysician) contracted with the district would have the authority to recommend that a child have a professional evaluation.  While the bill does include language that requires written parental or guardian permission before evaluation or treatment actions are taken, it does not address steps the district will take if or when a parent declines the recommended health treatment.  The likelihood of a parent refusing recommended mental health treatment for their child may be elevated especially since the recommendations can come from a staff member who is not a mental health professional.  Will a parent who denies recommendations be reported to Child Protective Services, found liable in any way, or charged criminally for making an informed choice to refuse mental health treatment?  In this case, will the students be excluded from participating in classroom or school activities?  Will the student and parents be treated differently by the school or district?

The second issue with HB18 is related to the lack of parental oversight of the mental health programs and practice that their children will be subjected to in their schools.  Lines 9-18 on page 27 of the bill state that the Texas Education Agency (TEA), in coordination with the Health and Human Services Commission and regional services centers, will provide to districts a list of best practice-based programs and research-based practices for the implementation of HB 18.  However, it does not delineate the criteria that TEA will use for determining which services and programs will be provided to districts.  Moreover, since there is no requirement for districts to inform parents of the programs and practices they choose, the door is left open for a wide variety of resources to be legitimized and introduced to students without parental input.

Hopefully, there will be clarifications coming soon to address these potential issues for parents.  In the meantime, stay tuned as I highlight other aspects of the proposed legislation in future posts.

Today, May 6, 2019, the Texas legislators are slated to vote on a version of the school finance legislation, House Bill 3, that includes a proposal to add four more writing tests and tie school funding directly to third-grade STAAR results.  The new exams would bring the total number of annual assessments to 21 and would mark the second change to the number of tests since 2012. Currently, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) includes the following assessments:

  • Reading and Mathematics, grades 3–8;
  • Writing at grades 4 and 7;
  • Science at grades 5 and 8;
  • Social Studies at grade 8;
  • End-of-Course (EOC) assessments for English I, English II, Algebra I, Biology and U.S History; and
  • Optional End-of-Course (EOC) assessments for English III and Algebra II.

According to a Texas Monthly article published this weekend, the last-minute tinkering of the recently proposed and significant school finance House Bill 3 to include more STAAR exams and link funding to third-grade STAAR results, by the Senate Education Committee comes at a time when many critics are questioning the accuracy and efficacy of the STAAR exams. Many proponents point to the need to increase the numbers assessments in order to determine student academic progress better.  Moreover, the focus on 3rd-grade assessment levels connects to the significant body of research that links 3rd-grade reading levels to future student success outcomes.  Finally, proponents want to add more writing exams, in particular, because, under the current system, students only have four writing exams (4th grade, 7th grade, English I, and English II)

On the other hand, opponents argue that the Texas Education Agency should improve the accuracy of the STAAR exams before introducing additional assessments.  After all, it is challenging to measure student progress if the instrument is inaccurate.  Opponents also question the Senate Education Committee’s tying funding to 3rd-grade STAAR results, which merely exacerbates educators’ growing cynicism about legislators’ support of public education.

Absent in the arguments of both sides of the debate is the consideration of the real cost of adding more high-stakes tests. Regardless of the timing that additional assessments are implemented, measures such as these will not improve student achievement.  Not only will district administrators, principals, and teachers focus an inordinate amount of their attention on increasing student scores on the new tests, but issues with the accuracy of STAAR academic program and strategies to improve the quality of classroom instruction still will not be resolved or even addressed.  Ironically, adding more STAAR tests, whether now or later, will result in a “miss” with regard to the ideal goal of increasing student learning.  Today’s debate will be yet another distraction from the real and pressing need to improve teaching and learning in Texas public schools.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy

It is hard to imagine a segment of our American society in 2019 that has not been impacted by the dysfunction of our current political and social structure. Nevertheless, our inability to find unifying solutions to matters that we agree upon is an indicator of a much deeper problem that we have not begun to understand. Sadly, these issues are magnified in the public education system in America. I am sure we have all heard the adage derived from the writings of Thomas Reid, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Unfortunately, today the strength of character of the individual educator is the “weakest link” and is often overshadowed by the debate over the effectiveness of the United State’s public education system.

Collectively, we are channeling billions of dollars into innovative programs to close the growing achievement gaps between students from diverse racial and economic backgrounds, which only result in pockets of change and overall no lasting effects. We publicly claim a focus on student learning and the quality of public education, yet we are growing in our over-reliance on standardized tests and other evaluation systems that don’t accurately capture the state of student learning. We have teacher shortages across the country coupled with struggles in the recruitment and retention of effective teachers.  Moreover, increasing numbers of currently employed teachers are crossing the line with students and exercising poor judgment by engaging in inappropriate relationships with students. At the same time, more students are committing suicide and carrying out mass shooting in schools while politicians and the media argue over gun control and mental health support. These problems interfere with optimal academic performance and degrade the strength and vitality of our society. So, how can we begin to solve the issues that plague our public education system?

For starters, we should be asking ourselves individually; How have I contributed to these problems? Before you stop reading let me be clear, I know that no one wants to have the finger of blame pointed at them. As I stated earlier, there are tons of people sincerely working to address these problems on a political, financial, even spiritual level, so there is enough blame to go around. What I am claiming is that we all have a responsibility to examine who we are and the content of our character.  Before we can look at how public education can improve student achievement at the classroom, campus, or school system level, we have to hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard of character and own up to the fact that when we don’t, it negatively impacts our students and the communities we serve. Just look at your average elementary teacher. She has the responsibility to make hundreds even thousands of decisions every day that will, in the long-term, impact the lives of hundreds of students. As such, we can’t lose sight of how her character, in addition to her professional knowledge and skill, will help her accurately diagnose students’ instructional needs and adequately utilize the resources and strategies available. Principals have the added responsibility as the instructional leader, to ensure that teachers have the resources, professional learning experiences, and collective vision for all staff to do their best work. With these weighty charges on the shoulders of a collective few, it is imperative that each educator has the highest moral character and is more cognizant of how their values and integrity impact the broader system.

To this end, the more that teachers and teacher leaders enlist the courage to address their responsibilities and personal character, the more likely it is that more campuses and school systems will be able to take a different approach to mitigate the problems public education faces today. The individual in education makes all of the difference in the world!

It seemed like yesterday when educators were introduced to the concept of “21st Century Skills” during professional development sessions and conferences. The message was clear, teachers need to teach differently to prepare students for the industries of the future. Now, it is not uncommon for educators to see the need to prepare students to contribute and shape the society they will inherit. But, starting with the early 2000s, teachers were fed a heavy diet of the frequently updated futuristic ‘Did You Know’ videos.

Each video highlighted how the speed of change in technology was going to transform everything we understood about how we need to prepare our students for careers and the skills required to navigate the new world. Like many other educators, I was convinced that the career opportunities of the future were going to be filled with wonder for my students. I was also sure that mind-boggling innovations would bring much need solutions to the world’s vast problems.

Fast forward 10 years and I am at a loss for words to see that one of those new industries that young people are now preparing for is…wait for it… the cannabis industry. That’s right, we now have students studying to be professional weed experts at Northern Michigan University. Is this what we have been preparing our students for? I know there is substantial debate around issues like medical marijuana, the legalization of marijuana, and their moral implications. However, the fact that the higher education community appears to be embracing the cannabis industry causes me to wonder what led them to the decision to offer that program of study. Were the implications for primary and secondary schools considered. What about the consequences for the family?

After my initial shock, I started to really think more deeply about how offering cannabis studies at a university directly impacts the health and vitality of the family. After all, it is no secret that strong families are the building blocks of healthy communities, and healthy communities are the building blocks of strong nations. It is also well understood that our public education systems serve students and their family, not the other way around. When we forget this truism, we are forced to witness the breakdown of our society.  

This is evidenced by our country’s addiction epidemic. Just look at the frequency in which we use the word addiction to describe many modern American social behaviors, i.e. smartphone addiction, porn addiction, food addiction, opioid addiction, etc. Some could even say that we have an emotional addiction if you consider how our current social and political climate is driven by emotional arguments that are void of logic and reason. It is very common to see individuals or groups quickly attack one another and their character when faced with a mere disagreement of position or opinion.  Somehow we have forgotten that our indulgence in material pleasures is connected to a lack of self-control, which is a learned behavior that is developed within the family.  As an educator, this changing trend forces me to see how the drive for innovation has overpowered the family.  I also wonder why more educators are not advocating for the family before embracing every “new thing.”

Consequently, this internal weakness in our society is exacerbated when our education system promotes policies, practices, and social messages that harm the wellbeing of the family. Regardless of your position on the use of cannabis, I see the need for K-12 public schools systems and universities to go beyond engaging industry  to consider the voices of families regarding the implications of new education aims, especially controversial university course offerings. We need to have more focused debate on how will our actions strengthen the family and improve our society’s ability to function and thrive, and not just in terms of economics. We can no longer afford to proceed with what we are told the future will be like or what skills students will need for new industries without rigorously contemplating the health of our nation’s families.

So, if we continue in this pattern, what will the next 10 years of ‘Did You Know’ videos highlight?

Living is learning

Character through challenges

Improving Culture

Learning is ruined

Politics and agendas

Stay Purpose Driven

Show Highlights

Imagine what your life would be like if you could not read.  What kind of job would you have? How would you care for your family?  Well, this is a reality for many people across the country. In fact, recent reports show that 1 in 5 adults in North Texas cannot read. This means that more than 800,000 adults in Dallas County alone are struggling with literacy and that number is projected to grow to more than 1 million by 2030.  

This is a problem that impacts all citizens in one way or another, especially our economy.  According to, increased access and funding for adult literacy education resources and a change in public policy, including increased participation of the private sector in adult literacy education, will directly impact all Americans by contributing to a healthy economy through increased employment and reduced public assistance.

My guest in today’s episode is Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT) President and CEO, Dr. Linda Johnson.  Dr. Johnson has over 20 years of non-profit management experience with educational and arts-based non-profit organizations.  Linda joined LIFT in 2017 from Dallas Independent School District (DISD), where she served as Executive Director of the College and Career Readiness program.

In her work with LIFT, she strives to enhance the lives and strengthen communities by teaching adults to read.  More specifically, LIFT  is reaching into the neighborhoods where people live, work and worship to teach adults to read, and thereby increasing access to employment, reducing reliance on social services, and improving the quality of life for many students and their families across Texas.

During this episode, Dr. Johnson sheds light on the growing adult literacy problem in Texas and explains how education policy and practice have utilized to address the current situation.  She also discusses the strategies and resources her organization, LIFT, deploys to address adult literacy and strengthen communities across the state through advocacy and partnerships. 

About the Guest

Dr. Linda K. Johnson, President and CEO for Literacy Instruction for Texas (LIFT), has thirty-five years of management experience, including more than fifteen years of CEO experience.  Before joining LIFT in 2017, she served as Executive Director of College and Career Readiness for the Dallas ISD and led three Dallas ISD departments: Advanced Academic Services, Career Education and Workforce Partnerships, and Postsecondary Success. 

Dr. Johnson holds a M.B.A. from the University of Dallas and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from the University of Texas at Arlington where she is also an Adjunct Professor.  Additionally, she has been involved in numerous national market research and community-wide master planning projects. 

Dr. Johnson was awarded the 2012 Council of the Great City Schools / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Research and Assessment Leadership award for Early Indicators of Future College Success Longitudinal Postsecondary Analysis of Dallas ISD Graduates 1998 to 2009.  Her other white papers include: Models of College Success:  High School Influences on Dallas ISD 2002 Graduates and Reaping the Benefits: The Impact of Immigration on Dallas Public Education.

Contact with Dr. Linda Johnson

Follow Lift on Social Media: @LIFTDallas ∙ Facebook ∙ LinkedInInstagram
Learn more about LIFT:

Connect with the Host

You can reach me on Twitter @drjeffmiller  and Instagram @drjeffreymiller or go to my show website and leave a question or comment about any of the content shared on this episode. You can also read my latest blog post at