Friday, October 26, 2007

New TEA chief has done his homework, but real test is ahead

AUSTIN Robert Scott comes into the top job at the Texas Education Agency with a political resume many would covet. But his first tests will require at least as much expertise in education as politics.

New TEA chief has done his homework, but real test is ahead
08:09 AM CDT on Thursday, October 25, 2007
By KAREN AYRES SMITH / The Dallas Morning News

The strong ally of Gov. Rick Perry has come into one of the most powerful jobs in Austin vowing to crack down on TAKS test cheating, craft new curriculum standards and build new tests in core subjects to replace the state's controversial graduation exam.

First up, Mr. Scott says, is to attack cheating on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests more aggressively. Potential steps include putting monitors in schools with questionable scores and punishing educators who cheat, including by pulling their credentials. Fifty-three such cases are pending. He also would consider revoking a school's accountability rating over TAKS cheating.

With criticism still lingering that TEA's response to past allegations of cheating was too lax, Mr. Scott said he is determined to find the best way to use statistics and on-the-ground investigations to snag cheaters.

"It's a matter of public trust and public confidence in the system," he said.

His plans pose an ambitious agenda for someone who has never taught or led a school. It's also likely to regularly throw him in the middle of intense controversies. But the 38-year-old lawyer has shown he can weather tough situations.

He finished law school while working as a key adviser to the head of TEA and raising two kids on his own after a divorce. Back at TEA in 2003, he laid off 200 people to fill a budget gap.

Mr. Perry appointed him to his current job after telling former Commissioner Shirley Neeley that she was no longer needed. Mr. Scott had been her chief deputy, and it's no secret the two had their differences in the nearly four years they worked together, including over how to handle allegations of TAKS cheating.

Mr. Scott also starts his new job with an ethics investigation hanging over him about accusations that he steered a lucrative TEA contract to a friend. Mr. Scott denies those claims. State Auditor John Keel is investigating, but he won't comment on the probe or say when he will finish.

Mr. Scott's selection offends some who say the state's top education official ˆ setting policy for 1,033 districts, 197 charter operators and 4.6 million students ˆ should be an educator. Mr. Scott responds with typical directness: He's already run TEA's day-to-day operations, and he knows education policy better than most.

The true test will come in the next few months.

"His leadership style is to be discovered," said Mavis Knight, a state board of education member from Dallas. "It's one thing to be second in command. It's an altogether different thing to be the first-in-command individual."

Policy fascinates him

At 38, the intense new commissioner looks younger than most on his staff. He considers the label "policy wonk" a compliment and says he reads education research that interests him at home at night. After hours, he often e-mails back and forth with staff.

Mr. Scott first fell for government work as a college freshman when he read an article titled "Redundancy, Rationality and the Problem of Duplication and Overlap," about how organizations operate.

"It just turned me on in terms of policy and government," he said.

After he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, Mr. Scott landed a job as a messenger in the state Senate and then as an aide to then-state Sen. Gene Green. After earning his bachelor's degree in government, Mr. Scott worked on school finance issues for Mr. Green. It was his introduction to education policy.

"I am certainly no expert in the field of statistics, what you would normally call a wonkish person," Mr. Scott said. "If you want to say I'm someone who enjoys spending all of his days and nights thinking about education policy then, yes, that is pretty accurate."

Kids and law school

When Mr. Green was elected to Congress, Mr. Scott joined his staff in Washington. There, he became immersed in a battle over federal funding for schools, sparring with the powerful likes of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy. He was only 24.

When his marriage ended a few years later, Mr. Scott took primary custody of his children, Jonathan and Katie, who are now in ninth and eighth grades in Austin public schools. He worked as an executive assistant to then-TEA Commissioner Mike Moses and enrolled in UT law school at the same time. His children would later walk across the stage with him at graduation in 2000.

"It almost killed me," Mr. Scott said. "I look back at that point and it was pretty much just running on adrenaline for two years. I really loved law school. In terms of mental engagement, it was a lot of fun."

On the job, Mr. Scott worked on rewriting curriculum standards that dictate the all-important content of everyday lessons and tests. The rewrite touched nerves when it dealt with such controversial issues as sex education.

"He handled all the tension and anxiety that went with that very well," said Dr. Moses, who later became superintendent of Dallas schools.

In 2001, Mr. Perry hired Mr. Scott as an education adviser. Two years later, the governor named him interim TEA commissioner after former Commissioner Felipe Alanis left.

Within months, Mr. Scott and his team faced the unpopular job of having to cut 200 TEA employees to help avert a budget shortfall.

Mr. Scott said he has assured his staff that TEA is in a different position today than 2003 and he intends to work collaboratively with agency leaders.

Mr. Scott became TEA's chief deputy commissioner when Ms. Neeley was named commissioner in 2004. They came at their jobs from different perspectives.

"He would always look at things from a policy standpoint and the governor's standpoint, and I would look at it from how it would impact that classroom teacher, that school, that superintendent and more importantly that student," Dr. Neeley said. "We were very open about it. It was never a secret."

Shortly before Dr. Neeley left TEA, a report by the agency's inspector general found several problems with contracting practices. The report suggested that Mr. Scott steered a $100,000 contract to a friend.

Mr. Scott said it's a case of mistaken identity. He said the contract was negotiated by an employee with the same name who works in the agency's regional service center in Waco.

The other Robert Scott, who goes by the nickname Rob, declined to discuss the investigation this week.

The state auditor's office began investigating the report and was still working on the probe when the governor named Mr. Scott TEA commissioner last week.

When asked about the timing of the appointment, a governor's office spokeswoman said only that Mr. Scott was the most qualified candidate for the job.

Not a teacher

Mr. Scott's appointment was controversial for some.

Linda Bridges, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, said her group would have preferred that an educator take the helm.

"We always have felt that if you've toiled in the field, you understand what it takes to get the job done," she said.

But state Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said she believes an education background isn't necessarily required. She is a former teacher.

"I really do think you weigh that experience, but you have to base the decision on whether the individual can handle that type of job," she said.

Mr. Scott said his lack of experience in the classroom will lead him to listen closely to others.

While some policies are under his control, others are not. For example, he said he would support a pilot voucher program, but he said such a plan would have to come from the Legislature.

"If you've got an at-risk student and there is something you can do for that kid, and they're not being served well now, we would be crazy not to try it," Mr. Scott said.

Whatever the issue, Mr. Scott remains, foremost, a student of policy.

"You know you're cut out for politics when you walk by the Capitol and you get goose bumps, and you know it's time to go when you walk by and get hives," Mr. Scott said. "I haven't gotten to the hives stage yet and I'm still just amazed I get to work in that building."

Mr. Scott faces several critical tasks in his new job. Here are the details of some of his plans:

TEA reorganization

Mr. Scott plans to reorganize the agency to better serve programs that have been mandated by the Legislature, including a Virtual Schools program that will provide for online courses.

TAKS cheating

Mr. Scott said that he wants to tackle the problem more aggressively and that he has asked his staff to begin examining what steps the agency might take. Possibilities include putting monitors in schools with suspicious scores, punishing educators who cheat by possibly pulling their credentials and conducting statistical analyses of scores. He said he would also consider revoking a school's accountability rating for cheating.

New curriculum standards

The agency has started reviewing the state curriculum. Mr. Scott said new curriculum guidelines must be clear and more grade-specific to better prepare students for college. The goals must be measurable, he said. Instead of telling students just to write a persuasive essay, for example, the state should direct students to write an essay that uses research, anticipates counterarguments and includes proper citations.

End-of-course tests

The Legislature recently directed the agency to develop tests to measure high school students' performance in core subjects. The students must pass those tests to graduate. The tests will replace the current exit TAKS test in 2011. Mr. Scott said the agency will conduct pre-tests to measure the new tests before they are given to students.


Mr. Scott says he would support a pilot voucher program, but authorization for any such program would have to come from the Legislature. He said it would be worthwhile to see whether vouchers would help at-risk students, but he believes public schools would remain the schools of choice for most parents.
Age: 38

Family: Single with two children, ages 14 and 13, who attend Austin public schools

Education: Bachelor's and law degrees, University of Texas at Austin

Professional experience: Legislative aide to Rep. Gene Green, a former state senator and current Democratic congressman from Houston; adviser to former TEA commissioners Mike Moses and Jim Nelson; senior adviser to Gov. Rick Perry for public education; chief deputy commissioner, Texas Education Agency. He served as interim TEA commissioner twice ˆ in 2003 and 2007.

Summer reading: The Road by Cormac McCarthy and an almanac of Texas history

TEA salary: $180,000

TEA term: Expires January 2011

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