Can Public Schools Overcome the Pandemic?

UT’s College of Education has a few ideas.

When Alexandria Smith, MEd ’17, learned in late March that she wouldn’t return to her English classroom for the rest of the spring, her first thought was about her students. Austin schools, including LBJ Early College High School, where Smith teaches, were closing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and Smith knew she could adapt to teaching online. But some of her students didn’t have laptops or internet access. Some qualified for free lunch and relied on the school for their midday meal. For some, school was a reprieve from a difficult home life. Immediately, Smith and her fellow teachers started calling students to find out what they needed and how the school could help.  

The decision to close the Austin Independent School District had been made by then-superintendent Paul Cruz, BS ’87, PhD ’95. Less than a month earlier, Cruz had announced he would resign from his position to become a professor of practice and co-director of the UT College of Education’s Cooperative Superintendency Program, from which he graduated in 1995. Now, in the home stretch of his sixth year as superintendent, he faced an unforeseen challenge. How would he move classes online, when not all students had access to technology or the internet at home? How would the district track down students who had to move after their parents lost their jobs? How would he keep the existing gaps in educational achievement from widening?  

“When the pandemic came, we knew those gaps would become more significant,” Cruz says. “Our challenge wasn’t just figuring out how to teach a math lesson. It was, ‘We need to go find our students and make sure they’re OK.’”  

Both Cruz and Smith knew that COVID-19 would affect students personally and academically—and that the impacts would be unequally felt. The pandemic exacerbated inequalities in every aspect of society, including education. Students whose families were already in economically precarious situations became even more vulnerable as restaurants, bars, hotels, and retail stores closed or laid off staff. Families who had trouble accessing health care before the pandemic were at even greater risk, as were frontline workers like grocery clerks and delivery drivers, who did not have the option to work from home. Students in these households also would have a harder time learning online than students whose families were sheltered in place together, working from home with their own laptops and reliable internet.  

The pandemic threw a wrench into a state public school system that already struggled to educate all of its students. But UT’s College of Education, and its alumni across the state, were prepared to adapt to the new reality while prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable students. The program, recognized among the country’s top 10 public colleges of education, trains some of Texas’ best-prepared teachers. Its faculty conduct meticulous research that informs the decisions of superintendents and lawmakers. The COE is a critical resource for a rapidly growing state with 10 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren—and significant challenges.  

Although 90 percent of Texas students graduate from high school, nearly four in 10 who enter a public two- or four-year college do not meet state college-readiness standards in math, reading, and/or writing. Last year, Texas fourth-graders’ scores collectively ranked 42nd in the nation in the biannual National Assessment of Educational Progress. About 10 percent of the state’s 358,000 teachers leave their jobs each year, an attrition rate that’s above the national average. And the state does not always provide schools the money they need to retain the best teachers or educate students who need extra help. In 2011, Texas cut $5.4 billion from public education. Some of the funding was restored in the following years, although in the National Education Association’s most recent analysis Texas ranked 42nd in spending per pupil.  

The passage of House Bill 3 in the 2019 legislative session gave per-pupil spending a much-needed 20 percent boost, and the measure also funded full-day pre-K and increased teacher salaries. But this year, districts are scrambling to cover the cost of pandemic-related technology and PPE and bracing for potential budget cuts as COVID-19 slashes oil revenues and sales tax receipts.  

Texas’ record in public education suggests the state may struggle to cultivate a top-notch workforce in the years ahead. And not only is Texas home to a tenth of the country’s schoolchildren; its changing demographics—more than half of students in the public K-12 system are Hispanic—represent trends across much of the country. Texas is a bellwether for the entire nation. 


College of education Dean Charles Martinez, who arrived to the Forty Acres in January 2019, was drawn to UT because of the opportunity to transform education for both UT students and the 5.5 million children in the Texas K-12 system.  

Martinez came to UT from the University of Oregon, where he was a professor in the Department of Educational Methodology, Policy and Leadership as well as the director of the Center for Equity Promotion. Even before he moved to Texas, he began visiting the state to meet leaders in Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio schools. He made a trip to the Rio Grande Valley. He also drove through the pine forests of East Texas to smaller towns like Lufkin and Jasper, where he met superintendents who often had other responsibilities—like driving a school bus or repairing the school building after severe weather. The experience illustrated the diversity of Texas’ more than 1,200 school districts, with their immense variation in size and resources.  

In fall 2019, Martinez launched the college’s Reimagine Education program, which articulates three priorities: pursuing equity, understanding a student’s full context, and supporting students through both expected and unexpected transitions. All three embody a perspective that has emerged among top colleges of education over the last decade and a half, as the institutions have come to see K-12 students in a more holistic way.  

“You imagine the action for a College of Education happens when a teacher stands in front of a kid sitting in a chair in a classroom,” Martinez says. “But a modern college of education thinks about students at school in a much broader way. That student sitting in a chair in a classroom is embedded in a much bigger community, including peers and families and neighborhoods and elders, so we think a lot about that broader social context and what influences the lives of kids.”  

That means teaching future educators about systemic racism. It means helping them cultivate empathy and self-reflection to become aware of their own biases and move beyond them. And when a global pandemic reshapes the entire educational system, it means renewing the school’s commitment to imagine—and create—a future in which public education yields life-changing opportunities for all students.  


Reimagining education starts with the understanding that historically, schools haven’t been designed to serve all students equally. Students in the College of Education learn that when children from historically marginalized backgrounds aren’t successful in school, educators should first question the system—not the students.  

“I think the traditional system was based on, ‘You’re going to go to the school, you live in the community, you’re going to live there forever, your family did, and everybody has the same background experiences and same language,’” says Cruz. That picture of stability and homogeneity is a product of selective memory, and it doesn’t match the reality of districts like the one Cruz led. Each year more than 15 percent of AISD students change schools, often because families seek more affordable housing. More than half of AISD students live in poverty, and students speak nearly 100 languages, cumulatively, at home.  

Collecting data like this has helped educators understand the realities of their students’ lives and pay more attention to factors outside school that influence learning. For instance, at the onset of the pandemic, Cruz and the Austin district immediately began to equip students with computers or tablets and park buses with WiFi in neighborhoods where concentrations of students live. The district also shifted its meal program to a curbside pickup model that provided 14,000 breakfasts and lunches a day. Administrators knew that students couldn’t learn when they were hungry or when their family didn’t have internet access, and that the schools would need to fill those gaps.  

Data from standardized tests, which have become more prominent in the last two decades, also have led scholars to reconsider whether schools serve all students equitably. Educators began evaluating not just their students’ overall performance—as in, for example, 85 percent passed—but breaking down results by race, sex, socioeconomic status, or special-education status. Looking more closely at the scores revealed some hard truths: So in this example, maybe 85 percent of students passed, but only 40 percent of the Black and Hispanic students did. These differences came to be known as the “achievement gap.”  

Although it frustrates many educators, standardized testing can be a tool for equity, says Alejandro Delgado, MEd ’16, the deputy chief of staff for Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath. When he was a classroom teacher, Delgado says, “I remember thinking, ‘Why are we taking the STAAR test?’ But at the state level, I actually really want to know if African Americans are closing the gaps. I really want to know, if there’s a school where students have struggled academically, have they grown? And if not, why not? And in the schools where African Americans are performing well, what are those schools doing well, and what can we learn from them?”  

The way educators interpret the achievement gap, which some call the “opportunity gap,” influences whether it closes. If teachers look at the performance differences as entrenched—assuming, for example, that students from poorer backgrounds scored lower because they are poor—that outlook may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if educators stop to examine their own biases and those within the system, they can effect change.  

Students in the COE write reflective journals to review classroom challenges and think about how their own biases might influence the situation. For instance, if a child isn’t doing his homework, the teacher’s initial assumption might be that he doesn’t care about education; but on further reflection, the educator might realize she can tweak aspects of the curriculum to be more engaging. COE students also learn to conduct equity audits, in which they analyze the population of their school to see how students from different racial, sex, and socioeconomic groups are represented in advanced classes and extracurricular activities, as well as in disciplinary referrals.  

When Megan Wehrle, BS ’12, MEd ’19, was earning her master’s of educational leadership while teaching fourth grade in Elgin, near Austin, she analyzed intervention times: the instances when a specialist takes children out of the classroom for one-on-one work in a skill like reading or speech. Wehrle’s initial goal was to find out how frequently her fourth-grade students were leaving the class for individual tutoring and how much instructional time they were missing. But as she looked at the data, she realized her students of color were being pulled out of class at a disproportionate rate.  

Wehrle decided to change how students got one-on-one help; instead of having support staff take the students out of class, which singled them out in front of their peers, she had the staff come into the classroom. “By changing the narrative in that way, kids felt more included,” she says. The change also kept her aware of what the students were working on with the specialist. Attendance went up, students were happier, and achievement scores went up—particularly among students of color.  

UT also teaches its students to recognize and avoid a “deficit perspective”—focusing on the factors associated with lower academic performance rather than interrogating why that correlation exists.  

“The deficit perspective places the blame on why students don’t achieve, or why they’re ‘behind,’ on the individual, versus looking at the larger sociopolitical context and the structural issues that are present,” says Tracey Flores, assistant professor of language and literacy at the COE.  

Instead, the COE teaches students to look for and to engage their own students’ assets. These are the strengths and resources that a child brings to the classroom—resiliency, humor, community and family support, musical ability, literacy in multiple cultures—that are not always easy to see at first glance. Focusing on assets helps the teacher find more ways of connecting with the student and helps both the teacher and student set higher expectations. Even simple shifts in perspective help teachers see their students’ assets. For instance, a student who speaks another language at home isn’t just a child who sometimes struggles with English; she’s a child who will soon be bilingual, with the ability to communicate in two languages, understand two cultures, and, one day, expand her job prospects.  

Teachers’ first thoughts are often, What are my students missing? says Smith, the English department chair at LBJ Early College High School in Austin. “UT does a great job of saying, ‘No, it’s not what are they missing, it’s what do they have—and how can you add to that?’”  

Smith earned a master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction in the Urban Teachers program, which prepares educators to work in the culturally and linguistically diverse populations typically associated with urban settings. Students learn about the political and historical context of cities, including the migration patterns that shape their population and the history of racist policies like redlining. Like the COE as a whole, the program has a pronounced social justice mission.  

More than 70 percent of LBJ students are economically disadvantaged, and a quarter speak a language other than English at home. While these realities affect Smith’s work, they aren’t the first thing she notices about her students. “When I think about the students that I have, I describe them as some of the most caring and loving and resilient individuals that I know,” she says. “They are so bright and loving, and they work really, really hard, and they all want to be successful.” This was especially true when Austin ISD started the school year online, and Smith’s students were on Zoom from 8:15 a.m. to almost 4 p.m. every day.  

Smith says focusing on her students’ assets helps them see that they are valuable in a society that often dismisses them. “Especially for our Black and brown children, I don’t know if we always do a good job of telling them that their experiences and their cultures are valued,” she says. “But as UT graduates and teachers, we try to do that.”  

Students in the Urban Teachers program, among other COE departments, learn about the assets in their own students’ communities by spending time there. Professors take their students on walks through the East Austin neighborhoods surrounding the elementary schools where they practice teaching. The UT students learn the history of the neighborhood; visit its churches, parks, and stores; meet community leaders; and perhaps run into some of their students’ parents. Along the way, they get a sense of the community’s rich heritage as well as the challenges, such as gentrification, faced by their students’ families.  

Of course, parents can serve as their children’s greatest assets, and the COE helps its future teachers find creative ways to involve parents in their children’s education. Not every parent can volunteer at the school or attend a daytime teacher conference. Students learn about sending letters home, perhaps in languages other than English, to explain what the kids are studying and invite parents to participate. Teachers can ask parents to share a family story with their child, who will in turn share the story with the class, or invite parents to teach a skill related to an upcoming topic. These days, during the pandemic, parents are adopting a new medium to communicate with their kids’ class: video.  


 All these initiatives equip UT alumni for success. But the university graduates 300 new teachers a year—and with population growth and teacher attrition, Texas needs 100 times that many.  

One way to make an impact on public education in the state is to reduce the teacher turnover that leads to those vacancies. Three-quarters of UT-trained teachers are still in the profession after five years, which is a comparatively high retention rate. But better support in those tough early years could help all teachers. “Rather than just thinking about how to build a pipeline, we also think about how to stop the leaking pipeline, where so many teachers are leaving the profession,” Martinez says.  

The college is developing an Early Career Fellowship that will function much like a medical residency for teachers. Fellows will receive additional training, observe experienced teachers, and work with a mentor to boost their confidence and skills as they work through their first years of teaching. The college is also developing programs to support this year’s brand-new teachers who, because of the pandemic, never got to finish their student-teaching in the classroom.  

UT and the state of Texas are also working to train classroom teachers and administrators whose backgrounds reflect the diversity of their students. Cruz says he wants to help the Cooperative Superintendency Program continue to recruit more women and more Black and Hispanic doctoral students, whose life experiences can help them understand students’ full context, and prepare them to serve in leadership positions in districts in Texas and across the country. Delgado, at the TEA, has contributed to a program called Grow Your Own, which helps districts build career-education programs focused on teaching. The ideal outcome, Delgado says, is for students—particularly those of color—to complete the program, earn their college degree, and return to their home districts to teach.  

The COE’s faculty also help Texas’ leaders, both legislators and superintendents, make better decisions by arming them with good information. Educational psychology professor Chris McCarthy is studying the nature of pandemic-related stress on teachers in an Austin-area school district where education is delivered online. So far, he says, teachers report feeling stress about the fact that they can’t do anything about the inequities in their students’ access to WiFi and parental support. Some students aren’t logging on at all. In a traditional school setting, educators would be able to check on their students and encourage them in a warm, personal way. For instance, if a student is having a hard time, a teacher or counselor could meet her at the front door of the school every morning to be a friendly face. In the virtual environment, those opportunities don’t exist.  

Although the pandemic is intensifying teachers’ stress, the Vida Clinic is using telehealth to support them. Founded by UT alumna Elizabeth Portman Minne, the clinic represents one more way the COE serves the state: The college produces graduates who invent creative solutions to some of education’s biggest problems. Minne, who earned her doctorate in school psychology from UT in 2006, launched Vida Clinic in 2012 to provide mental health services for schools in five districts, including Austin. Although every campus has a school counselor, a single person can’t attend to the mental health needs of hundreds or thousands of students, especially because counselors have numerous other responsibilities. Vida Clinic, which is partly grant funded, brings licensed clinicians to schools, where both students and teachers can receive therapy during the school day. It’s been a game-changer for the schools—and, in a small bright spot during COVID-19, the transition to virtual services has allowed Vida almost to triple the number of schools it serves.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of both the student-teacher relationship and technology. There’s no substitute for a caring, well-educated teacher who’s committed to changing kids’ lives for the better. But, going forward, Cruz says, technology and remote learning will likely become more central to the educational enterprise.  

The pandemic forced schools to deliver education in new ways. As in many industries, some of those adaptations could be adopted permanently. Some kids learn better online; some want to take classes that aren’t offered at their school but could be if online learning became more widespread.  

“What a great opportunity it would be for us to create these learning spaces where kids can learn at any point in time,” Cruz says. “While we still have school hours and traditional-type school, it doesn’t have to be that way for every single student.” Students could log into their classes at 9 p.m. to review lessons and lectures and get notes, just as they do now with asynchronous content. Parents could review their student’s curriculum online and have a better understanding of their child’s progress.  

Such innovations depend, of course, on the equitable distribution of computers and internet access, a reality that was underscored this spring.  

When Texas schools closed in late March and then finished the semester online, they were operating in a new world. Educators were scrambling to adapt personally and professionally while providing their students with adequate technology. In such confusing and stressful times, the Texas Education Agency decided to continue funding schools based on a good-faith attestation by the superintendent that, yes, a district was educating its students remotely. But as it became clear the pandemic would linger well into the next school year, Delgado’s team at TEA needed to develop a framework to answer a basic question: what does “online education” mean for students in the pre-K through grade 12 system?  

For example, a high school statistics class might translate pretty easily to the virtual world. But kindergarteners can’t sit through hours of Zoom instruction. TEA opted not to fund synchronous learning—where students tune into a ‘live’ class—for pre-K through grade 2. This guideline nudges schools to come up with a more age-appropriate solution for the younger kids.  

As the school year started, Delgado was hearing troubling reports from districts around the state: pre-K and kindergarten enrollments were down. Presumably, parents were concerned about the virus and opting to homeschool their children. But it was impossible to know what these students were actually learning. Some Texas parents may have the resources to provide an enriching at-home version of kindergarten, while others may not. And high-quality education in the early grades is critical to students’ later success.  

Delgado says the pandemic threatens to exacerbate educational inequalities. Higher-income families can hire tutors and nannies to help their students learn at home, but most parents don’t have that option. This is why TEA’s guidelines encourage schools to offer parents the option of virtual education but prioritize in-person learning, when possible. It’s a challenge to balance students’ health and safety with their educational needs, Delgado says. But spending the entire school year online would almost certainly widen the gaps in student opportunity and achievement.  

Public education is meant to help all children have the same chance of success in life. UT’s COE and districts across the state are trying to ensure that remains true, even in a pandemic. “We can’t let this year go to waste,” Delgado says. “We want to make sure we have a system that works toward serving all students.”  

Illustration by Eiko Ojala


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