REL 2004 Policy Forum
From Texas School District Strategies to State Education Policy

Dr. Shirley Neeley

Shirley Neeley Shirley J. Neeley is the Texas commissioner of education and, as such, she serves as the head of the Texas Education Agency. She was a former elementary school teacher, assistant principal and principal, and district superintendent. Neeley focused on student performance accountability while overseeing the Galena Park Independent School District, a district with a student population that is 66 percent economically disadvantaged and 88 percent minority and Texasí largest exemplary district from 1995 until her appointment as commissioner of education in January 2004. Neeley was appointed to the Southern Regional Education Board and named Texas Association of School Boardsí Superintendent of the Year in 2003.
Dr. Shirley J. Neeley
Ph.D. University of Houston

Neeley’s key message was “Keep the main thing, the main thing–focus on student learning.” She talked about the Texas education accountability system, including transitions, strengths, and limitations and new passing rates and high school requirements. Problems for the system are compounded by changing demographics and enrollment increasing by 8,000 students per year. Neeley pointed out data trends in reading achievement, with increases in all subgroups, and attributed some increases to a statewide training in reading for all 2nd-grade teachers. She described how Texas is focusing on migrant students, tracking their achievement in other states. Neeley reported that Texas is also placing an emphasis on PK-16 initiatives, i.e., providing a seamless transition, vertical teaming, and higher education preparation/readiness. There has been an increase in Texas students taking the ACT exam and greater participation of females and minorities in higher education (4-year universities, community colleges, and vocational programs).

Neeley expressed concerns about the NCLB adequate yearly progress (AYP) requirement regarding the percent inclusion of special education students and suggested a phase-in or hold harmless plan be considered. She is not sure parents will understand the AYP results and anticipates much disappointment, although educators can help parents better understand. Another concern is the recent ruling that declared Texas’ education finance system unconstitutional once again and included the requirement to find a resolution by October 2005.

Neeley described experiences while superintendent in a high-poverty, high minority, property-poor, Texas school district with constantly changing demographics and increasing enrollment. She outlined strategies she attributes to consistently improving achievement across the district, emphasizing the crucial aspect of good leadership-–especially the school principal:

  • Accountability links: teacher/student, principal/
    school, state/superintendent/district
  • Accept no excuses until students succeed
  • “Good is better but better is best”––strive for high goals to achieve exemplary status in 5 years
  • Get rid of incompetent people
  • Spend funding on training and ensure appropriate and effective professional development
  • Figure out what needs to be done and do it
  • Establish numerous benchmarks to be able to constantly assess student ability.

Neeley concluded by stressing that there are no magic bullets, instead there is much hard work in front of us if we are to close the achievement gap. She offered some ideas to consider: health clinics in schools, sharing best practices, collaborating with Just For the Kids, increasing public trust, receiving support from research organizations such as SEDL, and merit pay for students.