Texas has made good progress and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board has provided good leadership on the 15-year strategic plan implemented by the Board in 2000, significantly increasing the number of people enrolled in higher education and meeting the objectives for the number of undergraduate degrees or certificates awarded and the increase in the number of nationally recognized programs and services at Texas institutions. And the Board expects by next year to meet most of the other goals of the current plan, which has been revised as the state met the benchmarks.
But as the Board finalizes and begins to implement the next 15-year phase of the plan through 2030, the standards must be significantly higher to meet the need, while the challenges mount. For example, based on a draft of the plan discussed in a recent meeting, the proposed target for educational attainment in Texas calls for increasing the percentage of Texans aged 25-34 with a postsecondary degree or credential to at least 45% by 2020, 52% by 2025, and 60% by 2030. Currently, it is 38%, compared to 43% for the overall U. S. population.
To put this challenge in perspective, note that, based on research conducted by the Coordinating Board and Houston Endowment on the fall 2000 cohort of Texas eighth graders, only 19% of them earned any sort of postsecondary credential within six years of expected high school graduation, and for the economically disadvantaged segment of this cohort the result was 9%. This statistic represents the current status of the “pipeline” of those ready for college and the 21st century workplace that will feed the ambitious objectives that the Coordinating Board has in mind. Further to this point on “readiness”, we know that 51% of Texas high school graduates entering community colleges need remediation and that very few of these kids ultimately graduate.
So my first thought when seeing the preliminary draft of the 2030 higher education plan was, given the current state of PreK-12 education in Texas, how in the world can these objectives be met. The answer is, they can’t, which is why our state’s future is in the hands of those responsible for leading our elementary and secondary system of schools. They are the only ones who can fill the “pipeline” with the postsecondary ready students we will need for the state’s prosperity, and they should be held accountable for doing so. Yet as the 84th Texas Legislature convenes in a couple of weeks, we know that there are a number of bills already filed that are intended to go beyond the destructive provisions of House Bill 5 from the 2013 session, further roll back the standardized assessments necessary to measure the postsecondary readiness of our pending high school graduates, and undermine the very accountability for the college and career readiness of our kids that we know we must have. There is a big disconnect here.
As those of us who are involved with education reform have said numerous times since the adoption of the accountability system embodied in House Bill 3 in 2009, unlike the succession of all previous accountability assessments, the new one (STAAR) moved the achievement bar from “passing” to “readiness”, a big leap that almost no one in the education establishment was prepared for. The question is, how long to we allow them to get ready? And do we really want to use the new alternative pathways to “track” students and sort them into two or more groups and label their high school diplomas, as many well-meaning leaders seem to want?
These are the questions we need to address, and as important as this visionary work on the part of higher education leadership is, we truly need a PreK-16 approach so that we are fully in touch with the realities and are properly addressing and resolving these issues in PreK-12.