The 84th Session of the Texas Legislature is in full swing and no policy issue under consideration is more important than education in general and PreK-12 education in particular. In fact, it could be said that Texas is at a crossroad in determining which direction it wants to go in furthering its public education reform progress that has been slowly but surely moving forward for twenty years until recently, when the rigor of the accountability system took a significant hit in the last session.
The organization that I chair, the Texas Institute for Education Reform (TIER), is involved with every aspect of the reform agenda, and we recently completed a “road show” in several major cities around the state to discuss our policy priorities with business and education leaders. Following is a synopsis of our message.
Since the beginning of the Texas commitment to public education standards and accountability based reform in 1993, the state has made remarkable progress in student achievement. Based on results measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), improvements in accountability have significantly raised achievement in reading and math among all student groups. In addition, high school graduation rates have steadily increased over this period.
However, significant problems remain: 51% of high school graduates entering community colleges need remediation and, more significantly, based on studies sponsored by Houston Endowment, only 20% of Texas students are earning any sort of postsecondary credential within six years of expected high school graduation. The latter statistic represents the “pipeline” of those ready for college and the 21st century workplace and is a more realistic measure of educational success and the challenge we face than any “dropout” calculation might indicate.
TIER has identified the primary challenge to Texas public education by 2020 to produce 80% postsecondary ready high school graduates without the need for remediation—a very tall order.
How do we do this? With a serious commitment to the following fundamental points:
• Expand education choice for families
• Increase school district autonomy
• Attack the reading and literacy crisis
• Emphasize funding efficiency and productivity
• Defend and demand accountability
Let’s take these one at a time.
1. Expand education choice for families. We should enhance school choice and competition and allow the evolution from a “school system” to “a system of schools”, with robust choices for parents and students that meet their needs, and with funding that follows the student. To begin, we should adopt comprehensive public school choice throughout the state, subject to capacity. But more capacity for choice is needed, and we should expand and improve the charter school system, with more co-location of charters with traditional schools, equalized funding, and a more robust “parent trigger” to authorize parents to change the management of unacceptable schools. Further, we should provide a state funded scholarship for students in chronically failing schools to transfer to any school of their choice and we should adopt a scholarship program for special education students based on the successful MacKay program in Florida.
2. Increase school district autonomy. We must adopt policies that enable deregulation and innovation in the schools and move away from the top down, compliance and input driven system to one that is output and performance based. The role of the state beyond accountability should primarily be to enable and encourage new teaching and learning methods through the use of technology and innovations in scheduling and delivery. Schools should be free from unnecessary state bureaucracy and the time-honored management principle of “authority commensurate with responsibility and accountability” should be the prevailing operational model. This should include eliminating the role of the state in managing local human resources, including compensation of educators and arbitrary class size restrictions. And we should expand truly alternative routes to the teaching profession and hold teacher preparation programs accountable for the effectiveness of the product they deliver measured by their value-added to student achievement.
3. Attack the reading and literacy crisis. Only 28% of Texas fourth graders performed at or above the proficient level on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), about the same as a decade ago. And the average reading score for Texas fourth graders is lower than the scores for 30 other states and jurisdictions. The problem is not due to lack of know-how. Extensive research provides clear direction on the most effective ways to teach reading and writing, but practitioners seem to have willful indifference to what this research has shown. This must stop.
It’s time to get serious about this crisis. We must immediately do the following: (1) raise standards for reading proficiency in the early grades (PreK-2) and incorporate early reading measures into the school accountability system; (2) require all schools to provide effective reading programs for all students in every grade, PreK-12; (3) ensure that teachers are identifying struggling readers early and connecting them with the intensive help they need; (4) guarantee that state certification tests evaluate teachers’ knowledge of reading science, including a stand-alone test for those who teach reading; and (5) provide ongoing training through summer reading academies focused on science-based reading instruction and rigorously evaluate that training to determine its efficacy.
4. Emphasize funding efficiency and productivity. We must spend education dollars much more efficiently. In all of the current litigation on school finance, we must ask ourselves, which is the most important consideration—adequacy, equity, or efficiency? We submit the following response: (1) aggregate statewide funding is adequate and, in fact, public education funding from all sources over the past 15 years has increased significantly more than the increase in enrollment and inflation combined, even when adding a factor for the growth in special needs students; (2) equitable funding is questionable in many ways, including between administration and the classroom, between and among many rural and urban areas, and between traditional and charter schools; (3) the “Robin Hood” finance system is a failed attempt at equity; and (4) the constitutional mandate for school “efficiency” should have priority in driving the school finance debate.
Let’s face it—the current education delivery system is not sustainable. We cannot continue to finance this top-down, compliance and input driven system. Only when we replace it with a more competitive, deregulated, and innovative system that incentivizes educators and enables productivity with true financial accountability will we know what funding adequacy and equity really mean.
5. Defend and demand accountability. Postsecondary readiness should be the organizing principle of PreK-12 education. What does this mean? We define this level of readiness as follows: The range of academic, workforce and social proficiency achievement that students should acquire to successfully transition from high school to skilled employment, advanced military training, an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or technical or industry certification, without the need for remediation. The proxy for this standard is community college readiness without remediation.
In addition to college and career readiness, postsecondary readiness must also mean “one standard, multiple pathways, equal rigor” in the Texas default high school plan, so that students must have multiple pathway choices to college or a meaningful career represented by industry standards, with equal rigor of curriculum.
Accountability must have three components—diagnostics to assist educators in determining the intervention needs of students, transparency for parents and taxpayers, and consequences, for educators in terms of compensation and continuing employment and for students in terms of promotion and graduation.
How do we assess postsecondary readiness? Texas is committed to an assessment that measures student achievement against the standards at each grade level that indicate what students should know and when should they know it, leading to the postsecondary readiness standard at graduation. In addition, we should have the capability to measure the value-added to each student’s achievement on an annual basis, as a diagnostic measure of annual progress of the student and the effectiveness of educators.
As to the debate on standardized testing, it is difficult to cut through the rhetoric and paranoia on the subject, except to say that every meaningful pursuit in life involves an assessment of achievement related to a standard. The abuses alleged in the testing process appear to be more a problem related to constant practice and benchmark testing at the school district level than problems with the requirements of the state accountability system, which are benign by comparison. The anti-standardized testing firestorm is misguided and misinformed.
Finally, all five of the fundamental points of reform must “hang together” as a comprehensive whole, but it begins with the state system of accountability for results, which provides the infrastructure for the entire public education system and is the key element enabling education reform. Without it, the other pieces have no coherence.
A formidable challenge, no doubt, but we must get on with our response to it. If you would like to know how you can help, go to www.texaseducationreform.org.