In speaking and writing about the current status of Texas public education reform, I am often torn, in the metaphor of the drinking glass, between the half full and half empty portions and sometimes criticized for my emphasis on the half empty portion. So let me start with the half full portion.There is no doubt that Texas has led the nation in public education reform and has served as a model for other states in the advancement of standards and accountability. In fact, the centerpiece of President Bush’s education initiative, the No Child Left Behind Act, is almost a carbon copy of the Texas model. And Houston, under the former leadership of Bush’s Secretary of Education Rod Paige and an enlightened board of trustees, has been a beacon for urban school reform, having achieved well-deserved recognition as the best urban school district in America. This is the half full part, and it has been accomplished by the dedication of a statewide coalition of educators, administrators, and legislative and business leaders in a consistent effort over a period of twenty years.
However, I submit that the easier phases of reform are behind us in Texas, that we are at a critical juncture, that there is some evidence of backsliding, and that the most difficult phase lies ahead. I offer two examples of many available to illustrate why the easy part of reform is behind us. One involves the level of reading achievement, and I will use Houston ISD reading scores as a proxy. On the 2003 SAT-9 reading test, a nationally norm-referenced test, over 60% of Houston’s third graders scored below grade level, and on the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress test of reading achievement, 52% of Houston’s fourth graders and 41% of eighth graders scored below basic achievement level, while only 18% and 17%, respectively, were at or above proficient level. It is also noteworthy that Houston’s average SAT-9 reading scores for 2003 peaked in the first grade at the 51st percentile, and consistently declined beyond that point to the 27th percentile for ninth grade students, a level at which a student has almost no comprehension of the assigned textbooks.
At this late date, and twenty years after the publication of “A Nation at Risk”, these results represent a tragedy, and the fact that they were better than other major U. S. urban districts (remember, this is the best urban school district in America) is little consolation when one considers that, ultimately, the dropout odds are stacked heavily against any child who cannot read at grade level by the end of third grade. To compound the tragedy, we can’t plead ignorance. We know “what works” and how to fix the problem—the education establishment knows how to teach the vast majority of at-risk children how to read and read to learn at a very early age, which is in itself a subject for another essay.
The other example illustrating the more difficult task ahead involves access to higher education by racial and ethnic minorities. Based on surveys over recent years of the potential college applicant pool of African Americans and Hispanics of typical college entrance age in Texas, the following picture emerges: Of the total of approximately 135,000 minority 18-year olds in a given year, roughly 55% are high school graduates, 16% have taken a college entrance exam, and 3% have scored the equivalent of 900 on the SAT exam and ranked in the top 40% of their high school class. Not only does this describe an uphill battle, but it serves to illustrate the puzzling priorities we often emphasize—one half of minority children don’t complete high school, over one half of third graders cannot read at grade level, and our policy and media attention are focused on affirmative action to achieve diversity in admissions as a compelling objective at our two flagship universities! One would think that a much higher priority should be the expansion of the pool of qualified candidates produced by our public schools. Go figure.
Given these two examples of many available indices of the daunting challenge ahead, where are we on the reform front and how do we get to the next level? In Texas, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that we have government policy and legislative leadership with the most aggressive reform orientation in history, and there are in fact some good reform initiatives in motion. In addition, we boast a wide range of well-intentioned reform organizations and intervention initiatives of business and education leaders. But the bad news is that we are mired in reform “incrementalism” and we continue to suffer from the inertia of the structure of public education and the resistance to true reform from well-entrenched vested interests.
Dr Paul Hill of the University of Washington describes two types of education reform—intrinsic and extrinsic. Basically, intrinsic reform is driven by those who believe that good intentions and the inherent attractiveness of good ideas will make schools more effective. Proponents are primarily those dedicated to the education profession and confident of the morality of education as a public enterprise free of commercial or economic motivation and incentives. Extrinsic reform, on the other hand, is driven by those who believe that external motivating and competitive factors have a primary role to play in more effective schools, and proponents of this type are typically not professional educators. Essentially, in layman’s language, intrinsic reform is the “heal thyself” variety, and I believe we have taken this type about as far as it can take us, with top-down standards and accountability. Why is this so? Because, for all the progress we have made, we have still not fully addressed the perverse incentives embedded in the structure of public education, which remains primarily driven by inputs and compliance when it should be driven by outputs and performance. That is why the easy part of reform is behind us—because the next phase involves major changes in adult behavior. And this can only come, in my opinion, through the dynamics of deregulation and marketization of delivery systems and of educator preparation and compensation. Many consider this a last resort. I believe we are there now.
It is long past time to move to the next level of reform and accountability—the extrinsic type—and this is the trend we must and will see over the next several decades in what I believe will be the civil rights revolution of the 21st century, which I think will play out simultaneously on the two tracks I have just mentioned: the delivery system for education and the means by which we prepare and compensate educators, primarily teachers.
Since the end of the 2003 regular session of the Texas Legislature, we have been struggling with the overhaul of Texas public school finance and searching for a successor to the flawed “Robin Hood” system. In this debate, many of us have taken the position that finance reform should be closely tied to, if not preceded by, comprehensive structural reform. The Texas Education Reform Caucus said it best: “Texas has a great opportunity to take a giant step forward in K-12 school reform. The Texas Legislature should tie to a new school finance system that meets the needs of equity and adequacy bold, comprehensive reform legislation to take Texas to the next level of accountability. The Legislature must make it possible for school districts to drive accountability into the classroom and every corner of district operations.” I couldn’t agree more, but what will be necessary to overcome the embedded perverse incentives and drive such a massive cultural shift in public education?
First, as to the reform of delivery systems, this will certainly entail a range of alternatives to the current system, the growth and development of some of which are already underway, including charter schools, contract schools, home schooling, and expansion of online education and “virtual” schools, among others. But the centerpiece of delivery system reform must be the full introduction of competitive dynamics to the incentive structure through the adoption of comprehensive school choice, at least in our larger urban districts. This is the ultimate accountability system, and it would have the additional benefit of completely transforming school finance.
What are the primary objections to this child-centered reform? Most prominently, the opposition to choice has done a good job of shaping the debate to focus on “draining” funds from the public schools. My response is, first, it is difficult to make the case that public education is under funded. Total annual public education operating expenditures in Texas approximate $7,000 per student and aggregate spending increased by 43% over the five years ended in 2002, more than twice the sum of enrollment growth and inflation over the same period. As significant, this average annual cost per student is approximately twice the amount of the average annual tuition of all private and parochial schools. So the funding already exists to finance competitive options to the current delivery system. More importantly, in a truly competitive system, the ultimate accountability is the power of the customer, parents and their children, to “vote with their feet” and have the funding follow the child. We should remember that school choice already exists for those who are privileged to be able to afford a private school or a home in an affluent neighborhood with a high quality public school. The substantial majority of those left behind without such choices are relatively poor, inner city, and often minority children. We owe them the same opportunity.
Over the years, one of the mysteries of my school choice advocacy has been the reluctance among many, including a large number of supposedly market sensitive business leaders, to understand and accept the dynamics of competition and how, in a choice environment, these dynamics will produce a supply of quality education alternatives to meet the demand while driving improvement in the public schools. So well entrenched is the static one-size-fits-all delivery system, with its top-down mandates and accountability, that we fear the dynamics of a deregulated market for education. And the concept has never been fairly tested in Texas, because religious schools, which comprise the vast majority of private schools, have never been included in the available universe of options.
In the school choice debate, we should start with a basic premise: No child should be left behind because of failure of the education distribution system to deliver the best possible opportunity for every child. If we cannot deliver on this commitment, we are failing in our public education responsibility, and no historical attachment to a particular delivery system should prevent our making the necessary changes. This debate is about children, not about a system.
A competitive delivery system is a necessary, but not sufficient, reform, because any delivery system is only as good as the educators in the school building. As Secretary Rod Paige so well noted in his first annual report to Congress on Meeting the Highly Qualified Teacher Challenge in June 2002, the teacher preparation system is “broken”, and, although Texas has done a better job than most states in raising teacher preparation standards and accountability, we are no exception to this generalization. So we must also transform the means by which we manage the human resources of our public education system, and this will require that we examine every aspect of the way in which we prepare, certify, mentor, retain, evaluate, and compensate educators, so that this entire chain and all of its links will be assessed based on their value added to Texas student achievement.
Gone is the paradigm, outlined in the landmark Johnson Report of 1966, wherein it was assumed that the impact of an educator in the classroom was to a large extent limited by the socio-economic and cultural environment from which the children came. This assumption has been superseded by the wealth of data and research that demonstrate the primacy of the skill sets that the individual educator can bring to bear on individual student achievement regardless of background. The problem is that our teacher preparation system remains largely mired in the constructivist, learner-centered, input-driven mold, with licensing primarily governed by the traditional college of education and regulatory compliance dominated routes, both to the classroom and the administrative offices.
There is currently a heated national debate over the means by which educator quality can be enhanced, highlighted by the conflict between those who espouse “professionalization” and those who favor “deregulation”. Although I tend to fall into the latter camp, I do not believe that these two approaches are necessarily mutually exclusive, but that is beside the major point, which is that we must establish as an objective the transformation of educator preparation programs into customer-driven institutions with assessments grounded in output- and performance-based criteria, so that Texas becomes the model for value-added evaluation of such programs. To do this will require that teacher preparation programs, particularly the colleges of education, adopt the attitude and strategy that the leading business schools were forced to adopt a number of years ago to avoid irrelevancy—become customer driven, which for the colleges of education means becoming primarily student achievement driven. In my experience, this is rarely the case.
To facilitate this educator preparation transformation, several things need to be done:
· We should fully define “highly qualified teacher” for Texas, not as a mandated regulatory term, but in terms of the qualities and performance that are expected (this will necessitate a re-evaluation of the 1997 document, “Learner-Centered Schools for Texas: A Vision of Texas Educators” as well as the HOUSSE standards adopted in response to the No Child Left Behind Act).
· We must aggressively encourage the creation of a competitive critical mass of privately and publicly sponsored alternative preparation and certification programs as well as other non-traditional routes to the profession so as to “let many flowers bloom” and create an atmosphere of competitive certification, with value-added assessment of the graduates tied to student achievement.
· We should adopt teacher certification standards that place increasingly more emphasis on academic content, particularly in grades 5-12, and verbal and cognitive skills, particularly in grades PreK-4.
· We should adopt administrator certification standards that place more emphasis on management and leadership skills, education, and experience, and seek out means by which more entrepreneurial talent can be recruited to education administration from non-traditional backgrounds.
· Teacher compensation should be restructured to provide more incentives tied to performance, first by significantly reducing the number of steps on the salary scale, and then by phasing in a performance based system as the value-added assessment model evolves to the individual classroom level.
· A high-level public/private sector task force should be appointed to lead a cross-jurisdictional effort to attack the teacher retention problem in Texas in all of its aspects.
· Our education agencies should emphasize regulatory rule making that allows for maximum prudent flexibility for school district administrators to manage their human resources.
Old entrenched habits and vested interests die hard, and, again, the easy reform steps have been accomplished. Moreover, none of the steps of the next phase will be possible without fighting and winning some major battles at the attitudinal, ideological, political, legislative, and policy levels, and without breaking down some long standing barriers of distrust among education stakeholders. And none of this will be possible without the complete support of the state’s major opinion leaders, primarily from the business community. In fact, the current situation is analogous to the beginning of the furious debate over tort reform in the early 1990’s, when business leaders were finally energized and organized to take on and win a protracted battle against a threat that had seriously jeopardized the state’s economic viability. This necessary opinion leadership is not yet sufficiently energized for this next phase of education reform, but I submit that the current state of and prognosis for our public education system represents a threat even more onerous to our economic and cultural future and it is one that is worthy of a similar long-term commitment to overcome.