(Following is the Executive Summary of the above titled paper. For a copy of the complete paper of about 25 pages, please let me know.)
There is very little doubt among sophisticated observers that Texas has led the nation in public education reform over the past decade or so and that it has served as a model for other states and the nation in the advancement of standards and accountability. This 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, there is mounting evidence that the easier phases of reform are behind us in Texas, that some of the more intractable student achievement problem areas have not been reached by the reforms while serious backsliding is underway in others, that more of the same accountability and standards will not produce the results we want, and that a much more difficult phase of reform lies ahead.
When we examine the education priorities of the State’s political leadership as evidenced by the policy initiatives of the 79th session of the Texas Legislature, we find a policy mix dominated by three priorities: property tax relief, fixing the broken “Robin Hood” system of school finance, and providing more funding for public education. As for additional reform, in fairness, there are a number of well-intentioned and well-crafted proposals directed toward incremental improvement in the current reform model, but, with few exceptions, there seems to be little sentiment for serious introspection or candid appraisal of the current status of the reforms that have produced what has been dubbed “The Texas Miracle”.
The current reform model, as it has evolved over the past twenty years, is based on the curriculum standards embodied in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) document adopted in 1997, on which the entire edifice is built—the curriculum, the assessments, the teacher preparation, and the incentive system. The assessment vehicle, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), is a criterion-referenced assessment subject to all of the possible pitfalls of such an examination, particularly when used as the sole determinant of all aspects of accountability for student achievement.
During the period since the adoption of the TEKS and the implementation of the assessments that have evolved into the TAKS, the improvement in the performance of Texas schools, as determined by the state assessments, has been remarkable. However, upon close analysis, one can begin to detect deficiencies in the standards- and accountability-based model and problems for its future as the primary determinant of progress in student achievement.
In research-based analyses of such indices as college readiness, reading ability, the rigor of curriculum, and the credibility of assessment, there is mounting evidence of the need to revisit the Texas reform model and the foundations on which it is based, and to have the objectivity and courage to make course corrections where they are warranted by the facts.
This process can only begin with complete candor about the current status of public education in Texas, the progress of our reform efforts to date, the prognosis for achieving the essential universal educational proficiency of our children, and the daunting challenges that we face in doing so. And this will involve confronting the enormous vested interests that sustain not only the “one best system” that has been in business for almost a century, but the model that has been chosen as the Texas reform vehicle. Total honesty and transparency is a must, a difficult principle to enforce when even the most well-intentioned of us are often intimidated by the inertia of the current structure of education and the natural reluctance to be introspective.
Armed with an objective analysis of where we have been and where we are, and keeping in mind that everything we do or don’t do should be evaluated in terms of its impact on Texas student achievement, there are specific actions that can be taken in key areas that would immediately begin to revive and advance the “Texas Miracle” in public education, as follows:
• Academic Standards—Return to the premises of TEKS, refine and strengthen it to identify explicit, objective grade level expectations for all core subject areas, and revisit and reject the foundational “constructivist” philosophy of education.
• Assessment—Replace or supplement criterion-referenced testing with national norm-referenced testing and add end-of-course exams in high school as well as value-added assessment throughout K-12.
• Academic Accountability—Significantly increase the State standards for K-12 district and campus performance, add college readiness as a standard, measure it with the SAT or ACT exam for high school exit, and install urgent and serious consequences for underperforming campuses.
• The Reading Crisis—Because everything about student achievement follows from the ability to read, we should declare the moral equivalent of war on the illiteracy of our children, beginning immediately in our urban areas.
• Empowerment Through School Choice—The centerpiece of delivery system reform must be comprehensive, child-centered school choice in all of its manifestations, including vouchers, charters, online, home schooling, etc., beginning with aggressive expansion of open enrollment charter authority and voucherizing special education and students in failing schools.
• Educator Quality—Aggressively expand alternatives to educator preparation and certification, lead the movement to national standardized certification, significantly expand new teacher mentoring, aggressively recruit non-traditional leadership to school administration, and introduce performance-based compensation for all educators based on value-added evaluation.
• Financial Accountability—Develop a more robust reporting and management system that will bring improved transparency and productivity to education finance down to the classroom level.
• Structural Deregulation—Dump the age old “one best system” and allow wide-ranging authority for deregulation of human resource management as well as innovations in scheduling and delivery that will certainly involve significantly more “time on task” and use of technology.
The current situation in Texas 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 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. In addition, and more importantly, it represents the civil rights revolution of the 21st century.