We are about to arrive at the tenth anniversary of a document of which I am proud to have been a co-author named “Common Ground: A Declaration of Principles and Strategies for Texas Education Policy”. This paper was the product of ten months of intensive discussion in periodic sessions held in three cities during 2008 by five of us, including Sandy Kress, Don McAdams, Mike Moses, David Thompson, and me, in an attempt to lay some groundwork for the 2009 session of the Texas Legislature, during which a new public school accountability system was to be debated. Some of us and the institutions we represented had been on opposite sides of several issues in the accountability advocacy discussions for several years, so the paper certainly represented a number of compromises, but all five of us signed off on the final product and then appeared together before business, education, and civic leaders in several cities to discuss its proposals. I am certainly not totally objective, but I think it fair to say that a number of our recommendations found their way into the Texas standards and accountability system adopted by House Bill 3 in 2009, a system that, when fully implemented, was judged to be the best such system in the country by several national education advocacy organizations.
I refer to this history as a reminder and for some context, because to me it’s hard to believe that it has been ten years since the paper was written, and because (1) for a variety of reasons the new system was attacked and diluted almost “in the crib” and certainly long before it was fully implemented and (2) we in Texas and around the country are now struggling mightily to determine the future of standards and accountability based reforms in the wake of years of dismantling the premises and consensus on which that system and most all other reforms were built.
Foremost among these premises was the idea that the organizing principle of PreK-12 public education should be the advancement of postsecondary readiness, a term that was defined in Texas in early 2008 by the Texas High School Completion and Success Initiative Council on which I served as “the range of academic, workforce, and social proficiency that high school students should acquire to successfully transition to skilled employment, advanced training in the military, an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or technical certification, without the need for remediation”. A proxy for this standard we determined was community college readiness without remediation.
To implement accountability along the K-12 continuum, we devised what we call the postsecondary readiness “ramp”. Standards from K through 12 and their accompanying assessments would be aligned with curriculum so that at any grade level in any subject passing the relevant assessment meant that the child has met the standard and is “on the ramp” to postsecondary readiness. An important corollary was that there would be postsecondary options other than college, known as Career and Technology Education pathways to a diploma, but that the motto was to be, “one standard, multiple pathways, equal rigor”.
Ten years later, substantially all of the implications of these premises have been challenged and undermined, we are adrift in seeking a new consensus, and that leads me to the title of this essay. In Texas in recent years we have celebrated consistent increases in the four-year high school graduation rate, which now is about 87%. Yet, when postsecondary readiness standards are applied, the readiness percentage of these students drops to around 40%, depending on the subject matter, and over 50% of those graduates who apply to attend community colleges are required to take remedial courses. Texas has adopted an objective called “60×30”, which is that 60% of 25-34 year olds will hold an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or an industry certification by the year 2030. Currently that percentage is about 40%.
Some of us are responding to these disappointing facts by supporting the reversal of the damage that has been done to expectations and advocating a return to the standards and rigor of the system adopted by HB 3 in 2009. This is not likely in the current political atmosphere. But there are others in a growing crowd, including a number of my reform colleagues, who want to take a different approach, one that seems designed to acknowledge that “one standard, multiple pathways, equal rigor” is no longer a realistic objective.
A good example is Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, who in recent articles advocates for increased emphasis and resources for vocational education in the recognition that all students won’t, and shouldn’t attend college, and that the stigma of second-class status currently assigned to vocational pathways should be eliminated. He says that the problem is that schools refuse to “track”—to separate high school students into different educational programs that target different outcomes. Further, he thinks that treating everyone equally in high school harms students for whom the college track is not appropriate. Not too many years ago, this “tracking” would be condemned as inegalitarian at best and even racist at worst by some. The question of course is, who decides? To be fair, he emphasizes that the choice should be with the parents and students, but I wonder and worry about the potential moral hazard for coercion to duck accountability.
My response to this suggested tracking is two fold: First, in most places we already have begun the development of multiple pathways that include vocational choices and many of them have dual completion opportunities with the traditional curriculum sequence. Second, we obviously know that college isn’t for everyone, but research shows that over 60% of students will need some form of postsecondary education to meet the demands of the 21st century workplace and the rest of them will need the chance for a basic high school diploma that qualifies them for meaningful work and responsible citizenship, which is an opt-out from the default pathway that is widely available to parents and students.
This debate will rage and grow as we restructure the next consensus, but until we do, I prefer to stick with the principles we outlined in Common Ground, that the best education we have to offer should be available to all, and that the motto “one standard, multiple pathways, equal rigor” is worth defending. The excuse I hear too often from educators is “we do the best we can with what we have to work with”. This should not be acceptable. All students can achieve; it’s our job to expect that and to enable them to do so.