As we begin the new year from a public policy standpoint, most politically observant eyes in Texas will be on the opening of the Texas Legislature under a new Speaker of the House, and many of those same eyes will be once again focused on what is to be done about public education finance, the issue that has received most of the preliminary analysis and emphasis. It would be great if among proposals currently under review–from the Commission on Public School Finance, from Governor Abbott and others–there was a solution in sight that would fix the glaring deficiencies of the flawed “Robin Hood” system that the state has been struggling with for many years and in numerous court decisions, but very few are optimistic that the result will be much more than continued tweaking.
My view is that, as important as finance reform might be for taxpayers and regardless of the prospects for success in systemic finance reform, our most significant time and energy should be invested in a much larger challenge–how to restore the consensus that once existed among education opinion leaders that propelled Texas to national leadership in education standards and accountability reform.
For approximately 25 years, from the early 1990s through 2009, Texas business and education leadership was committed to a long-term strategy that called for steady and incremental advancement of PreK-12 standards and expectations for students and educators, with appropriate assessment and accountability, leading to the establishment of a Texas high school diploma as emblematic of post-secondary readiness, which should be the organizing principle of PreK-12 public education. This was defined 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 is community college readiness without remediation.
Currently, in spite of consistently higher high school graduation rates, which are almost totally meaningless, over 50% of Texas high school graduates require remedial courses when entering a community college. So, granted, this post-secondary readiness objective was very ambitious, and by 2009, the Texas system was described by national organizations as the most rigorous in the country. So rigorous, in fact, that there was enormous pushback from a range of “stakeholders” in and outside the education community over testing, local control, and other issues. The result over the last several legislative sessions has been a significant rollback of standards and accountability, and there is compelling evidence that this rollback has been largely responsible for flat to declining scores on national assessments of Texas student achievement since 2011.
In 2016, Texas higher education leadership developed its second 15-year plan for post-secondary achievement, called “60×30”, which calls for 60% of 25 to 34-year olds to have in hand an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or industry certification by the year 2030. Currently, that percentage is about 42%, so this is a tall order, particularly since only about 22% of the 2008 cohort of 8th graders have any of these credentials six years after anticipated high school graduation, and for minorities this percentage is around 13%.
Texas Aspires, the education reform organization on whose board I serve, is fully committed to the 60X30 objective as an overall guiding principle and is tailoring its objectives for the legislative session accordingly. See www.texasaspires.org for details. We hope to be able to rally a critical mass of like-minded leaders and organizations to advance this agenda and there is encouragement that more active reform leadership on a regional basis is developing around the state. But we must be realistic: There is not a prayer for accomplishing the 60X30 plan without a renewed consensus on a statewide commitment to rigorous PreK-12 standards and accountability and a concerted effort to repair the damage that has been done by misguided policy over the past several years. As a policy and strategic issue for the future of the state, I believe it’s the most important challenge we face.
Greg Stachura says
“There is not a prayer for accomplishing the 60X30 plan without a renewed consensus on a statewide commitment to rigorous PreK-12 standards and accountability and a concerted effort to repair the damage that has been done by misguided policy over the past several years.”
This is true nationwide as well. Our nation is divided between those who would conserve the gains of our forbears and those progressives who would remake the world as they imagine it. The latter is truly radical and compromise may be impossible.
Sandy Kress says
Well stated, Jim. I appreciate your continued focus on the problem and the solution.
Sadly, in spite of the strength of your argument and the mountain of growing data showing Texas is languishing as to achievement, our fellow citizens don’t seem ready to change course.
Stay the course. Perhaps one day folks will wake up.
david redford says
We need strong leadership from the top which would be the Abbott and Patrick, who were much more interested two years ago in a bathroom bill than public education finance. Mark White was our greatest education governor and we need another like him. Keep up the good work Jim but we need to elect the right folks to get the job done and it is a hard job and highly important. Mark believed in “doing the right thing and suffering the consequences”. He did not get reelected because he took chances and we need this type of leadership.
Dick Illyes says
Maybe it is time for radical restructuring What if, instead of pouring funding in at the top, we created educational endowments for each K-12 student.
Student endowment funds would pay out for students who achieved grade level knowledge. Instead of endless fights over charter schools, home schooling, etc. etc., all students would become customers for educational services and be treated accordingly. Providers for students who did poorly would not be paid, leaving twice the annual amount available next year to educators who could catch them up.
Instead of leaving dropouts to fend for themselves, the funds would remain on deposit indefinitely, allowing those who got their act together to get an education.
Free market provision of K-12 educational services would see dramatic cost reduction. Expanded offerings would make full use of technology. Gamification would create educated kids and make learning fun.
Educational services would become as inexpensive as other services provided by the free market, just as communication services have.
As a member of a Texas community college board for many years, my suggestion is to focus on K-3 as the best place to start. The student should be taught phonics, the letter sounds, paired letter sounds and the exceptions. After that the student will be able to read. Anything. The issue is that teachers generally don’t know phonics themselves. Crack this egg and make an omelette.
Jim Windham says
Great point, David. If I could make one massive change it would be to install required emphasis on phonics and what we call direct instruction in every K-3 classroom, but it must also be mandatory in teacher preparation programs and with a stand alone teacher certification in reading for all elementary school teachers. This would be the most dramatic reform we could implement.
Tara Souther says
Keep “dumbing down” the courses so that the pass rate increases & this is what you ultimately get… dumb citizens. How about we hold EVERYONE to a higher standard & help those who need it to achieve those standards? Of course, that would include those we hire to teach. They can’t teach what they don’t know. Perhaps a bit less activism in the classrooms?
Danny Billingsley says
My sister and brother-in-law recognized the decline in the quality of public education over 30 years ago and opted to move her 3 sons to a private school. The results were astounding. Two sons to West Point and another to Wake Forest. The two West Point sons were Army infantry officers and both combat veterans. One of those is now an Army JAG officer and the other successful in corporate business. The Wake Forest graduate is now a successful radiologist. While all three are bright, non are in the genius range, but parental guidance and a quality secondary education propelled them to greater heights. They did have the advantage of parents that could afford that type of education and set high goals for them to achieve. Until public education must compete with private education on a large scale, I fear the needle will not move significantly for the kids stuck in public school. As always, thanks Jim for your tireless work to improve our kids education.