When we examine the education priorities of Texas’ 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 money for public education. The first two are understandable; the third is suspect at best in view of growth in education spending over the past five years of 43%, over twice the sum of enrollment growth and inflation over the same period.
As for a fourth and, in my opinion, much higher priority, that of much-needed systemic reform and enhancement of education standards and accountability, there were a number of well-intentioned and well-crafted proposals designed to incrementally improve public schools. The primary vehicle for these was House Education Committee Chairman Kent Grusendorf’s HB 2, the “Roadmap to Results”, a bill enhanced by recommendations of the Governor’s Business Council. It was narrowly approved by the House of Representatives in the regular session and survived a House-Senate conference. Unfortunately, the reforms died under the weight of enormous opposition from the education establishment (“show me the money!”) along with the stalemate on the tax reforms.
Frankly, I would rate the reform bill about a 7 on a scale of 1-10, where a 10 represents the boldness in structural reform that would begin to truly transform the culture of public education and produce the kind of enhancement in student achievement our children deserve. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not one to let the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good”, and I would have been pleased with this significant step down the road, but much more needs to be done.
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 the nation in the advancement of standards and accountability. This has been accomplished by the dedication of a statewide coalition of educators, administrators, legislators 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. The more intractable issues hindering student achievement have not been reached by the reforms and a much more difficult phase of reform lies ahead if we are to truly improve Texas public schools for all children.
Indices of student achievement—such as college and workplace readiness, national norm-referenced test scores, and reading ability—offer mounting evidence of the pressing need to objectively revisit the Texas reform model and courageously pursue corrections in course.
Doing this will require complete candor and transparency about the current status of public education in Texas in addition to confronting the enormous vested interests that sustain not only the current system that has been in business for almost a century as well as those who benefit, politically and otherwise, from the image of the “Texas Miracle”.
As we consider what happens next, there are specific actions that could make this “roadmap” much more effective (a “10” if you will) as an instrument to revive and advance the “Texas Miracle” in public education, as follows:
• Academic Standards—Revisit the premises of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) document, refine and strengthen it to identify explicit, objective grade level expectations for all core subject areas, and reject its foundational “constructivist” philosophy of education.
• Assessment—Replace or supplement criterion-referenced testing with national norm-referenced testing and add value-added assessment throughout K-1
• Academic Accountability—Significantly increase the State’s 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 much more urgent and serious consequences for underperforming campuses.
• The Reading Crisis—Everything about student achievement follows from reading ability, and we should declare the moral equivalent of war on the shameful illiteracy of our children, beginning immediately with cross-jurisdictional task forces 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 awarding vouchers for special education needs and to students in failing schools.
• Educator Quality—We should 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 for school administration, and introduce performance-based compensation for all educators based on value-added evaluation.
• Financial Accountability—We should develop and implement a financial accountability rating system that distinguishes among districts’ levels of financial performance, brings additional transparency to education finance, and allows for the establishment of financial accountability standards reaching to the campus level that are commensurate with academic standards.
• Structural Deregulation—Dump the age old “one best system”, particularly in the high schools, and allow wide-ranging authority for deregulation of human resource management as well as innovations in scheduling and delivery.
The current situation is analogous to the beginning of the furious battle over tort reform in the early 1990’s, when Texas 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.
The necessary opinion leadership is not yet sufficiently energized for this new phase of education reform, but the 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.
(Note: This essay is an updated summary of my March 2005 paper written for the Texas Public Policy Foundation. If you would like a copy of the complete paper, let me know.)