Texas Education—Where do we go from here?
A Classic Question
To begin, let me pose to you a classical education question. Which school would you choose for your child or grandchild?
- A modern school with the latest technology—Kindles or laptops for every child, electronic smart boards, high speed internet access—plus a good teacher; or
- An older school with a couple of desktop computers per classroom, old chalk boards, limited internet access—but a master teacher.
Everyone, without exception, chooses the school with the master teacher. This question clarifies for us what I think is the primary dilemma of public education—getting a master teacher into every child’s classroom. I believe solving it should be our primary educational objective and that all our educational policies should be evaluated by how it hinders or accomplishes this objective. This is what I will attempt to do with you today.
First, we must understand where we are and how we got here.
Providing all 5 million Texas children with a quality education has not suffered from a lack of good intentions. Our state legislature has strived diligently to fulfill its constitutional obligation to provide and efficient system of public free schools. For over the last 34 years, specifically the last 20 years, they have pinned their hopes on what can best be described as “standards-based reform.” As you will see, the main focus of these reforms have been structural; it’s like what T. S. Elliot described as “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one needs to be good.”
These reform efforts began in 1979 when the legislature began to take over from the local districts the responsibility to educate all our children equitably. The public schools at that time had failed to give all students the opportunity to reach their maximum potential. Too many children were being left behind.
Standards-based reform is based on the proven military doctrine of creating acronyms (Ha!) and is comprised of four elements: the standards—the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), textbooks that are aligned to the standards, an assessment test to determine if the students know the standards and an accountability system to ensure that the schools teach the standards. Note: detailed lesson plans and a “scope and sequence” or curriculum –scope or C-SCOPE are not an essential element of standards-based reform.
Texas got a big head start nationally with standard-based reform. Having already mandated a statewide test—the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills (TABS) in 1979, the state legislature, in 1984, mandated Texas’ first statewide curriculum standards—the Essential Elements (EE); thus the foundation for standards based reform had been laid. In 1985, Texas’ second statewide test—the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimal Skill (TEAMS)—aligned the state test with the state curriculum standards. As the textbooks began to be aligned with the Essential Elements, the State had already adopted three elements of what would become standards based reform. A third statewide test the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) followed in 1989.
With the establishment of the accountability label system in 1993, standards-based reform had officially arrived. This year we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of standards-based reform in Texas.
The key year to remember is 1993 because this was the year Texas officially began standards-based reform. This was the year that everything changed in our schools. For instance, you never heard the phrase “teaching to the test” before this. You also had never heard of TAAS pep rallies, “benchmark testing days” or even the term “high-stakes testing.”
The Accountability Conundrum
What is not really known at all is that the establishment of standards-based reform to raise academic achievement for all children made it impossible to have high standards. I will call it the accountability conundrum.
- The big target represents the full range of student achievement as measured by the ACT. The small circle shows the range of student achievement measured by the TAAS test of 1993—As you can see, it was designed as a diagnostic test of low achievement to help teachers know what each student needed to work on.
- It graphically shows that when our state initiated the accountability label system in 1993, they made a diagnostic test of low achievement the end of education in Texas.
- The best question I ever asked in my 12 years on the SBOE was: “Is our system designed so that any school can be an Exemplary school?” The answer I received was “Yes.”
But this means it is impossible to have high standards! As you have to keep the bar low enough for 90% of the kids to jump over with good effort.
- All schools can be Exemplary.
In an Exemplary school 90% of the children have to pass the test.
Therefore, you have to keep the passing standard low enough for 90% of the children to jump over with good effort. (Imagine how low you would have to keep the high jump bar at a track meet so that 90% of the kids in the entire school, not just on the track team, could jump over it—given they exercise, eat right and are motivated. And imagine how exciting the track meet would be.) (Also, imagine how exciting our schools have been for the last twenty years.)
- Maybe what is happening today, with the push back on accountability, is that the bar has finally been raised over this “impossibility” threshold.
More Standards-Based Reform
But we didn’t stop there. Since 1993 the TEKS replaced the EE in 1997; the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), replaced the TAAS in 2002;
the accountability system was modified in 2003; and today, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) has replace the TAKS.
The net result of these changes has been a steady increase in the power and influence at the State level—all at the expense of the local districts, local schools, local teachers and parents.
These last twenty years of standards-based reform have seen a dramatic change in the ways our schools operate. Schools have committed large amounts of time to focus on the STAAR; the schools and districts are obsessed with their accountability label.
Is Texas celebrating this 20th anniversary? No. In fact the legislature is seriously backpedalling on standards-based reform, and I, for one, am pleased.
- Does a good education require standards-based reform? No.
If we received a good education without standards-based reform, why is it so necessary today? It is not.
“Actual Results” Questions
- According to our experienced teachers, has standards-based reform made our children academically stronger than in 1993, when standards-based reform began? No.
- Has standards-based reform helped our children perform better on the ACT and SAT tests? No.
- Has standards-based reform closed the achievement gaps? No.
- Has standards-based reform slowed the drop-out rate? No.
- Has standards-based reform improved teacher retention and morale? Absolutely no.
- Has standards-based reform improved parental involvement in our schools? No.
- Has standards-based reform decreased the amount of remedial courses our students need for college? No.
- Has standards-based reform won the praise of the parents? No.
- Has standards-based reform won the praise of the teachers in the trenches? No.
- Has standards-based reform helped our children show continued improvement as they progress through the grade levels? No.
To be fair, these reforms have definitely helped some children that would have been left behind. However, since no parent really knows if their child was one who has benefited from these reforms, they are not speaking up to say “thank you.”
Today, however, many of us are very concerned about the direction these reforms are heading. They are creating some major negative unintended consequences that are spiraling out of control. These issues are serious and cannot be ignored.
For example, at a Senate Education Committee hearing February 19th, an Austin 7th grade English teacher testified that at this point in the school year in 2001, her students had read 10 novels and that this year’s class had only read one! This is disturbing! After 34 years of effort, standards-based reform has certainly NOT solved the dilemma of getting a master teacher in the classroom; in fact, it has actually taken the many we already have and, in the words of my former board colleague Gail Lowe, “muzzled” them.
A key point to keep in mind is that the legislature instituted these reforms with the best of motives—to help the disadvantaged or low-achieving child. Our advantaged or high-achieving children were probably doing just fine. Now, we are losing many of these children—and their parents—to home schooling and private schools. This drain of highly involved parents with motivated children makes the job of our public schools even more difficult.
For as long as the state embraces standards-based reform—and I see no end in sight—it is crucial that we at least have good standards. Let us take a short detour to focus on the actual standards—the TEKS. The TEKS are established by the State Board of Education. Their content is crucial; where they lead, everything else follows. If something is not in the TEKS it will likely not get taught.
Many of you have heard about Common Core Standards; they are being widely touted, as in the Exxon-Mobile commercials during the Masters Golf Tournament. In my opinion, they are clearly inferior to our Texas standards.
In my last three years on the Board we updated the TEKS and I believe bequeathed a precious legacy to Texas education. Strong academic standards in English, science and history are now in place that could improve academic achievement, prepare our children for the future and help develop well-informed citizens.
New English standards were adopted in May 2008. The previous standards were clearly inferior; many were vague and repetitive. The seventh and eighth grade standards were virtually identical with only three words difference! With the encouragement of individual English teachers, especially Donna Garner of Waco, the board recognized the seriousness of the problem and initiated a major rewrite of the standards. It is noteworthy that the professional English teacher organizations did not lobby for a major rewrite; in fact, they initially opposed it.
Specifically, the new standards bring a renewed emphasis on grammar; mastery of proper grammar will unlock many doors for our children. The revised standards also focus instruction on serious literature and nonfiction instead of trivial stories. This will increase our children’s broad general knowledge. Knowledge is one of the greatest gifts we can give to children; it is critically important for all our children, especially the disadvantaged. (“Knowledge” is the topic of another talk that you can find at my website—www.donmcleroy.com.)
Three years after they were adopted, in January 2011, the Dallas Morning News reported that Richardson I.S.D. was offering a series of teacher development workshops on the nuts and bolts of English grammar. A young teacher was quoted as saying “we are a generation where grammar was not a focus in our education; we can use a refresher.”
It’s disturbing that these teachers did not know grammar! It makes me wonder what these young teachers were taught in their college education courses. And, more importantly, what have our children been learning about grammar these past twenty or more years?
The story also reports that these teachers are learning “the details of sentence diagramming.” Did you ever think you would live to see the day that diagramming sentences would be taught again? What had happened to motivate these schools and teachers to learn grammar?”
The answer was also in the story.
“In 2008, the state board rejected the recommendation of a professional educators’ coalition that said grammar is best taught as part of the process of teaching writing. Instead, the board voted to return in part to an earlier model that includes specific grammar instruction at specific grade levels.
That vote left the Texas Education Agency and every school district in the state scrambling to figure out how to meet the revised guidelines.”
I consider these new English standards as the single greatest achievement during my tenure on the board. They will bear fruit for decades to come.
New science standards were adopted the next year, in March 2009. Despite all the hysteria and fears of evolutionary dogmatists, the disputed high school standards have proved to represent legitimate scientific inquiry. Last year, Fordham Institute’s “State of the State Science Standards 2012” described them as “exemplary.” And, after four years, these standards have not even been challenged in court by the trigger-happy evolutionists. Our Texas high school evolution standards have passed the test of time and have been proven to represent sound scientific reasoning and legitimate science.
The standards reflect real science and challenge students to study some of evolution’s most glaring weaknesses in explaining the fossil record and the complexity of the cell.
Board detractors still misrepresent the science standards; you will read a lot about it this summer when new science books will be adopted by the Board.
New history standards were adopted in May 2010. In my opinion they will help ensure that our children will learn what it means to be an American. Distinguished historian William B. Allen stated:
“The founding era and the founding fathers are not just a topic of instruction for us; it is most important first to understand, that they are the meat we feed upon. Understanding it means that we cannot accept, in any instance, the argument that they are inaccessible to us any more than we can accept the argument that we can live without our hearts. Therefore, our task is not to ask whether we should regard the founders with tender care and understanding; our task is to find the means to do so.”
And in Texas, we are finding the means to do so.
Abraham Lincoln said “America is the last best hope of earth.” In Texas, our children will know that fact and more importantly, why it is true.
The changes we adopted attracted national attention because they challenged the powerful ideology of the left and highlighted the great political divide of our country. The left’s principles are diametrically opposed to our founding principles. The left believes in big, not limited, government; they empower the state, not the individual; they focus on differences, not unity.
As you can guess, the left doesn’t like our new history standards. The Dallas Morning News editorial board complained that the top priority for our State Board in 2011 should be to revise those standards. They stated: “The standards were so controversial that they sparked protest in Texas and around the country… Among the bizarre revisions: the board super-conservatives insisted on making Joe McCarthy look as if he was onto something about communist infiltration….” It sounds like they need to go back to college. I’m sorry, it sounds like they have been to college.
What were the standards like before they were “transformed” by the conservatives? Individually, the left’s standards did not seem so bad; but taken as a whole they painted a negative view of America; they had an overemphasis of multicultural issues; they were obsessed with the differences of race, class and gender; thus, they turned America into “E Unum Pluribus”—”out of one many” instead of “E Pluribus Unum”—”out of many one.” And, most importantly, they ignored the Judeo-Christian contribution to Western civilization and they ignored the contribution of the free enterprise system.
The New History Standards—Specific
8th Grade US History
In eighth grade US history we kept the requirement that students: 3 (C) describe how religion and virtue contributed to the growth of representative government in the American colonies…
Comment: Interestingly, the younger teachers on the eighth grade writing team were insisting that this standard be removed; the older teachers on the panel and state board members insisted that it stay. Again, what are they teaching our students in our universities?
High School US History
American history can be divided into two eras: a traditional founding followed by a progressive development. The standards finally adopted brought a balance to each of these.
You may not be aware but that for most Texas students Early US history is taught in the eighth grade and post-Civil War US history is taught in the 11th grade. Now just make a mental picture of an eighth grader versus an 11th grader. Think about their maturity of thought and what they might retain after graduating from high school. Therefore it is vital that we re-emphasize the founding era to her high school students. We accomplished that. Here is some of what we added to the high school course.
(1) History. The student understands the principles included in the Celebrate Freedom Week program. The student is expected to:
(A) analyze and evaluate the text, intent, meaning, and importance of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, and identify the full text of the first three paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence;
I used to think that the strategic area of focus for teaching U S History was the founding era; I was wrong. The modern era is just as significant as the amazing founding era. Studying how today’s political leaders can so easily dismantle the momentous work of our founders’ gives ample opportunity to teach our children what it means to be an American. In the proposed standards the Progressive Era, the New Deal, the Great Society were already covered in great detail. When we added a single amendment to cover the “conservative resurgence” the left went apocalyptic; they claimed that we had become “The Revisionaries.” The standard reads:
10 (E) describe the causes and key organizations and individuals of the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the National Rifle Association;
In World History, we really struck a major nerve of the left. We added a standard that read: 13 (F) explain how Arab rejection of the State of Israel has led to ongoing conflict.
Comment: Can you imagine the Bush or Obama administration approving this one? When asked to speak to my amendment, all I said was “It is the truth.” It was approved without debate. I was even interviewed by Al Jazeera English for a 8 minute segment. Interestingly, they did not even ask me about it. At first, I thought that maybe they did not know about it, but they did. Makes me wonder why they ignored it. Why bring out the truth?
21 (C) identify examples of key persons who were successful in shifting political thought, including William Wilberforce.
Comment: Wilberforce has his own standard. He is not just one of a long list!
(7) Government. The student understands the American beliefs and principles reflected in the U.S. Constitution and why these are significant. The student is expected to:
(G) examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America and guaranteed its free exercise by saying that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and compare and contrast this to the phrase, “separation of church and state.”
Comment: The left kept asking “Where is the separation of church and state in your standards? So we put it in for them. Now they clam we are undermining religious freedom. As the Dallas News puts it: We “are casting doubt on whether the separation of church and state has been a good thing for the country.” What we are actually doing is shining light on our Constitution.
In September 2010, the magazine Foreign Policy ran a story entitled “The World’s Worst Textbooks”. Of course, the desire to avoid being ethnocentric meant they had to include some United States texts. Guess what they included? Texas history standards, of course. And what standard did they highlight? “Explain how Arab rejection of the state of Israel has led to ongoing conflict
I would say that the odds that our new history standards will help teach our children what it means to be an American are pretty good. Hopefully, America will awake from a long hibernation of complacency. Mainstream America wants their children to know about what it means to be an American. When our students learn English like it used to taught, when the dogmatic teaching of evolution is not undermining the founding principles of our country, and when our children’s minds are filled with a great storehouse of knowledge of Western Civilization, then maybe “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Have any Reforms Helped?
Now let’s move our focus back to our state’s education reform efforts and highlight at least one reform that has led to a few exceptional results. Remember that the legislature instigated the reforms to help the disadvantaged and low achiever—so that “No child would be left behind.”Our high achieving charter schools—like Kipp Academy and Yes Preparatory Academy—are getting these disadvantaged children to college. And, these schools have developed some master teachers.
Current legislative proposals
So, where do we go from here? Currently the legislature is contemplating easing off its reform efforts. But my question for today is “Do you think either easing off or staying the course will improve our schools and solve the dilemma of a “master teacher” in every classroom?
I have a different answer and presented it to the Senate Education Committee in February.
First, what do we have to show for all this effort for the last 34 years? We have definitely helped some children that would have been left behind. However, we have frustrated parents who—if they can afford it—are abandoning our public schools. We have frustrated teachers who are demoralized by their profession. We have frustrated children who, as one principal put it, “have lost their bounce.” Plus, according to experienced teachers, we have seen no improvement in academic achievement.
It is also interesting to note why that Austin 7th grade teacher, whose former students had read 10 novels and that this year’s class had only one, was able to take the teaching day off and testify at the capital. It was because the Austin school district was having a “benchmarking” day—a day when the kids practice taking the state test. She was not going to able to teach her children that day no matter what. This is also disturbing. No wonder the legislature is concerned.
Now, I want you to do a little mental exercise. Imagine our public schools being the overwhelming choice for most parents—because they know their child will have a master teacher. And, then imagine Texas having the undisputed reputation for the best schools in the country, and businesses flocking to the state.
But most of all, imagine a Texas where the words “I am a public school teacher” immediately enlist an inner “Wow!” reaction; where “educator” becomes the most honored and highly sought out professional title.
We can do it! Here’s how.
First, abolish the state criterion-referenced tests and replace them with commercially available norm- referenced tests. At the beginning of each school year, have a one-month enrollment period for parents to select the best assessment for their child. Let the test makers educate our parents as they market their products.
This would give parents a significant role in their child’s education—increasing parental involvement, and, give them a sense of “buy-in” to the system. It would prevent “teaching to the test” as every teacher would have students taking multiple tests. And, it would give the state more meaningful feedback as these tests would measure the entire range of academic achievement.
Second, abolish the over 160 Educator Preparation Programs and replace them with 10 prestigious Colleges of Education around the state. The competition for one of these 10 slots would be fierce. Colleges and universities would battle for the best professors to include in their application. It would be “blood and guts”; the Marine Corps would seem like a bunch of cupcakes by comparison. Plus, these schools would immediately eliminate unproductive programs and courses.
Third, admit into these prestigious schools, only the top 20% of high school graduates as measured academically by the ACT/SAT—entirely merit based (not GPA, which is influenced by local school and teacher policies). Give these students full ride scholarships. These high-quality students will ensure that these prestigious schools provide our state with the best possible teachers.
With these teachers you would earn our parents cooperation and support, and restore our children’s “bounce.”
Lastly, you can now abolish the accountability system and replace it with nothing; it will be unnecessary. When our schools are being driven, they will not need to be pulled. Also, there will be no need for state standards and their associated culture wars; there will be no need for state tests with their associated waste of time.
With these teachers, we would prosper as no other state in the nation. We would have released the energy and the individual genius of future Texans to a greater extent than has ever been dreamed possible.
Lastly, can you imagine, with these reforms, what our schools would look like in 2033? That seems so far away—but so did today back in 1993.
I will close with a few comments about C-Scope.
Many of you are curious about C-SCOPE. It is a Texas-only curriculum that many school districts in Texas are using. It was developed by a consortium of our state Regional Educational Service Centers to help our districts look good as measured by the accountability system. C-SCOPE includes detailed lesson plans, scope and sequence of lessons and instructional content that is designed to help the teacher teach what the TEKS require. Our districts purchase it from the state’s Education Service Centers which developed it.
I have several problems with it. In the context of today’s talk, I am most concerned about its impact on our teachers in the classroom. My concern is that it muzzles, not only the master teacher, but all our teachers. Many districts that use it require teachers to teach the same lesson on the same day with the same content. This occurs a lot, whether they use C-SCOPE or not.
It used to be that a teacher prepared their own lesson plans, and established their own sequence of lessons. They could adjust it to fit how well the students grasped the subject. For instance, they might have had their students read 10 novels instead of one. With a master teacher in the classroom, you do not need C-Scope or any other district developed scope and sequence.
I basically see C-SCOPE as an insidious unintended consequence of well-intentioned standards-basedreform efforts that have spiraled out of control. If there was no standards-based reform, there would be no C-SCOPE.
Finally, the reason we still have high achievement in our schools is that we still have a lot of
- Good parents,
- Good kids,
- Good teachers—many of them master teachers, and
- Good administrators.
It is not because we have an accountability system; it is in spite of our accountability system.
I am ready to simplify things.
Former Chair, Texas State Board of Education