Guest Article Written By: Adam Stacy
20th Century Americans forgot that correlation does not mean causation. We saw the raw data and made the wrong assumptions. The data says: a lifetime earnings for college graduates easily double earnings for those with no higher education. Assumption one: to increase nationwide earnings (and, thus, boost the tax base), as many people as possible should go to college. Assumption two: earning a college degree will bridge the gap from poverty into the middle class. The poor must be poor because they lack higher education. From these assumptions, the public education system changed focus and structurally oriented itself almost exclusively around preparing every student to enter college: College For All. Ignoring basic realities in the name of good intentions, College For All failed. While every man was created with equal rights, none are endowed with equal abilities. Not every student qualifies for college. Moreover, the university has never been a proper training ground for technical education. Sending everyone to college naturally builds a skills gap. Blessed with an abundance of young citizens versed in Economics, Anthropology, Communications, English, History, etc., the economy now lacks qualified welders, pipe fitters, machinists, and CAD operators. Basic employability standards have been neglected. In response, the systems of measurement and progress built around College For All feel more pushback each year.
Teachers, administrators, students and parents, the educational boots on the ground, bemoan the continued emphasis on standardized test results and rigid curricula designed around the notion that each student should graduate exclusively ready for college. Under constant pressure to drive test scores and graduation rates up, educators are forced to neglect the teaching of relevant real-world thinking and problem solving skills for the sake of must-pass standardized tests and must-complete course-lists. Meanwhile, bureaucrats and politicians address an inverse dilemma, answering to taxpayers demanding accountability and results. A satisfactory and efficient substitute to take measure of student progress and capability has not proven capable of replacing standardized tests. Shackled to College For All, unwilling to be seen as lowering standards, and driven by competition from state to state, legislators only increase the lists of required coursework.
By population, the State of Texas ranks number two. Among states with a population greater than 1M, Texas enjoyed the highest population growth rate at nearly 4% from 2010-2012, growing from a census-verified 25,145,561 people to an estimated 26,059,203 – booming away from a flat-lined New York. Throughout the recession and the meager national recovery, the Texas economy has continued to lead with GDP growth figures expanding beyond many states’ entire GDP. While less so today than in the past, using the standards revised every 10 years by the Texas State Board of Education, millions of textbooks were regularly purchased by Texas school districts, wielding influence through economies of scale on textbooks published for and purchased by smaller, less populous states. According to the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) 2011 Snapshot Report, there are nearly 5M students within the Texas public education system, well behind California’s 6.3M students but nearly double the respective counts of New York and Florida, numbers three and four.
Texans are infamous for a bragging sense of state pride. But barring dramatic and unforeseen demographic and economic shifts, Texas’ virtual perch as a King of the Hill will yield varying degrees of influence for some time. By sheer force of numbers, when a state the size of Texas acts, others pay attention.
Over the past generation, Texas students and educators have faced a number of shape-shifting requirements, experiencing no fewer than four different methods of standardized testing starting with the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills (TEAMS) test, then the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test, then the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), and finally giving way to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) End-of-Course (EOC) exam system wherein students will take three EOC exams in each of four core subject categories: English, Math, Science, and Humanities. Each shift resulted in a dramatic fluctuation in how and what students were taught and imputed new consequences, both intended and unintended, into the classroom.
Understanding the relationship between what is tested, what is required, and what is taught, Texas State Senator Dan Patrick, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has put forth a new education bill that may drastically alter the way Texas educates its high school students. With the STAAR EOC exam system, Texas has already moved away from large-scale singular exams to determine overall levels of student performance and has, in some sense, decentralized standardized testing into smaller, more nimble, exams. By administering exams at the end of each course, teachers have greater liberty to teach the course and material, not stopping to spend a six- or nine-week grading period set aside exclusively to test prep. Exams can also be changed by category and course without need to alter and review every test field. Additional modifications in the way students are tested can be employed as they are researched and evaluated, further adding efficiency and effectiveness. Going the next step, Senator Patrick’s bill would alter, essentially break apart, the existing curriculum students must complete in order to earn a high school diploma into multiple categories with different requirements allowing more flexibility and freedom for students to pursue vocational and career coursework as part of their high school studies.
The Career Cluster system, as developed by the US Department of Education, subdivides and defines existing occupations into basic, elemental clusters – 16 in all – with the intention being that students begin a specialization path earlier within the educational process. Within a secondary education system built entirely around the Career Clusters, the current focus of broad, full-spectrum testing and curricula designed ostensibly to prepare every graduating student for entrance to college would be replaced with specialization. By specializing earlier, students choosing career pathways that necessitate bachelor’s or graduate degrees could focus on relevant, rigorous academic work and study elective courses that add to pathway knowledge. Meanwhile, students pursuing career goals that require more technical and applied learning could focus on taking occupational specific, and equally rigorous, coursework to prepare them to earn younger. Given the opportunity of choice, student engagement would increase across all academic levels.
Texas dabbled with efforts towards that end with a voluntary program, Achieve Texas. While Achieve Texas embraces the efficiencies of Career Cluster implementation, without mandatory support, without a restructuring of the tools and measures used to compare and measure progress, any voluntary system falls into the box of good ideas that went nowhere. There will never be enough resources to implement and calibrate a new system over and on top of pre-existing testing and curriculum requirements.
Senator Patrick’s bill may not go quite so far as to restructure the Texas education system with specializations as specific and detailed as the Career Cluster-driven Achieve Texas. However, if passed, it will prove a step in the right direction. By mandating new curricula and administering standardized tests based on courses taken in lieu of general knowledge, changing the very obstacles that stood in the way of programs like Achieve Texas, Texas will lead the way in reorienting education towards the specialization and technical training graduates need in the modern economy.