Why Education in Texas is Broken . . .. and How to Fix It!

You don’t get much more ominous sounding than “High Stakes” testing. Right?

Implied in this term, is a promise that this test will give a clear picture of school districts that are performing well and districts that are not doing a good job. The assumption is that this test will indicate districts that are providing educational excellence and districts that are to be avoided.

With the state-wide emphasis on STEM classes (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), it would seem that you can’t get any “higher stakes” than the End of Course Algebra and Biology tests. So, what do you think is the percent score to get a passing grade on the Algebra and Biology exams, the “highest of stakes” tests in Texas’ high stakes testing? 39%.

Yes, you read it right and no, that is not a typo. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) passing percent score on THE exam for math and science in Texas is less than 40%.

How can anyone in their right mind think a test that you can pass with a 39% gives any measure whatsoever of what a student knows and even less, how effective a district is at providing a quality education?

At this point you may be wondering, why are we NOT hearing this fact from TEA, the agency responsible for academic excellence in Texas? Even more concerning is why school districts across the state are not screaming and yelling about this charade being played on unknowing taxpayers and parents. 

Unfortunately, for years, the TEA and our school districts have played an elaborate shell game of “hide and seek” with us. As scores have dropped over the years, TEA has lowered standards for performance on high stakes exams. This has allowed school districts to hide the reality that they are NOT providing our students with a quality education. This elaborate magic trick masks the reality that the education parents and grandparents received was significantly superior to the education their children and grandchildren are receiving.

In even the highest rated districts in Texas, over 25% of students are in schools that are simply providing babysitting services rather than a high-quality education. In addition, the rest of the students in the district, those students in the “top rated” schools, are getting a lower and lower quality of education as every year goes by.

Education in Texas is not just broken. At this point, public education is failing to promote and provide critical educational skills our Texas students must have for their future.

When they are forced to discuss this incredibly obvious catastrophe, TEA and big districts want us to believe that only they have the solution; a solution that is difficult to implement, and that can only be understood and implemented by the “experts” in the educational bureaucracy.

Leaders at the Texas Education Agency and top-heavy school districts would like us to believe that fixing our ailing schools is a complex and difficult task that requires their incredible expertise.

This could not be further from the truth.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon or rocket scientist to know how to turn around our ailing schools. Gather together 10 teachers from any core subject area and any grade level, give them the freedom to be honest and speak directly, and they will ultimately come up with the following actionable and implementable steps to improve our schools:

  1. Hire great teachers and campus administrators and focus the money and energy in the district on supporting and freeing up these teachers and school leaders to do what they know how to do: manage a classroom and deliver quality education. Unfortunately, the furthest thought in most district bureaucrats’ mind is “How can I provide support and freedom to the passionate, dedicated, professional educators in my district?”
  2. Identify optimal class sizes for each grade level and subject area for the various classes and do not go above those limits. I know a teacher working in an “on level” (not advanced) 8th grade classroom in a Title 1 Junior High who has 28 students in each of her classes. It is unconscionable to put a teacher in that position! For educational success, schools should identify class size “caps” and these caps should be hard and unbending.
  3. Ensure that classroom discipline is the core passion of every Principal and Assistant Principal on each campus. Teachers have very little they can actually do in the way of discipline in their classroom if a student is bound and determined to destroy the educational environment. Districts should never allow a small percentage of students (10-15%) to keep the rest of the students from learning. As any experienced teacher will tell you, once you have 2-3 students in a classroom whose passion in life is to be the center of attention and disrupt learning, learning at any significant level ceases to happen. Without discipline in the classroom, you will not have quality education. Campus Administrators should be the ones working with teachers to ensure that a few students do not disrupt the learning of everyone else.
  4. Move funding from the administrative bureaucracy to teachers and those on the frontline. The “Admin building bureaucracy” and layers of non-classroom personnel in the “brick and mortar” school building actually create extra work for teachers and keep teachers from doing their job. The insight of principals, assistant principals, and teachers who are facetoface with students every day should guide funding decision made in the district. Sadly, most districts are so top heavy they would have tipped over long ago if it were not for the dedicated, overworked, and underpaid teachers and principals serving the students. Those not on the “front line,” who do not interact face to face with multiple children every day, spend most of their time and energy creating MORE work for already overworked front line workers. District leaders should set hard class sizes for each school (it may differ from school to school) and then hire excellent teachers and campus administrators for each campus based on these numbers. Any surplus money can then go towards all the other things a district needs: Administrators not interacting facetoface with students, buildings, curriculum coaches, paraprofessionals, in-class support staffing, technology, etc. These things are important, but they are secondary to quality teachers, manageable class sizes, and support from campus administrators willing and able to handle discipline.

For a variety of reasons too complex to discuss here, most state officials, school board members and “Admin Building” administrators actually work against fixing this devastating problem. To put it simply, they have either never been in a classroom, or they have been out of the classroom so long that they have forgotten the basics of educational excellence.

But there is hope! Here are some simple steps to take to get your district focused on fixing things:

  1. Share this article with those you know who have power and a voice. Get as many stakeholders as possible on board with implementing these simple, actionable changes. A great way to do this is to simply read this article in an open board meeting, giving board members insight into what is really happening. Most board members sense there is something seriously wrong with education; unfortunately, no one has ever articulated to them simply and directly how to fix the problem. 

2. Elect school board members who will make these solutions a reality. Candidates should not only make these steps part of their election platform, but they should also actually follow through with implementation once they are elected. Despite what TEA and educational bureaucrats want us to believe, school boards have the power to decide the direction of the district they serve. In Texas we still have INDEPENDENT school boards. School Boards are not simply rubber stamps for TEA or the Superintendent, they are THE decision-making body for the district.

3. Engage straightspeaking, strategicthinking teachers and campus administrators in the discussion. Most districts leave their frontline workers completely out of the conversation about how to fix these educationdestroying problems. “Admin building” Administrators, many who have not managed a classroom for decades, think they know more about what happens in the classroom today than those working directly with students. To put it simply, if you want to know how to fix a car, don’t ask the car salesman, ask the mechanic.

Despite the sad state of education, many school districts can reverse this slide into mediocrity and return education to what it should be. You have a voice to advocate for change. For the sake of our children and the future of our country, use it!

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Spence Mann

Spence comes from a long line of Texas educators. He served for 4 years on a Texas School Board and has 15 years of classroom experience, currently teaching in a Houston area district. His background in business and strategic thinking has given him a unique skill set to understand current educational issues. To reach Spence email joseph@houstonchristianmagazine.com