I think the newspapers want a debate

The state’s major newspapers have set up a debate for October 19 at 7 PM on the University of Texas campus. They will make the debate available to television stations. The newspapers have backed their plan with a long line of editorials calling for Rick Perry and Bill White to debate.

Maybe the state’s media should go one step further and institutionalize debates. Every election we see candidates and their campaign staff attempt to negotiate times, locations, and formats for debates. Campaigns should accept that debates are not simply extensions of campaign strategies and that their primary function is to serve the information needs of voters. Any candidate interested in putting their campaign strategy above public service doesn’t deserve the office they’re seeking.

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Justice for Sale

The 2010 version of PBS’s “Justice for Sale” is available online. The original 1999 version generated a lot of debate about after it raised important questions about the impact of money on Texas justice. The  While the 2010 edition does not focus exclusively on Texas, it does have a good interview with Tom Phillips. In 1988, Bill Clements made Phillips the youngest chief justice in the state’s history by appointing him to fill a vacancy and later that year he became the first Republican elected Chief Justice.  He served on the Court until 2004. Like many veterans of the Texas Supreme Court, Phillips has grave doubts about the impact of campaign fundraising on Texas Courts.

Justice for Sale

PBS also has a page that lets you look state-by-state at judicial selection as well as a host of other online sources. State courts get very little attention and PBS’s website is a great asset for classes for courses on Texas courts.

Changes in Funding for Texas Higher Education

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, led by commissioner Raymund A. Paredes, issued its recommendation for formula funding [in pdf format] on June 3, 2010. Paredes feels that giving schools funding based on the number of students who complete a course (rather than the number who are enrolled on the 12th class day) will give schools incentive to help students succeed.

Here are the problems:

(1) Most graduates of Texas high schools are not ready for college. According to the Coordinating Board’s report, ACT’s latest statistics suggests that only 22 percent of Texas high school graduates are college ready. Granted, the new funding plan allows some funds (at least 5%) for “at risk” students. They define an “at risk” student is defined as “a student who is a recipient of Pell grants, a GED graduate, first entered college at age 20 or older, started as a part-time student (less than 12 hours), or earned an SAT or ACT score below the  national average.” It seems unlikely that a 5% adjustment will help with those students who need remedial coursework, tutors, etc. Let’s face it, if the public schools couldn’t get it done in their 12+ years with these students, I don’t see much chance we’ll be able to help them catch up their first semester in college because you’re offering some schools a 5% bonus for taking the students other schools don’t want. Many of these students have serious deficiencies and dropping 5% in the tip jar isn’t going to fix that.

(2) You get what you pay for. If you pay schools to pass students, many will pass students. Some schools and individual faculty members will keep their standards where they should be. Other schools will lower their standards and pass pretty much anyone.

Why reward the faculty with the lowest academic and ethical standards? The state’s businesses are upset that “social promotion” has made a high school diploma less valuable. Do we want to do the same for college degrees?

(3) Students need incentives. Anyone who has ever looked around a college classroom knows why some students are failing–they’re not trying. Many aren’t even showing up. Paredes, bless his little optimistic little heart, really seems to believe that if faculty members will just encourage students that they will be motivated and transformed. Students’ attitudes and bad tendencies have been developed over decades. Most 18-year-olds are not going to suddenly be motivated because a middle-aged professor in their freshman government course talked to them.  Please! Let me fail some of these students. Lowering our expectations for them is counter-productive and insulting.

(4) Finally, the Coordinating Board needs to think about who they’re talking to. Do they think faculty members don’t care about student success? Don’t they realize that we spend hours trying to find ways to make our courses better? I don’t mind some suggestions coming out of Washington or Austin. However, at some point the educational bureaucracy needs to understand that not all wisdom come from their offices.

Would the Coordinating Board really like to see faculty spend more time with students? If so, how about cutting back on the assessment and other paperwork the state is increasingly piling on schools? If the Commissioner wants teacher to spend more time listening to students he should consider demanding less time spent answering to his bureaucracy.

How are Texas schools doing?

How should we rate public schools? Let’s see what different measure say and consider what “accountability” should tell us.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) just issued their 2010 “Accountability Ratings.” The table below summarizes these ratings of campuses over the last four years. My percentages are slightly different from those reported by TEA because I’ve excluded those campuses that TEA could not rate. The number of schools they fail to rate varies from year to year and make comparisons across time harder.

Rating 2010 2009 2008 2007
Exemplary 33.7% 22.3% 10.5% 6.8%
Recognized 40.5% 30.4% 29.6% 25.1%
Academically Acceptable 24.2% 23.9% 36.8% 43.8%
Academically Unacceptable 1.6% 2.5% 2.1% 2.9%

Overall, TEA thinks we’re making great strides. Over the last four years the number of “exemplary” campuses has expanded  dramatically. One in three campuses rate “exemplary” and three of four rate as “exemplary” or “recognized.”

Some of the changes in the rating result from TEA utilizing a “growth measure” that the TEA has labeled the Texas Projection Measure. The measure has been controversial and began getting attention before the results were released. I’ll leave much of the debate over the measure to others. However, I believe that the measure is a failure if the Texans it was designed to inform don’t understand and trust these accountability standards.

There are other measures of success. The College Board has recently released a report that pulls together a variety of statistics that compare education across the states. I pulled together a number of these measures that relate to the success of education in Texas. The table makes clear that Texas is lagging behind other states in a number of key indicators.

Measure Texas National Average Rank
Average Graduation Rates for Public High School Students, 2006 72.5% 73.4% 35
Percentage of Public High Schools Offering Advanced Placement in the Four Core Subject Areas, 2009 38.0% 33.9% 24
Estimated Rate of High School Graduates Going to College by State Rank, 2006 55.4% 62.0% 41
In-State Tuition Prices at Public Two-Year Institutions by State Rank, 2010 $1,736 $2,982 4
In-State Tuition Prices at Public Four-Year Institutions by State Rank, 2010 $7,724 $6,784 34
Full-Time Freshman-to-Sophomore Retention Rates at Public Two-Year Institutions by State Rank, 2007 57.8% 59.0% 18
Full-Time Freshman-to-Sophomore Retention Rates at Public Four-Year Institutions by State Rank, 2007 72.8% 78.0% 40
Three-Year Graduation Rates of Associate Degree–Seeking Students by State Rank, 2007 18.% 27.8% 40
Six-Year Graduation Rates of Bachelor’s Degree–Seeking Students by State Rank, 2007 50.2% 56.1% 32
Adults Ages 25–64 with Less Than a High School Diploma by State Rank, 2008 13.2% 11.3% 50
High School Graduates Going to College by State Rank, 2006 55.4% 62.0% 41
Percentage of 25- to 34-Year-Olds with an Associate Degree or Higher, 2008 27.4% 41.6% 41

Some Texas politicians have suggested that the various drop out rates and other statistics don’t give an accurate picture of Texas’ success. While the range of statistics in the table above makes some pretty compelling evidence of Texas’ problems, we can also find some evidence in Texas public opinion.

A Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll reveals that most Texans have some serious about their schools. When asked how much confidence they  had in Texas public schools on 3% said that have “complete confidence” and 23% said “a great deal of confidence.” At the other end of the scale, 23% said they had “very little” and 95 reported “hardly any confidence at all.” Another question revealed that 61% of respondents thought that academic standards were too low. That’s a pretty dramatic contrast to TEA’s assessment.

Texas Tribune Poll Results

Education policy in Texas (and other states) has increasingly focused on “accountability.” Teacher were given tests and fired if they didn’t pass. Students were given state tests (and then more tests, and then a different test, and then…) and teachers found themselves accountable for students’ scores.

State officials try to build political careers by telling voters that “not all wisdom resides Washington.” Unfortunately, they’ve replaced this with the assumption that all wisdom resides in Austin. We’ve been going down that path for over a decade and schools have not improved. If anything, the state’s schools have suffered from the strict regiment of state testing and other state bureaucratic mandates. In short, the state’s expensive remedies proved worse than the problems (if there were actually problems at the time). On top of that, the politics of the Texas State Board of Education has made it a laughing-stock.

All of the indicator not massaged by the state itself tell us that the state has failed. Maybe it’s time to trust teachers, principals, superintendents, and the elected school boards that hire them.

**Update**

The TEA gave up on this new measure in April 2011. [Story]