Texas makes progress on school standards; now classroom work is key
In the late 1980s — in part as the result of global competition, of recognition that different schools offered programs of widely differing quality and of the 1984 Nation at Risk report condemning the undemanding nature of American schools — a new education movement swept the country: the standards-based education reform.
It was touted as the modern and rational approach to education, where one first defines the goals of an educational system (its standards) and then aligns the system’s other components — teacher education and certification, curriculum, textbooks, in-service professional development and student assessment — to support those standards.
The movement for school accountability followed; after all, once we agree on what students ought to know and align the support mechanisms with the standards, we can finally hold the system — its teachers and administrators — accountable for teaching (or failing to teach) our children.
It all sounded eminently reasonable. And throughout the 1990s, we saw many states develop their standards-based systems and tie them with their accountability-based reforms. Some of these states saw major improvements in their students’ achievement in the incipient years, particularly in mathematics.
For example, between 1992 and 2000 North Carolina and Texas saw their public schools’ fourth-graders gain 19 points and 15 points on the National Assessment of Educational Progress; the national average, on the other hand, had increased only by seven points. Similarly, North Carolina and Texas eighth-graders gained 22 and 10 points, respectively, while the national average increased by seven points.
These were major improvements in a short time, as 10 to 12 NAEP points represent a full grade-level gain.
As the result of such early successes, standards- and accountability-based reforms were institutionalized across the whole nation with the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Since then, the federal government increasingly took on the role of monitoring the states’ implementation of their standards- and accountability-based reforms, and “punished” them by withholding federal funds when it didn’t like certain aspects of their systems.
It turned out, however, that the early gains were the low-hanging fruits. Once those were picked, subsequent improvements became more difficult, and their effects more disappointing. Worse, the law of unintended consequences intervened: Once the federal government became the quality keeper of the reform, the states’ focus soon turned to federal compliance rather than to educational improvement.
Texas started its modern era of accountability in 1993 with the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Explicit content standards, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, were added in 1997, and in 2003 the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills based on the TEKS replaced TAAS as the annual test.
Since then the TEKS has been regularly updated, and end-of-course tests have started to replace the prior grade-level testing in the high school TAKS, culminating with a complete replacement of TAKS by the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness over the next two years.
As the achievement improvement slowed down by the mid-2000s, and in search for the reason behind this slowdown, Washington focused more on the quality of the state academic standards. The thinking was that if standards are the cornerstone of the education system, then a flawed cornerstone must affect the whole structure.
The quality of the standards varies widely among the states, and recent interest in international comparisons highlighted the fact that many high-achieving countries tend to have strong standards; thus it is not surprising that a consensus quickly emerged arguing that “states dumbed down their standards” in efforts to respond to No Child sanctions. This consensus, added to the promise of $4 billion in stimulus grants during a deep economic recession, caused most states to jump on the bandwagon of the Common Core national standards movement.
Yet at the same time, other voices started to question the received wisdom that quality of standards is behind the stagnation of achievement.
First, when state standards were actually evaluated, there was no clear “race to the bottom” in their quality over time. Many states, including Texas, have actually improved the quality of their standards in the past decade. But even more worrisome was that when researchers carefully studied the relationship between the quality of the standards and achievement, no such relationship was found.
How can this be if standards lie at the foundation of every modern education system? One soon realizes, however, that there is great distance between standards and what actually happens in the classroom.
It turns out proper implementation is also a necessary component to educational success.
Massachusetts and California are two states that have had excellent standards for a long time; they have also had widely different educational success. While California has the highest-quality standards in the nation, it has barely kept up with the average national progress; Massachusetts, with its slightly lower-quality standards, has leaped far ahead of every other state.
Even more telling are the standards in the four highest achieving states behind Massachusetts: New Jersey, Maryland, Minnesota and Vermont.
Three of them have scored C, and one scored D on their reading standards, while their math standards scored C, D, B and F, respectively, on the Fordham Institute periodic review of state standards. Clearly the quality of standards themselves is not a guarantee of high achievement — implementation has a major role in it, too.
Which brings us to the April adoption of the new TEKS in mathematics by the Texas State Board of Education. The new TEKS are higher quality and more demanding than their 2006 predecessor. In terms of their academic expectations they are about the level of the Common Core in grades K-8, yet they are still lower than our international competitors.
For example, the current TEKS never really expected fluency with the four arithmetic operations; the newly adopted TEKS expects fluency — without calculators — with integer addition and subtraction by fourth grade (similar to the Common Core) and with fractions and decimals by fifth grade (one year ahead of the Common Core).
Fluency with integer multiplication is expected by TEKS only in sixth grade, a year later than the Common Core, but division of integers and decimals is also expected by sixth grade, similar to the Common Core.
In middle school, both TEKS and the Common Core fall behind and teach only pre-algebra content by eighth grade, while international high achievers tend to teach algebra and serious geometry in that grade. And in high school, TEKS better and more rigorously defines math courses than does the Common Core.
Contentwise, the new TEKS are generally an improvement over the current TEKS and best the Common Core in many areas, but claritywise, they are much worse than they ought to be. The language of the draft that was presented to the state board for adoption had numerous errors, confused and confusing language, and other linguistic horrors.
Even though the state board successfully removed most of the mathematical errors and cleaned up their language somewhat through dozens of amendments, the resulting TEKS are far from being a model of clarity and coherence. This is both a pity and a testimony to the fact that clarity and coherence are rarely achieved through the tortuous process of the kind that TEKS went through.
But there is a good reason for hope, precisely because standards are only just one component of educational success. Were Texas to adopt the Common Core standards, it would have similar-quality standards written in a better language but would also need to revamp its whole educational system to align itself with them. And it would lose any ability to modify the standards or adjust them to its own needs.
By sticking with its own standards, Texas can build on its past investments and existing infrastructure and make deliberate improvements only in the areas that need them, rather than be forced into a massive realignment of all the components of its system. It is time now to shift focus to implementation.
Ze’ev Wurman was a senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Education from 2007 to 2009 and served on the 2010 California Academic Content Standards Commission. He has also worked for more than three decades in the high-tech industry, currently as chief software architect for San Jose, Calif.-based MonolithIC 3D Inc., which licenses semiconductor manufacturing technology.