Guest Column: Schools Should Offer Multiple Paths

Bill Hammond raises some legitimate concerns about the current state of public education in Texas. We both agree that too many students drop out before they finish high school and a significant percentage of those who do graduate are not prepared for college. However, he and I disagree on how to address those problems.

Hammond encourages us to “stay the course” of the existing high-stakes testing system and “4x4” curriculum that have come to dominate public education in Texas. Implicit in this expensive testing system (the cost to Texas taxpayers is an estimated $450 million over a five-year period) and the 4x4 curriculum is the idea that everyone should be prepared to go to a four-year university. I call it the “one-size-fits-all” approach to education, which doesn’t acknowledge that students have different talents and interests. The current system clearly isn’t working all that well to prepare students to be “college ready.” And it is doing a particularly poor job for those students who would benefit from a greater emphasis on career and technical education at the high school level.

So why should we “stay the course” of an overly prescriptive curriculum and a high-stakes testing system that haven’t delivered on its promises since they were first put in place in the mid-1990s? Rather than acknowledging that this state-mandated system isn’t working, the response from the defenders of the status quo is to roll out a new test, make a few changes to the accountability system and promise everything will be better if we just give it a chance to work. That’s what they said when TAAS became TAKS, and that’s what they are saying now that TAKS is becoming STAAR.

What can we do to inject some common sense into the discussion on education policy? We need multiple pathways to a high school diploma — pathways that reflect student goals. Every student should get the basics. Then, for those students wanting to go on to a university, there would be a college preparatory curriculum with emphasis on math and science, or one that focuses on humanities and the fine arts. There would be a career-oriented curriculum for students so inclined which would prepare them with an industry-certified license or credential by the time they graduate from high school.

I fully support holding schools accountable. But the current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students; rather, it makes them beholden to performance on a single test. Success and accountability can be measured in a variety of ways.

For those on the career path, certification or licensure in their fields is the best way to show whether or not their education was successful. And for those going to a university, there is no reason we can’t use the same tests that universities use in determining admission, like the SAT or ACT. Performance measures ought to be tied to the actual outcomes that we seek for our students.

Frustration on the part of parents, educators and employers with the current system has been building for many years. Change is long overdue, and we need to have the political courage to move away from failed policies towards a common sense approach that will prepare young Texans to be college-ready or career-ready.

Let’s replace a system driven by “test learning” with one that emphasizes real learning.

Tom Pauken is the Texas Workforce Commissioner representing employers and author of Bringing America Home.