State officials should answer for the quality of Texas public schools

Photo by Pu Ying Huang

The Texas Legislature and the Texas Education Agency need to be held fully accountable for the quality of their public schools, especially as the state begins to implement a new district and school grading system.

As part of House Bill 22, the 85th Legislature established three domains for measuring the academic performance of districts and schools using an A-F grading system. TEA claims to have developed a holistic grading system that considers more than just academic achievement on standardized exams, but many argue that letter grades cannot accurately reflect the complexity of educating the diverse Texas student population.

Proponents of the system argue that the grading system will provide families with easily accessible information about the quality of their schools. The logic seems to make sense, but in reality, it is a distraction from larger issues that have consistently been ignored.

Researchers find that policies like grading schools based on academic performance measured by state assessments motivates cheating, teaching to the test, costly teacher and principal turnover, and a sense of “forced failure” in low-income communities. So why enact a system that has such harmful effects?

The system is a distraction from the state’s failure to provide adequate funding to school districts. Since the 1970s, communities have filed suit in state and federal court claiming the state system of school finance was unconstitutional and discriminatory. More recently, the 82nd Legislature reduced K-12 spending by over $4 billion.

A recent analysis of Texas school finance found that high-poverty districts received 5.5 percent less funding than low-poverty districts in other states. Not surprisingly, Texas consistently ranks as a state that fails to provide the highest-need districts with equitable and adequate funding.

Few effective teachers and principals want to work in underfunded schools and districts unlikely to be highly rated, which further harms vulnerable students.

The state has also demonstrated an inability to accurately monitor cheating on accountability policies. For example, TEA was sanctioned this year by the U.S. Department of Education for failing to comply with key provisions of the nation’s special education law after it enacted a 2004 performance measure that triggered a statewide delay and denial of special education to eligible students with disabilities.

TEA has also failed to act in other scandals across the state, including one of the nation’s most significant scandals in El Paso.

A 2013 state audit report concluded that TEA “failed to perform a thorough and effective investigation of serious cheating allegations in the El Paso Independent School District.” Specifically, TEA failed to investigate all cheating allegations, failed to interview key individuals with knowledge of cheating, disregarded key information and allegations, and did not provide sufficient resources for the investigation.

Such failures date back to the 1990s and 2000s when Texas claimed an “educational miracle.” In reality, the miracle was a mirage consisting primarily of forced dropouts and intensive teaching to the test.

Rather than grading schools and districts, which already publicly report performance data, the TEA and Legislature should fulfill their duties under the Texas Constitution. This means ensuring all students receive “a suitable education” that helps them succeed in life, which it has mostly failed to do in high-poverty districts and schools.

The majority of our policymakers have been too focused on developing accountability policies that place responsibility and blame on teachers, principals, and superintendents while ignoring their responsibilities of providing adequate and equitable resources.

Educators and administrators play and important role, and many should be performing at higher levels just like individuals in any public or private sector organization. However, meaningful change in the form of increased academic achievement and the closing of racial and economic achievement gaps will not come true in Texas until Texans hold their state government accountable for adequate and equitable funding, the implementation of research-based policies that improve educator and administrator quality, and honest and transparent monitoring of schools and districts.

Sustainable positive change is possible and can serve as a true Texas miracle, but only when families and communities make the Texas Legislature and TEA accountable for providing schools and districts with the resources and policies necessary to increase student achievement and close achievement gaps.

The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

David DeMatthews

Associate professor, the University of Texas at Austin

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