Business Approach Nets Turnaround for Texas Education

Published June 1, 1998

By applying a business approach to accountability in their public schools, lawmakers in the Lone Star State have over the past decade turned Texas into one of the highest-performing states in the nation in terms of educational achievement.

A key element of the business approach is that, instead of being hailed for improving their relative performance, Texas schools are praised only when they meet a set of absolute benchmarks. That forces all schools and all students to meet the same standards.

The approach is simple, yet highly effective, according to Tyce Palmaffy in a recent Policy Review article, “The Gold Star State”:

  • Establish high expectations for students of all races and income levels;
  • Continuously measure student achievement against these standards;
  • Hold educators accountable for student achievement;
  • Deregulate the schools, so that educators have the freedom to find innovative ways to raise achievement.

The results have been little short of spectacular, although Texas could easily rattle off a list of “excuses” for failure: The state has the fourth-highest percentage of its school-age children living in poverty; ne-third of its students qualify as disadvantaged under Title I; and nearly half of its public school children are black or Hispanic, minorities that traditionally do poorly on national achievement tests.

But in Texas, those factors do not hold students back, as demonstrated by the following results from the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress:

  • In fourth-grade mathematics, Texas finished in the top 10 states.
  • The percentage of Texas fourth-graders achieving at or above the NAEP’s “proficient” level in mathematics rose from 15 to 25 percent between 1992 and 1996, while the percentage scoring below “basic” fell from 44 percent to 31 percent.
  • Black fourth-graders and Title I fourth-graders in Texas scored higher in mathematics than the same groups in other states.
  • While there is a racial gap in achievement, that gap is narrowing faster in Texas than in any other state.

While NAEP tests provide a yardstick to measure performance between states, the yardstick used throughout Texas for students and schools is the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Individual student performance is evaluated by annual TAAS tests in reading, writing, and mathematics in grades three through eight, and again in grade ten. Individual school performance also is assessed annually, based on the percentage of its students that pass the TAAS, together with its dropout rate and attendance rate. Schools are rated “exemplary,” “recognized,” “acceptable,” or “low performing.”

“The accountability system’s real power rests with the ratings themselves,” notes Palmaffy. “By spotlighting the performance of individual schools and districts, the ratings affect the career prospects of all educators, from teachers to superintendents.”

According to Palmaffy, “low performing” schools have seen a 31 percent turnover in their principals during the past four years, while principals who have improved schools have received promotions.

Since the rating system was created in 1993, the state has increased the thresholds for each school ranking. In addition, there are proposals for ending social promotion and making it easier for students to leave “low performing” schools. If this trend continues, notes Palmaffy, Texas “may soon become the best place to get an education.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].