If it ain’t broke, break it: TX politicians now want NCLB for higher education

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Texas politicians continue to be interested in finding elegant ways to reduce funding for public schools. Now they are aiming at the gems of our educational system— our colleges and universities. No Child Left Behind is coming to a Texas college and university near you. Yes, the Legislature that birthed NCLB wants to apply their outdated way of thinking about measuring educational success, an approach that has completely failed, to the University of Texas System, Texas A&M System, Sul Ross, University of Houston etc. While the cheapistas are not trotting out the monikers No College Student Left Behind or accountability, the use of “outcomes-based education” is just semantics. My sources tell me that university and college presidents statewide (and appointed officials) are being pressured to send letters in support of “outcomes- based education” to Austin for a certain someone. Be prepared for a media onslaught of college presidents and politically appointed officials apparently in favor of “outcomes-based education.” Make no mistake, regardless of the behind-the-scenes arm twisting emanating from Austin, fanciful language about data, and convincing rhetoric about awful universities and colleges— they are asking for a retro bad idea that we can call sardonically No College Student Behind Left. The mindset that we can quantify what universities and colleges do for our society in a few metrics— regardless of what they are— is innae. As we have seen with NCLB, the effects of attempting to simplify education to a few blunt metrics has had cascading consequences across our K-12 education system.

I had a feeling this was coming. After my presentation about Community-Based Accountability at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Policy Orientation in January 2013, I basically had a disagreement with the entire panel (including Ted Lindsay) about accountability for higher education. Essentially I argued that our system of higher education in the United States is the envy of world— just ask the tens of thousands of international students that attend our universities in Texas and nationwide. But the “outcomes-based education” for higher education “reformers” motto is “If it ain’t broke, break it.” The University of Texas at Austin is usually considered one of the top 30 universities in the world— despite this, there are folks out there that want to find ways to reduce funding using an elegant and simple system of numbers to paint our universities and colleges as failures.

Is there room for improvement in higher education? Of course. We discussed graduation rates across the state for African Americans and Latinos in two previous studies. Sure, the graduation rates statewide are low when compared to UT-Austin; however, ask the average college student this question: Are you more likely to stay in school if you can pay your tuition bill? Instead of cutting funding based on graduation rates, we should be thinking how the state can increase need-based and merit based financial aid so that students have a higher probability of graduation. How about a promise scholarship program like they have in Kalamazoo, Michigan?

Also, why isn’t the Legislature focused on college and universities that represent the demographics of the state and fulfill the legacy of the Texas Plans that were forced upon the state decades ago?

Make no mistake, the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M College Station will come out smelling like roses no matter the parameters of an antiquated accountability approach the Legislature comes up with because we are the top of the food chain. Does the University of Houston have lower graduation rates that UT-Austin? Of course. Why? Because we have a tiered system— UT-Austin and Texas A&M often get their pick of students statewide. By contrast, The University of Houston, UT-Dallas, and UTSA have a mission to serve students that are both brilliant and those that have promise. It’s everybody except the flagships that should be very, very worried, because the Texas Legislature is going to find a way to hammer higher education just as they have in K-12 to cut education dollars from their budget. The Texas cheapistas are coming for our college and universities.

Outcomes-based education is a not too elegantly camoflaged attempt to justify cutting billions from our university and colleges. This is a similar playbook to what we saw in the K-12 sector (See the History of Texas-style Accountability addendum below). Then for profit companies and low-quality online universities can magically fill the gap created by the Legislature. Colin Powell famously said if you break it you own it. That is exactly what they are after. If it ain’t broke, break it.

p.s. Kudos to UT-Austin President Bill Powers for standing up to powerful forces.

Brief History of Accountability (aka outcomes-based education) in Texas

Where does all this come from? How was No Child Left Behind born? Does this sound familiar to the arguments we heard for “outcomes-based education” in the early 1990s? See the excerpt below from the award winning paper entitled At-risk student averse: Risk management and accountability. 

[Texas] has been challenged to craft school finance legislation that would survive the state’s Supreme Court (Vasquez Heilig, Williams and Jez, 2010). Former Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff, Republican senate sponsor of Texas Senate Bill 7 (SB 7), related that the inclusion of the accountability system in SB 7 was necessary to gain passage of the proposed school finance system, also known as the Robin Hood plan because it redistributed funds from richer districts to poor districts. He stated:

If you are going to pass a school finance bill, it’s almost inevitable to get the votes to pass one that you have to put considerably more money into the system, because if you don’t you have school districts who are winners and you have school districts who are losers, and the losers, the members who represent losing districts can’t vote for it….But many members were skeptical about putting that much new money in unless we required some kind of an accountability for the money. That is… are we getting the bang for our buck? (personal communication, November 14, 2007)

Thus, in addition to reforming school finance, SB 7 modified the existing public school accountability system from a diagnostic to a performance-based system. Signed into law by Democratic Governor Ann Richards in 1993, SB 7 represented a bipartisan solution to the state’s educational woes as it was passed by a wide margin in both the Texas House and Senate. When asked about whether there were any legislators against the accountability system at the time that SB 7 was considered, Lt. Governor Ratliff stated the following:

Well, there were some that were against the accountability, but frankly the accountability was sort of overshadowed by the school finance….Most of the votes in the Senate…were votes against the Robin Hood plan, not against the accountability system. The accountability system, except for some members who wanted some accountability, sort of flew under the radar because the school finance bill was so controversial (personal communication, November 14, 2007).

Despite the fact that accountability  “flew under the radar,” SB 7 mandated the creation of the Texas public school accountability system to rate school districts and evaluate campuses. The first Texas accountability system was enacted in 1994, under the leadership of Governor Ann Richards, was an information forum that utilized test scores and other measures of student progress to determine whether school districts should remain accredited by the state.[1] The Texas accountability system was undergirded by the Public Education Information Management System (PEIMS) data collection system, a state-mandated curriculum, and a statewide standardized test to measure student proficiency in core subjects.

From 1995-1999, Texas test-based accountability commenced under Governor George W. Bush.[2] During this period, educational policy in the state evolved beyond district-level consequences to applying a variety of sanctions on teachers, principals and schools.[3] Achievement gains across grade levels conjoined with increases in high school graduation rates and decreases in dropout rates brought nationwide acclaim to the Texas accountability “miracle” (Haney, 2000, p. 1). Citing the success of Texas-style high-stakes testing and accountability rating formulas, former President George W. Bush chose Rod Paige, the Houston Independent School District Superintendent, as his first Secretary of Education. During his first day on the job, Rod Paige declared that Texas-style accountability had made a difference for at-risk students during his tenure in Houston. He stated, “I personally witnessed in the last seven years schools where most would say these students had all the at-risk characteristics associated with failure, and they shouldn’t grow. In fact they did.” He explained that accountability had highlighted “islands of excellence” and that the Texas system of sanctions and rewards would be integrated into a national Bush education plan (Suarez, 2001).

According to McNeil (2005), Texas-style high-stakes testing and accountability policy, by force of federal law, became the driving education policy for the entire nation through the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act of 2002— also known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).[4] NCLB (2002) replicated the Texas model of accountability, injecting public rewards and sanctions into education policy for states, districts and schools nationwide.


[1] For more about Ann Richard’s approach to Texas-style Accountability, go to http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/perfreport/account/94/manual.pdf

[2] For more about George W. Bush’s approach to Texas-style Accountability, go to http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/perfreport/account/99/manual/manual.pdf

[3] The state also saw the promulgation of higher-stakes for students such as the abolition of automatic grade progression. For example, in Houston, Superintended Rod Paige utilized TAAS and Stanford 9 test scores to determine whether students advanced to the next grade.

[4] ESEA was the first large-scale federal legislation aimed at equalizing educational opportunities for all of America’s students. President Johnson posited that a significant goal of ESEA was to address resource allocation inequities among U.S. schools serving wealthy and poor students (Johnson, 1965). Of its many provisions, ESEA was the first large-scale federal effort to federal dollars to schools serving large populations of students of poverty— a goal that had been sought in the U.S. since 1870 (Johnson, 1965).

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Categories: Accountability, Higher Education Access

Author:Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African and African Diaspora Studies (by courtesy) at the University of Texas at Austin.

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