Texas Turns Back the Clock?

I'm a proud, fourth-generation Californian. But I have been telling education leaders in my home state for some time that they could learn a thing or two from the K-12 educational improvement strategies Texas put into place.

However, after several years of steady progress, state lawmakers are poised to gut what Texas got right before anybody else, threatening to send the state -- and its economy -- back in the opposite direction at exactly the wrong time.

Texans realized early on that for their kids to compete against students from Beijing and Bangalore, let alone California and Florida, they needed to take rigorous classes in high school, the kind that would prepare them for higher education or a job that pays a family-supporting wage. That students who take a tougher course load actually learn more is, of course, a no-brainer. But decades of research substantiate that common-sense thinking. Indeed, the single largest predictor of success in college isn't test scores or high school grades, it is the quality and intensity of a student's high school curriculum.

Recent research also suggests that those same courses also better prepare students for today's workplace. Electricians, auto technicians, and sheet metal workers, for example, all need the same math and science proficiency that colleges require. And it's not just in STEM fields where our kids need a strong foundation: More than 70 percent of human resources professionals report that entry-level high school graduates are deficient in basic writing skills. Even more complain of their inability to write clear memos, letters, and reports.

Texas acted on this evidence far earlier than most states. Back in the mid-1990s, the state started moving more students into this kind of higher level curriculum. About a decade ago, that curriculum became the "default" placement for all high school students. And despite some pockets of worry about higher expectations driving more students to drop out, the results show the opposite: High school graduation rates have not only increased statewide, they are improving fastest among low-income students and students of color. In addition, more than 6 in 10 black and Hispanic students now graduate from Texas high schools having completed the coursework necessary to attend college.

Certainly, there is more work to be done in Texas. The state's college enrollment and completion rates remain well below the national average for students of color as well as for students overall. And nearly 1 in 4 Texas high school graduates seeking enlistment in the U.S. Army are unable to pass the exam required for entry.

But rather than building on what Texas has accomplished to date, state lawmakers in Austin are on the verge of passing a set of bills that would eviscerate this default course of study in high school. And their timing couldn't be worse for Texas' competitiveness: They are doing this just as other states are ratcheting up their own expectations.

How very sad for the children of the Lone Star State, especially those who don't have college-educated parents and will assume that they are priming themselves for success by doing what's required to graduate. Only after they are handed a meaningless diploma will the kids we primed for failure by expecting less realize that playing by the rules doesn't mean they are ready for life after high school. And, unlike the legislators in Austin -- who still have a chance to right the wrongs in the bills they are considering -- the students won't get a "do over."