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Education

As I was listening in the back of the room, I had a flashback. It had to do with a nightmare I had about, I think it was seven years ago, that I thought I'd put out of my mind and memory, but it turned out I hadn't. And that was an occasion which I was very much honored to be asked to be one of the speakers who introduced Dan Morales when he was sworn in as Attorney General. And it was quite an occasion in the House of Representatives, a large crowd there. It was a very joyous occasion. He was the first Latino to be elected statewide in the state, and there was a great celebration. And I was very honored to be included until I walked into the House Chamber. Then I found that I followed Barbara Jordan on the program. To make it even worse, out of all of the verses in the Bible, she chose the same one to read that I had chosen. There was only one difference; when she read the verse, it sounded as if God herself was reading the Bible. And I had that wave of nightmare come over me as I listened to Marian Wright Edelman, and as I listened to Ernie preach. But let me tell you another side of Ernie, and it's a side he talked about, but I want to give you a concrete example of what it means to organize a community.

When we first worked on what later became known as House Bill 72, the first real effort, post-World War II, to reform our education system, there came a crisis. I guess there always is in something that you're trying to do that's transformative, and that was that the bill was voted down in the Public Education Committee by the House in a special session on a Sunday night. That became known as the Father's Day Massacre, because it occurred on Father's Day. And since the Committee, who had to send it to the floor, had just voted it down, it appeared as if the special session was over, as Ernie and I walked out of the committee room. And being the neophyte that I was, I hadn't been educated into the politics of public education, I didn't know what in the world to do. And I said, "Ernie, it looks to me like we have about twenty-four hours to turn this situation around." Ernie said, "Don't worry." The next morning, and we didn't break up till 10:00 on Sunday night, at 8:00 on Monday morning, all of a sudden rolled up four buses of people from San Antonio, from COPS in San Antonio, who began to walk the halls of the Legislature. And within twenty-four hours, we had turned around the decision of the House Public Education Committee. So, Ernie not only talks the talk, he goes out and walks real strong, and he carries a big stick. I am forever indebted to him for what he has done and what the communities, which he helps to organize and train to be their own leaders, what they do for public education. And so, I am a little bit, not a little bit, I'm a lot intimidated by following Ms. Edelman and Ernie, but I will do my best to really talk about, for a few minutes, some of the specifics of where we are in public education.

And I want to start at an unusual place, it seems, in a discussion of public education, and that is I want to talk about the good news about public education. And that comes from someone who has been very vocal about the need for change, who feels very strongly that we have let our children down for decades in our state. But as we push, and push, and push, and we should never stop pushing to improve our education system, we really do need to stop for a minute and reflect upon the success that we have had in this state in the last fifteen years. It really is remarkable. And, of course, part of the problem was we started at the bottom of the barrel. I mean, the real bottom of the barrel. But just last month, a group called the National Education Goals Panel, which annually tracks and reports on thirty-three indicators tied to our eight national education goals, commissioned a report to look at the success of Texas and North Carolina among all of the fifty states. And the reason they chose those two states was they stood out as achieving the most significant, positive gains in the greatest number of academic indicators of any of the states in the country. As a result of these indicators, they commissioned a study by the Rand Corporation to analyze the gains, first to ensure that they really were valid and significant and then second to try to ascertain why we had had the success that we had had the last fifteen years, so that we would know if we were on the right track. This Rand analysis, which was released last month, confirmed that the academic achievement in Texas and in North Carolina were "significant and sustained over the last fifteen years." North Carolina and Texas, again, had the largest gain on statewide scores on the NAPE, that's the national education test that exists today, and North Carolina and Texas had the most significant gains in that very important, valid, solid national test that our students take. And even more significantly, I think, the scores of our so-called "disadvantaged students" rose even more, in greater percentage increase, than the test scores of more advantaged students. In other words, we finally began to make progress across all of our student populations.

Now, the other significant thing, and I know this could certainly be debated by everyone in this room, but this analysis further revealed that the factors which we commonly think would cause such an increase were not really involved in the success in Texas and North Carolina. And that was that our real per pupil spending, our teacher-pupil ratios, the number of teachers with advanced degrees, and the experience levels of our teachers did not correlate to the academic achievement that we derived over the last fifteen years. Now, of course, we don't know how much more we might have even gained if we had had these additional factors. But those factors were not present and could not explain the success that we have achieved. And, as a matter of fact, in those factors we were below average of the states in the country.

Interestingly enough, the study concluded that the most plausible explanation for the test score gains by North Carolina and Texas was a similar set of policies that both states implemented that coincided with the increases in achievement. What were these reform policies? That would be, I'm sure, what we'd all like to focus on. I certainly did. Here's what they listed: one, statewide academic standards by grade, with clear teaching objectives; two, holding all students to the same standards, recognizing that all children can learn; statewide assessment closely linked to academic standards; accountability systems with consequences for results; and a shifting of resources to schools with more disadvantaged students and the infrastructure to sustain reform. I think that is what has been the most remarkable about what has happened in Texas, is that for fifteen years we have sustained, in essence, the same general reform standards.

Now, fortunately, we keep, and we should keep, a philosophy of continuous improvement, a continuous raising of the bar. But for once in public education, we have left in place a reform structure and given it time to change.

When you look at the size of the public system in Texas, it's absolutely essential that any program you derive must be sustained over a period of time. It's highly offensive to some people to call students products, but if we look at students as a product, keep in mind the product cycle is twelve years. And really fourteen if we count kindergarten and pre-kindergarten. So it takes a long time to turn the Queen Mary. It really takes a long time in Texas, where we educate four million public school students. Four million. In fact, if you looked at the Texas public schools as a business, the annual revenues of the Texas public schools, K through 12, not counting higher education, are only exceeded in this state by two Fortune 500 companies' worldwide revenues. In other words, Texas public education would rank right behind Exxon and J. C. Penney's worldwide revenues. But we're trying to educate four million students, and we have 350,000 employees, 6,500 campuses.

Now, there's a lot of people in this room that have been involved in transforming businesses, but I challenge you to present a more complex set of size and scope, as compared to changing the Texas public schools. So what has been remarkable in our state is that the political leadership has sustained the reform movement through fifteen years, different Lieutenant Governors, different Governors, but they have been focused on public education, maybe not to the extent I would like, but much more than we ever were for the past fifteen years. And I think it's important to focus on this improvement, because as I travel the state, I see an enormous amount of despair about public schools. As a matter of fact, it's gone full cycle. Fifteen years ago, I was talking to groups like this, saying, "Hey, folks, we have a problem out there." Today, you have to try to convince people that we can really make a difference. Well, we don't have any choice but to make a difference. I mean, we really don't. Whether you're concerned about crime, or you're concerned about the economy, or you're concerned about any social problem, it crosses, it intersects with our public schools. And we have no choice.

And I get a lot of questions about vouchers and private schools. Well, we need to put in perspective vouchers and private schools, because, folks, there aren't enough seats in private schools to fill the need of four million public school students for at least my generation, my children's generation, and probably my grandchildren's. I haven't checked recently, but as of, I think it was, three years ago, there were sixty million public school students in the country, and six million were in private schools. If you double the private school population, and I don't see how you can do it, the infrastructure does not exist, but if you doubled it, look at the numbers that you still have in public school. So we can't run away from the problem. You can't run far enough, you can't run fast enough. We are educating our next generation in our public schools. It's that simple. But we have lots of great news, and that was just part of it.

And let me say from time to time you read and there is always controversy about the TAAS test. Well, it's not hard enough, or it's not this or it's not that. But, folks, because we have had statewide testing, which can always be improved and should always be improved, we have made enormous progress for fifteen years. I know it is very appealing when we think about statewide testing to focus on educating, in a broad sense, our children. But when we are dealing with third grade reading, you can either read or you cannot read. And when we are talking about addition, and subtraction, and multiplication, and division, you can or you can't. And we must put in place the basic skills that will enable our students then, really, to maximize their potential.

And for the last fifteen years, we have focused on minimal standards. Let's face it. We had no standards fifteen years ago, and so, which was the only thing to do, we put in place minimal standards. And with respect to those minimal standards, we've made enormous progress. Again, this is on the state test, not the national test, but it parallels the same results. For instance, we have 78 percent of our tenth grade students passing the math test in 1997, up from 59 percent three years previously. We've gone from fifty-nine to seventy-eight. That's good news. Now, there's one slight problem; that's tenth grade math. And the jobs of tomorrow are jobs that require fourteen years of education, on average, twelve years of real basic skills, education, so you can be trained like George Kozmetsky trains students. But they have to have basic skills. So we're making progress in that basic skills. But we have set the bar, by our own admission, at tenth grade. And, folks, there are no jobs today for students with a tenth grade education, even if it's a real tenth grade education, let alone if it's a minimal standard education.

I had a very brief political career. It's another nightmare I'm trying to put behind me, but I'll never forget, the candidate will go on nameless, but one opponent of mine once asked me, "Tom, I don't understand why you get so serious about education, why you get so wound up." He said, "It seems real simple to me." He said, "All you need to do is to teach them boys to pump gas." Well, when I recovered from the shock-and you really put that in perspective, from his perspective of when he graduated from high school, that was true. I mean, you could go to work on the oil and gas fields, and you could be a roughneck, and you could have a tenth grade education, and you could make a living. Today, the equivalent to the automobile assembly line or oil fields that required you to have a hard back and broad shoulders 30 years ago is the entry level job at Intel. I was fortunate to work on an effort to attract Intel to our state to build a chip factory. And 60 percent of their jobs are entry-level jobs, so it's just the kind of employer you want. That entry-level job in that chip factory is the equivalent today of the General Motors assembly line twenty-five years ago. It's your good paying, entry-level job, with benefits. There's only one difference; it's not a blue-collar job today, it's a gray-collar job. That's what I call them. It's a gray-collar job. To be employed at Intel, you have to have finished a course in chip manufacturing in a community college, and you have to be trainable. You have to be trainable. And that's the difference between today and twenty-five years ago, and that's why we have the education gap that we have, is that we are getting better on a trend line like this, but the skill level is going like this. And that's the gap. We just can't say, "Well, you know, why aren't our public schools doing better." They're faced with an enormous change in what is required of the students that they graduate. But we haven't changed the system to reflect that reality. Again, I want to say it 100 times, folks, we are making progress, and we should not throw the baby out with the bath water, but we have to continue to make dramatic changes in what we're doing.

As we sit here today and we worry about how to educate our children, we still haven't done anything about, in any sense of the word, the developmental capacity of our children from zero to three. And we all know, I mean, there really isn't any doubt about the fact-I mean, people may argue about whether you develop 70 percent of your capacity, or 60 percent, or 50. Who knows. In my world, I don't know exactly how much, but I know it makes a big difference. And I despair from time to time, as they argue in Congress about Head Start and how much to fund, when what we really ought to be arguing about is do we have the right developmental components of Head Start, or do we just have child care? When I say, "just have," child care beats no care, but what we need is developmental care of our children from zero to tree. If we're serious about every child being able to read at the end of the third grade, and I applaud Governor Bush-there is no more worthy goal than ensuring that our children can read at the end of the third grade-but if we're really serious about that, that every child will be given that opportunity, then we have to do something about zero to three. If we're really serious, we may also need to have year round schooling for our children to keep up. You know, it's not really doing any good when our students compete in a worldwide economy, and they do, pure and simple, they do, for us to say, "Well, we're just trying to educate more children," or, "We just have a more difficult population to educate." When they're competing for jobs, folks, the excuses we have really don't matter.

Today, for the largest company in the Metroplex, software engineers in Bangalore, India maintain their central accounting system. No announcements were made about jobs going overseas or new plants being built. You don't need to do that anymore. You just hire software engineers in Bangalore, and they do it there. So we're competing, our children will be competing world wide, and I'm talking about people who have "blue-collar jobs" or "gray-collar jobs."

Everybody in this economy is impacted by what happens across the world. And yet, to a large extent, we have a system that we're trying to fix that was designed for the agrarian society. Our school year is defined by the crops that we used to grow. And we just have to face the fact there's not a lot of jobs in the agricultural field. I checked the other day. We have 500,000 students in our state taking agriculture vocational education. There are not 500,000 jobs in agriculture for the next nine millennia for children in Texas. Why is that happening? I have my own theory. We have a school finance system that gives a school more money to place a student in agriculture vocational education than to keep a child in an academic track. Incentives work. Incentives work. And our system still is designed around the agrarian society. We have a school finance system that gives a school more money to keep a child in bilingual education than to graduate, if you will, to being fluent in English, as well as Spanish, or French, or something else. Now, do we need bilingual education? In my judgment, absolutely. When you have children that walk in, sit down at the desk and cannot speak English, you must, you must communicate in ways that enable the child to learn and make the transition to be able to speak English. But today, we give a school more money if the child stays in bilingual education. As a result, we have a lot of children that are what I call "no lingual." They haven't conquered a real foreign language, nor the English language. But again, on whether you agree or disagree on bilingual, the changes that are required in the future require us to look at the system, because we have made the, I won't say easy changes. They were hard as they could be. But the changes we have made are changes to the system that existed. And if we're really going to achieve what we need to, the system has to change. The delivery systems have to change, the incentives have to change. We have to reward teachers in a different way, in terms of compensation, in terms of the quality of teachers that we attract. And we've gotten the low-lying fruit, so to speak. It didn't seem very low-lying for the last fifteen years, but, again, we've made enormous progress.

Today, because of the benefits of that accountability system, we have data available to us that will enable, or should enable, every community to push to raise the bar. And we need to start saying the passing standard should be raised. We need to also know how our students are doing at a proficiency level, which you and I would translate into real proficiency in the subject. You're at grade level. I brought several of these overheads, but I'll only use one, because I know it's a long way to the back of this narrow room. Let me show you. Just for the Kids, that Bill Wright and many other people in this room helped to get started, both financially and with their time and effort, Just for the Kids has developed this data on every elementary school in our state, and most people by now know in an individual school what the passing rate is on the TAAS test. In some of our schools, for instance, a lot of our suburban schools, report high passing scores. But, folks, if you look underneath that data, what you see in this school, which is in Clear Creek, with a passing rate of 90 percent, their proficiency rate is 40 percent. Now, again, don't start throwing stones. When we started this, the passing rate was at forty. But continuous improvement means the next bar needs to be let's get the proficiency up to where the passing is.

Because we have individual student data, we're able to factor in some very important things for local communities to know that are represented in the second and third chart. The second chart makes an adjustment: many educators will tell you, "Wait a minute. It's not fair to hold me accountable for the students I have, because you don't understand, 20 percent of them I just got six months ago. We have a transitory population. People are moving around." Well, in the second bar chart we factor out any student that was not continuously enrolled in that school. And that's the second chart.

The third chart, and this is important, the third chart takes the average of the top ten schools that have social economic characteristics of that school and says here's the top ten average of schools just like yours. Now, in that case, it's a pretty vivid contrast that this school can do a whale of a lot better. We're not comparing apples against oranges, we're comparing apples to apples, oranges to oranges, and we're able to look at it grade by grade and subject by subject, which is a whole lot better than saying, "This is a good school," or "This is a bad school." This enables you to say, "Here's what we're doing in the third grade in reading." And I can show you some schools that are doing great in reading and are abysmal in math. Or that are doing great in math in the third grade, and in the fourth grade it drops through the floor.

I show you that data because I am convinced, and Just for the Kids is convinced, that the next step in education reform consists of really two, really three fundamental factors; one, local communities have to quit talking about education and do something about education. Local control is, and will be, ever-present in education in my lifetime. And in the real world I truly believe it is the only way to really get excellence in education, because in Texas we have schools that range from three students in a one-room school house to 200,000 students in urban Houston. You cannot devise a system that micromanages the various types of schools that we have in our state. So local control is the best way to meet individual needs of students, if the local community is involved. And when it comes to local control, I am reminded of a famous saying by Darrell Royal, and, fortunately, there are some people in this room who will remember who Darrell Royal is. He used to be chided quite frequently because he didn't throw the ball more. He said well, the reason he didn't was that when you threw, three things could happen, and two of them were bad. You could throw a long touchdown pass, you could have an interception, or it could be incomplete. Well, in local control three things can happen; one, and the most likely is, based upon where we are today, the status quo will prevail, because the same things will continue being done, because the community is not involved. And when I say involved, I'm talking about at an individual school level. So, one thing that could happen, status quo.

Number two, things can get worse. Who knows, maybe even in local control, some people may think football is king. Or it can get great. We are convinced at Just for the Kids that the next step means local communities must get involved all over the state. Some will be organized by groups like Ernie is generating across the state. Others will be done by groups who, maybe instead of adopting a school and just having a banquet, really get involved, really understand where they are, deal with the issues of change. But we have to get involved if we're to turn it around.

So, we believe it's getting local communities involved in a very specific way; one, informing them, so that we're really debating with factual knowledge, and we're debating about academic subjects, and based upon that data, communities are setting specific, measurable goals and adopting plans to achieve those goals. So, one, the local communities have to get involved and two, we must keep raising the standards. It's painful, but we can't stop. And, folks, every child really can learn, if they're challenged and the bar is raised. A lot of us have raised children. I've never found a child, nor really myself, where I've ever exceeded my own expectations. You know, it just doesn't happen. And if we don't expect very much from our children, we won't get very much.

Peter O'Donnell has funded an advanced placement program now in southern Dallas County. The program started when we were working with Roy Schwitters, when we used to have a super collider, to improve education in Ellis County. And when the Foundation gave schools and students an incentive to take advanced placement, all of a sudden, students in every school in Ellis County, all of a sudden, were taking more advanced placement courses than students in any state. Any state. And when people looked at the results, they said, "Oh, well, Peter, that's Ellis County." Well, he took it to Dallas, to the Dallas Independent School District. He took it to nine poor urban schools. And in just two years they went from not even on the map to three times the number of Africa-American and Hispanic students taking and passing advanced placement courses than the national average. What had changed? They offered advanced placement courses. There were incentives. The student was rewarded. The school was rewarded. The teacher was rewarded. And look what happened. So we've got to keep raising the standards, and giving incentives to achieve those standards.

And then, three, we have to get serious about debating real overhaul of our system while the 747 is flying. Unfortunately, we don't have the option of landing and saying, "Well, we're just gonna think about this for two or three years." Children's lives are at stake every single day. So we have to fix it on the fly, and it's not easy. But we've got to start debating some real change in the system itself.

And I could go on a long time about that, but I've probably gone way too long as it is. But I would urge you, as you leave here, to really focus on the fact that public education really is the key, and it will be, for my grandchildren's generation. It's there, it's not going away, it's getting tougher all the time, but we don't have any choice but to fix it. Thank you very much.