By Susan Combs and Harrison Keller
If Texas is to continue its astonishing economic growth, we need to set high expectations for our public schools, workforce training, colleges and universities — and make sure we meet them, consistently, for all Texans.
It is important to honor the progress Texas students and schools have made.
Over the past 10 years, the number of students enrolled in our universities, colleges or technical schools has increased by about 400,000, and the number of bachelor’s and associate’s degrees awarded each year has increased by nearly 150 percent.
This progress has made a real difference for Texas families and our economy.
The problem is that we’re not improving fast enough to meet the needs of an increasingly technical workplace.
The percent of graduates completing bachelor’s degrees, associate’s degrees or certificates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics over the past decade has actually declined.
Of real concern is the educational success of our rapidly growing Hispanic student population, which consistently lags behind state goals.
So while we’re building and spending more, we don’t seem to be gaining substantial ground on our global competitors.
These challenges will not be fixed by more of the same approaches to spending, teaching and testing; we need a Renaissance in Texas education.
For Texas to be competitive for the future, educational systems and methods that have changed little in a century will need to be altered or replaced.
We need to be smarter and more innovative, giving our students, schools and communities more room to innovate and excel.
A starting point is suggested by the Comptroller’s Financial Allocation Study for Texas, which has documented substantial differences in the educational results schools achieve with roughly equivalent funding. Some schools are remarkably good at turning resources into results; they should have more room to try promising new ideas.
For example, the state could let high performers keep their state accountability ratings for multiple years. Encourage them to try new approaches and be more open about the results in exchange for more time to make new ideas work. Focus more rigorous approaches to school accountability on districts that need the attention.
Individual students also deserve more flexibility.
Today’s students learn in many different ways and radically different environments, accessing massive libraries of digital content and software that adapts to their learning needs. Technology can free up time and resources, letting students and teachers focus on higher-level learning.
In our traditional model, we measured learning by seat time, course titles and standardized tests. Students who deviated from traditional paths were often counted as failures.
Now, we are increasingly able to leverage new technologies to customize these paths.
One promising approach is competency-based education, where schools and colleges award credit to students for demonstrating that they can apply knowledge.
We need to acknowledge that there are many pathways to success. One student might do very well in a building trade, but be uninterested in pursuing a college degree until later. Another might have a genius for computing and need only a few certifications to start earning a professional salary.
Another might be ready to accelerate through high school and start college early. What would our schools look like if they were truly designed to identify and develop each student’s potential?
We urge educators and legislators to set the stage for a new era in Texas education defined by opportunity, flexibility and innovation.
Technology will be an important part of this, but so will collaborations among schools, colleges and universities, and Texas employers. We need stronger incentives for employers to partner with schools and students to offer meaningful internships, which may mean rethinking the school day.
Our school facilities need more flexible learning spaces to leverage online technologies.
These new approaches could go a long way toward improving Texas education. It isn’t about throwing more money at the problem. It’s about finding ways to get better results with the resources we already have and giving more flexibility — and local control — back to students, schools and their communities.
That’s what we need throughout the Texas educational ecosystem. We need a Renaissance in Texas education. Nothing less will improve the outlook for young Texans — and for the state economy they’ll help build and sustain.
Combs is Texas comptroller. Keller is vice provost for Higher Education Policy and Research and executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas at Austin.