Texas and the United States are doing a lousy job educating their young people and it’s going to cost us dearly in terms of economic competitiveness if we don’t do something quick.
Nowhere are the challenges greater, meanwhile, than in the Rio Grande Valley and other border regions.
This was the thrust of the keynote address by Raymund Paredes, commissioner of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, at Thursday’s State of Education luncheon sponsored by the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce and United Way of Southern Cameron County.
Reeling off one alarming statistic after another, Paredes’ speech was a passionate call-to-arms to a packed banquet hall to get behind serious education reform before the system is too broken to fix.
He noted that in terms of educational attainment gains over succeeding generations, the United States is virtually flat compared to many other nations, such as Japan and South Korea. Texas, meanwhile, ranks much worse than the United States overall. Paredes warned that the country is moving in the direction of Mexico, which currently fares worse than the United States in terms of educational attainment gains over generations.
In the Valley and elsewhere in the state, efforts to improve educational attainment are hobbled by a rapidly growing Latino population. Latinos historically lag behind other population segments in educational achievement.
Only 25 percent of Texas high school graduates are prepared for college level work, while in high-achieving states the figure is closer to 55 or 60 percent, Paredes noted. Very few students who go through remedial education, meanwhile, complete it and salvage their normal high school careers.
With 65 percent of jobs estimated to require some form of postsecondary education by 2020, Texas will be in rough shape if we don’t pursue drastic reforms, Paredes said. While substantial progress has been made in enrolling more young people in postsecondary programs, academic and vocational, the completion rate leading is much less impressive. The state’s SAT scores are wretched.
Also, a huge gap remains in goals set forth in 2000 to increase the number of students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and current levels, Paredes said. The goal for 2011 was 25,000 more STEM students enrolled, though the actual number was 17,109. Frequently students that enter STEM programs don’t finish because they are unprepared to do the academic work it requires.
For that he places the blame largely with high schools, where academic progress made in lower grades seems to evaporate.
“Everything falls apart in high school,” Paredes said. “All the gains made in elementary and middle school get wiped out.”
A big reason why high school students are prepared for STEM work is that their teachers are ill-equipped to teach it. Texas has a shortage of teachers able to teach at “acceptable levels of rigor,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the fact is that we need to dramatically improve the subject matter competency of our teachers,” he said.
We’re dropping the ball in multiple ways when it comes to teaching teachers, including ignoring established science on how students learn, Paredes said.
“We teach them very little about cognitive development,” he said. “A lot of what we do is completely out of synch with how the human brain acquires and retains information.”
Something else the state must get in the habit of doing is thinking of education as a pipeline, with each section — pre-K to postsecondary — influencing the success of the other, Paredes said. The Legislature making public education the priority one session and then higher education the priority the next doesn’t work, he added.
“We need to recognize that this is all of a piece,” Paredes said.
He predicted a renewed controversy in the next session over the value of vocational education versus academic education, a controversy that Paredes characterized as ridiculous and a waste of time. Not every Texas student is bound for college, but every student should have a solid academic foundation on which to build a postsecondary credential, whether it’s in a vocational program or at a four-year university, he said.
“The simple fact of the matter is that we need both,” Paredes said. “It’s not an either/or situation.”
The coordinating board’s goal now is to pull Texas out of the middle of the pack and make it a leader in educational attainment in the U.S. the world, he said.
Despite the gloom-and-doom quality of his talk, Paredes noted that the state is making progress — just not fast enough — and said he believes in the capacity of the state’s youth, Hispanic and as well as non-Hispanic, to succeed.
“We just need to do a better job of helping them succeed,” he said.
Still, Paredes didn’t mince words about the challenges. If any of the business owners, education leaders and others at Thursday’s luncheon were expecting a sugar coating with their bitter pill, they came away disappointed.
“It’s a disaster,” Paredes said. We’ve got to fix it.”