Education board fails to prepare students for college

Samantha Katsounas

An evaluation by UT-El Paso professor Keith Erekson published earlier this month affirmed that the standards adopted by the State Board of Education in their highly contentious battle last year are insufficient in preparing the state’s K-12 students for college.

The high profile conflict was subject to national scrutiny and was consistently attacked for its hyper-political treatment of historical curriculum. During their questionable overhaul, it seems state board members cared substantially more about politicizing education than improving college readiness.

The situation for Texas college students has reached a critical point. According to Erekson, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), which are prepared by the board as the standard for use in public schools, “fall far short of reaching college preparation standards.”

The report outlines that 40 percent of college students in the state require remedial classes. At public universities, this translates to a yearly $80 million taxpayer-footed bill ­­­­—­­ an outrageous waste of college students’ time and the state’s precious resources. The Board’s negligence of students’ needs became alarming, Erekson notes, when its members “tacitly adopted a bipartisan agreement to ignore principles of sound pedagogy.”

Nationwide, organizations of every composition and political orientation derided the board’s revised TEKS standards as a mockery of educational curriculum. A report by the conservative Fordham Institute slammed Texas social studies standards with a “D” rating, calling them “rigidly thematic and theory-based” with a clear political distortion of
historical facts.

The insufficient standards fail high school graduates who aspire to a college education. The TEKS curriculum is conspicuously distant from the College and Career Readiness Standards, an effort by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board that aims to prepare K-12 students for the rigor of college work. Instead, the board adopted a policy of intractable ignorance, perpetuating a set of standards that relies on one-sided analysis and rote memorization. This policy of disregard was even acknowledged by the state board’s own members.

Gail Lowe, R-Lampasas, board chairwoman at the time, said she had not followed up on whether the college readiness standards had been incorporated, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The ratified standards corroborate this willful negligence. Less than 5 percent of changes made to the standards were created to improve college readiness. The remaining 95 percent, so it seems, were based on the now-famous politicization of history with an obsessive focus on creationism, American exceptionalism and free-market capitalism.

The horrible irony of the debacle is that the board undertook the task of improving the standards under the pretense of improving college readiness. Neither of those stated goals seem to have succeeded.

The blame lies with the absurdly political nature of electing members of the state board. Hyper-partisan and frequently dirty, state board elections often select unqualified members, chosen solely for the “R” or “D” next to their name on the ballot. For example, much-maligned former member Don McLeroy, R-College Station — who served on the board for more than a decade — is a dentist.

Due to recent redistricting, all state board members are up for reelection in 2012. The race is already shaping up to be highly contentious and, unsurprisingly, highly political. McLeroy’s replacement, Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, has proven himself as a voice of reason on the board. However, Ratliff’s moderation led a fellow board member to declare he would be “actively working” against him, according to The Texas Tribune. Another moderate board member, George Clayton, R-Richardson, is facing a veritable cyber-war in recent weeks that accuse him of homosexuality in an attempt to diminish his conservative credentials.

The solution is simple but unpopular among board members. In the last legislative session, State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, proposed converting state board races from ideologue-based partisan elections into non-partisan ones. Board members cried foul, saying that constituents often vote for them on a straight-ticket basis. Howard’s proposal, though based in sound principle, has been repeatedly struck down in the Legislature, protecting the hyper-political nature of the State Board.

McLeroy explained his opposition of the bill by saying that “partisan elections connect you with new friends with which you share the same ideology.” This rationale for rejecting non-partisan elections is rank with odious principles that run counter to the objective nature of education. The positions board members take on curriculum development should have nothing to do with party affiliation and certainly should not reflect the undemocratic concept of patronage reflected in McLeroy’s statements.

The politicization of K-12 education does not stop once students graduate high school. The effects of these policies create lasting damage for the state, which ends up paying for remedial courses, and for college students, who are forced to play catch-up. In the battle over public education, Texas needs to ensure its own standards don’t leave college
students behind.

Katsounas is a finance and government sophomore.