Q&A: Prabhudev Konana

Amil Malik

Editor’s note: Daily Texan columnist Amil Malik sat down with Prabhudev Konana, chair of the Department of Information, Risk and Operations Management at the McCombs School of Business to ask about how HB 5, a bill that reduces the number of standardized tests, provides new measures to make schools more accountable and gives students more flexibility to focus on technical training through reduced math and science requirements in high school. Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Amil Malik: The co-author of HB 5 [which potentially lowers the academic graduation requirements for Texas high school students by giving them a choice between the traditional path into college and a path directly into the workforce] Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, claims the bill will also make Texas students better prepared for the jobs that Texas employers are struggling to fill. Could giving students more technical-based training in high school improve their chances of getting a job? 

Prabhudev Konana: So we are going to partition that problem into three parts. If you look at the student body, there are the students who are cut out for higher education. They are very determined; they want to get college degrees. They take advanced math, science, so we have no problems with those folks. 

Then there are some students who are just not cut out to do advanced math, science. They have not much interest to go to college. So for them, I need to get into something more hands-on, technical work. I don’t care about advanced algebra or trigonometry. I want to get advanced skills in operating a machine … so immediately I’m employable after high school. There is no point in trying to tell these students, “No, you need to do these advanced math and AP classes.” The probability of them succeeding is going to be very low. Instead, if you train them … there are lots and lots of jobs like repairing cars, operating machines with applied material.

But then you have these in between students who have probably the potential to go to college. There is a risk that they may not do very well. But … with small pushing, they could have gone into college and been very productive, creating higher value-added work than going into, say, maintenance work or technical work. 

But overall, the idea that you gauge high school students, people who don’t want to do advanced degree, towards … where they are immediately employable is actually not a bad idea. It’s a bad idea when you have those students in between, who with a little bit of encouragement and push could have done a much higher level of work, maybe gravitated towards this easy path. … The question is whether this particular rule will discourage those people in the in-between to go to the route where they could have been much more valuable elsewhere. That’s the question. I don’t have an answer. 

Malik: What do you see as some of the potential effects of beginning to tailor job-specific education or a job-specific mindset as early as high school?

Konana: That’s why I said we know who these students are who are not going to do very well in advanced math and science … We can easily make out from their standardized tests — which I don’t like, by the way — but you have an indication about students who are not doing very well in class. You know it in ninth grade. On the other hand, there are students who get commended and get in the nineties in math and suddenly this person says I want to go the technical route — yes, maybe this person’s potential was so high going into college and now we are giving them the option of going the easy route … Exceptions exist for everything. 

Malik: Why don’t you like standardized tests?

Konana: I come from India, where everything is based on test, test, test. So you don’t get a 100 in math — you got a 99 instead of a 100 in math — there are 20,000 people above you now. So there is this incredible pressure of studying for the exam’s sake. So your creativity, ability to think differently, is all gone. For example, I tell my nephews in India make sure you’re understanding everything you are studying, understand and then write. And my niece tells me — I’m not joking — she said, “Uncle, that’s all in America.” In India, the guy who is grading your exam isn’t a professor. It’s a local language guy who is given a cheat sheet to say this is the answer and they grade. So he will look at how many words are common and he will give you the grade. So if you memorize them, you are likely to get more grade than trying to understand and write. People prepare only for tests, not for learning. Teachers are preparing for the test, not for learning. Does it mean that there should be no standardized tests? No … but you cannot have standardized tests every year so that the teachers are only worried about preparing you for the test. We didn’t create so many Nobel laureates in this country with standardized tests. So why bring it now? 

… Overall, I like [HB 5]. I like having less testing, giving an option for some of the students to go into areas where they can succeed rather than forcing them to go into advanced math. Of course, I can be very idealistic and say everybody should get a college degree, but then who is going to do your maintenance work? Who is going to operate your machines in applied material? They don’t need a PhD to do that. They just need a two-year college to do it. 

On the other hand, you want to have the critical number of people going to college. Right now I think the number is hovering around 22 or 23 percent who go to college. That number should go up because in the future, you’ll need the talent. If you don’t find the talent, the companies are going to other countries.