Don’t lose hope for struggling students

Amil Malik

House Bill 5 proposes to reduce the number of standardized tests, provide new measures to make schools more accountable and give students more flexibility to focus on technical training through reduced math and science requirements in high school. Advocates argue that the bill will give students flexibility to pursue courses that will make them employable after high school. Opponents argue that passing the bill and allowing students to graduate high school without taking courses like Algebra II will reduce education standards and leave students ill-prepared for college. Few have considered the day-to-day effects of what will happen inside Texas schools if HB 5 passes. 

Were HB 5 to pass, educators would essentially have to brand students. They would steer one set of students towards math and science courses that would help them in college, and another set of students to technical-based training that will make them employable right after graduating high school.

 How would teachers make this decision? Most likely through the test scores of their students. Students failing math and science courses can take a more technical route, while those succeeding can take a more advanced route that will help land them in college. What happened to the idea that school is where students learn to succeed? Since when did students have to come pre-prepared with the ability to succeed?

Advocates argue that those who pursue more technical paths will actually be better off than if they were to be forced to go through Algebra II and fail. They will at least get a job — no matter how low-paying that job will be. 

Not having to bear the torture of muddling through things like the Pythagorean theorem might seem like an appealing option to high school students at first. Some might opt out of the advanced math/science path for the wrong reasons, perhaps seeing it as an easy way out. 

But will anyone take the time to inform such students that if they opt out of advanced math courses, the chances of being accepted to college are slim and the chances of succeeding in college are slimmer? Will anyone also tell them that today, college graduates earn about 80 percent more over their lifetime than people who don’t go to college? Most importantly, will anyone offer at-risk students paths to improve their math and science skills, should they choose to take courses like Algebra II? Yes is not the likely answer.

House Bill 5 neglects a vital component of the education process: teachers. Instead of looking at students who consistently fail courses such as Algebra II and deciding that they are not cut out for the class and therefore should not have to attend it, we should be asking why these students are failing Algebra II in the first place. 

An opinion piece in The New York Times, “Teachers: Will We Ever Learn?” examines this question futher. The author, Jal Mehta, points out that the U.S. education system has been “stubbornly mediocre” for years. And while legislation and school requirements have changed, “how schools are organized, and what happens in classrooms, hasn’t changed much in the century since the Progressive Era. On the whole, we still have the same teachers, in the same roles, with the same level of knowledge, in the same schools, with the same materials, and much the same level of parental support.” In other words, what actually happens in class hasn’t changed. The only thing that is changing is the discourse surrounding education.

The remedy to this problem may not be more legislation. Rather, it may come about by improving teachers’ training, even in low-income schools. Judging from the current Texas education budget deficit, it’s not a surprise that teachers are ill-equipped to teach. 

Helping Texas students' success will not be achieved by changing requirements and standards. We need change inside the classroom. Rather than continuing to underestimate students, trying to bring high school requirements on par with the low levels of achievements in many public schools, legislators should look at the root causes of the lack of student achievement. They should no longer mask the education crisis. Rather, they should question why some students succeed and others don’t. How can we help all students succeed, even in high-level courses? Coming up with answers to such questions will lead to solutions. Masking the problem by reducing requirements will only enlarge the problems. 

Malik is a Plan II and business honors program freshman from Austin.