Column: The Problems with American education extend beyond curriculum

Mark Birkenstock


While students were away from the 40 Acres this summer, the State Board of Education met in July to begin deciding how to implement new amendments to House Bill 5 that will alter the graduation requirements of Texas high schools. This discussion forms part of a broader conversation going on right now about how America should handle the education of its citizens. According to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, the U.S. placed 11th out of 34 countries in the category of reading skill, and 24th in mathematics. 

This crisis should cut deep for America, a nation that prides itself on its ability to excel in information technology and financial services. These industries depend on the preparation of an intelligent and creative workforce, which our education system is struggling to produce.  


One attempt to fix this is the Common Core curriculum, an overhaul of classroom content developed jointly by a majority of the states. And in Texas, which has not participated in the Common Core initiative, we have the changes to HB5, which are scheduled to be implemented in the 2014-15 school year. Unfortunately, it might be the case that neither of these options is what Texas and America really need to get our education systems back on the right track. 

The problem with our schools is not one of curricula, but one of misplaced political priorities and an unwillingness to adequately invest in our future. The changes enacted by the amendments to HB 5 may be a relief to beleaguered teachers, who will now need to prepare high school students for just five state standardized tests as opposed to the previous slate of 15. However, the plan also comes with reduced requirements in math, science and social studies, installing in their place elective “endorsements” in the humanities, science and technology, public services, business and industry or a fifth multidisciplinary option. These endorsements are similar to college majors, and students will be encouraged to think about their choice of endorsement as early as middle school. 

While removing unnecessary tests is certainly good, the changes to graduation requirements represent a worrying trend that can be seen throughout American education – away from a well-rounded program and towards instruction that pumps specially skilled laborers into the workforce. This concern is deepened by the revelation that smaller schools may not be able to offer as many endorsements as better-equipped ones, creating a stratified landscape in which less fortunate students could be stuck with limited options.

“It will be problematic for these smaller schools, especially if they want to offer more than one endorsement,” education specialist Dean Munn told the Texas Tribune.


On the other hand, the widely adopted Common Core scheme will represent a dramatic increase in expectations for students. The concept is admirable: The challenging curriculum would provide all high school graduates with high-level skills in both math and English (the science and social studies standards are not yet completed) and a solid foundation for further education or a career. 

If successful, we would expect the increased aptitude to carry over into the post-secondary level. Future UT students could graduate with skills that currently require extra years in grad school, and the U.S. would make great strides back toward the top in the international arena.


Unfortunately, the reality is not likely to be so rosy. The Common Core, being led by a consortium of states, lacks any central source of funding to provide the universal resources needed for universal academic achievement. Instead, many states will be forced to compete for federal funds, for example via the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Fund, which awards grants based on the success of a state’s schools. This may lead to even greater stratification than the Texas plan as low-income areas struggle to produce the results needed to get funding, but without funding their results only fall even further.

The ideals of both plans are sound and well-considered, but they both fall short – as is so often the case – in finding funding to reach those ideals. While the introduction of endorsements should not be as traumatic as a total curriculum overhaul to meet Common Core standards, the change will still require a lot of work and money. 

Despite this, spending per student in Texas is projected to trend slightly downward in both 2014 and 2015, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities. The state will provide a one-time injection of $330 million to ease the transition, but so far there is no long-term plan to increase the spending per student.  It seems that state legislators are talking a big game about education, but shying away from finding the robust funding needed to make it happen. They are putting the pressure on our schools and teachers to “make it work,” but are doing little to ensure that the schools have enough money to operate and that the teachers are getting paid. This inconsistency should give us pause: Are politicians actually concerned about our schools, or is education just another means for empty electioneering?


American schools do not need new curricula. What they need is for citizens to stand up and demand more spending for education. While there are great ideas in both the Common Core and the new Texas plan, it is unlikely that there will be any real change without a major shift in our political priorities and in the amount of resources we appropriate for our schools. If voters make education their priority then elected officials will prioritize it as well. Once schools have enough money to serve every one of their students, choosing a curriculum will be a simple problem in comparison.

Birkenstock is a linguistics junior from Long Island, N.Y.