The truth about Texas school reform

Has George W. Bush made his state's education system a model for the nation?

By Joan Walsh

Published November 1, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Paul Haupt is standing in a crowded hallway, trying to give a tour of El Paso's new and improved Pebble Hills Elementary School, but it's slow going. He can barely finish a sentence without interruption by a hello, high-five or hug from a student.

Three-quarters Latino, two-thirds from low-income homes, Pebble Hills students are usually quiet and contained, roving from classroom to computer lab to lunch room in their casual school uniforms -- red, green or white polo shirts over khaki pants, shorts or skirts. But when they see Haupt, the school's director of instruction, they have to shout their greetings.

It wasn't always like this, he says.

"I owe a lot of kids an apology for the way I used to teach math," the portly, ebullient teacher says. Haupt has the mien of a newly recovering alcoholic anxious to share his change of life with other sufferers, and make amends to those he harmed before he saw the light.

"It was all 'Add, take away, multiply, divide -- what's so hard about that?'" he recalls with a shudder. "A lot of people will tell you: They became math teachers because there's only one right way to teach it, and only one right answer. And of course that's completely wrong."

The agency of change in Haupt's life -- his 12-step program, if you will -- was an innovative training program sponsored by the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, a seven-year-old program put together by determined school reformers at the University of Texas, El Paso. It was specifically designed to train both new and experienced teachers to get results for the diverse, low-income population that dominates El Paso schools.

The program seems to have produced extraordinary results in El Paso. But Haupt's conversion story is being told all over Texas. A 15-year push to reform education and demand high standards of all schools for all students, but especially blacks and Latinos, has in the last five years finally paid big dividends, producing an education turnaround unrivaled by other states.

The vast improvement in Texas schools has gotten national attention, and it's going to get more, because much of the change has occurred during Republican Gov. George W. Bush's five years in office. Detractors try to explain away the good news by saying Texas has improved kids' test-taking skills, not their education. Others credit -- or blame -- Texas' lack of strong teachers unions, which they say lets reformers make change quickly, but ensures that such change can never be replicated nationally without union-busting coast to coast.

But it's clear that even correcting for Texas' unique labor climate and test-happy education establishment, Bush deserves credit for the school reform that's now making headlines. Progress in Texas predates Bush, of course: In 1984, a reform commission headed by none other than Ross Perot pushed through a sweeping program for change. The components included expanded funding, mandatory teacher testing and evaluation, a new statewide curriculum and a statewide student-testing system, including a graduation exam. Later, Gov. Ann Richards mandated tougher tests and a new emphasis on improving minority achievement.

The effort has paid off: Once among the lowest performing states, Texas is now at or near the top on most measures. On the state's own assessment tests, scores have steadily climbed in the last five years. The Texas high school exit exam, which students have to pass to graduate, is a good example. Sophomores take the test, required for graduation, to prepare for their final chance as seniors. Where only half of Texas 10th-graders managed it in 1994, fully 75 percent did in 1998.

On national tests, Texas kids rank at or near the top in math, reading and writing. In writing, Texas eighth-graders ranked fourth in the nation, behind traditionally high-achieving, relatively homogeneous states like Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine, while its black and Latino students ranked first and second, respectively.

If Texas' statewide school-reform achievements are noteworthy, El Paso's are stunning. Pebble Hills' demographics are matched by the city as a whole. It's the fifth-poorest congressional district in the nation. Two-thirds of its 135,000 students live in poverty, half enter school speaking only limited English and about 10 percent cross the Mexican border from dusty, polluted Juarez every day.

Since 1993, El Paso's test scores have soared. That year only two-thirds of its white students, and about a third of Latinos and African-Americans, passed the state's mandatory math exams. In 1998, the pass rates were 91 percent, 80 percent and 75 percent for the three groups. The city has seen similar gains in reading. The most striking thing about those figures is how the city has closed two-thirds of the achievement gap between its white and minority students.

Texas still ranks 40th in education spending, and about that in teachers' salaries. Just this week Bush got into a pissing match with his GOP rivals to prove that his legendarily miserly state is even less generous to poor people than the rest of the nation believes. Still, many credit him with continuing the state's commitment to reform. They say he's raised standards, funding and school and teacher accountability to a new level.

Now, the GOP front-runner's all-but-inevitable presidential nomination threatens to put the Democrats on the defensive when it comes to education, for the first time since the party made the issue its own by pushing through expanded funding for poor students under President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. It could be that just as it took a Democratic president to preside over dramatic welfare reform, it will take a Republican to reform the schools, to break the stalemate over turf, bureaucracy, ideology and funding that has sentenced many children, especially poor urban kids, to educational failure.

Boosters say Texas accomplished its reform with a potent combination of expanded funding and a new, rigorous commitment to assessment and accountability. The reform zeroes in particularly on the grades and test scores of individual racial groups, and administrators and teachers are judged by how well all their students achieve. An otherwise stellar school could be singled out -- and find itself subject to virtual takeover by the state -- if, say, Latino girls test poorly in reading. "Without a doubt the state's accountability system has had a big impact across Texas, and in El Paso," says Susana Navarro, executive director of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence and a longtime California school reformer who grew up in El Paso.

But critics say Texas schools have made those gains by taking up too much class time "teaching to the test," in this case the TAAS -- Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. In some cities, including El Paso, administrators have been accused of manipulating test scores, and even outright cheating, to inflate their gains. Meanwhile, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund has sued the state, claiming the tests are discriminatory, flunking too many Latinos and African-Americans.

And it's possible that a key element in the Texas school-reform story is a political one -- the relative weakness of the state's teachers unions. Unlike their counterparts in New York and California, Texas teachers lack collective bargaining rights and tenure. As a consequence, it's much easier for superintendents and principals to make radical change, encouraging -- or coercing -- recalcitrant teachers to leave. "The unions don't amount to much politically," wrote former Reagan education secretary Chester Finn, praising Bush's education policies in the Weekly Standard, "which makes it easier for a governor to build a record of education reform."

"We've had 60-percent staff turnover in four years," says Pebble Hills principal Dona Descamps unapologetically. "We met with great resistance from teachers, and those who weren't happy either left or became believers."

And yet, as always, the truth seems more complicated than ideologues on either side believe. Surprisingly enough, Texas' largest teachers union, the Texas Federation of Teachers, has actually supported the state's toughened accountability measures -- including a controversial requirement that teachers be tested to stay licensed, and regularly evaluated by principals -- and its leader praises the Republican governor for maintaining and even toughening education reform that began under Democrats. "George W. Bush has been a terrific education governor," says TFT president John Cole.

Cole and others say perhaps the biggest reason for Texas' educational turnaround is the change to mandatory kindergarten and vastly expanded funding for pre-kindergarten programs -- something candidate Bush, by the way, has not yet proposed on a national scale. "Gov. Bush has benefited from what's already been done, but the next governor will profit from what he's doing now. I'm very proud of what we've accomplished in this state," said Cole.

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Teachers like Paul Haupt say that that El Paso's school-reform crusade allowed them to grow into the challenge of educating hard-to-serve kids -- not just resist it or run from it. The key, they say, is the El Paso Collaborative, which became a key project for University of Texas-El Paso president Diana Natalicio when she was worried about declining achievement in the city's public schools. UTEP draws 85 percent of its students from El Paso and another 9 percent from Juarez, and its education department produces 85 percent of the local teachers. "We're in a minority city, but we had a disproportionate number of students coming from the wealthier Anglo population," Natalicio recalls.

Navarro and Natalicio began raising money to put together a partnership that could improve instruction in El Paso schools by focusing on training teachers and principals. The so-called "Teams Leadership Institute" eventually included 3 El Paso districts and 100 schools. The collaborative provided seven-member school teams with data about their school, with test scores and other indicators broken down by race, ethnicity and subject matter, while offering strategies for raising achievement and links to new enriched curriculum.

"We had never looked at test scores," recalls Alicia Barra, a former El Paso teacher and now the collaborative's deputy director. "We felt like it would prejudice us against students. It wasn't that we didn't care. It was that we knew these kids were poor, or monolingual, or just out of the cotton fields, and it was always like, 'Well, what can you expect of them?' We didn't want to burden them."

With funding from the National Science Foundation, among other sources, the collaborative was able to recruit and train mentor teachers, who could then bring their skills into classrooms and serve as personal coaches to provide ongoing support for the transition to higher standards. That's where Paul Haupt got his new training; he left Pebble Hills and joined the collaborative to be a mentor, working at many different schools. But four years ago he got an offer to return to Pebble Hills and be director of instruction -- essentially acting as a full-time, in-house mentor to a single staff. His boss at the collaborative, Dona Descamps, then followed him to become Pebble Hills principal.

In four years they've accomplished a complete turnaround. Test scores are up and the school is now a magnet for public and private funding. The computer lab, equipped with Apple G3 laptops, is among the most impressive I've seen nationally. The district has provided every student with e-mail accounts, and at Pebble Hills, all teachers have their own laptops -- for planning lessons, doing Internet research and sharing work with staff and students. In 1994, this was one of the state's lowest-performing schools; it's now cited by the state for high performance, and 80 to 90 percent of its students -- well above the state average -- pass the various TAAS exams in math, reading and writing.

I ask Haupt about the notion that Pebble Hills accomplished its turnaround by purging bad teachers. He sighs. "We try to work with all the teachers. There were some who left, because they had some concerns about the change. And it is harder for teachers, no doubt about it. We still have a few who are struggling, but it's my job to give them everything they need to be successful." On the other hand, Pebble Hills has a long waiting list of teachers who want to work at the school.

But Haupt is genuinely insulted by the other common complaint about Texas school reform: that it's a result of "teaching to the tests," using class time to drill students on how to improve their scores -- time that might be better spent on academics. Haupt says El Paso's local standards, which Pebble Hills meets, are much higher than the state's.

"We aim higher than the tests," he sniffs. "How do you celebrate being the best of the worst?"

But there's no doubt Texas is test-happy. When I stopped by Bel Air High School the same day as Pebble Hills, principal Vern Butler, balding and mustachioed, was hospitable and helpful, but I couldn't visit classrooms because students were taking regularly scheduled course exams.

It would seem hard to avoid exam day at Bel Air. From freshman year onward, students take a steady battery of tests, including course exams every nine weeks, TAAS drills, practice college aptitude and achievement tests, the regular college tests and of course the graduation exam in 10th grade and the TAAS every May. Last year, when the seniors finished with their required tests, Butler gave them a vocational exam. "Some of them asked me, 'Why another test?' and I told 'em, 'It won't hurt you.'"

Bel Air -- overwhelmingly low-income, 95-percent Latino -- sits on the other side of Interstate 10 from Pebble Hills. The freeway bisects El Paso, standing in for the proverbial "tracks." The southern, Bel Air side is decidedly the wrong one. Here, the scrubby Chihuahuan desert is pockmarked with informal garbage dumps; piles of tires cluster on the sides of the road and the houses get smaller and more shack-like. If you go far enough you reach the colonias, settlements without toilets or running water, where it feels as if Mexico has crossed the Rio Grande. When the wind is right, much of the south side of the city smells like Mexico, too, that singular mix of diesel fumes, rotting wastes and tropical vegetation that distinguishes so many cities on the other side of the border.

Bel Air's road to reform was rockier than that of Pebble Hills. Three years ago, the school got the education equivalent of the death penalty. In 1996 Butler and district Superintendent Tony Trujillo staged what's known as a "reconstitution" -- essentially asking for the resignation of everyone at the school, from custodians to sports coaches, and forcing them to reapply for their jobs. "As a principal, when I got here, it was scary," Butler recalls. "There was an attitude that the kids here can only get to a certain level, and I said, I'm not gonna accept that. All kids can succeed."

Reconstitution is a drastic, and fairly uncommon move in Texas school reforms. Most schools designated "low performing" come in for intensive intervention by the state, which will send in teams of administrators from other districts and the Texas Education Agency to pore over data; visit classrooms; interview staff, students and parents; and otherwise make life a living hell for administrators.

"It's what principals dread more than anything else," says Butler, who once served on an intervention team that visited another school, a fairly good school, he says, except that too many African-American boys were failing math. "It's a lot of work. Your whole school is taken apart. You do not want this!"

At Bel Air, after reconstitution, more than half the staff left. Since then achievement has steadily climbed, and the school is also a good place to see how El Paso's curriculum changes have taken root. Virtually every ninth-grader in El Paso, and Bel Air, must take algebra, for instance. Nearly three-quarters of El Paso students now take algebra 2, and the number taking physics has tripled. One drawback: Because so many students are now taking courses they wouldn't have dreamed of, failure rates are high. But where more than half of Latino freshmen failed algebra in El Paso last year, only 20 percent failed an innovative course that combined algebra 1 and 2 at Bel Air.

Still, Bel Air is not without its critics, and their complaints offer a window on several wider educational debates. The first is over testing: Some accuse the school and the district of inflating test scores by exempting low-performance students from testing -- and, indeed, the district's high TAAS scores for a time were probably inflated. Butler and others admit the Ysleta district was exempting too many low-achieving students for a while -- mostly limited-English and special-education kids. But he points out that last year Bel Air tested 97 percent of its student body and saw its test scores remain roughly the same, a sign that all students are being reached by Bel Air's reforms, Butler believes.

There are worse testing scandals in Texas: Austin officials have actually been indicted for falsifying data on test scores as well as dropout rates, and in Houston, one principal and several teachers had to resign after an investigation found they'd erased students' answers on multiple-choice exams to write in the correct ones.

The Ysleta district, meanwhile, is still under fire from the state, which has questions about the accuracy of its data. Data is king in Texas schools, because rewards and punishments are tied to minute details about who's achieving how well on what subjects, and the state looks at everything from dropouts to the number of counselors in a school. The Texas Federation of Teachers has emerged as a critic of the district, and has used the state's open-records system to keep track of whether Ysleta is improving its data and record-keeping. "That's the beauty of the accountability system," says the TFT's John Cole. "We can ask for this data and expect to get it."

The TFT's animus against Ysleta springs, again, from the teachers union controversy. Former Ysleta Superintendent Trujillo likes to boast that he got rid of 2,000 of 3,000 teachers as he turned the district around in the mid-1990s -- leading many to conclude that teachers are the obstacle to high achievement in urban districts. "Schools were never an employment institution, they're an education institution. We lost a lot of good teachers because they couldn't buy into our belief system, that everybody could learn," Trujillo says.

But TFT president John Cole says Trujillo fired exactly one teacher during his tenure -- the rest left for a variety of reasons, including better jobs elsewhere. Turnover is high throughout Texas, Cole says, with more than half of all teachers changing jobs within five years. "It's because of low pay, poor working conditions and unprofessional treatment. Texas is not friendly to working people, but the idea that schools improved because he got rid of teachers, and had no teachers unions ... well, I don't think they could have done it without us. We supported teacher testing, teacher evaluation. We've been selling reform throughout the state, and I'm very proud of what we've done, even though it's been painful -- for everybody, teachers, principals, administrators, students and parents."

So has the lack of strong teachers unions in Texas ultimately helped or hurt the cause of reform? "Frankly, we don't know the answer to that," says Kati Haycock of the Washington-based Education Trust, which advocates for low-income and minority students nationally. "It's true that some of the most successful turnarounds nationally have been in systems without strong unions. But you can also point to districts that have made extraordinary progress in strong union cities.

"Do union contracts slow you down? Of course. Seniority provisions alone can make it hard to get the best teachers into the neediest schools." But Haycock notes that El Paso has fired very few teachers, although principals and superintendents may have coerced bad apples into leaving. "But you can do that in unionized systems too, and good principals do. I think it's just too easy an answer, to say 'Texas could do this because of weak unions.'"

Navarro is familiar with the controversy over teacher turnover. She too takes issue with Tony Trujillo's claim that Ysleta's turnaround was due to a wholesale exit of bad teachers.

"There's absolutely no evidence that turnover was that high," she says. "Tony knows I think that's exaggerated." Trujillo left the district last year after a falling out with the school board, and his tough talk made him some enemies around El Paso. "What Tony did is send a message we will not tolerate low achievement and excuses that students can't learn. But that no longer means [that those teachers] can just leave and go to another district, because that's now the message statewide."

Navarro is an unlikely admirer of George W. Bush. A longtime activist on behalf of educational improvement for minority children, years ago she worked for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, traditionally an ally of liberals. Today she's got a picture of herself with George W. in her office, and she's actually opposing MALDEF's lawsuit to halt the state's graduation exams, which it claims discriminate against Latinos and African-Americans.

"Ann Richards certainly developed the state's accountability system, and I think there were lots of people who wondered if the system would stay alive under the Bush administration," Navarro says. "The fact that he not only didn't weaken it, he strengthened it, is a clear credit to George Bush. Frankly, no one expected it to last." The Bush administration has not only increased funding and launched a new early reading program, Navarro says, but has forced schools to reduce the state's high dropout rate and increase college-preparatory courses and SAT-taking among high schoolers.

But some advocates say the increased emphasis on testing has hurt minority students. Of the 10,000 Texas seniors who fail the graduation exam, for instance, about 7,000 are Latino or black, even though those minorities make up only 40 percent of state students. To MALDEF, that's evidence of discrimination. "Nobody can prove that failing the exam actually means they can't succeed later in life," says Joe Sanchez, MALDEF's state policy analyst.

Maybe not. But the Texas exam is criticized because it only tests for a ninth-grade education -- ensuring that students can read, write and do basic 'rithmetic -- and it's hard to imagine many who can't pass it succeeding at more than fast-food jobs. Sanchez argues the test is unfair because blacks and Latinos generally go to worse schools than whites. But while that's true, many say it's only been the state's commitment to rigorous assessment that's improved minority schools and minority school performance in the last 10 years.

"I'm a longtime MALDEF supporter -- I worked for MALDEF! -- but I have strong concerns about this legal challenge," says Navarro. "Without the accountability system, these gains for minority students would never have been made. Yes, there's some concern that the system increases tension for parents and students, but more accountability always brings more tension -- that's a part of all our lives."

Haycock also worries that MALDEF's suit could slow the pace of change in Texas if it does away with the graduation exam. "I understand the desire to get minority kids what they need to pass the exam," says Haycock. "But to say: 'You ought not put consequences for failure on kids until you have total school reform' -- well, these kinds of exams have actually been the fastest way to force reform in minority schools, all across the nation." And the idea that kids can succeed without passing the exam? "Oh, please."

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Back at Pebble Hills Elementary, Paul Haupt is standing in a desert garden, in between a red-blooming Mexican sage plant and a spiny gray-green cactus, his back to a waterfall, in a microcosm of the Chihuahuan desert. "We used to have the kids study the rain forest, but there's no rain forest here!" he explains exuberantly. "We're surrounded by this beautiful blooming desert."

So the staff turned what used to be "the place we put all our junk" into this desert garden, Haupt says, which has become part botany classroom, part study hall, part soothing oasis. A fifth-grade boy works quietly on a book report about the Holocaust at a shady corner table.

"We used to say every year, 'Let's put in a garden,' but we never did," Haupt recalls. "When we finally made it happen, I knew this school had really changed."

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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