Point of View

Testimony by Tom Pauken

Testimony for Commissioner Tom Pauken House Committee on Economic and Small Business Development June 28, 2012

 

Commissioner Tom Pauken   - July 11, 2012
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Thank you Chairman Davis, Vice Chairman Vo, and committee members for inviting me here today.
This is the second time I've had the privilege of appearing before this committee in the last six months. When I was here in January, I pointed out the consequences of the de-emphasis on, and neglect of, the importance of vocational education, beginning at the secondary school level. As a consequence we have choked off the pipeline of skilled workers that we badly need to meet the requirements of our business sector. As the Texas Workforce Commissioner Representing Employers, I hear from business leaders across the state who tell me that this is a serious and growing problem. In my previous testimony, I provided information showing the significant demand for skilled workers nationally and here in Texas.

But, it's not just the businesses with unfilled positions that are hurt by this policy. The students suffer the most. Many young Texans who don't excel at college prep courses and aren’t given the opportunity to develop a skill through technical training in high school, often wind up being dropouts and throwaways.
I have found widespread agreement from a wide range of Texans – business and labor leaders, teachers, school district officials, as well as community college representatives – that we face serious problems associated with an excessive emphasis on “teaching to the test” designed to make all our students college ready. The current system is broken and is badly in need of fixing.

That is why I was surprised to learn of a press conference held yesterday by representatives of various organizations defending the existing testing system and implying that business leaders, educational reformers, and conservative groups all support their position. As a businessman myself, a representative of employers, a strong proponent of quality education, and a longtime conservative, let me make clear my strong disagreement with the sentiments expressed at the news conference, as reported by the Texas Tribune and the Austin-American Statesman.
Today, I want to lay out specific action that the Legislature can take in the upcoming session to give Thank you Chairman Davis, Vice Chairman Vo, and committee members for inviting me here today.

This is the second time I've had the privilege of appearing before this committee in the last six months. When I was here in January, I pointed out the consequences of the de-emphasis on, and neglect of, the importance of vocational education, beginning at the secondary school level. As a consequence we have choked off the pipeline of skilled workers that we badly need to meet the requirements of our business sector. As the Texas Workforce Commissioner Representing Employers, I hear from business leaders across the state who tell me that this is a serious and growing problem. In my previous testimony, I provided information showing the significant demand for skilled workers nationally and here in Texas.

But, it's not just the businesses with unfilled positions that are hurt by this policy. The students suffer the most. Many young Texans who don't excel at college prep courses and aren’t given the opportunity to develop a skill through technical training in high school, often wind up being dropouts and throwaways.

I have found widespread agreement from a wide range of Texans – business and labor leaders, teachers, school district officials, as well as community college representatives – that we face serious problems associated with an excessive emphasis on “teaching to the test” designed to make all our students college ready. The current system is broken and is badly in need of fixing.

That is why I was surprised to learn of a press conference held yesterday by representatives of various organizations defending the existing testing system and implying that business leaders, educational reformers, and conservative groups all support their position. As a businessman myself, a representative of employers, a strong proponent of quality education, and a longtime conservative, let me make clear my strong disagreement with the sentiments expressed at the news conference, as reported by the Texas Tribune and the Austin-American Statesman.
Today, I want to lay out specific action that the Legislature can take in the upcoming session to give Amarillo ISD, said, "Those kids start dropping out sophomore, junior year" and "decide they just can't do it."
Unfortunately, the superintendents are right to be concerned. It turns out that one of the main findings of the NAS report was that high school exit tests, like the STAAR, actually result in lower graduation rates "without increasing achievement." Research suggests that the high school graduation rate drops by 2 percentage points because of the tests. In Texas that means that more than 27,000 of our current Texas high schoolers may not receive their diploma as a result of the TAKS and STAAR system. It should not be the policy of Texas – or any other state for that matter – to use devices like these tests which have the unintended consequences of accelerating the dropout rate of students.

Many of these would-be dropouts would thrive if given the choice to pursue a different pathway; a pathway that lets them work with their hands, a pathway that gave them a chance to attend a class where the subject matter was relevant and had a tangible connection to the real world, and a pathway that would give them the training and credentials they need to obtain a good job. But, as long as a school's performance is evaluated by the TAKS and STAAR, there are few incentives to make such pathways a priority for the students that need them the most. Moreover the resources – in time, personnel, and money – devoted to making sure students pass these tests, are resources that can’t be used for more robust career and technical programs.

Yesterday, the group that I referenced at the opening of my remarks, declared that the STAAR test must remain in place. One member of the group defended the test saying, “If we are going to remain competitive in the world’s market, we are going to have to have an educated workforce. We do not have one today.” What should that tell us about the current approach to testing – an approach that has been in effect for a decade? It should tell us that it’s not working.

The next priority for the next legislative session ought to be changing the curriculum and diploma requirements. We need to make substantial reforms to the recommended graduation plan, which has become the de facto standard for most high school students. That plan allows students to take only 10 electives over four years – 16 of the 26 required credits are named. This makes it very difficult for a student to complete an entire Career and Technical Education (CTE) sequence – especially if they wish to be involved in any extracurricular activities. The course work required by the recommended plan actually exceeds the admission requirements of every university in Texas. Why are we requiring high schoolers take classes that even the universities don’t see as necessary? For some, passing Algebra II or Physics poses a tremendous challenge and such classes are simply not where their talents lie.

Many Texas high schoolers take at least one CTE class during their time in school. But the problem is that very few take enough so that upon graduation they are trained for a career in a specific field. Rather than the one size fits all approach, we should change the graduation requirements so that students have several options to choose from. After completing a smaller number of required credits, students interested in a higher level math and science education could pursue that path. Those interested in a traditional, liberal arts curriculum would take those classes. And those interested in classes that would lead to training in a career, along with an industry recognized certificate or professional license, would be able to do so. All students would graduate with a Texas high school diploma and all would be welcome to apply for, and pursue, an education at any post-secondary institution.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating a system in which one set of students are treated as college material and another set are discouraged from pursuing post-secondary education. In fact, research from TWC’s Labor Market and Career Information division has found that students who take a coherent sequence of CTE courses do better academically, have higher graduation rates, lower dropout rates, and better college attendance. Alumni from the Alamo Academies who, upon graduation, take jobs with companies like Toyota or Boeing while also taking classes at a four-year university (often paid for by their employer), are a great example of how vocational and technical education can enhance post-secondary options for young Texans.

I also want to be clear that I fully support holding schools accountable. But the current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students – rather it makes them beholden to performance on a single test. Success and accountability could be measured in a variety of ways. For those on the career path, certification or licensure in their field is the best way to show whether or not their education was successful. And for those going to a university, there is no reason we can’t use the same test that universities use in determining admission, like the SAT or ACT (tests, by the way, which are much harder to game). Performance measures ought to be tied to the actual outcomes that we seek for these students.

We also should do more to take advantage of the skills training capacity available at many of our community colleges by better leveraging the various dual credit programs. Currently there are a number of barriers students face if they wish to take continuing education classes at community colleges for credit. But some, passing Algebra II or Physics poses a tremendous challenge and such classes are simply not where their talents lie.

Many Texas high schoolers take at least one CTE class during their time in school. But the problem is that very few take enough so that upon graduation they are trained for a career in a specific field. Rather than the one size fits all approach, we should change the graduation requirements so that students have several options to choose from. After completing a smaller number of required credits, students interested in a higher level math and science education could pursue that path. Those interested in a traditional, liberal arts curriculum would take those classes. And those interested in classes that would lead to training in a career, along with an industry recognized certificate or professional license, would be able to do so. All students would graduate with a Texas high school diploma and all would be welcome to apply for, and pursue, an education at any post-secondary institution.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating a system in which one set of students are treated as college material and another set are discouraged from pursuing post-secondary education. In fact, research from TWC’s Labor Market and Career Information division has found that students who take a coherent sequence of CTE courses do better academically, have higher graduation rates, lower dropout rates, and better college attendance. Alumni from the Alamo Academies who, upon graduation, take jobs with companies like Toyota or Boeing while also taking classes at a four-year university (often paid for by their employer), are a great example of how vocational and technical education can enhance post-secondary options for young Texans.

I also want to be clear that I fully support holding schools accountable. But the current system does not hold schools accountable for successfully educating and preparing students – rather it makes them beholden to performance on a single test. Success and accountability could be measured in a variety of ways. For those on the career path, certification or licensure in their field is the best way to show whether or not their education was successful. And for those going to a university, there is no reason we can’t use the same test that universities use in determining admission, like the SAT or ACT (tests, by the way, which are much harder to game). Performance measures ought to be tied to the actual outcomes that we seek for these students.

We also should do more to take advantage of the skills training capacity available at many of our community colleges by better leveraging the various dual credit programs. Currently there are a number of barriers students face if they wish to take continuing education classes at community colleges for credit. But system. Colleges that can provide students with skills training in fields of demand, an industry-recognized credential or licensure, and a job in a related-field, should be rewarded. We are too much into a “seats in a chair” approach that rewards enrolling students, rather than preparing them for life – and work – after finishing high school and/or their post-secondary education.

Expanding access to career and technical training at the secondary and post-secondary school levels should be a priority for the Texas Legislature. There are so many opportunities in our state for careers that do not require a college degree but too few of our high school students know about these careers and are given opportunities to receive training. That can change – but only if we are bold enough to challenge the status quo and summon the courage to make true, fundamental reforms to how we educate young Texans.

Tom Pauken is the Commissioner Representing Employers and author of Bringing America Home.

 

 

 


 

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