Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

graduation rates

More education policy from Davis

A lot to like here.

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

Saying she wants to expand Texas high schoolers’ access to technical job training programs, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis announced a plan to create a Career-Technical Coordinating Board.

The plan is the latest in a string of education reform proposals from Davis. It also includes recommendations on college affordability and improving graduation rates.

Davis promoted the proposal Tuesday at an event in San Antonio, saying she hoped to build cooperation among “local industries, community and technical colleges” in helping prepare Texas students for the the technical jobs of the future, according to the proposal.

“At the very time when we need an educated workforce to lead the economy of the future, we need to put quality education within reach for Texas families,” Davis said.

The campaign of her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, noted that Davis’ proposal did not mention how much the plan would cost.

“Sen. Davis continues to present talking points and press releases dressed as policy proposals that contain few details, lack any cost information and will grow the size of government,” said Amelia Chassé, an Abbott campaign spokeswoman. “If this were an assignment, her grade would be ‘incomplete.’ Texans deserve a leader that presents real solutions, not more slogans and fuzzy math.”

Davis said she would work with the Legislature to “find the resources in existing resources to be able to carry forth” the proposal.

See also this subsequent Trib story for more details. Stace, who liked what he saw especially on higher education, correctly predicted the “how much will it cost?” reaction, though to be honest it wasn’t that hard to see it coming. The irony here is that much of what Davis is calling for, and what Lt. Gov. candidate Leticia Van de Putte has called for in her proposal to subsidize community college directly addresses a lot of the things that the business community through mouthpieces like Bill Hammond says it wants. They just don’t want to have to pay for any of it. You’ll see that reflected when Greg Abbott gets around to releasing his education plan after Labor Day. It will, I am certain, be full of things like higher standards, greater accountability, more ways for people to move their children to other schools, and maybe a few other shiny objects, but not a dime of new spending, no assistance for the many, many students who need it to graduate or to be able to afford any kind of higher education, and no mention of how any of those standards or accountability measures can be achieved at current – or, hopefully for Abbott, lower – funding levels. Everyone just needs to work smarter, that’s all that it takes. Davis’ press release with the full outline of her plan, and a release from Battleground Texas about her plan, are beneath the fold, and BOR has more.

UPDATE: This DMN story from day two of Davis’ release touches on paying for her proposals.

Wendy Davis acknowledged Wednesday that her proposals to improve public schools will cost more money, but she said revenue is available if lawmakers will make education a priority and eliminate some corporate tax breaks.

“We need a governor who will lead the Legislature in a bipartisan way to find the smart ways to create that investment,” said Davis, the Democratic nominee, at an Austin news conference.

Davis said that because of Texas’ booming economy, budget writers next year are expected to have a $4 billion surplus and billions more in the state rainy day fund.

She said that existing revenue, coupled with “closing corporate tax loopholes that have been on the books in Texas for decades,” should provide lawmakers with the money needed to balance the budget and boost funding for education without new taxes.

Republican nominee Greg Abbott says his Democratic opponent would raise taxes if elected governor.

Asked what corporate tax breaks she would close, Davis’ campaign cited as an example property tax breaks for greenbelts used exclusively for recreation and parks, including private country clubs. Another tax break targeted by the Davis campaign is $111 million a year the state loses by rewarding large stores for paying their sales taxes on time.

Davis said she and Abbott offer “starkly different paths for our state” on investment in public schools.

It’s going to take more than that to fully fund all the things she’s talking about, but those items are a start, and they have the advantage of being good policy on their own. The story also reminds us that the state may soon be under a court order to find more money for education, so it sure would be nice if someone were thinking along these lines.


Tracking diplomas

From the Texas Tribune:

Among young Texans who started eighth grade in 2001, less than one-fifth went on to earn a higher education credential within six years of their high school graduation. And rates were even lower among African-American and Hispanic students and those who were economically disadvantaged, according to data analyzed by two state education agencies and presented Tuesday in a Texas Tribune news application.

Since 2012, Houston Endowment, a philanthropic foundation and sponsor of the news app, has advocated for the use of “cohort tracking” to evaluate the state’s education pipeline. The analysis begins with all Texas students entering eighth grade in a given year and follows them for 11 years, giving them six years after high school to earn a post-secondary degree.

George Grainger, senior program officer for Houston Endowment’s education initiatives, said he believes it’s a valid performance index for the entire education pipeline, not just higher education. “We felt if we put our name on this, we can talk about it in a way that a state agency is perhaps not able to,” he said.

Cohort tracking is something the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board had been doing for some time — but quietly. Houston Endowment approached the agency about running the numbers again and providing an annual snapshot of the education system, this time for public consumption.

Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes called the idea of using the simple, easy-to-understand metric — rather than standard metrics like college graduation rates — “a minor act of genius.”

“If your final number is 19 out of 100 students receiving some form of post-secondary credential, you know there’s an awful lot of leakage in the pipeline,” Paredes said.

The story is about a better way to track higher education outcomes among graduating classes. The NCAA does something similar to track athletes’ graduation rates. There are some holes in this method – it doesn’t count people who spend a couple of years in the military before going on to graduate from college, and it loses track of people who move out of state before graduating high school – but it’s an improvement over what we had been doing to track this achievement. There are some predictable disparities due to race and to income level, and while there are some encouraging trends the fact remains that a huge percentage of current students will not get a college degree. While we all agree that not everyone needs to go to college and that more needs to be done to support kids who want to be on a more vocational track, the fact remains that on balance, not getting a college degree means greatly reducing earning potential. The embedded chart comes via Kevin Drum, who comments:

The chart from Pew Research tells the story. In 1965, high school grads earned 19 percent less than college grads. Since then, the earnings of college grads have gone up (though slowly over the past two decades), while the earnings of high school grads have plummeted. As a result, high school grads today earn a whopping 39 percent less than college grads. Life for the 47 percent of Americans who have high school diplomas but no more is an increasingly parlous one.

This is our future, Texas. What are we doing about it?

Eight billion dollars

That’s how much is needed per year to make public education whole.

Lynn Moak

Lynn Moak told state District Judge John Dietz that it will take more than $8 billion a year in additional money to get students on target to graduate and to meet new college and career readiness standards. About 150,000 9th-grade students, or 47 percent of last year’s freshman high school class, are not on track to graduate, according to the state’s more rigorous academic standards, Moak told the court.

“We are in a current crisis. The crisis gets worse in the future,” Moak said during a break in the hearing. “The crisis is sufficient now to demand action.”


Moak told Dietz it will take about $6 billion in additional money per year to adequately educate Texas students, on top of restoring $2.65 billion per year in education cuts that lawmakers made last year to help balance the budget.

“If we don’t see improvement, you will see even larger numbers of students at risk of not being able to graduate,” Moak told the judge, who said he planned to grill policy experts on both sides.


The new accountability standards are hitting low-income students the hardest. Only 40 percent of them have passed all of the 9th grade tests, which are required for high school graduation.

The number of low-income students increases each year and now makes up more than 60 percent of Texas’ 5 million K-12 public school enrollment. Low-income students generally cost more to educate because many arrive in kindergarten or first grade with less-developed vocabularies and other skills than children from middle- and upper-income families.

Republican legislators last year cut $4 billion from public education formulas and another $1.3 billion in special grants, such as full-day Pre K programs for low-income children and student success initiatives for tutoring and summer school programs to help struggling students.

Moak said he could not assess the impact on schools and students.

“I do not know of any significant legislative review to determine if these programs were not needed or were not producing good results,” he said.

Spending per student in Texas peaked at $7,415 in 2009, and has dropped to $6,293 in 2013, Moak said.

I don’t expect there to be any significant legislative review. I don’t think the authors of these cuts want to know what their effect was. The Statesman notes that while only 40 percent of low-income kids are passing the required tests, 69% of non-economically disadvantaged students are passing. You can expect that gap to grow.

All this came from direct testimony – the state had not had the chance to cross-examine Moak as of the writing of those stories – so there will likely be more of these depressing numbers to come. The Moak, Casey website is a pretty good resource for following the trial on a blow-by-blow basis. Here’s an interesting tidbit from their embedded Twitter feed: “Moak: from 10-11 to 11-12 school year, 26.5k fewer teachers and staff while Texas schools added 44.5k students #schoolfinancetrial #txlege”. With numbers like that, what happened next should not surprise us.

HISD graduation rate up

Good news.

Terry Grier

Students in the Houston Independent School District are graduating at a higher rate for the fourth straight year, thanks in part to better tracking and online make-up courses, Superintendent Terry Grier said Monday.

The district reported a graduation rate of 78.5 percent for the Class of 2011, up 4 percentage points from the prior year and 14 points from 2007.

“This is big-time news,” said Grier, who joined HISD in 2009. “To see this type of improvement in our school district, I think it has major implications for our city.”

Grier attributed the improved graduation numbers partly to school committees that meet weekly to track students who drop out – visiting their homes in some cases – or are at risk of dropping out. He also said his “grad lab” program, which allows students to recover credits at a quicker pace through online courses, has helped.

HISD graduated more than 9,000 students last year, up from nearly 7,000 four years ago. The number of dropouts fell to 1,364, from nearly 2,400 in 2007.

Grier has made raising the graduation rate and lowering the dropout rate centerpieces of his administration, so I’m sure he’s delighted to tout these numbers. As we know, there’s more than one way to measure this statistic, but by either metric HISD is moving in the right direction. Ensuring that every kid can pass the exit exams and be ready for what comes after high school is the next step, but we can celebrate this first. Hair Balls has more.

Not a great start for the STAAR tests

Whatever we think about standardized tests, we’ll need to do better than this.

Thousands of Houston-area high school students failed the state’s new standardized exams and must retake them – or risk not graduating.

Preliminary test results released by several local districts Thursday reveal that ninth-graders struggled the most on the writing exam, indicating they are not prepared for college-level work.

In the Houston Independent School District, about 7,500 freshmen failed at least one of the end-of-course exams they took last spring. On the writing test, only 47 percent of HISD’s freshmen passed, early data show. Students can retake the exams as soon as July or later in high school.

“We will learn from this,” HISD’s chief academic officer, Alicia Thomas, told the school board Thursday. “The rigor in our classrooms will increase. It’s a challenge for HISD. It’s actually a challenge for all districts in Texas.”

The ninth-grade class from 2012 is the first affected by a state law requiring students to pass 15 end-of-course exams throughout high school to graduate. Under the former system, students had to pass four tests.

The new exams, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, were designed to be much harder than prior state tests, with more complex questions and a time limit.

You have to expect some struggles early on, with the test being more stringent and the schools being under a lot more stress from the budget cuts. The pass rates outside of English are actually not too bad, though that’s surely skewed by the lower threshold for passing right now. I do believe the school districts will get their rates up, but in the meantime those who were worried about the effect these tests may ultimately have on graduation and dropout rates have reason to continue to be worried about it.

The TEA, for its part, says the results statewide were about what they expected.

“While we know there is always an adjustment period for students and teachers in a new testing program, results from the first STAAR assessments are encouraging overall, showing that students generally performed as expected or better and that educators focused intensely on the state curriculum,” Education Commissioner Robert Scott said in a news release.

Bill Hammond, president and chief executive of the Texas Association of Business, which has advocated for accountability and higher standards in public education, called the results disappointing.

“I think it’s safe to say we were all hoping for higher scores, but at least we know now how far we have to go to ensure we have college or career-ready graduates,” Hammond said. “It is a long road, but if we hold our schools and superintendents accountable for improving these results, I believe they will improve.” Hair Balls has more.

Hammond, of course, won’t do anything useful to bring about those improved results we’d all like to see, but he does represent a lot of money, so he gets to be quoted in stories like these.

Are the end of course standards too low?

Beginning this year, high school students must pass new end of course exams in a variety of subjects in order to be able to graduate. These tests begin in the ninth grade and continue through the 12th. The standards will be relaxed for the first couple of years while everyone gets used to them. Some people think the state is going too easy on the schools by doing it that way.

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott has said the agency decided to phase in the standards, starting lower this year and increasing them through 2016, because students need time to adjust to the much more difficult questions on the new exams.

But a prominent business leader and the head of the state’s largest school district suggested the lower bar at the outset will give students, teachers and the public a skewed picture of schools’ performance.

‘False sense of security’

“It gives all of us an inadequate report of where we are,” said Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier. “It gives you a false sense of security.”

Grier said he would prefer to start with the higher standards, even if it means more schools earn the state’s lowest academic rating.

“If they’re unacceptable, they’re unacceptable,” Grier said. “We need to accept the fact that they are what they are and get very busy trying to improve them.”

The standards also drew criticism from Bill Hammond, the president of the Texas Association of Business.

Hammond said the scores should accurately reflect whether students are being prepared for college and careers.

The TEA plans to release statewide scores from the new tests, called the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, this week or next. Scattered reports suggest that students struggled, even with the lower passing standards.

Ninth-graders who took the exams in spring 2012 must answer between 37 percent and 65 percent of the questions correctly to pass, depending on the subject. By 2016, freshmen will need to correctly answer 60 percent to 70 percent to pass most of the exams.

TEA spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe said districts should have reports this year that show how students would have done had the higher standards been in place, so the information can be shared with the public.

I guess I don’t see what the fuss is about. It’s normal to phase things like this in, the only difference here is the four year timeline instead of a two year timeline. Based on what Ratcliffe says, the schools should know exactly where they stand even if their rating starts out higher than where it would have been. You can see the TEA’s STAAR Resources page for all the relevant information. The main concern that I have heard about the STAAR tests, beyond the usual aversion to our increasingly standardized-test-centric school culture, is that it will exacerbate our already worrisome dropout problem. These tests are a big change, and we’re implementing them at the same time as we’ve slashed five billion dollars from public education. I am perfectly fine with taking it slowly to see if there are any negative effects before going all in on yet another high stakes test.

Are you smarter than a Texas high school student?

Well, why don’t you take this sample STAAR test and find out? It’s very much non-trivial. I got 11 out of 15 correct – I punted on the two physics questions and on the first World History question, though in retrospect I might have gotten it right if I’d thought about it, and I guessed wrong on the chemistry question. I was able to do all of the algebra questions in my head, however, and that’s all that really matters to me.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think these questions would have been too tough for my high school self. I did attend one of the best high schools in the country, Stuyvesant High School in New York, so that’s not too surprising. For those of you who attended high school in Texas, how do these questions stack up against your experience? Would you say the curriculum, or at least the standardized tests, are harder, easier, or about the same as they were when you were in school? Leave a comment and let me know.

Texas high school graduation rate improved over the last decade

According to one report, anyway.

Texas’ graduation rate for high school students increased 1.9 percent since 2002 to just below the national average, according to a new report by a coalition of education groups.

The report found that high school graduation rates rose from 73.5 percent to 75.4 percent between 2002 and 2009, and pulled almost even with the 2009 average nationwide of 75.5 percent.

The national graduation rate, though, increased faster than the state’s, climbing 2.9 percent over the same 7-year period. The biggest gains nationwide came in Tennessee, where rates jumped 17.8 percent, and New York, which increased 13 percent, between 2002 and 2009.


The report will be presented Monday in Washington at the Building a Grad Nation summit sponsored by America’s Promise Alliance, a children’s advocacy organization founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was authored by John Bridgeland and Mary Bruce of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm focused on social change, and Robert Balfanz and Joanna Fox of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

The authors used the Averaged Freshman Graduation Rate, which tracks first-year students through all their years in high school, since they said it was the best and most-recent data available nationwide.

You can find the report here. It actually says that the nation’s graduation rate rose by 3.5 percentage points, from 72.0 to 75.5, during the 2002 to 2009 time period. Not sure why the news report got that wrong. Given that, despite the positive spin in the opening paragraphs, this actually means that Texas’ graduation rate fell below the national average during this time.

Which isn’t to say there wasn’t improvement:

As recently as 2010, the Texas Legislative Budget Board reported the state’s overall graduation rate ranked a dismal 43rd nationwide. Last month, though, the Texas Education Agency announced that a National Governor’s Association report put Texas’ graduation rate for the class of 2010 at 84.3 percent, or 10th highest among the 34 participating states who track student performance over their entire high school career. Yet another report by the National Center for Education Statistics found that the state’s 2008-2009 graduation rate was 75.4 percent, or 28th in the nation — findings similar to those in Monday’s report.

“There’s lots of different ways to look at it and everybody’s got a different intention,” said Frances Deviney, Texas Kids Count director at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. But she said other measures, including drop-out rates, have fallen in recent years, providing additional evidence more high schoolers statewide are graduating.

“It is getting better,” Deviney said, though she worries that cuts in state funding for programs designed to keep students from leaving school early could eventually undo those gains.

What happens going forward is the big question. Either the massive cuts to public education funding have a negative effect on the graduation rate or they don’t. I should note that even without the cuts, there are a lot of people who are concerned that the new STAAR test and the end of course exams now mandated for high school students would contribute to a higher dropout rate regardless. We know how things were going before 2011. It will be a few years before we really know what happened after 2011. What will we do if we find we’ve reversed course?

UH Downtown drops open admissions

UH-Downtown took up the issue of adopting admissions standards last week.

“It’s time and it’s the right thing to do,” said President William Flores, who began advocating for admissions standards shortly after taking over as president in 2009. “We’re building the quality of our academic programs and the reputation of the university and student success is part of that.”

UH-Downtown became the only Texas university with open admissions this past fall, when the University of Texas at Brownsville introduced admissions standards. Texas Southern University ended its open admissions policy in 2008.

Under the UH-Downtown standards, which would take effect in fall 2013, students graduating in the top 25 percent of their class would automatically be admitted; those in the 26 to 50 percent group would need a combined SAT score of 850, a 2.5 GPA or an ACT admissions test score of 18.

A committee would review applications from students in the bottom half of their class and consider personal interviews, references, unusual circumstances, effort and potential as part of the criteria.


The new standards are designed to weed out students who are not ready for the rigor of a four-year college, and who often end up dropping out of school without a diploma and with a significant amount of debt.

Those students would be offered “joint admissions” to Lone Star College, Houston Community College or San Jacinto College, where they could transfer to UH-Downtown after successfully completing remedial courses and core credit classes.

On Wednesday, they made it official for the fall of 2013. I hadn’t realized that there were no other four-year institutions doing open admissions any more. I think this is a sensible move. As the story notes, UH-D’s current six-year graduation rate is 15%. Diverting some students into community college should benefit them by reducing their financial burden and benefit UH-D by boosting its graduation rate, which may wind up being tied to the amount of money the Lege appropriates to it.

On a side note, I haven’t heard anything further about the proposed name change for UH-D in over a year. I wonder if that subject will come up again after this change is made.

Shapiro backs STAAR delay

This was unexpected.

Sen. Florence Shapiro

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said Monday in a letter to [TEA Commissioner Robert] Scott that ninth-graders taking the exams this year should be given a reprieve from the 15 percent requirement during the phase-in of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.

“We strongly support the transition to end-of-course assessments as crucial to enhancing the college readiness of our students. We support the waiver of the course grade requirement solely as a transition to the new testing and accountability system,” wrote Shapiro, one of the architects of the new accountability system. The letter was signed by three other senators involved in the legislation.

The end-of-course exams will still apply toward ninth-graders’ graduation requirements. Most students must take a total of 12 end-of-course exams in four core subjects: English, math, science and social studies.

Parents and school administrators have been clamoring for relief from the 15 percent requirement. They worry that the new exams could harm a student’s grade-point average and class rank, which could affect whether the student automatically qualifies for admission to state universities.


Last year, the Texas House overwhelmingly passed a measure that addressed some of the anxieties that have been springing up across the state this year as parents and students have begun to grasp the implications of the test. The bill died because Shapiro never brought it up for consideration in her Senate committee.

The whole point of that ill-fated legislation, House Bill 500, was to “give the kids the same transition that school districts had without easing the rigor or accountability,” said House Public Education Committee Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands.

See here, here, and here for background on the legislative process. Shapiro had been critical of Scott after he gave a speech that said that the state testing system has become a “perversion of its original intent” and that he was looking forward to “reeling it back in.” In the grand scheme of things this doesn’t amount to that much – the test will go on, despite other concerns regarding funding and the possibly deleterious effect of even more high stakes tests on high school graduation rates – but it would be a relief to this year’s batch on ninth graders and their parents if Scott goes along with it. With Rep. Eissler voicing his support as well, it looks likely to happen.

UPDATE: Commissioner Scott has authorized the delay.

Make sure you measure everything

A lot of groups are measuring a lot of things related to the state’s cuts to public education funding, but there’s one big thing not mentioned in this story that needs to be accurately tracked as well.

In March, the Texas Education Agency will release the official numbers on school district employment for the 2011-12 school year, including job losses. The figures will be a reckoning in some ways — the first time the state will actually measure the affect of a historic reduction in financing. But several groups, including nonprofit organizations and professional associations, and at least one lawmaker, would like to have a better idea before then — to help shape their own policies and in some cases to be able to control how the discussion is framed.

The Texas American Federation of Teachers, the state branch of the national teachers association, recently released a survey that showed that budget cuts had resulted in widespread layoffs and low morale among public school employees. Linda Bridges, the branch’s president, emphasized the strength of the study’s findings, but because it was an online survey, she said, it was “unscientific” in nature.

The KDK-Harman Foundation, a private nonprofit, is working with Children at Risk, an education advocacy group in Houston, to conduct a comprehensive study on how schools are managing with less money. Jennifer Esterline, the foundation’s executive director, said a lack of both quantitative and qualitative information on the effects of the cuts prompted the study, which was expected to cost just over $100,000.


Lynn Moak, whose school finance consulting firm, Moak, Casey & Associates, has kept track of job-loss estimates since the start of the session, said the figure of layoffs could vary widely by source, depending on which employees are counted.

For instance, if only teachers are included, it may be a much smaller number than if all employees are included, because many districts are trying to cut everywhere except in the classroom. Moak said that depending on their financial status, districts may face the greater bulk of their budget cuts for the 2011-12 school year — which could cushion the numbers districts report this year.

These are all good things to know, but to me it all comes down to student performance and graduation rates. Obviously, the state keeps track of those things, but I don’t know if anyone who is tying it to the financial effect on each school district. The cuts were distributed evenly across the districts instead of being proportional to how much each district received in per-student funding, so some districts were affected a lot more than others. How will that be reflected in standardized test scores and graduation rates? That’s what I want to know, and I hope everyone else with a stake in this wants to know it, too. We may not know everything for a fea years, given the addition of high school exit exams and the change to the STAAR test, but we ought to know enough to make a judgment about how the cuts affected the students. What we do from there will depend on the next election, and the one after that.

On calculating graduation rates

The Texas Education Agency publishes graduation rates for all Texas public schools every year. Some people and organizations disagree with their methodology, saying they assume too many departing students wind up in school elsewhere or are homeschooled rather than counting them as dropouts. One such objector is Children At Risk, and they released their own report this past week.

Based on the most recent data, 61 percent of low-income students in Harris County public schools graduated, compared with 72 percent of those from wealthier families, according to the study. The rates reflect students who entered ninth grade in 2004 and graduated by 2010.

Children at Risk used data from the Texas Education Agency to calculate its own graduation rates because the researchers believe the agency’s publicly reported numbers don’t count all the dropouts.

For example, [Children At Risk President Bob] Sanborn said, he is skeptical when districts report to the TEA that numerous students leave after their freshman year to attend private school, to be home-schooled or to return to their native country. The state doesn’t require proof the students enrolled in new schools – and doesn’t know if they end up graduating – so Children at Risk counts them as dropouts.

Officials with the TEA and several local school districts strongly defended the state’s higher graduation rate calculation, arguing that the Children at Risk method punishes schools by counting as dropouts students who leave for legitimate reasons such as moving out of state or the country.

I don’t see Children At Risk’s report on their website, but K-12 Zone has their listing. I suppose you can see the two as the upper and lower bounds on graduation rates, since no one can ever be sure what happened to every kid that leaves a school before finishing it. Which one is closer to the truth, that’s the question. It sure would be nice to be more certain about this. In any event, the good news is that the trends are upward, though they’re still not where you’d want them to be. With the new exit exams coming, the concern is they’re in for a fall. However you tote up the numbers, we need to keep an eye on them.

Our education gap

Apparently, we have one in Houston.

The Houston area doesn’t have enough educated workers to fill all the jobs that local industry creates, according to a study released today by the Brookings Institution.

That education gap, in turn, pushes up the local unemployment rate, according to the study, which ranked the Houston area 94th among the nation’s 100 largest regions. The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area came in at No. 96.

The average job in Houston requires 13.53 years of education, said Jonathan Rothwell, senior research analyst at Brookings in Washington, D.C. The average Houston area resident has only 13.31 years.

The study used several years of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to determine the type and number of jobs in each region and what kind of education is required to do the work. It compared that to a Census Bureau survey of actual education levels for each community.

You can see the executive summary here and the full report here. Personally, I’m skeptical that such a small difference in the average amount of education makes that much difference, but I suppose one way of looking at it is that it probably reflects college graduation rates as much as anything, and it’s easy enough to see how that could correlate to employment. Anyway, read it for yourself and see what you think.

We get the college graduation rates we pay for

Just a couple of related items of interest. First, from the man who would be Governor if we lived in a just world.

In the last 30 years, Americans with only a high school diploma experienced a drop in average income from $36,600 to $30,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars, while incomes of those with a bachelor’s degree rose to $50,000. The unemployment rate for college graduates is less than half the rate of those with only a high school diploma and less than a third of those who never finished high school.

No state has more at stake in higher education than Texas, with 1 million unemployed and one-tenth of all young Americans in public schools. In the next decade, young Texans will account for almost 40 percent of our nation’s total growth in public school enrollment. Two years ago, business leaders on our state’s Select Commission on Higher Education and Global Competitiveness reported: “Texas is not globally competitive. The state faces a downward spiral in quality of life and economic competitiveness if it fails to educate more of its growing population. … Unlike states with higher average incomes or growing economies throughout the world, in Texas, young workers, under 34, now have a smaller percentage of degrees than older workers.”

Public investment in university research also helps attract the grants and philanthropy needed to strengthen and expand the number of Texas’ Tier 1 research universities, which serve as magnets for new businesses and economic growth.

The state government invests about 70 cents a day per resident in support of higher education. Other business-oriented states have found a way to do more. North Carolina and Georgia, with a combined population far less than Texas, together invest substantially more than Texas each year in higher education. North Carolina has long used universities to spur high-wage job growth and in the last five years has increased its full-time college enrollment at a much faster rate than Texas.

And from the Texas Trib:

Nationally, 52 percent of Hispanic students and 58 percent of black students are unable to earn a bachelor’s degree in six years, compared to 40 percent of white students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“What is increasingly evident now that wasn’t evident 10 or 20 years ago is the extent to which this is a national phenomenon,” said Steve Murdock, a sociology professor at Rice University and previously the state demographer of Texas and head of the U.S. Census Bureau. “This is not a Texas issue. It’s not a California issue. It’s a national issue.”

For the U.S. to maintain — let alone grow — a college-educated workforce, Murdock said, those numbers will have to change.


In 2007, recognizing the demographic shift — and its accompanying challenges — [the University of] Texas set up a Division of Diversity and Community Engagement. With an annual budget of $30.4 million, it encourages minority high school students to apply to college and then supports them with a complex framework of programs that include tutoring, personal advising.

“The question is, can we get them the support to help them over the gaps?” said Gregory Vincent, vice president of diversity and community engagement.

The results, so far, have been promising. Generally, students in the division’s programs have grade point averages and retention rates as good as or better than the average in their respective classes. “The good news is that our students come highly motivated, so our challenges aren’t as great as you’d expect, despite assumptions some people might make about their backgrounds,” said Aileen Bumphus, executive director of the Gateway Program, an initiative under the Diversity and Community Engagement umbrella that works with about 300 first-generation students in each class.

Such programs have been crucial for students like Oscar Ayala, a UT senior from Houston who majors in biomedical engineering. Both of his parents are from Mexico, and neither attended college. “When it came time in high school to get ready for college, I didn’t know what that meant,” Ayala said.

But that success may prove difficult to maintain, depending in large part on decisions the Texas Legislature will make this year to confront a budget shortfall that could reach $20 billion or more. About $5 million of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement budget comes from state funds. Educators are particularly worried about cuts to the state’s largest financial aid program, which primarily serves minority students.

Robert S. Nelsen, president of the University of Texas-Pan American, an institution that is 89 percent Hispanic, said cuts to the aid program would be “devastating” to the area.

Just something to keep in mind when we start hearing about the inevitable cuts to higher education funding that the Republican Legislature is about to impose on us. The effect of these cuts will last a lot longer than the next fiscal period. But at least we’ll have a balanced budget, and Dan Patrick will keep his property taxes low.

Story on Texas’ “dropout factories”

Last month I blogged about this Washington Monthly story about colleges with extremely low graduation rates. Here’s a Star-Telegram article about that, which contains some reaction from a couple of the Texas schools named in the original piece.

One factor holding down graduation rates is the changing makeup of college students. Once, most lived at four-year schools. But a growing trend is first-generation college students from working-class families who help support relatives while taking classes.

That’s a factor at Sul Ross, President Ricardo Maestas said.

Many Sul Ross students take longer than six years to graduate because they have to balance school with work, he said. The Alpine-based university of 2,124 students offers rural communities in 19 counties near Big Bend programs in education, agriculture and animal science. Sul Ross is the only viable higher education option for many students between El Paso and San Antonio, Maestas said.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover or by one data point,” he said. “Yes, we have some problems we have to solve.”


Maestas said officials at Sul Ross are trying to find out why more students don’t finish. They are also taking a new look at recruiting efforts; students from large cities may not be the right fit for a rural school, he said. Every year, the university loses about half of the entering class, in part because some 84 percent are working students and 53 percent are low income.

It’s at least possible that if the study conducted by the Washington Monthly had used an eight year deadline for graduation, Sul Ross might have fared better, though I doubt it would make that much of a difference. If they really are trying to figure out where their problems are and to take concrete steps to address them, that’s the main thing. Remember, though, that the schools Sul Ross was compared to for this story were schools with a similar profile; in other words, other schools with a high percentage of low income, working students. There’s plenty they can learn from the schools that have better graduation rates.

Michael Dressman, interim provost at UT-Downtown, said that while the ranking shows that improvement is needed, it doesn’t present a complete story. The school is open-admission and serves largely students who also work.

“It’s a kick in our morale,” Dressman said. “We know that we are doing a good job. We are trying to do a better job every year.”

He said his school is being judged on the staying power of a sliver of students — there are 1,000 first-time freshmen in a total enrollment of 12,900.

“I say, judge us by our graduates,” he said. “We rank 33rd in the country in the number of Hispanics graduating with bachelor’s degrees. Many of them took 10 or 12 years to get it, but they graduated.” Dressman said one successful alum is state Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston.

That’s a pretty non-responsive answer. Again, UH-Downtown, like Sul Ross, was judged in comparison to peer institutions, not to the UTs and A&Ms of the world. That includes a lot of open admission, majority minority, schools that serve working students. If those schools can graduate 50% or more of their students, so can UH-D. What’s their plan to do better? Their current and future students have a right to know that.

Dropout factories

Lots of people have recommended this Washington Monthly story about colleges with extremely low graduation rates, and now I’m recommending it to you. I’d never given this any thought before, but having read the story, it’s quite clear to me that this is a serious problem, and it’s going to require some thought to figure out the best way to deal with it. Just getting the information out there is a good start, and I hope high school guidance counselors across the country are reading this and steering their kids away from these schools. The “bottom 50” list is here, and unfortunately Texas schools predominate, as eight of them make an appearance:

Jarvis Christian College
Texas College
Texas Southern University
University of Houston, Downtown
Paul Quinn College
Huston-Tillotson University
University of Texas at Brownsville
Sul Ross State University

JCC is in Hawkins, which is north of Tyler, where Texas College is located. Paul Quinn is in Dallas, Huston-Tillotson is in Austin, and Sul Ross is in Alpine. No other state had more than four schools on this dubious list – we’re number one! – so hopefully this will spur some action. Check it out, and see what you think.

Q&A with Terry Grier

Learn more about our new HISD Superintendent here and here. One thing to highlight, from the first link:

Q: What are your priorities for HISD?

A: Houston is a good urban district. It has the potential to be the best large school district in the country. There’s no question the dropout rate is unacceptable, as is the graduation rate.

Q: How will you improve the rates?

A: Most anywhere I’ve worked you will see significant decreases in the dropout rate and significant increases in the graduation rate. Long-term strategies include making sure students are in school on a regular basis.

Q: How do you get kids to show up at school?

A: You hold principals accountable for attendance. You use your telephone messaging system, and when kids are absent, you contact parents. You make home visits. You may have attendance incentive programs. We did that in San Diego this past year and improved our student attendance by almost a half a percentage point.

Q: What’s another strategy to curb dropouts?

A: Last year in San Diego, we installed new state-of-the-art computer labs in all of our high schools, and the principals staffed those labs with what we call a graduation coach. We allowed students to use a computer program to retake courses they had failed.

If Grier succeeds are reducing HISD’s dropout rate and improving its graduation rate, then I think his tenure here will be successful pretty much no matter what else happens. It would also save us a bunch of money in the long run.

The students in the class of 2012 who will drop out of school are projected to cost the state and its economy $6 billion to $10.7 billion over their lifetimes, a new study from the Texas A&M Bush School of Government and Public Service found.

Dropouts are more likely to be unemployed or earn less than high school graduates, pay less in taxes, get welfare payments or end up in prison.

On the flip side, Texas will save as much as $1.1 billion in the state budget by not having those same students in the classroom. But the researchers said the budget savings are swamped by the long-term economic costs.

“It is essential that policymakers begin making this issue a priority in an attempt to reverse the current trends and their implications on the Texas economy,” the researchers wrote.

State Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, said lawmakers are well aware of the dropout problem and are always looking for programs that work to reduce the number of dropouts, such as expanding career and technology education to make school more relevant.

“There is no magic bullet,” said Shapiro, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. “If there were, we would have done it a long time ago.”

I’ll resist the urge to make a crack about the “Bush School of Government” and note that I think State Sen. Shapiro is wrong. The solution to this problem is ultimately a much greater investment in children and families. Really making a dent in the dropout rate means making a much stronger effort to combat poverty, hunger, and poor health in children, all things we currently do a lousy job of here in Texas. And it’s not that we can’t do these things, it’s that we choose not to in this low tax, low service state of ours. But you’ll never get folks like Sen. Shapiro to admit that.

Anyway. Given the political and economic realities that Superintendent Grier will face, I wish him the best of luck in lowering the dropout rate in HISD. I fear he’ll need it.

Graduation rates

According to one study, a little more than half of HISD’s high school freshmen ultimately graduate.

Despite dozens of commencement ceremonies planned for the next two weeks, only 58.5 percent of Houston-area students who should be graduating will be earning diplomas this spring, community advocates said today.

Robert Sanborn, president and CEO of Children at Risk, announced on the steps of Houston City Hall this morning that his group commissioned the Texas Education Agency to conduct a study of six-year graduation rates. They learned that that 53 percent of the students who begin as ninth-graders in the Houston Independent School District had not graduated from any Texas high school in six years.

“We feel there is a real crisis, a crisis of graduation,” Sanborn said, pointing out the link between poverty and education levels. “We really don’t think the TEA and the school districts are being honest with the public.”

Sanborn said HISD estimates it graduates as many as 77 percent of its students within four years. That number is based on faulty data that doesn’t count as dropouts students who claim they’re going to be home schooled, attend private school or move out of state or country.

Sanborn said the first step in fixing high schools is admitting the severity of the problem. He called for the state Legislature, the TEA and individual school districts to become more transparent and use the graduation rate calculation formula Children at Risk used in this study.

Karen Garza, HISD’s chief academic officer, said the district certainly sees dropouts as an important problem that they are working to address. She questioned whether the Children at Risk numbers fail to consider how mobile the population of this urban school district is by excluding students who may start here but graduated in Oklahoma or Mexico or anywhere outside of Texas.

“We acknowledge this is a major issue. We’ve got to get better at keeping kids in school,” Garza said. “We want solutions. We offer more and more options, things like flexible hours and on-line courses.”

But, Garza said, HISD uses the formula prescribed by the TEA and she doesn’t see the Children at Risk calculation as being any more reliable.

I don’t know which way of calculating the “true” graduation rate is superior. I’m not sure it matters that much – whichever method you choose, you can at least tell if it’s getting better or worse over time. The NCAA manages to keep track of graduation rates at its member institutions, so this can’t be rocket science. Pick a method and stick with it – let’s not lose the forest for the trees.

Council Member and Mayoral candidate Peter Brown comments on the Children at Risk study. I’m still a bit amazed at how education has become an issue in this race, and I’m still not sure what role the Mayor should be playing in Houston’s public education; it’s not clear to me how much of a role the Mayor could play without legislative action, anyway. That said, I’m always glad to see public education be the topic of conversation, at least among people who care about its success. Maybe just by keeping the spotlight on it, we can have a positive effect.