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The Economist: Education issues

By By Ray Perryman
Jan. 5, 2013 at 4:04 p.m.
Updated Jan. 4, 2013 at 7:05 p.m.


An old and respected friend recently asked me what I thought were the biggest education-related issues to be tackled in the upcoming Texas legislative session. Few things are more integral to our future prosperity than ensuring young Texans are prepared to be successful in the workforce. While there are some good things happening in this arena, there are other patterns that are cause for concern. Here is a quick rundown.

One problem we are facing is that Texas currently lags the nation in some key educational measures. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, 80 percent of Texans age 25 and older have completed high school compared to 85 percent nationwide. The lack of a high school diploma is associated with lower earnings and a higher likelihood of unemployment. Almost 26 percent of Texans age 25 or older have a bachelor's degree or higher, only slightly lower than the national average of nearly 28 percent.

Also, Texas has a proportionally lower share of nationally recognized research (Tier One) universities, with only three (The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and Rice University). We have studied this issue in depth and found that the economic benefits of additional institutions achieving Tier One status would be substantial.

Dropout rates are problematic and notoriously hard to measure but keeping students in school is crucial. Recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Education regarding graduation rates paint a rosy picture, indicating Texas is doing very well (tied for third-highest for overall graduation rates, first or tied for first for Asian, white and African American students, and second for Hispanic students).

Even so, an analysis by the Texas Education Agency found that Texas ranked 10th among 34 states reporting the National Governors Association Compact Graduation Rate, which measures four-year on-time graduation rates. This measure, which is based on actual students rather than estimates, indicates an overall on-time graduation rate of just more than 84 percent, with both Hispanics and African-Americans graduating on time less than 79 percent of the time.

Texas faces unique challenges in public education given our demographic composition. More than 59 percent of students in Texas schools are classified as economically disadvantaged. There are strong correlations between income levels and performance on standardized tests, college entrance exams and post-secondary education.

The state is also characterized by a relatively high proportion of small-enrollment districts, many of which are scattered over large geographic areas. As a result, certain expenses (such as transportation) are higher, and efficiencies of scale are lost. In last week's column, I wrote about the high-stakes assessments in public schools (such as STAAR), which are controversial and worthy of careful review.

Tight budget conditions have hit many valuable programs hard. Only 1 percent of instructional spending in Texas is used for gifted and talented education, for example, and resources for challenging bright students (as well as classroom time without specific standardized-test-oriented objectives) are scarce.

There are positive developments on several fronts that are worthy of ongoing support. Efforts to encourage college attendance, particularly among minority groups, are yielding some success. The number of Hispanic students taking the SAT increased 65 percent between 2007-08 and 2011-12, while the number of African -American students taking the test increased by 42 percent.

This pattern is particularly important given that Hispanics are now the largest ethnic group in schools (135,357 of last year's class of 298,379 students, according to TEA). Options for acquiring college credit during high school have expanded in recent years, helping lower the costs of college for many families. Advanced placement courses have long been available, and distance learning has grown more common with the increased availability of broadband service. Such courses are typically geared to high-achieving high school students.

A newer development is early college high schools, which is a blend of high school and college with hundreds of schools across the United States, including dozens in Texas. An important facet of these schools is that they are specifically aimed at "young people for whom the transition into post-secondary education is now problematic" such as low-income, first-generation college-goers and others statistically underrepresented in higher education. Students can earn an associate degree or up to two years of transferable college credit while in high school. In addition to compressing the time required, early college high schools drastically reduce cost of higher education because they are tuition-free.

Each school involves a post-secondary partner such as a community college, technical college or other college or university. In Texas, the early college high schools are typically located in larger metropolitan areas, though there are some in smaller communities. While early college high schools are relatively new (with most in Texas only a few years old), such a program can place higher education within reach (both academically and financially) for those who might otherwise not consider attendance; potential expansion into other geographic areas (including rural areas) would likely lead to sizable economic benefits.

All Texans have a vested interest in making our educational system as efficient and effective as possible. Our future prosperity depends on it.

Dr. M. Ray Perryman is president and chief executive officer of The Perryman Group (perrymangroup.com). He also serves as institute distinguished professor of economic theory and method at the international institute for advanced studies.

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