Is Rick Perry Abandoning School Accountability and Merit Pay?

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott was in enemy territory recently, telling the folks at Massachusetts’s Pioneer Institute (including some who favor Romney, such as myself [full disclosure] )  about the virtues of the Texas education system, a topic of national significance now that Rick Perry’s chariot has leaped to lead position in the Republican presidential nomination race.

The rap against Texas is that its students trail, by a wide margin, the national average in achievement and graduation rates. That’s a false rap, because Texas faces the enormous challenges of a southern state that shares a long border with Mexico. When Texas’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is broken out by ethnic background, its record comes close to that of Massachusetts, as Allison Sherry pointed out in her recent Ed Next article on the education policies advocated by several of the Republican candidates.

But if Texas is doing better than some have claimed, Perry can’t take much credit for that. Texas school reform was begun long before the current governor arrived on the scene.  As I discuss in my book, Saving Schools, the Texas accountability system was put into place in the 1980s at the urging of Ross Perot. It was Democratic governor Ann Richards who got things going and Governor George W. Bush who kept accountability in place during the eight years he spent in Austin.

Now, the pressures to dismantle the accountability system in Texas have risen within the state legislature, Commissioner Scott told his audience. Because accountability has become unpopular among powerful interests who have influence in the Texas legislature, Perry and Scott, borrowing a trick from President Barack Obama and U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan,  have agreed to giving 25 school districts waivers from the state accountability system, provided the districts come up with an acceptable alternative.  That number that could climb in the next few years, Scott bragged to the assembled group.

Under questioning, Scott insisted he remained committed to testing and accountability.  But special waivers for certain districts undermine the entire system.  What makes accountability work is the common assessment of all students within the state, allowing for comparisons across the board.  If the highest performing districts are dropped from the assessment, as Scott suggested would happen, then all other districts will look better when compared to the new, artificially deflated, statewide average.

Moreover, without solid, comparative information on student performance, basing teacher salaries on merit (student learning) becomes considerably more complicated, though that may not matter, as Perry has gutted merit pay as well.  Scott told the group that the fiscal crisis forced the state to drop its merit pay program, another sign the governor is giving in to special interests.

But it is the risk that the Perry Administration poses for the long-standing Texas accountability system that is most worrisome. Perry has sharply opposed national standards in education.  Now, it seems, his administration is about to undermine state standards as well.

This may be popular with teacher unions and local district officials in Texas, but the general public nationwide may think otherwise.  The 2011 Education Next poll identified overwhelming public support for student testing and school accountability.

Does Rick Perry really want to dismantle the Texas accountability system? Unless he does, he should not be using the same waiver technique the White House is using to gut No Child Left Behind.

-Paul Peterson

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