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Conditions for the functioning of the education system in the USA (Texas)

Holistic Think Tank
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The study was prepared as part of the qualitative research of primary schools around the world and covers the most important issues related to the education system in Texas (USA).

Historical conditions

Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1836, with one of the reasons being the lack of a public school system. Soon after, in 1839 and 1840, the Texas Congress passed two education acts which granted each country thousands of acres of land to construct public schools. However, a formal public schooling system was never established in the Republic of Texas due to financial constraints.

In 1845, the United States annexed Texas which formalized and funded public elementary schools. Meanwhile at the federal level, the National Education Association created the Committee of Ten in 1892. The US populace was beginning to demand increased access to a quality education, and progressive reformers of the late 19th century laid out a curriculum that is the foundation of public schools across the United States today. This led to the construction of public schools for higher grade levels.

Initially, Texas resisted compulsory schooling. Because much of Texas was extremely rural, most children worked to maintain the family household. And, it was difficult to fund schools across the vast countryside. In 1907, the reform group Conference for Education of Texas (CET) was founded. These concerned citizens recognized that Texas was losing out on business opportunities due to a lack of a learned population and advocated for better schooling. Eventually, compulsory attendance in Texas schools was established in 1915.

Soon after, citizens began to focus on improving the quality of these schools. A flyer from the Better Schools Campaign wrote:

“TEXAS
First in Size.
First in Agricultural Products.
First in Production of Cotton.
Third in Production of Oil.
Seventh in Wealth.
Thirty-Ninth in Education.”

These campaigns led to massively increased funding and attention paid to Texas’ public schools. That said, this focus was primarily on “white schools.” Texas schools followed the nearly-universal practice of Jim Crow-era segregation, where white and Hispanic/Black students attended different schools. Due to prejudice and racism, white families did not want their children attending schools with Hispanic/Black children. As a result, schools attended by Black families tended to have worse infrastructure.

Hispanic and Black families faced widespread discrimination until the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated schools. That said, there were multiple instances of Texas schools disobeying this order. In 1955, William Henry Keller, who studied Houston’s response to desegregation, stated “‘[r]ace-mixing had replaced Communism as the new demon, and, in a very real sense, the ‘Red Scare’ had become the ‘Black Scare.’” In 1957, voters elected an entirely white Committee to Study Integration. This delayed the segregation of schools until 1960, when the federal government forced schools to comply.

However, discrimination and racism still exists in many ways today. Even after forced desegregation, many districts imposed strict requirements which prohibited Black and Hispanic students from attending white schools. Districts argued that because Hispanic and Black students went to integrated schools together, they were complying with the order. In the 1970s and 1980s, these practices continued. Multiple class action lawsuits were filed across the state, noting the vastly underfunded schools which were almost entirely attended by Black and Hispanic youth. Today, through gerrymandered districts and decades of “white flight”, there is still a massive income disparity between predominately white school districts and predominantly Black/Hispanic school districts.

Meanwhile, the federal government was taking more control over the nation’s school curriculum and policies. Through the 1930s and 1940s, the US military had to reject many draftees to World War II due to “educational disabilities.” However, the main call to action was in the 1960s Cold War period, when the Soviet Union beat the United States into space with the launch of Sputnik I. US officials pointed to the public school curriculum, especially the lackluster math and science program, as the problem. As a result, Texas faced more and more pressure from the federal government to improve its schools.

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education delivered its report, A Nation at Risk, which pointed to the disastrous state of US schooling. It stated, “‘[i]f we an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.’” Further, it recognized the importance of universal quality schooling for all, regardless of race, class, or economic status.

This quickly led to accreditation and performance standards for districts, teachers, and students. Similar reports were released in 2001 with the No Child Left Behind Act, and in 2009 with Race to the Top. Each of these programs found that students were behind internationally in math and reading scores, and pointed to the need to close the “achievement gap.”

To keep up with federal demands, Texas mirrored many of the accountability practices of other states. In 1970, the Texas Education Agency mandated a minimum of 180 days in the classroom. In 1979, Texas started implementing their first standardized tests (The Texas Assessment of Basic Skills (TABS)). Additional testing was added in 1984 (the Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills (TEAMS)) and 1990 (The Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS). 

Further in 1997, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) became the state’s curriculum standards. In recent years, Texas tests have been remade and reformed, changing due to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. In 2003, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) replaced the TAAS. And in 2011, The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) replaced the aforementioned TAKS.

Texas is in many ways responsible for the larging testing culture of the United States. President George W. Bush, who served as governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000, then as president from 2001-2009, promoted No Child Left Behind based on his success with “the Texas Miracle.” The Texas Miracle is a phrase used to describe a state policy that began testing students each year, rewarding districts that did well and reprimanding schools that did not. And as a result, test scores went up. Multiple critics, including Walt Haney of Boston College and Stephen Klein of the Rand Corporation, have signalled that these claims were oversimplified and that further study was needed. However, Congress passed No Child Left Behind, which instituted a similar standardized testing policy across the United States, regardless.

Texas system diagram

Diagram_US_Texas-1

Examinations

Texas students are required to complete many exams, which vary by school. All schools must complete the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) from grades 3-12. The STAAR Alternate 2 is available for students with special education services. Further, The Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) and TELPAS Alternate assess students who are learning English as a second language.

Many schools supplement these tests with performance indicators which are operated by independent companies, such as Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready suite, NWEA’s MAP tests, or Renaissance’s STAR exams. Each of these tests are recommended to be administered three times a year. 

Further, most high school students take the SAT and ACT, two nationally recognized standardized tests used for college admissions. The SAT (originally the Scholastic Aptitude Test) and ACT (originally American College Testing) are meant to measure various skills deemed necessary for college. Both tests were rebranded to not be acronyms and not stand for anything – attempting to lessen the perception that these tests measured any specific concept. These tests are not mandatory in the state of Texas.

STAAR grade 3*compulsory

students have 3 attempts to pass; pass percentages change year to year, usually between 25-35%.
reading & mathematics
STAAR grade 4
compulsory
reading & mathematics
STAAR grade 5compulsory

students have 3 attempts to pass; pass percentages change year to year, usually between 25-35%..
reading, mathematics, & science
STAAR grade 6compulsory
reading & mathematics
STAAR grade 7compulsory
reading & mathematics
STAAR grade 8compulsory

students have 3 attempts to pass; pass percentages change year to year, usually between 25-35%.
reading, mathematics, science & social studies
STAAR high school end-of-course: English Icompulsory

pass percentages change year to year
**required for graduation
English
STAAR high school end-of-course: English IIcompulsory

pass percentages change year to year

**required for graduation
English
STAAR high school end-of-course: algebra Icompulsory

pass percentages change year to year

**required for graduation
mathematics
STAAR high school end-of-course: biologycompulsory

pass percentages change year to year

**required for graduation
science
STAAR high school end-of-course: US historycompulsory

pass percentages change year to year

**required for graduation
social studies
i-Ready, MAP, or STAR performance indicators; 2-3 times a year depending on school(depending on school) compulsory

exam scores do not impact student progress
varies per year and test; all test reading & mathematics
SAT and/or ACTrecommended for colleges and universitiesSAT: reading, writing, mathematics, essay (optional)

ACT: english, reading, mathematics, science, writing (optional)

*STAAR tests are factored in Texas School Report Card data, a yearly released publication that factors how well the school is operating. If a school suffers from low test scores, they will face state penalties which result in increased oversight, state takeover, or shutdown.

**Alternative pathways exist to graduation for high school students who fail these exams. Alternatives include presenting to a graduation committee, enrolling in the US military, or aging out of the school process (22 years old).

Legal grounds for schools

There are many laws establishing school policy across the federal and state level. All states in the US must establish free public schools within their state constitution. Under Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution, it states, “SUPPORT AND MAINTENANCE OF SYSTEM OF PUBLIC FREE SCHOOLS.  A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.” Generally, Texas must supply all students with what is considered a quality education, including transportation, basic school resources, trained teachers, and regulated class sizes.

Other major laws governing US schools include:

  • Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which provides federal aid to states which meet requirements on standards and assessments, accountability systems, evaluations, and support structures. This is how the federal government maintains a standardized system across each state.
  • Disability Discrimination (Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990), Title IX (Education Amendments of 1972), & Race and National Origin Discrimination (Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964), which offer protections to children of all backgrounds within the education system.
  • Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects student and family data, such as photographs, personal information, and individual school performance.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides free services for children with disabilities.
  • Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA), which strengthens programs aimed at career-readiness (such as career technical schools).
  • Rehabilitation Act of 1973, including amendments, which prohibits discrimination on basis of disability in programs.

In addition, Texas employs specific curriculum for graduation through the 2013 House Bill 5: Foundation High School Program, which was expanded upon in 2018 through Senate Bill 30: Community Safety Education Act.

There are no state requirements for instructional time. Each district sets their own requirements. The following classes must be offered:

education levelrequired coursessupplementary
K-5 (age 5-11)

*Moving on to the next grade level is determined by state assessments at grades 3 and 5.

*Parents have the option to have their child repeat a grade level at their discretion.
– English language arts & reading
– mathematics
– science
– social studies
– fine arts, art, music, and theater
– health
– physical education
– technology applications
– languages other than English (to the extent possible)
6-8 (age 11-14)

*Moving on to the next grade level is determined by state assessments at grade 8.

*Parents have the option to have their child repeat a grade level at their discretion.
– English language arts & reading
– mathematics
– science
– social studies
– 3 of the following: fine arts, art, music, and theater
– health
– physical education
– technology applications
languages other than English (to the extent possible)
9-12 (age 14-18)

*A total of 22 credits must be earned in high school. Additional endorsements can be earned for distinguished levels of achievement. These include:

– completing a series of courses specific to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math)
– completing a series of courses specific to business and industry
– completing a series of courses specific to public services
-completing a series of courses specific to arts and humanities
– completing a series of courses specific to multidisciplinary studies
– four credits in English I, II, III, and an advanced course
– three credits in algebra 1, geometry, and an advanced course
– three credits in biology, physical science or an advanced course, and an additional advanced course
– three credits in US history, government (half credit), economics (half credit), and world history or world geography
– one credit in physical education
– two credits in the same language OR two credits in computer scienceone credit in fine arts
– proficiency in speech skillsfive credits in electives
– languages other than English (to the extent possible)
– most schools offer pathways to a Career and Technical Education (CTE) program, a hands-on program designed for career readiness; this occurs at the school or at a magnet school.

Training skills

The Commission for a College Ready Texas was established in 2007 to design a specific set of standards – the College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) – to showcase the skills and knowledge a student must have to be college-ready. These standards are implemented in addition to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum.

CCRS provides additional guidance in the four core disciplinary subject areas: English, mathematics, science, and social studies for educators to guide students toward more real world approaches. This involves creating lessons that focus on real world situations, solving problems that people would actually face in any given career track. In addition, these standards are recognized as being necessary for completing entry-level courses at a postsecondary institution in Texas.

Further, CCRS establishes standards for cross-disciplinary thinking. These standards focus on 21st century skills and workplace development expectations that require multidisciplinary thinking and problem solving.

The establishment of these standards is an indicator of the growing push toward hands-on, real world curriculum. A growing movement of business leaders have called for this curriculum, informed by the need for well-trained employees, where students learn about practical, translatable skills. Texas, like most US schools, is pushing for a quality STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) curriculum and CTE (career technical education) pathways. Examples include learning about bioscience, nursing, or graphic design in high school. Ample grant funding is available for schools to implement more experiential learning focused on college and workforce readiness.

Statistics

According to the Texas Education Agency, Texas had 5,371,586 students enrolled in public schools during the 2020-2021 school year, which is 18.4% of the overall population. According to the education agency there were:

  • 20,991 in early education (age 3-4)
  • 197,093 pre-kindergarteners (age 4-5)
  • 361,349 kindergarteners (age 5)
  • 2,338,030 primary school students (grades 1-6, age 6-11)
  • 843,852 middle school students (grades 7-8, age 12-14)
  • 1,610,271 high school students (grades 9-12, age 14-18)

As of 2013, there are 8,731 schools in 1,254 school districts in Texas.

There are 184 state-authorized charter schools and 835 state-authorized charter school campuses serving 365,930 students. 

As of 2019: 

  • 50.6% of Texas students were deemed at-risk of dropping out of school
  • 90% of students received their high school diploma on time or earlier
  • 20.6% of students were enrolled in bilingual or English learning programs
  • 52.8% of students identify as Hispanic
  • 27% of students identify as white
  • 12.6% of students identify as African American
  • 4.6% of students identify as Asian
  • 2.5% of students identify as multiracial
  • .4% of students identify as American Indian
  • .2% of students identify as Pacific Islander

In the 2018-2019 school year, 1.9% of students dropped out in grades 9-12.

International research

US schools rarely engage in standardized international assessments such as the PISA. Texas does not require any international standardized testing. Only four states in the US participate in the PISA: Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, in addition to its territory, Puerto Rico.

Across these 4 states and Puerto Rico, the United States’ PISA scores showed the following results:

  • reading: 505
  • mathematics literacy: 478
  • science literacy: 502
  • financial literacy: 506

The United States is involved with the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. Starting in 1995, the US began testing with the International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). This data is collected across a small selection of US schools at grades 4 and 8 every 4 years. And in 2001, the US began administering the PIRLS test every 5 years. In addition, the US piloted the International Early Learning Study (IELS) in 2018, continuing in 2023. 

The US has also engaged in various educational survey data collection, including:

  • The International Computer and Information Literacy Study
  • The Teaching and Learning International Survey
  • And the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies

US schools during COVID

93% of US schools temporarily closed and opened remotely for a period of time, starting in March 2020. Depending on a school’s resources, some schools switched to a computer-driven model such as through Zoom or Google Meet, or simply sent out collections of worksheets and materials to be done at home, which were then returned to the school.

Through the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school year, schools have fluctuated through in-person, hybrid, and all-remote learning. As schools see rising COVID case numbers, it is common for schools to face drastic staff shortages, causing schools to shut down or go remote. This is complicated by Texas’ policy regarding mask mandates. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has banned schools from requiring masks, which has been challenged by the federal government but not overturned. Some school districts have ignored Abbott’s executive order and continue to require masks.

Following the shift to remote, school leaders have become focused on “learning loss”, highlighting the academic losses due to COVID-19 disruptions. In 2020, McKinsey & Company released a widely shared report, highlighting learning loss, which has had many schools double down on accurate academic measurement and increased accountability. Likewise, the US Department of Education has announced Operation Reverse the Loss, which calls for data collection and action toward counteracting learning loss in US schools. All states must devote a certain percentage of their COVID-19 emergency funding toward academic setbacks. In addition, schools are using a percentage of their COVID-19 emergency funding to address mental health and wellbeing.

Social dialogue around school issues

School boards across the United States have faced increased political pressure as the public debates issues of racial justice, mask mandates, COVID-19 policies, and more. 

After multiple deaths of Black individuals at the hands of police, and specifically in 2020 after the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked an international call to justice on inequality in the United States. In 2021, these conversations surrounding racial justice have led to various culture-centric school board decisions to restrict and ban materials related to systemic racism, critical race theory (CRT), LGTBQIA+ rights, abortion, sex and sexuality, and more.

For instance, a Black high school principal in the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District was placed on paid leave and may not have his contract renewed due to comments in 2020, such as stating, “[e]ducation is the key to stomping out ignorance, hate, and systemic racism…It’s a necessary conduit to get ‘liberty and justice for all.’” And schools in Fort Worth are facing challenges from the Texas House Committee on over 800 books in school libraries, including The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, a book about systemic racism in the United States, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a reflection on being Black in the United States.

In 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed House Bill 3979, which changes how teachers can talk about current events and America’s history of racism in the classroom. This bill is aimed at banning the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in K-12 public schools. CRT is the study of how race and racism have impacted various systems in the United States. Although the bill mandates that the history of white supremacy is taught, it forces educators to give deference to both sides on current events. For example, a school administrator was criticized for suggesting that educators have books that also offer an “opposing” view of the Holocaust. Although this was later walked back by school officials, this movement is still being showcased across the country, with a school board in Tennessee in January, 2022 banning the Holocaust graphic novel, Maus. There have been a wave of book “reviews”, leading to hundreds of books being removed from school libraries in Texas.

This is all in addition to concerns of COVID-19 and mask mandates which have gone hand-in-hand with debates on CRT and “divisive concepts.” Lawmakers have argued that mask mandates restrict citizens’ freedoms, and as previously mentioned, a mask mandate ban was signed by Governor Greg Abbott. This is amid record-high COVID-19 cases across Texas schools.

In addition, the increased workload and health risks of COVID-19 has led to teacher walkouts, strikes, and calls for change. Texas (and all of the United States) face extreme teacher shortages, often not having enough substitutes for a given day. This shortage is an existential threat for a quality education in the United States, as even before COVID there have been sharp declines in new teacher enrollment. Due to low pay, long working hours, increased political criticism, calls for transparency laws, and lack of incentives, as well as well-paying charter school alternatives, public schools in the United States are struggling to recruit new teachers.

Texas also faces fierce public debate on how its school districts are funded. Across Texas, funding of local schools is determined by local property taxes. As a result, schools in upper-income areas attract higher paid (and qualified) teachers and maintain better infrastructure. In 1993, Texas adopted the Recapture or “Robin Hood” policy, which funds a percentage of lower income district’s finances with higher income district’s property taxes. However, in recent years the Texas Congress as well as Governor’s office have signalled wanting to end the “Robin Hood” policy, calling it unconstitutional as the policy siphons over $3 billion from wealthy districts. Meanwhile, Texas still faces some of the highest education funding gaps in the country with some areas differing in hundreds of millions of dollars from adjacent districts.

This is further complicated by the growth of public charter schools, which are private and nonprofit entities who provide schooling in lieu of the traditional public district. These publicly funded charters have been the topic of much debate, as they tend to boast higher graduation rates and better test scores than traditional districts, but also have faced a plethora of school scandals regarding the treatment of students, employees, and families. A consistent debate occurs on why public funds are going toward charter networks as opposed to substantially funding the existing public schools.

Researched by: Chris McNutt & Thomas White

Citations

Public Education Comes of Age. Preuss, Gene B. In Twentieth-century Texas: A Social and Cultural History. Edited by Storey, John W. & Kelley, Mary L. 2008.

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