How to Measure Educational Success—A Former House Education Leader Speaks Out

Former House Public Education Committee chair Paul Sadler was a pivotal figure from 1993 through 2001 in a whole series of Texas legislative efforts that drove increases in school funding and improvements in state education policy. It’s worth noting what he has to say about some questionable “reform” notions that have gained currency of late.

In a keynote address at a Texas Center for Education Policy conference in Austin yesterday, Sadler strongly criticized the current policy assumption that all students should take the same sequence of high-level math and science courses. This one-size-fits-all approach to college and career readiness does not fit the varied needs or interests of many of our students, he maintained, and forcing all students into this mold is “devastating and destructive.” Success in life beyond school should be the ultimate measure of our students’ success, he said, and it’s wrong to think that there’s only one pathway to success, hinging on higher-level math skills.

Sadler also derided the overwhelming emphasis on standardized testing that has become the hallmark of our school system. He said the craze for testing is an institutional version of the Peter Principle—just as individuals in many organizations tend to be promoted to the point where they can no longer competently handle the work, so in this case testing has been elevated to a level where it no longer “competently” performs its intended function. Sadler noted that back in the 1990s he and other legislators envisioned the use of testing primarily to diagnose where students were falling short and to allow educators to adjust instruction quickly to deal with the identified shortcomings. But that aim of guiding instruction has been eclipsed as the pass rate on the test has become the be-all, end-all of education.

The former legislator also challenged the often-heard claim that schools “should be run like a business.” Sadler said he has worked in the business world as well as in law and politics, and he had found the business sector often proved to be the least competent and least efficient of all, focused more on what is convenient and cheap than on what is beneficial. This “reform du jour” may be fashionable but it is not the appropriate model for public education, he contended.

Nobody has all the answers, Sadler said, but experience has taught us the merits of another model, with familiar elements: dealing with the disadvantages children bring with them to school; providing them with caring, proficient teachers in the classroom; having strong, effective principals who can lead and inspire; developing local school boards that have the capacity and leeway to meet local needs; and making it the state’s role to build a framework of resources to support this work carried out in our classrooms, schools, and communities.