Our goal? Make sure no Texas child is left behind

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Mark G. Yudof
Austin American-Statesman
November 23, 2004

As Rick Cherwitz noted in his essay, this series on "academic engagement" was conceived as a discussion about fashioning a "synergy between the university and its community partners to transform lives for the benefit of society." Nowhere is that imperative more obvious than in our shared interest in the public schools.

Since the National Commission on Excellence in Education's groundbreaking 1983 report, "A Nation at Risk," policy-makers have been preoccupied with how to improve public education. After all, the commission presented the situation in bleak terms: "For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents."

Over the years, we have seen many attempts to reform and improve the public schools, some more successful than others. Most notably, the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, is a broad effort to set standards and improve teaching methods. It seeks to foster empirically verified pedagogies, assessing with scientific rigor the impact of initiatives on students. It funds many of the tools we need to uncover the reasons that our students do not thrive in the classroom. It encourages research and development about childhood learning at the earliest ages -- the time when intervention should be the most helpful.

The act reflects continuing national concern that our children are not getting the world-class education required for their economic and social success and that of the nation.

We have cause to be concerned. A recent international study assessed the literacy levels of 15-year-old students from 41 countries in reading, science and mathematics. U.S. students ranked no higher than 15th.

Texas ranks 50th among the states in the percentage of the adult population with high school diplomas. We are 27th in college enrollments. The National Assessment of Education Progress, often called the nation's report card, ranked the achievement of 8th-graders in reading, writing and mathematics. By even the most favorable reading of the numbers, Texas ranked 12th in writing, 14th in reading and 26th in mathematics.

These rankings would not be good news anywhere. For a state with a young, rapidly growing population and aspirations of greater economic leadership, they are potentially devastating.

At the University of Texas System and its 15 campuses, we view public schools from the vantage point of end users. We are charged with offering the sons and daughters of Texas a world-class education that equips them for personal success and nurtures them as future leaders. Fulfilling that charge is made immeasurably more difficult when high school graduates do not come to us with the skills to take advantage of what our institutions have to offer. For us, it is an issue of keeping the pipeline from the public schools to the public university filled with students ready to do outstanding work.

We have an obligation to be active participants in developing a continuum of education from pre-kindergarten to graduate and professional studies that is responsive to the needs of Texas and our students. No Child Left Behind has allowed us to participate in several research and development projects designed to help Texas students master early literacy skills. Among these are: the Reading First initiative, the Online Teacher Academies (for kindergarten through 4th grade teachers), and the Center for Improving the Readiness of Children for Learning and Education (CIRCLE).

To further underscore and enhance our commitment to elementary and secondary education, we recently created the Institute for Public School Initiatives. The institute will allow us to take the outstanding research being done on our academic campuses and put it into action.

The institute's work will address the critical challenges of public education, including student performance, high school graduation rates, reading proficiency and college attendance rates. Additionally, it will provide service directly to students and teachers and launch pilot programs. The idea is not to interfere with the work of local schools, but to collaborate with them in offering the best services, training and consultation that we can provide.

The institute is only part of a much larger effort being conducted by many private and public institutions in Texas, all of them hoping to make the dire warnings of "A Nation at Risk" nothing more than an historical curiosity. The institute is a new effort, but we believe it is a good beginning -- one that can help our schools work smarter.

Horace Mann described education as "the great balance-wheel of the social machinery." We at the UT System are putting our shoulder to that wheel and working toward the day when the Texas public schools will be a model for the nation and a worthy competitor for elementary and secondary education anywhere in the world.


Mark G. Yudof is a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the former president of the University of California, former chancellor of The University of Texas System, and former president of the University of Minnesota.