"Dumber" is Not a Legitimate Strategy for Texas Schools . Dumber Is Just Dumber.

Whatever you think is wrong with lazy stupid modern equivalency journalism — “This guy says chattel slavery is a bad thing, but this other guy says it’s great” — just watch out. We hacks are just the canary. The same syndrome is taking place deep in the coal mine of national culture, and Texas, now more in the thrall of the Tea Party than any other state in the union, is the epicenter for the collapse.

My example, and it’s only an example, is public education. The Tea Party witch-burners who now dominate the state Capitol have been massively dumbing down high school graduation requirements, letting kids flunk tests and still graduate, slashing required courses, even re-defining crappy grades as great grades. Their defense is basically that dumber is not really dumber but just more betterer.

Two years ago when he was still in the state Senate, our current Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick — who is a former bankrupt bar owner, right-wing radio shock jock and Texas Monthly’s favorite “Worst Legislator,” which is why the Tea Party loves him — said in a Facebook post that by slashing high school graduation requirements Texas was not by any means slashing high school graduation requirements, as its villainous liberal elite big fat liar detractors suggest.


So the equivalency journalism take on the story at the time was basically, “Critics decry dumbing down of state graduation requirements, but bankrupt bar-owner shock jock says nobody dumbed down nothing and screw you.”

See, that’s not an equivalency. Sure, this is a free country, and everybody has the same right to speak his mind, even people whose thoughts come out of their mouths before they even realize they’re having them, but not everybody has the same right to be taken seriously.

And seriously. “Not dumbing down?” That’s not even a thought from the Planet of Rational Thought. This isn’t a he-said she-said debate. The historical record is plain: With people like Patrick leading the charge in 2013, Texas slashed levels of rigor for high school students, and now the numbers are coming in.

Numbers. Not opinions. Numbers.

Former Dallas School Board President Sandy Kress, now an Austin lawyer and long a leader in the fight for more public school rigor, posted a blog item last month laying out the heartbreaking outcomes in terms of what’s happened to children: “The awful ‘trees’ we began planting 5-7 years ago,” Kress wrote, “are now producing ‘rotten fruit.’ We need to wake up and change course, fellow citizens.”

In the item, Kress pointed out that the movement to increase rigor and teacher accountability (yup, testing the kids, firing the worst teachers) had been producing real results in the mid-1990s, especially for minority students. In 2009, black eighth-graders in Texas had a 22 percent advantage over same-age kids in California on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test widely regarded in education as the gold standard for national comparison.

That’s about a two-year advantage. It means black kids taking eighth-grade math in Texas were two years ahead of their peers in California.

But just since the 2013, only two years after the Patrick dumb-it-down reforms, that advantage has already dropped by 7 points or more than half a year.

Wrong direction, Dan. Down. Bad. And, no, this is not a deal where we in the news business can say, “Some people think down is like where your shoes are, but other people say it’s more like where your hat is.” Well, we can report it that way, but we will be idiots. Eventually we will all be idiots.

Even more depressing than the state’s declining NAEP scores was this year’s disastrous plummet in Texas SAT scores,  the biggest dip in 20 years. SAT scores are down across the nation, but nobody comes close to the Texas two-step dip: since 2005, SAT math scores are down in Texas by 16 points versus a 9 point decline nationally. Reading scores on the SAT are down 23 points here since 2005 versus 13 points nationally.

As soon as those numbers came out, the great Tea Party leadership we have installed in Austin knew exactly who was at fault: minority kids. Our scores fell, they said, because we had so many more black and Hispanic kids taking the SAT.

Great. Pull the rug out from under them by slashing school rigor. Then blame them for being dumb when they take the SATs. Self-fulfilling prophecy much?

And, listen, it’s a thinly disguised racist slander. As Terrence Stutz pointed out in his piece last month in The Dallas Morning News, California’s student population has an ethnic makeup close to our own. They’re at 53.6 Hispanic, 24.6 white. We’re at 51.8 Hispanic, 29.5 white. But California SAT-takers out-performed Texans by 20 points in math and 25 in reading.

What’s especially grim for people like Kress is that we were pushing those numbers the other way for so long. Minority kids in Texas were surpassing their peers in California. Now those numbers are headed in the other direction (shoes).

And why might that be? For starters, two years ago Patrick led a successful campaign to drop algebra II and advanced science from requirements for a high school diploma. Why on Earth in this day and age would we make it easier instead of harder to get a high school diploma?

What is the condition in the world, the reality we perceive out there in the sphere of international competition that would encourage us to we require students to know less, not more? In his Facebook post, Patrick gave this answer: “We are creating flexibility so a student can follow their passion and interest.”

I hate to be like this. Really I do. I never do this. It’s so school marmy and just makes people hate me, I know. But if I were grading Senator Patrick’s Facebook post, I would have to give him points off for improper agreement of the subject of the prepositional phrase and the possessive adjective. It should read, so a student can follow his or her passion and interest or so students can follow their passion and interest (which I would rather see, passions and interests).

If I don’t like to be picky, why am I doing it now? Oh, I guess if you get yourself elected the second most or most powerful official in the state according to some and you put yourself out front on education issues, then I think I have a right to expect you either to be able to compose a grammatical sentence yourself or at least be smart enough to hire somebody else to write for you.

The dumbing down of the course requirements was not enough. In fact, even reducing the number of end-of-year tests that had to be passed from 15 to five was not enough. This year our Tea Party governor, Greg Abbott, signed a new law saying Texas high school graduates can now flunk two of the five remaining tests and still graduate from high school.

You see the larger direction here by now. Not just dumbing down but dumb and dumber.

After the latest dumb-down rule was passed, just in time to give diplomas to thousands of test-flunkers last spring, Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams hailed the state’s improved graduation rates.

Well, yeah. You told the ones who flunked their tests that they could graduate anyway. So, yes, more kids graduated. But …

Do you see what I meant at the top about this strange practice of equivalency in which we allow people to say stuff that’s just profoundly idiotic, and then we say, “However, others disagree.”

Yes. Others disagree. But more to the point, reality disagrees. I check often because I worry about reality. It’s under attack.

As of two years ago, we did still have some pretty good reality left. For example, in 2013 researchers at Harvard looked at the standards states use to rate their graduates as “proficient” (good enough) versus what the NAEP tests (see above) say about them. Then the researchers rated all the states of the union according to how far or below the NAEP standard their own version of proficiency was.

You get it, right? Some state says “The following eight zillion high school graduates in our state are proficient. They know what a high school graduate needs to know.” But what does the NAEP say about the same kids? Is its version of proficiency close to or far removed from the state’s version?

And now it’s time for the quiz. I’m sorry, I should have told you at the top there would be a quiz, but I was afraid you might tell me you had reading differences and go read D Magazine instead.

Where do we think the Texas of Dan Patrick ranked in the hierarchy of reality devised by the Harvard guys? Up? Like where your hat is, really good? Or down, like underneath your shoes? I’m afraid I can only give you one try on this.

You got it! Way, way down! Number 49! The 49th most dumbed down state in the union. And in fairness to Patrick I should point something out. We did sort of get screwed a little on that, because they included the District of Columbia in the list. If it hadn’t been for the District of Columbia, which was in the upper third, Texas would only have been the 48th most dumbed down state. And as any high school graduate in Texas could tell you, that was wrong because the District of Columbia is a country.

Why is this happening? That’s over my pay-grade. I cannot find a way to explain to myself the larger phenomenon. But how does it happen? It happens by this weird drift of equivalency, when we keep accepting idiocy as a legitimate position, and the center just drifts farther and farther out into space. I’m even starting to be scared. I worry that “down” will get so far down I won’t be able to feel my feet.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze