Education’s Stockdale Paradox

Essay By
Learn more about Anne Wicks.
Anne Wicks
Ann Kimball Johnson Director, Education and Opportunity
George W. Bush Institute

Most folks agree that regular medical check-ups are a good idea.  The dentist checks our teeth, the doctor measures our blood pressure, and we show up for skin checks and colonoscopies.  Consistent check-ups give us actionable information – and help us know where to intervene if needed. 

Regularly measuring student performance is the same idea.  Annual state exams are consistent check-ups that help us understand what students know and can do.  Policymakers and leaders use that information to direct resources and interventions designed to help all Texas kids learn and succeed.  

Annual tests in reading and math along with regular check-ups on science and social studies let educators know whether students are on track to be ready for adult life. Because every student in Texas takes the same exam, we can compare districts and schools to each other.  

Without state assessments, student progress is measured only in averages and anecdotes.  Inequities are hidden. 

With assessments, we have clarity and transparency for families and decision makers.  

Texas’ academic accountability system allows the state to hold school districts accountable for how well they prepare their students for life after high school.  It also allows the state to intervene when a school system is chronically unable to academically equip students. 

Without the information from the apples-to-apples comparison from the accountability system, Texas parents, students, and taxpayers would have no objective information on how their school district or campus is performing.  

Data helped Texas officials make smart policy before. In the 1970s, data showed trends similar to those Texas is seeing today: students were not being prepared for life after high school. A study in the mid-1970s found that two-thirds of Texans with Spanish surnames were so academically unprepared that they were unable to function in society.  

SAT scores were in decline across demographic groups, with the average national score falling over 40 points from 1966 to 1980 on the SAT reading section, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Starting in the mid-1980s, Texas led the way nationally on two key bipartisan efforts to improve student outcomes: standards-based reform and student data disaggregated by demographics including race, gender, and income.  

Texas began establishing clear standards for what students should learn in each grade (referred to now as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS), then developed a statewide test to determine whether students learned the material associated with that grade standard.  

For the first time, students were measured against specific benchmarks, and that performance was reported to the state. Expectations were consistent, transparent, and rigorous for all students – a revolutionary concept.  

Test results were reported to the state and broken into groups by race, gender, and income. By the early 1990s, if a school district reported unacceptably and persistently low results, the state took action to improve the academic conditions of that school. These efforts resulted in rapid improvements in student outcomes, as outlined in a new report by the George W. Bush Institute and Texas 2036.  

We need Texas students to be ready for adult life.  We want them to have choices about their futures – and we want them to be able to support themselves and their families.   

It should enrage us that 60% of young Texans are not on grade level in math and 48% are not reading at grade level.  We cannot ignore that many students are being set up to fail as adults.  

Today’s state decision makers should consider the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral James Stockdale, a naval officer and prisoner of war in Vietnam, survived years of torture by focusing on two things:  keeping faith that he would be free again while also acknowledging the reality of his dire circumstances.   

As he explained in his own words “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” 

Texas must commit to measuring student and district performance.  We need the facts.  Good policy that serves kids is not possible without it.   

Anne Wicks is the Ann Kimball Johnson Director of Education and Opportunity at the George W. Bush Institute.