In the modest lakeside community of Mathis, Texas, cattle and cotton rule. It’s a small, poor, largely Hispanic town in the flatlands about 30 miles from Corpus Christi. Yet at Mathis High School, with a student body of just over 500, local teenagers are learning to think big. Thanks to Superintendent of Schools Maria Rodriguez-Casas, they are taking classes in Chinese, mingling with Chinese exchange students, and traveling far from their small community.
I met Rodriguez-Casas in Corpus Christi, where I traveled last week as a guest of the World Affairs Council of South Texas to talk about the WQ
’s Autumn cover cluster, “America’s Schools: Four Big Questions
.” An editor’s knowledge is usually a mile wide and an inch deep, so humility was in order, but happily my Texas visit reinforced my argument for a more optimistic take on the future of America’s schools.
Rodriguez-Casas is vibrant testimony to one of the few things we can say with certainty about education: exceptional leaders and teachers can make a huge difference. She’s a hurricane of passion and conviction, the child of migrant laborers whose life was changed, she told me, when a counselor took her and other teenagers to a “fancy” restaurant unlike any they’d ever experienced—at a Holiday Inn—to give them a glimpse of the wider world. Now she’s trying to do the same thing for the children of Mathis (and to be clear, the Mathis schools are still struggling).
But exceptional educators like Rodriguez-Casas are rare, and we can’t count on them alone to strengthen the schools. That’s why testing, new curricula, and other innovations are so important. At Corpus Christi’s Ray High School, I met dozens of lively students enrolled in the school’s relatively new International Baccalaureate
program, a demanding standardized and internationally oriented curriculum that a growing number of U.S. schools are adopting.
It’s been nearly 30 years since the Reagan administration’s A Nation at Risk
report made Americans start thinking seriously about school reform. That’s a long time, but big changes—tax reform, national health insurance—usually take decades to achieve. And the sprawling, decentralized character of America’s school system makes a change in direction even harder to achieve. But it also opens the door to local experiments and innovations that ought to give us faith in the future.