Monday, April 21, 2008

NCLB & the Texas Miracle

(News-Herald, January 2004) Okay, if it seems sometimes that I’m a little cynical about the current wave of education reforms, let me tell you a story.

One of the selling points of “No Child Left Standing” (or “Behind” or “In Public School” or whatever we’re calling it these days) was that it was a national version of highly successful reforms already proven in Texas. In 2000, Bush cheered the “Texas Educational Miracle.”

Since then, word has slowly been emerging that the miracle is slightly less miraculous than when your Uncle Floyd pulled a nickel out of your ear. But it does provide a good view of how this drive for “accountability” plays out in the field.

In Houston in February of this year, an assistant principal in Houston was surprised to discover that his school had a 0% drop-out rate, even though a freshman class of 1000 had become a senior class of 300.

There were a variety of accounting techniques used to achieve this effect (remember, this is Texas, home of Enron, that we’re talking about). Students were reportedly encouraged to take a hike; an independent audit of the school system found that roughly 50% of the students who did not graduate should have been labeled dropouts, but were not (“Um, Johnny just moved out of the district, as far as we know…”). That was about 2,300 students.

The drive behind all this was, of course, the push to make good numbers. The superintendent put the principals back to single-year contracts, and they could be terminated “without cause.” Those principals were given mandates: “The district-wide dropout rate will decrease from 1.5 percent to 1.3 percent.” In other words, their job was not to educate students, but to “make their numbers.”

When that same Houston superintendent took over, the success rate for the state’s tenth grade math test in one school was a measly 26%. The year he left, the rate was 99%.

How do we accomplish such a thing? It’s remarkably simple, actually. Houston’s technique was to keep low ability students in the ninth grade; after two or more years in ninth grade, they were bumped directly to twelfth grade. So the worst students in Houston simply never took the assessment test. In the year of the miraculous 99% success rate, there were 1,160 students in ninth grade and 281 in tenth grade.

Houston schools were also under pressure to keep their safety numbers in line to avoid being labeled “persistently dangerous,” another tag that triggers vouchers and loss of funds under the new rules of the game.

How do you keep those numbers down? Schools stopped reporting rapes, stabbings, and assaults as “school crimes,” because those students were arrested by the police and sentenced by the courts, not suspended by the school.

Over a four year period, the in-house police force recorded 3,091 assaults. In its report to the state capital, the school district reported 761 of those.

The Houston system was supposed to be the flagship school district for the country, and it certainly provides a fine example of how the sort of corporate malfeasance that has shot holes in the private sector can be effectively applied to school systems.

You tell your underlings that you will reward them for the appearance of success and crush them for the appearance of failure. It would probably be a better world if lots of people stood up to that sort of bullying, but when a bully holds a gun to your head and demands that you act like a supporter of Jefferson Davis—well, most of us will start whistling Dixie.

A survey of teachers by (take a deep breath) the National Board of Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston College (phew) found that in states that use high stakes testing (like, say, the PSSA tests in Pennsylvania) 70% of teachers said that the test leads some teachers in their school to teach in ways that contradict their ideas of good teaching. I imagine that problem, of being pushed to do what you know is wrong in your job, is even worse for principals.

Now, none of what I’ve talked about this week is arcane or secret knowledge—it’s all taken from published reports in reputable papers like The New York Times. But my story is not quite over.

Who was this superintendent who led Houston schools through an exercise in cooking the books in order to give the appearance of compliance with the law, while actually avoiding it? And did anything happen to him when it was discovered that he had been thumbing his nose at the regulations?

He’s doing fine. He’s Rod Paige, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education. This would be the part where I become cynical about government reform.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read your posted column and find the information on Rod Paige irritating but I am not surprised. Yesterday's news reported that the top 5 best performers on the market were oil companies. Today Bush demanded that the failing auto industry make cars more efficient. I believe gas prices should be regulated like a utility. Why is it that the day after a barrel of oil increases gas increases? That gas was made with oil bought months ago!

Bush could not leave office soon enough. One thing for certain whomever follows will also eventually put their nose in education.

From my Flickr