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A Texas Mirage — page 2 of 3
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"As a result, the department paid for work that most likely did not reach its intended audience and paid for deliverables that were never received."

U.S. Dept. of Education Inspector General

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A school that had boasted a "zero" dropout rate had only 300 left for senior year after starting with 1,000 freshmen.

 



piece of art stating: No child left behind is not inking under its own weight-it's going down because it's on a false foundation. piece of art stating: No child left behind is not inking under its own weight-it's going down because it's on a false foundation. piece of art stating: No child left behind is not inking under its own weight-it's going down because it's on a false foundation. piece of art stating: No child left behind is not inking under its own weight-it's going down because it's on a false foundation. piece of art stating: No child left behind is not inking under its own weight-it's going down because it's on a false foundation.
piece of art stating: No child left behind is not inking under its own weight-it's going down because it's on a false foundation. piece of art stating: No child left behind is not inking under its own weight-it's going down because it's on a false foundation. piece of art stating: No child left behind is not inking under its own weight-it's going down because it's on a false foundation. piece of art stating: No child left behind is not inking under its own weight-it's going down because it's on a false foundation. piece of art stating: No child left behind is not inking under its own weight-it's going down because it's on a false foundation.


By Jim Trelease, © 2005, 2007

(If any of the links below are outdated, try the WayBackMachine web site.)

"Mirage" — page 2 of 3

"R"od Paige's Houston achievements and business style didn't go unnoticed by then-governor George W. Bush. Indeed, when Gov. Bush was looking for a pulpit from which to preach his education policy in 1994, he chose Paige's Wesley Elementary in Houston's Acres Homes community, one of three schools there with heavy low-income enrollment but good scores. The scores were unusual enough to warrant several investigations but none showed enough evidence of coordinated cheating and Wesley became the conservatives' education model, proving that poverty and lack of funding were not obstacles if the right management was in place. But don't cash that Wesley check yet. It might not be worth the paper it's printed on. Keep reading.

Furthering the Paige legacy were record performances in student attendance. In his last year as superintendent, HISD boasted a 1 percent dropout rate, unheard of in urban America, and good enough to earn him the role of U.S. Secretary of Education and choir master for No Child Left Behind. The only problem was that before his four-year tenure in Washington ended, the thread in the "emperor's clothes" began to unravel and finally collapse around his knees as he tried to slip out of the Beltway while Bush began his second term with a new Secretary of Education.

Portraying teachers as 'terrorists'

But all that would come after he'd launched into a major promotion of the signature program of Bush's first term, No Child Left Behind. The Education Secretary is normally the "point man" for presidents when it comes to education bills, lobbying Congress, the media, and the American people for passage. Paige turned out to be a major liability in this area, with neither the quickness nor depth of predecessors like Bill Bennett, Lamar Alexander, and Dick Riley.

Paige

Dr. Rod Paige

What Paige ended up doing was offending more people than he impressed, getting into a cat-fight with the National Education Association (NEA) by likening them to both Southern governors blocking the integration doorway and "terrorists" because they refused to offer wholesale endorsements of NCLB. The NEA response was so embarrassing to the administration that he was forced to apologize, but not before it provoked questions about his management style and the clarity of his thinking.

Meanwhile, his business style, as well as his experiences in Houston, had taught him that a good public relations team could overcome a wealth of imperfections in a product — at least for a while. After all, didn't Wesley's scores bring both George W. Bush and Oprah Winfrey to Houston?

As for strategies, there was little need to convince the country's upper-class of the need to reform the schools since most of them either had their children in elite private schools or high achieving suburban schools. It was the lower echelons, the people whose children were not achieving, families that most likely would be affected by school choice and charter schools. These were the people who needed convincing. But how to reach them with the administration's message if they weren't regular viewers of C-SPAN?

rue, it's always difficult to get the "liberal" media to give a conservative agenda some air time but producers, liberal or otherwise, do feel compelled to balance their programs with representatives from both sides of the issue, especially if such "crossfire" adds a little heat to the program. The challenge was to find a conservative "guest" who could be relied upon to consistently push the program. To accomplish that, Paige's people quietly paid the Ketchum public relations firm $1 million in tax dollars to promote the program with minorities. A quarter of that amount would be directed to one man, Armstrong Williams, a conservative black media pundit sometimes found guesting on CNN, NBC, CNBC, and other media outlets, along with his duties as a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services.

Williams

Armstrong Williams

Armstrong's contract with the Department of Education called for him to regularly endorse NCLB throughout his media appearances, and include opportunities for Paige himself to appear in behalf of the act. Simply put, "Here's $240,000 and a contract to insure you slant your coverage our way. And by the way, let's keep it a secret." Such an arrangement in government purchasing departments is called "bribery," and in the entertainment industry it's called "payola," both of which sometimes bring jail terms.

When Williams admitted the arrangement to USA Today in January of 2005, the Ed. Department refused to admit they'd done anything illegal, even though the Government Accountability Office, Congress' nonpartisan investigative arm, had recently cited the Health and Human Services Department and the Office of National Drug Control Policy for illegally doing much the same thing with video productions masquerading as "news" segments intended to mislead viewers into thinking they were watching unbiased reporting. Paige's department knew exactly what it was doing. They went after an untrained, low-level media type who might not recognize the ethical boundary lines. They offered no "bribes" to the likes of Maureen Dowd, Ted Koppel, George Will, or Charlie Rose, veteran news people and commentators adept at decoding ethical behavior. Instead, they picked inexperienced and unsuspecting Armstrong Williams.

one debacle after another—reads like Iraq

Although a little slow on the uptake, Williams proved to be more forthright than his employers: He eventually admitted to being culpable in misleading both his audiences and his employers with the arrangement. (Tribune Company immediately fired him. and nearly all the others backed away from him as if he were a skunk in church.) It took Ketchum almost two weeks to unearth its conscience and admit its mistake, "We should have recognized the potential issues in working with a communications firm operated by a commentator," the agency said in a statement. "This work did not comply with the guidelines of our agency and our industry." Their admission came in the wake of PR industry condemnations that called the arrangement "pay for play" public relations, a reference to "payola" arrangements, something yet another government agency was investigating.

"The Department of Education spent almost a quarter of a million dollars paying off someone already on their side."

One week later, the White House found its voice in the matter, and President Bush condemned the practice in a press conference, shortly after the news broke that a second person had been named in the government "payola sweepstakes," Maggie Gallagher, a conservative marriage expert with a $21,500 contract with the Department of Health and Human Services who failed to disclose such while testifying and writing on her field.

One day later, yet another "paid source" surfaced: Mike McManus, a syndicated weekly columnist in about 30 papers and marriage expert, admitted he was paid $4,000 by Department of Health and Human Services/Children and Families. McManus also has a non-profit group, Marriage Savers, which was paid $49,000 by a group on the receiving end of Health and Human Services grants "to teach similar principles to unwed couples who are having children."

By dollar comparison, the Education Department's ethical malfunction was more than 10 times worse than that of Health and Human Services. The ineptitude was further demonstrated when it picked Williams, a self-proclaimed "principled voice for conservatives and Christian values in America's public debates" and advocate for the No Child Left Behind Act. As Andrew J. Rotherham, director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, noted in a New York Times op-ed piece:

"If Mr. Williams was a proponent of the law, then . . . the Department of Education spent almost a quarter of a million dollars paying off someone already on their side. Ethics notwithstanding, this is a stunningly inefficient use of public dollars — every bit as redundant as paying football fans to watch the Super Bowl."

Inspector General's findings on Williams case

In April 2005, the U.S. Department of Education Inspector General Jack Higgins completed his investigation of the Armstrong Williams case, a report requested by Congress's committee on education and the workforce. While no illegalities were uncovered, it cited top education department officials, including Rod Paige, for "poor management decisions" and lack of proper oversight, all of which produced the following results:

"As a result, the department paid for work that most likely did not reach its intended audience and paid for deliverables that were never received."

The investigation also mentioned that the department membership was far from unanimous in support of the contract, with two high ranking members bringing their concerns about its inappropriateness to the White House. Nothing came of that contact.

   The response of the new Secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, to the report was a promise to tighten accountability on future contracts, although department culpability was diminished by her statement to reporters: "The people who were responsible for this contract [Rod Paige] and these events are no longer here."

  ( The entire Inspector General's report can be found at: www.ed.gov/about/offices /list/oig/a19f0007.html. Additional information can be found in "Buying of News by Bush's Aides Is Ruled Illegal" by Robert Pear, The New York Times, Oct. 1, 2005.)

Paige-ing through Houston ISD

The Williams' debacle didn't occur until the waning hours of Paige's time in Washington. Long before that, Houston ISD's idyllic story began to unravel. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, Robert Kimball, had come across some incongruous attendance records at Sharpstown High School in Houston during 2003. A school that had boasted a "zero" dropout rate had only 300 left for senior year after starting with 1,000 freshmen. Not surprisingly, the majority of the missing 700 were from low-income families and had low scores, scores that would have dragged down Houston's academic scores. With them out of both the classroom and the scoring computation, Houston's scores would "miraculously" rise.

Such was the mind set created during Paige's tenure in Houston, when Kimball brought the "dropout" figures to the attention of HISD officials (after having brought numerous other issues to the attention of Paige and his successor), he was told to mind his own business. After he handed the paperwork to a local television station, HISD transferred him to an elementary school where, he told Teacher Magazine in 2004, "his pay grade was bumped down and his duties consisted mainly of putting traffic cones in front of the school, alphabetizing lunch cards, and occasionally moving furniture."

hen the story broke nationally in July 2003 and dragged Paige reluctantly back into the Houston school mix, Kimball was suing HISD for their discriminatory procedures against him (with Enron's Sherron Watkins in the same town, how could HISD be unaware of "whistleblower" laws protecting someone like Kimball?) The district and Kimball settled out of court with the latter collecting $90,000 and an honorary discharge from HISD with a neutral job reference. (Kimball now teaches full time at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, working with aspiring school principals. While six HISD employees were reprimanded, only one—a young campus computer "techie" — was hung out to dry for more than two years. Charged with entering the false data that "cleaned up" the Sharpstown dropout numbers, he was eventually vindicated after three years when the Houston district attorney dropped all charges.)

With all the possible culprits in HISD's scandal pile, the DA Houston eventually did manage to indict someone — a low ranking employee — leaving the top district administrators intact and shameless, only to have to drop all the charges against the single employee at the las minute. Here's how the Houston Chronicle reported i

Ex-HISD worker in dropout scandal cleared before trial
County admits it can't prove case, drops felony count


Harris County prosecutors dropped their case Wednesday against a former Houston ISD employee accused of falsifying Sharpstown High School's dropout records, saying new details would make proving their case difficult.

Two days before a jury was to be selected in the case against Kenneth Cuadra, Assistant District Attorney Terese Buess asked state District Judge Brock Thomas to dismiss the felony charge of tampering with a government document.

"Our analysis concluded that it would be impossible to rebut Cuadra's defenses," Buess said in a statement.

The development closes the chapter on the "Texas miracle," where six Houston Independent School District employees were reprimanded for underreporting at least 3,000 dropouts districtwide. Cuadra, the only person criminally charged in connection with the scandal, was accused of removing the names of 30 students — mostly Hispanic freshmen and sophomores — from Sharpstown High School's dropout report.

Prosecutors will not seek any other charges.

"The statute of limitations ran out last October. ... It's over," Buess said.

Cuadra, 33, could have faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted. He sold his home to help pay legal fees that have accumulated since his indictment a year ago.

"We're just so grateful," Cuadra said late Wednesday. "Mission accomplished."

—By JENNIFER RADCLIFFE, Nov. 2, 2006, Houston Chronicle

With "60 Minutes II," The New York Times, and The Washington Post on the scene, along with the state auditors from Austin, more than just the dropout figures came under scrutiny. In the wake of HISD winning the first "Broad Prize for Urban Education," investigative journalists found the district had for years skewed its accounting procedures to look cleaner and tidier than they were. For example, when reporting its campus crime figures to the state, HISD reported 761 cases, somehow missing 2,330 cases (including the rape of a disabled 17-year-old in a wheelchair). Each high school was expected to note how many of its students would attend college, and many reported as much as 100 percent. Pretty impressive, until reporters found the number should be less than 50 percent in many instances. But the 100 percent sure was good PR.

'Playing games' at HISD

Although begging off a "60 Minutes II" appearance under the excuse that he was no longer superintendent in Houston, Paige eventually announced that the Houston problems were not his responsibility but were the isolated work of a few individuals, and the whole commotion smacked of people who wanted to smear the fine attributes of No Child Left Behind. This time he was restrained enough not to liken CBS, The Washington Post, and The New York Times to Al Quaeda.

The scent in Houston's dirty laundry pile, however, was drawing increasingly close to its departed superintendent. While investigating the Houston "miracle" numbers, The New York Times' Winerip found the corporate approach established by Paige still influenced HISD. For example, his investigation showed that in January 2003, just before the dropout scandal broke, Houston Deputy Superintendent Dr. Abe Saavadra, announced the "mandates" for 2003. "The district-wide student attendance rate will increase from 94.6 percent to 95 percent. The district-wide annual dropout rate will decrease from 1.5 percent to 1.3 percent." Goals and directives had been set. Ignore them at your own peril. (In 2005, Saavadra, now the new superintendent, signed a report to the state that cited HISD's dropout in 2003 as being "0.9 percent." To paraphrase Casey Stengel's question to the totally inept 1962 Mets, "Can't anybody in HISD headquarters add or subtract?" (Stengel's original query was: "Can't anybody here play this game?" HISD, of course, knows about playing games; it was the numbers that threw them.)

As Kimball told Winerip, "They want the data to look wonderful and exciting. They don't tell you how to do it; they just say, 'Do it.' . . . You need to understand the atmosphere in Houston. People are afraid. The superintendent has frequent meetings with principals. Before they go in, the principals are really, really scared. Panicky. They have to make their numbers."

'Just fix the numbers!'

When corporations (or school districts) fail to meet the financial numbers they promise Wall Street, the stock falls and so can the CEO. The same thing often happens to superintendents and principals in school districts. Not all executives, however, are willing to go down in honest style. While Houston's miracle scores were falling apart, executives at two of the nation's largest corporations, WorldCom and HealthSouth, were being indicted left and right for financial fraud. Two years after Kimball made his remarks to The New York Times, testimony in the WorldCom and HealthSouth trials in the same week was eerily reminiscent:

In the WorldCom trial, its former controller testified that when expenses came in higher than expected, the CFO "refused to accept the fact that the numbers were what they were" and "told me that obviously we had made a drastic mistake," and to "take them back and fix them."

In the HealthSouth trial, where 15 executives had already pleaded guilty, the former CFO testified that when he reported the company's numbers would not meet Wall Street expectations, his CEO said, "We are not going to report those numbers. Go back and fix it."

SOURCE: "Former WorldCom Executive Says Ebbers Offered Apology," Associated Press, The New York Times, p. C5, Jan 28, 2005; and "Former HealthSouth Executive Denies Orders to Break Law," Associated Press, The New York Times,
p. C5, Jan. 28, 2005.


Shortly after the state auditors finished decoding HISD's records, 15 of its 16 "exemplary" high schools lost their "exemplary" ratings, and Paige's successor announced the district's dropout rate to be 30 to 40 percent, and retired a few months later.

And like HISD's accounting figures, Paige's estimates of a "few" culprits proved to be just as faulty. That came when an investigative team for The Dallas Morning News published their findings for the mandated Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). While the Bush administration was busy pointing to Texas as an "education miracle" where some students spend as much as one month of the instructional year in testing, another aspect worth emulating with NCLB, The Morning News' team was pouring over the last few years' worth of scores from 7,700 public schools. And they found miracles, students who went from either the bottom to the top, or the top to the bottom, and all between 2003 and 2004. But was it cheating?

Not that cheating only happens in the HISD classroom

Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey covers Texas issues as well as any columnist in America. His wit and cut-to-the-bone approach are a throwback to the young Mike Royko and Jimmy Breslin. Here's his introduction to a column on Houston ISD cheating at the administrative level. (The entire column is available online at www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/casey/3492258.html)

TAKS quiz: A tale of two districts

I have been able to obtain one of the essay questions from next year's 11th-grade TAKS test. I think it will quell the concerns of those who think these tests are too easy.

Here it is:

"A high-ranking official in a hypothetical school district we'll call Spring Branch was charged with lying on his résumé. He made up a university and had it issue him a master's degree.

"He pleaded guilty and was given probation.

"At a hypothetical district we'll call Houston ISD, a high-ranking official connived to hire his boss' son by requesting that a position created for him not be posted.

"The son was found to have a criminal record for felony theft, despite lying about it on his application, and therefore could not be hired.

"So the official skirted contracting regulations in order to funnel more than $60,000 in consulting contracts to the boss' son in one year. The boss denied knowing her son had been hired, though her assistant stamped the mother's signature to the contracts and Mom was copied on e-mails when payment problems arose.

"A school district investigation concluded that the state contracting laws had been violated, though no 'clear evidence of intent' had been established.

"Nobody was charged.

"Question: Why was the administrator at Spring Branch charged but nobody in Houston ISD?"

— "TAKS quiz: A tale of two districts" by Rick Casey,
Houston Chronicle, Nov. 29, 2005 www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/casey/3492258.html.

Only a few cheat; a growing number just quit

As teachers are increasingly evaluated and/or paid on the basis of student performance, a by-product of NCLB, growing numbers are balking at the setup. Since research clearly shows it is largely "home and family" conditions that determine student scores, why should the teacher be held accountable for low test scores instead of parents? The end result is a wave of disenchanted teachers — young and old — that has swollen the departure rate from faculties across America, as this New York Times excerpt explains.

With Turnover High, Schools Fight for Teachers
By SAM DILLON

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The retirement of thousands of baby boomer teachers coupled with the departure of younger teachers frustrated by the stress of working in low-performing schools is fueling a crisis in teacher turnover that is costing school districts substantial amounts of money as they scramble to fill their ranks for the fall term.

Superintendents and recruiters across the nation say the challenge of putting a qualified teacher in every classroom is heightened in subjects like math and science and is a particular struggle in high-poverty schools, where the turnover is highest. Thousands of classes in such schools have opened with substitute teachers in recent years.

Here in Guilford County, N.C., turnover had become so severe in some high-poverty schools that principals were hiring new teachers for nearly every class, every term. To staff its neediest schools before classes start on Aug. 28, recruiters have been advertising nationwide, organizing teacher fairs and offering one of the nation’s largest recruitment bonuses, $10,000 to instructors who sign up to teach Algebra I.

“We had schools where we didn’t have a single certified math teacher,” said Terry Grier, the schools superintendent. “We needed an incentive, because we couldn’t convince teachers to go to these schools without one.”

. . .

Officials in New York, which has the nation’s largest school system, said they had recruited about 5,000 new teachers by mid-August, attracting those certified in math, science and special education with a housing incentive that can include $5,000 for a down payment.

. . .

Some educators say it is the confluence of such retirements with the departure of disillusioned young teachers that is creating the challenge. In addition, higher salaries in the business world and more opportunities for women are drawing away from the field recruits who might in another era have proved to be talented teachers with strong academic backgrounds.

“The problem is not mainly with retirement,” said Thomas G. Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “Our teacher preparation system can accommodate the retirement rate. The problem is that our schools are like a bucket with holes in the bottom, and we keep pouring in teachers.”

The commission has calculated that these days nearly a third of all new teachers leave the profession after just three years, and that after five years almost half are gone — a higher turnover rate than in the past.

All the coming and going of young teachers is tremendously disruptive, especially to schools in poor neighborhoods where teacher turnover is highest and students’ needs are greatest.

— Excerpted from The New York Times, August 27, 2007, p. 1.
"With Turnover High, Schools Fight for Teachers,"
by Sam Dillon

NEXT: Investigation melts Texas 'miracle' scores arrow to second page of Mirage

Mirage pages 1   2   3

 

Footnotes and documentation on the above material, as well as an earlier in-depth look
at the these issues, can be found here at Miracle One and Miracle Two.

All essays, articles on No Child Left Behind, see More NCLB.

 

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