incessant quest for education miracles, there arises the
thought that government regulation could possibly be a
cure-all. Simply put, if we wave enough money around — or
threaten to withhold enough money — everyone is going
to work harder: teachers, students, administrators, even
parents. Or, as Lord Byron once wrote, "Ready
money is Aladdin's lamp."
Rub enough money in people's faces and miracles will appear
— like the genie.
And that is what appears to have happened in some school
districts: education miracles. The keyword here is "appears."
first thing to understand is that a district's scores
are immediately affected by the number of at-risk students
who take the test. The more at-riskers, the lower the
district's score. Therefore, since curriculum changes/improvements/teacher
certifications take years to evidence themselves, if
a district is under pressure from local, state, or federal
authorities to raise the scores quickly, the fastest
way is to lower the number of at-risk students taking
when Southern states began boasting about the sudden
rise in their NAEP reading and math scores in 2002,
only a few people were alert enough to look at the real reason
behind the rise: most states had raised their "exclusion"
rates — at-risk 4th- and 8th-grade students not taking
the test — by as much as 400 percent and thus raised
state scores. It looks good on paper but it's a mirage
(call it an
"Enron moment"); no overall improvement in learning
actually has taken place. ["Southern
Progress May Be Illusory," Letters, Education
Week, Mar. 6, 2002, p. 45; also: Bracey, Gerald
W., "Research: Ignorantia Affectata," Phi
Delta Kappan, Sept. 2003, pp. 87-88; Rhoades, Kathleen
and Madaus, George, "Errors
in Standardized Tests: A Systemic Problem."]
the screws' on school managers
But what happens if there are
education problems that money can't fix but the "powers-that-be"
are demanding it be fixed or else no money (as much as
$10,000 for a Houston ISD bonus), maybe even "no job"?
If you do this to frustrated, stressed-out, underpaid principals,
someone is going to cheat to get the money or keep the
job. When you unrelentingly turn the screws (raise expectations)
on managers in charge of things they can't always control,
you're setting the table for abuses: see the FBI,
2001; Enron, 2002; Arthur Anderson,
2002; and Wal-Mart
cleaning contractors, 2003.
brings us to the "Texas Education Miracle," one
of candidate George W. Bush's campaign slogans in 2000.
the "miracle" of Houston Independent School District,
an urban district brimming with impoverished Latinos but
cited again and again for its remarkable gains in everything
from student scores to a dropout rate that was the envy
of the nation. In fact, it was good enough for President
Bush to make its superintendent, Dr. Rod Paige,
his secretary of education.
With the nation's attention
diverted by Sept. 11th, the economy, and then the war in
Iraq, the "miracle"
went unchallenged until February of 2003 when an assistant
principal at Houston's Sharpstown High School couldn't
believe his eyes: a "zero" dropout rate for his
school. Even though 1000 students had
started as freshman and by senior year only 300 were
still there, no dropouts. (Left unsaid is that many of
the missing 700 were at-risk students
who might have brought down the school's scores, a fact
uncovered in a similar scandal in New
York. When the Houston assistant principal, Robert
Kimball, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and
Vietnam veteran, looked into the matter, he found a can
of worms that resulted in a state audit reducing the academic
rating on 15 of the district's 16 middle and high schools
that had been rated
addition to Sharpstown's missing 700, there were an additional 2,300 missing
HISD students who should have been labeled "dropout."
While many may drop-out, in such instances many also are
pushed-out, encouraged to leave by frustrated administrators
bent on raising the scores. Four months before the Kimball
furor, George Washington University's Mary Hatwood
Futrell and Iris C. Rotberg predicted the "dropout-pushout" in
a Commentary essay in Education Week entitled "Predictable
Casualties: Do We Risk Leaving More Children Behind?"(Education
Week, Oct. 2, 2002, pp. 48, 34.)
Houston's case, the incentive to change the academic records
was "education mandates" — the ones handed
down by the superintendent to principals. As Kimball told The
New York Times' Michael 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."
who 'make their numbers'
In establishing Houston's obsession
with "miracle" numbers, Winerip's investigation
showed that in January 2003, just before the scandal broke,
Houston's deputy superintendent 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
for those who fail to make their numbers, it is termination
time, one of many innovations championed by Dr. Paige
as superintendent here from 1994 to 2001. He got rid
of tenure for principals and mandated that they sign
one-year contracts that allowed dismissal 'without
cause' and without a hearing.
"On the other hand, for principals
who make their numbers, it is bonus time. Principals
can earn a $5,000 bonus, district administrators up
to $20,000. At Sharpstown High alone, Dr. Kimball said,
$75,000 in bonus money was issued last year, before
the fictitious numbers were exposed."
most other Houston ISD administrators have remained silent
about Kimball's charges since their careers might be
in jeopardy if they behaved otherwise. But one other
assistant principal came forward with this letter (Jan.
23, 2004) to the Houston
at dropout 'epidemic'
The Houston Independent
School District seems content to exonerate itself
from the problem of dropouts by confining it to
one campus, Sharpstown High School. In an effort
to shoot the messenger (no matter how ugly the
message actually is) the district has stooped to
ad hominem attacks and lock-step conformity.
Whatever methods [the former
Sharpstown assistant principal] Robert Kimball
used to draw attention to the issue should not
excuse the fact that there is a dropout epidemic
in Houston schools. Three high schools reported
zero dropouts and the Texas Education Agency cited
others for submitting inaccurate reports.
Did these other schools willfully
submit false information? We may never know the
truth because the district is choosing not to investigate
those schools with a fine-toothed comb the way
it did Sharpstown.
As a former administrator at
Sharpstown High School, I realize that the principal
did a poor job explaining the initial dropout issue.
What should have occurred was
the building principal assuming responsibility
and initiating an action plan to correct the problem,
find out who was at fault and draw up a prevention
Instead, the principal, area
superintendent and their minions tried to paint
certain individuals as villains. This was poor
I was reprimanded in this debacle
"using poor administrative judgment" in
signing a form that my principal asked me to sign.
Indeed, the reprimand even said I was not "responsible
for dropout data." But because my direct supervisor
asked me to do this, I foolishly allowed my record
to be tarnished.
I refused to sign my letter
of reprimand because it merely scapegoated me and
also had several misstatements. I cannot justify
my lapse in judgment, but there are others being
asked to take the fall for administrators who are
not dealing with the reality of the problems facing
Mine is an example of the district
looking for villains and not facing up to this
[Editor's note: Monzon received
a letter of reprimand from HISD for his actions.
He subsequently applied for and was hired for
a different job in the district.]
Am I the only one asking, "Where
were the other whistle-blowers in Houston ISD?" Fifteen
schools were censured and only two educators had
the courage to stand tall in the saddle? Are Kimball and
Monzon the "lone stars" out of a thousand administrators
with a sense of smell or outrage? Well, at least they aren't completely alone.
They've got Enron's Sherron Watkins for
company in the same town. As most whistle-
blowers sadly learn, "Ready money really is Aladdin's
April, 2004, Robert Kimball filed suit
against the Houston ISD for his treatment after calling
district and public attention to the inaccuracies of the
dropout rate. Two months after Kimball filed suit, Houston
ISD settled the suit, paying Kimball $90,000 and offering
a neutral job reference in exchange for his quiet resignation.
The reaction of the Houston press can be found at:
2004, Kimball joined the faculty at the University of
Houston Clear Lake teaching graduate students headed
toward a Master of Arts degree and certification required
of Principals. In September, 2004, Teacher
an extensive profile ("After
the Whistle") on Kimball that included personal
background that explained much of his dedication to
Houston's children of poverty who were being so badly
served. The article included:
Kimball grew up desperately
poor in Nashua, New Hampshire, in the 1940s and ’50s.
His father died young, leaving his mother, who had
never learned to read or write, to raise Kimball and
his 10 siblings by herself. "We went to school
dressed in rags, and not always clean, and we were
treated accordingly," he recalls. Although his
skin has been tanned by a long spell in the Texas sun,
a faint, incongruous New England accent still tugs
at the vowels of his careful diction. Once, when he
raised his hand to answer a question, he recalls, he
was told by his 6th grade teacher, "Put your hand
down. You don’t need to ask questions. You’ll
never graduate anyway."
She was right.
Kimball dropped out in the middle of 10th grade,
trailing a string of D’s and F’s behind
him. At 16, he took a factory job in nearby Manchester,
then joined the Army. While in the military, he got
a GED, then received a BA in social science from
what is now California Polytechnic State University
in San Luis Obispo, and served two tours in Vietnam.
After retiring in 1989 as a lieutenant colonel
with a chestfull of combat medals, he started teaching
history and English in Houston, got his doctorate
in educational leadership, and became an assistant
Chronicle columnist Rick Casey also
has covered Texas education fiascos with incisive
reporting, consistently uncovering the hype and
deceit in the "education miracles." Much
of his reporting can be found online, and once
Did the new Texas schools commissioner really work
miracles in Galena Park ISD where
she served as superintendent? The governor who appointed
her says, Yes, but the numbers don't add
it and Casey's three columns prove
fiasco at HISD surely came as no surprise to Boston College
Haney who had been examining Texas test scores
since the "miracles"
were first declared earlier in the decade and was sounding
alarms years before Kimball and The New York Times.
Haney's research, "The Myth of the Texas Miracle
in Education," can be found online in the
Education Policy Analysis Archives at: http://epaa.asu.edu/epaa/v8n41/index.html.
Orel, director of the World of Opportunity Adult
Education program in Birmingham, AL, wouldn't have been
surprised by the Houston dropout stories either. After
all, it was less than three years ago that he witnessed
similar number-crunching. While the Birmingham
Business Journal was
boasting about Alabama's amazingly low dropout numbers,
Orel had already discovered the story behind the story.
He'd been running a G.E.D. program for the Birmingham
public schools when a flood of 16-year-olds began appearing
at his center, all of them carrying withdrawal slips
from Woodlawn High School. The forms cited "lack
of interest" as a reason for withdrawal. As The
New York Times reported:
were coming to us within a week or a month of leaving
high school," Mr. Orel said. "It defied
logic to me: Why were these kids coming to me if
they lacked interest?"
Mr. Orel enlisted the support of
Virginia Volker, a Birmingham school board member,
who learned that some 522 students, or 5.6 percent
of the high school student body, had similarly "withdrawn." They
were told to leave school after Feb. 15, when the state
calculates reimbursement levels based on enrollment,
but before April, when they would have taken the Stanford
Achievement Tests, and could have dragged down their
school's scores, Ms. Volker found.
"A lot of our parents are poor and
overworked, and they didn't object," Ms. Volker
A spokeswoman for the Birmingham
public schools, Michaelle Chapman, said that it was
not the prospect of poor test scores that caused the
withdrawal of so many students. At least some of the
students involved, whose records the district examined,
had missed more than 100 days from school, she said,
and would not have passed anyway.
May 15, 2004 article in The New York Times found
the national G.E.D. statistics growing at an alarming
rate, with strong links to NCLB:
teenagers accounted for 49 percent of those earning
G.E.D.'s in 2002, up from 33 percent a decade earlier.
Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York were
among the states where teenagers accounted for more
than half of those earning G.E.D.'s. in 2002.
"The proportion of teenagers getting
G.E.D.'s has doubled since 1989, while overall high
school graduation rates have declined slightly," said
Duncan Chaplin, an economist at the Urban Institute
The growth has been especially pronounced
in New York City. Last year, more than 37,000 school-age
students were in G.E.D. programs run by the school
system, up from 25,500 two years earlier.
Most educators view the G.E.D. as
a valuable option for people who do not make it through
high school, but they do not consider it equivalent.
"The G.E.D. was intended to be a
second chance for adults; it was never intended to
replace a high school education," said Anita Caref,
director of the adult literacy program at Brooklyn
Experts attribute the flood of young
people in part to the difficulty in finding a decent
job without a high school diploma, and in part to the
increased difficulty of earning a traditional high
school diploma in many states. New York, for example,
has made passing five Regents exams a condition of
graduation, and no longer offers a lesser diploma for
Under the federal No Child Left
Behind law and state efforts to hold schools more accountable,
schools have more incentive to discourage weak students
from staying. Students who transfer to G.E.D. programs
are usually off school rolls, but in many states are
not counted as dropouts.
Youths Opt for G.E.D., Skirting High-School Hurdle,"
by Karen W. Arenson The New York Times,
May 15, 2004, p. A14
Writing off your losses
Now let's multiply the "ready
effect on school districts nationally. Not only is the
superintendent and principal's job security aligned to
the numbers, but so also is the teacher's in many districts.
In a survey of 4,200 teachers nationally, the National
Board of Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston
College found that in states with high stakes testing,
70 percent of the teachers noted "the state testing
program leads some teachers in my school to teach in ways
that contradict their own ideas of good educational practice." How
long will it take for this to impact on whether experienced
teachers remain in education?
of the Texas education miracle was predicated upon the
numbers found in the state's mandated test — TAAS.
It was the rising scores on these tests that politicians
used to trumpet the "miracle" and usher in the
No Child Left Behind Act. But what if those scores were
a mirage? What if those tens of thousands of Texas students
also were taking another test, a national test that showed
very different improvement rates, indeed, a test that showed
what little gains there were evaporated by high school?
3, 2003, the New York Times was back with more figures,
this time contrasting 75,000 TAAS scores
from Houston ISD with the same students' scores on the Stanford
Achievement Test from 1999 to 2002. To see highlights
of The Times findings, as well as the response
of three Texas educators, click on Times
June, 2004, the Houston
Chronicle responded to parent complaints about Texas
state test scores having no correlation to the students'
SAT scores. They found the percentage of 10th-graders
passing the state TAAS test increased from 61 percent
in 1996 to 86 percent in 2002. But they also found the
that same time, scores on the SAT and ACT, the two
main college entrance exams, dropped slightly. And
half the students enrolling in public colleges statewide
were so ill-prepared academically that they needed
remedial coursework, causing a financial drain on
colleges as well as taxpayers, who this biennium
will spend $183 million to teach college students
what they didn't learn in high school.
... At TSU [Texas Southern University],
79 percent of the entering freshmen needed remedial
help in 2000-01, the most recent data.
The discrepancy between scores on
the TAAS and college entrance exams has been particularly
significant in some Houston-area districts, where SAT
and ACT scores dropped at the same time a smaller percentage
of students took the tests. Typically, scores rise
when a more selective group of students takes the exams.
Consider the Aldine Independent
School District. In 2002, because of rising TAAS scores,
all of the district's five high schools were rated
or "recognized" in the state's accountability
Yet Aldine's high schools overall
reported a six-year drop on SAT scores, despite fewer
students taking the test. At the same time, only about
one-third of Aldine's graduates entering public colleges
scored high enough on college readiness tests to avoid
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