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A dreadful math student, playwrite Arthur Miller did a better job of tabulating the conscience of the nation than some Fortune 500 CFO's.














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As for those who fail to make their numbers, it is termination time, one of the innovations championed by Dr. Paige.



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By Jim Trelease, © 2005, 2007 / updated: 4/1/11

(If any of the links below are outdated, try the WayBackMachine web site.)

Whether you like it or not, the No Child Left Behind Act is gradually sinking. While some argue that the priority of the war in Iraq and a lack of funding is causing its destruction, others point to a lack of support from rank and file educators as an undermining factor. The Congressional hearings involving corruption at the highest levels of Reading First, NCLB's fair-haired reading child, haven't done anything but damage NCLB. But the most fundamental argument is that it was doomed from the very start. Just like Enron, the "numbers game" it played is finally catching up with NCLB.

   NCLB was built on the bedrock of "what's good for business is good for schools," that schools' productivity would improve significantly if business principles were applied, and nothing proved it better than the "education miracle" built in Texas by then-Governor George W. Bush and in Houston by Superintendent Rod Paige. If such "miracles" could happen in Texas, then they could happen everywhere in America.

   As the statistics on the following pages will show, nothing could be further from the truth. And then one must ask: How much did Rod Paige know and when did he know it?

'Business standards' and Schooling

First, let's address "business principles" applied to schools: Which ones? The principles that ran Enron, Arthur Anderson, WorldCom, Tyco, HealthSouth, Krispy Kreme, or Martha Stewart? How about that citadel of corporate principles, Walt Disney Company under Michael Eisner? ("What Michael likes to do is to put six pit bulls together and see which five die first." Come to think of it, isn't that the approach of major urban school boards as they bleed superintendents?) Anyone for classroom ethics as taught by the top pharmaceutical companies (start with Merck and Vioxx)?

   Maybe one should apply the learning strategies the airline industry has been using. After all, these are graduates of our most expensive business schools, people who know how to "think out of the box," the ones who lost $33 billion in the five years leading up to 2005. Imagine how many school bake sales it would take to make up $33 billion!

childhood express art

Perhaps schools had better take a pass on that strategy. Unfortunately, the idea that children are like planes is built into the new accountability strategies for education: All children must take off on time and arrive on time, and annual testing (at a cost of $1.8 billion nationally) will insure that. Wrong again.

The fact that all children cannot blossom on time does not signal the end of the world as we know it. It's possible to bloom late and still be successful, and America is daily willing to accept that — but only in its sports world. He was second-string quarterback on a high school freshman team piece of Sports Illustrated coverthat not only didn't win a game, it never scored a single touchdown. At college, he was seventh-string quarterback, failing to secure first-team status until there were only four games left in his senior year, yet he became the only NFL quarterback to win three Super Bowls by age 28. The business world cheers late-bloomers like the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, but can't abide them in the classroom.

   The fact is you also can blossom late in the classroom and still achieve. Indeed, one can be totally inept in one discipline yet shine in another, something the new graduation standards fail to take into account. Nothing proves it better than the high school and college transcripts of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Colin Powell—each of them a "late bloomer." (Not Dick Cheney? Two failed tries at Yale and then an embarrassed retreat to Casper Community College are clear indications he wasn't blossoming "on time.") While wondering how these three would have measured against today's proposed standards of learning, there's no denying they did all right for themselves once they finally "blossomed." Fifty years ago David Boies didn't learn to read until third grade (severe dyslexia) but today's scoreboard lists him as the most "in-demand" lawyer in America, and the man who brought Microsoft practically to its knees with a four-hour summation to the jury without a note in his hand. The "moral compass" of the American theater, Arthur Miller, was a dreadful math student but did a better job tabulating the social conscience of the nation than any playwright of his time (and a lot better than some Fortune 500 CFO's).

   But school "business standards" today allow for no such late starts. The present schedule began with the Business Roundtable (see Nation at Risk Report, 1985, Reagan administration) and the concept that all children can learn, even poor children, if you bring the right kind of administration to schools and incorporate "accountability" into the picture: Reward achievement, punish failure. George Bush the Harvard MBA won the hearts of the business class by advocating that strategy state-wide in Texas and in urban-poor Houston, Rod Paige "proved" it worked. Paige eventually would be the front man for NCLB but the behind-the-scenes impresario would be Sandy Kress, former president of the Dallas USD school board and lobbyist for some of the major educational publishers and pro-testing business groups in the U.S. (See "Having your cake and eating it, too.")


One problem: It won't work now because it didn't work then. That is, there was no "education miracle" in Texas or Houston. If it wasn't a hoax, then it was a mirage. In any case, building a national education agenda on the Texas model was like building a skyscraper on quicksand.

   No one knew the tenuous nature of Texas' "miracle" better than the man who rose to power as a result of it, Dr. Rod Paige, secretary of education during the first Bush term (whose doctoral work was on the reaction-time of linebackers). As superintendent in Houston, he endeared himself to the business community by applying a business paradigm to school management.

   The New York Times' Michael Winerip described Paige's policies for school administrators this way:

magnifying glass"As 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."

t one high school that later earned the wrath of state auditors for its faulty bookkeeping, $75,000 in bonus money was issued the year before its bogus figures were discovered. A long way from Enron numbers but they were using the same BBQ sauce in the same town to cook the books. (The scandals that will eventually arise from these "easy money" bonuses would do nothing to keep HISD officials from drinking from the public trough; by 2006, they instituted an even larger—$14 million—bonus system to tempt district teachers and administrators. ["Test-Tied Bonuses to Take Effect in Houston: Teachers will get more money if their students improve exam scores by Tess Keller, Education Week, Jan. 18, 2006.])

  It was achieved in a fashion that smacked of Enron math.

  To all appearances, Paige's management style with its goals and objectives for administrators, playing hardball with those who failed to reach their goals, blessing the achieving administrators with handsome bonuses — worked. When he took over as Houston superintendent, only 26 percent of the city's 10th graders were passing the state math test; the year he departed for Washington, 99 percent were passing it. In 2004, however, a Washington Post investigation revealed this was achieved in a fashion that smacked of Enron math: Take the at-risk 9th-graders and retain them in that grade, allowing only the competent to matriculate to 10th — the year when they would take the state math test. After two or more years in 9th grade, move the at-risk students up to 12th grade, sidestepping the 10th-grade test. The result: in 2001, there were 1,160 students in 9th grade and 281 in 10th grade. And 99 percent of those 281 passed the state math test. Education miracle or mirage?

True to Paige's all-business approach, his district was quick to adopt Direct Instruction, a highly scripted program that focuses on students mimicking their teacher's words and sounds, complete with heavy emphasis on rote memorization and repetitive recitations. As business models go, it looks a lot like Henry Ford's assembly line. (When the Bush-Paige team moved to the White House, Direct Instruction became one of the Department of Ed's "approved" programs for reading and math, something that proved to be embarrassing when Congressional hearings in April 2007 revealed the wife of Reading First Director Chris Doherty was employed by Direct Instruction—something he repeatedly failed to disclose on government financial forms. ["Key Initiative Of 'No Child' Under Federal Investigation Officials Profited From Reading First Program," by Amit R. Paley, The Washington Post, April 21, 2007.])

   NEXT: Using Enron math and PR in Houston 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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