Remember the Texas Miracle?
A high school football coach becomes a professor of education at one of the state’s remaining African-American universities. Then wins a seat on the board of a big urban school district. Then becomes the downtown business establishment’s consensus choice for the city’s superintendent of schools. Once in charge, he dramatically increases standardized-test scores while he reduces a double-digit dropout rate to around 1 percent. He even closes the “test-score gap” that separates economically disadvantaged minority students from middle-class suburban white kids (and Vietnamese National Honor Society candidates). Then his “culture of accountability” — imposed on principals threatened with job loss if their schools don’t improve, who impose it on teachers threatened with reassignment if their students don’t improve — becomes a model for statewide reform. And within a few years, standardized-test scores across the state are climbing at an unprecedented rate.
As unpleasant as it usually is, the truth has been revealed — just in time to raise serious questions about the beatification of secretary of education Rod Paige. There was no Texas Miracle. At least not in public education in Texas. The last miracle to occur in the state that gave the country Anna Nicole Smith, Ross Perot and George W. Bush was the appearance of the face of Jesus on a Port Neches screen door. That was in the ’60s. The appearance of Jesus on a tortilla 20 years later in South Texas is now considered a hoax; the image was burned onto the tortilla while it was heated on a comal. Kind of like the way Rod Paige cooked the books when he was superintendent of Houston’s schools. Or at least the way he put so much pressure on his principals that they had little choice but to cook their books.
The Texas education hoax was revealed this summer when an assistant principal told a local TV reporter that official reports of “no dropouts” at his Houston high school were greatly exaggerated. The guy had been around the block a couple of times: combat in Vietnam, 24 years in the Army, retirement as a lieutenant colonel, and retooling for a second career in education. He didn’t buy the claim that no one dropped out of a predominantly minority high school where most students are economically disadvantaged. Not only did not one of Sharpstown High’s 1,650 students drop out last school year, but another Houston high school with an enrollment of 2,308 reported no dropouts. An inner-city high school with a student body of 731 students had not one dropout. Twelve of the city’s poorest schools had dropout rates lower than 1 percent, while 20 to 30 percent is not uncommon at similar schools in other states.
By the time he was telling his story to The New York Times, Robert Kimball’s statements must have sounded like high heresy to education secretary Paige, whose Houston Miracle was the model for Governor George Bush’s Texas Miracle. “A fantasy land,” said Kimball. “They want the data to look wonderful and exciting. They don’t tell you how to do it. They just say, ‘Do it.’”
This is hardly breaking news in Houston. Critics of the city’s schools have been aware of it for years and even tried to sound the alarm when Bush made Paige secretary of education, then promised to make Texas education policy a model for national education policy. Linda McNeil has been writing about it in books and education journals, and talking to any reporter who would listen. McNeil is a professor at Houston’s Rice University, co-director of the Rice Center of Education, a former high school English teacher, a past vice president of the American Educational Research Association and author of Contradictions of School Reform. In other words, not the sort of person the Bushies want meddling in education policy, considering her scant background in voucher studies, phonics and Christian homeschooling.
McNeil uses a hometown business metaphor to describe what the Houston schools were doing while Paige was in charge. “Enron,” she says. “You’ve seen newspaper accounts that explain how Enron used a single indicator to show how well the company was performing.” The single indicator that demonstrated how well Houston’s schools were performing was not dropout stats. It was standardized-test scores. And this is where Houston’s success story gets dicey — like Enron’s mark-to-market accounting. You’ve got to watch two numbers, because there are two variables in this queer equation. The relentless drive to increase standardized-test scores is directly related to dropout rates. Think about it. If you allow a whole cluster of underperforming students to make it to the 10th grade, where they are required to take a test on which the jobs and bonuses of principals and teachers are based, you create a problem. So the same kids who desperately need education are going to lower your test scores — unless they are allowed to leave quietly.
There was even an accounting scam to deal with underperforming students who stay in school. A few years ago McNeil looked at one of Paige’s miracle high schools and quickly realized the numbers made no sense. There were 3,000 students enrolled. But only 296 kids took the 10th-grade standardized test. Barring the most peculiar fertility rates in this small corner of southeast Houston, 700 or 750 kids should have taken the test. Where were the lost kids?
Many had dropped out. But McNeil — and her colleagues Angela Valenzuela of the University of Texas and displaced Texan Walt Haney at Boston College — found the missing 10th-graders, permanently enrolled in the ninth grade. And Paige’s policy had metastasized across the state, much as Texas education policy now is slowly creeping across the United States. For low-performing kids who refused to quietly disappear, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) had created an entire new class of students who are no longer ninth-graders yet not quite 10th-graders. These “technical ninth-graders” may have failed only one course — which allows them to remain in the ninth grade and avoid taking the test. They’re also called “waiver kids,” after the TEA waivers that exempt them from standardized tests. At Sharpstown High, Kimball even found one student who miraculously had leapfrogged over the 10th grade and therefore was never required to sit for the Big Test. Most aren’t so lucky. They hang around the “ninth grade” for a few years. Then they get the message, clean out their lockers and go home. The system drives economically disadvantaged students, who are hardest to educate, out of our schools. The TEA even created an elaborate list of attendance and enrollment codes that allows (and even encourages) school administrators to identify “leavers” as anything other than “dropouts.”
The high-stakes tests that determine whether a student graduates — and whether a principal gets a bonus and keeps her job — create an institutional incentive to cheat. Public school teachers (I was one for 14 years in Texas) are just like other professionals — except they are paid less. When their jobs are on the line — or the job of a competent principal they know is working as hard as possible to foster the best education the system can provide — they behave just like any other professionals. If there was some point-shaving at Sharpstown High, an utterly corrupt system created both the incentive to shave points and the methods with which to do it. In Texas, we have pioneered a high-stakes testing program that drives low-performing students out of their schools.
The good news is that the state has appointed an official auditor to watch over record keeping at Houston’s public schools. And that Houston superintendent Kay Stripling has invested an entire career in Houston’s schools and is unlikely to allow a corrupt system to cheat her kids out of the best education Texas can provide — considering the meager amount of money we spend on public ed.
The bad news is that President Bush managed to make Texas education policy the nation’s education policy. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Education Act is based on the very Texas Miracle that made Rod Paige secretary of education. It is loaded with high-stakes testing and accountability measures pioneered in the state that is the national proving ground for bad public policy.
We’re out of big ideas in Texas. And out of money. This school year begins with “revenue-neutral” education reform. A mandated pledge of allegiance to the Texas flag. (Until it was included in school policy handbooks, not even teachers of Texas history knew we had a pledge.) And a mandated moment of silence at the start of the school day — to allow students to pray.
God knows they’re going to need it.
Lou Dubose is co-author with Molly Ivins of Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America, which will be released by Random House on September 23.