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The Bush Education Deception

High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Once again fact and fiction blend to create a happy illusion.

In the Department of Education biography of Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education, we are told of the success of the No Child Left Behind program. The biography says that in January 2002 all states submitted plans outlining how they would ensure that their schools would be places of high expectations and high standards. Some of the states modeled their plans after the perceived great success of Houston’s public schools under Dr. Paige’s stewardship. In July 2003, however, we learned that Houston public school system was not all it seemed to be.

For the 2000-2001 school year Houston had reported that only 1.5% of its students dropped out making it, we were told, a model for the rest of the nation. Under the Houston system when a child leaves school, school officials are supposed to enter on their records the reason for the departure and are supposed to have proof that the student transferred to another school in order to avoid classifying the student as a dropout. According to an audit conducted to verify the Houston reports, three thousand of the 5,500 files examined lacked proof that the children were attending different schools. Some of the records examined by the auditors contained only a statement from the principal stating that had in fact occurred.

There was a reason the picture painted was rosy. According to the New York Times, school administrators received bonuses based on examination scores, attendance and dropout rates. Houston’s Sharpstown High School reported no drop outs. However, an employee contacted 30 students who had left the school and learned the majority had indeed dropped out. By concealing that fact, administrators preserved their bonuses.

The Houston deception was reminiscent of Enron and as with Enron, there was a whistle blower. Robert Kimball, an assistant principal at Sharpstown, wrote his principal in November of 2002 and told her that the school was faking its dropout statistics. In his letter he said: “We go from 1,000 freshmen to less than 300 Seniors with no dropouts. Amazing!” His letter notwithstanding, the school continued to claim no dropouts and the principal stood her ground.

There is a reason for hiding the dropout rate from official record keeping in addition to wanting to protect bonuses. There are two competing systems at work in the public schools in Houston. One is high standardized test scores and the other is a low dropout rate. In some schools, according to the Times, poorly performing students are encouraged to drop out. If those who do badly on standardized tests drop out, the remaining students who do well on those tests, will bring the schools’ average test scores up. It is, of course, hard on the students who are forced to quit, but as we are being taught by our leaders, sometimes the poor are called upon to make sacrifices for the rich in order to better our country.

None of this should be taken as a reflection on Dr. Paige, even though it all happened on his watch. He did innovative things while superintendent. He eliminated tenure for principals, placing them all on one year contracts that permitted them to be fired without cause. In the fall of 2002, Margaret Stroud, deputy superintendent of public schools sent a memorandum to all principals in the Houston system telling them to make sure that in their reporting no students were listed as “whereabouts unknown.” That, said she, might trigger exactly the kind of audit that happened anyway a few months later. According to Dr. Kimball, with that kind of mandate, the principals were given no choice but to fake statistics or lose their jobs. Of course that was after Dr. Paige had left.

Defending the system Dr. Paige recently said that the Houston school system is “the most looked at, the most open public school system in the history of the universe” and deserved the prize it won in 2003 from the Broad Foundation as the best urban school district in the United States based on a survey conducted by the Manhattan Institute even though it also disclosed that Houston had a 52 percent graduation rate, making it one of the lowest among the 50 largest school districts in the United States. When bragging, Dr. Paige hadn’t seen the New York Times of August 28.

On that day it was reported that Houston schools were also lying about graduates’ intentions with respect to attending college. Jack Yates High School reported that from 1998 to 2002 100 percent of its graduates planned to attend college. In 2000, only a third of its graduates took the SAT and they had a combined average score of 763 out of a possible score of 1600. Fewer than 50 percent of its graduates took any credits at state colleges or universities. Ashleigh Blackmon, a graduate of Yates in 2002 said didn’t believe for a minute that all her classmates were planning on college. Commenting on the false claims she said: “It doesn’t mean anything, because who cares. But it could mean they lie about a lot more of other things.”

Dr. Paige created the climate that permitted these lies to be told. He can now bask in the glory of his success even though it’s a fiction. What else is new in the Bush world?

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a Boulder, Colorado lawyer. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu

 

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