August 29, 2004, 5:00 P.M.
On August 25, 2004 60 Minutes aired a follow-up story on the so-called Texas Miracle. Citing unprecedented “improvement” in student performance in the Houston School District, George W. Bush proclaimed himself the “Education President.” When elected, Bush appointed former Houston Superintendent Rod Paige as education secretary and launched his national version of the Texas program and called it “No Child Left Behind.”
It now turns out that the Texas Miracle more closely resembles Enron than education reform. In order to demonstrate dramatic increases in student performance, Paige’s district cooked the books. Then Texas Governor George W. Bush used the false information to stake his claim as the education candidate, and to support his election bid. Does this have a familiar ring to it yet?
What was done to make the Houston schools look better than they actually were was partly fancy accounting. The worst part of the scam, however, manipulated the lives of actual students, denied them a fair shot at an education and swept their records, and their lives, under a bureaucratic carpet.
In the first instance, students who dropped out of school were not reported in order to create the illusion of a low dropout rate. Records were created to show that students had left school for “acceptable reasons” such as transferring to another school, returning to a native country or leaving to complete a GED program. Under the state’s education system, these students were not considered dropouts. This practice came to light when Robert Kimball, principal at the Sharpstown High School, one of the schools in the Houston district, noticed that his school’s record indicated that there were no dropouts in a particular reporting period. There were actually 463 students who left that year and only a small portion of those actually left for “acceptable reasons.” The rest were in fact dropouts. Kimball reported this discrepancy to his superiors and was removed from his post and reassigned as a second assistant principal in the district and given a letter of reprimand.
Even more disturbing than misreporting the dropout numbers was the district’s practice of manipulating student 10th grade test scores. The district accomplished dramatic improvements in its test scores by keeping students who were not likely to score well on tests away from taking the tests. In some instances, individual students were held back in 9th grade for several years and then promoted directly to the 11th grade without ever being enrolled and thus required to be tested in, 10th grade. In many instances, these students had in fact passed their courses or made them up in summer school and they were eligible for promotion. They were simply not promoted because of a subjective determination on the part of the school officials regarding the student’s potential performance on the test.
One might reasonably ask why teachers and administrators would go along with this type of chicanery. The reason is economic. Teachers and principals whose students performed well were given a bonus. Some of these bonuses were substantial. On the other hand, all teachers and administrators were given one year contracts and if their school or students did not perform in a way that made the district look good on annual tests, they were put on probation or not renewed, regardless of their past performance or the length of their service.
A Texas state audit, instituted after Robert Kimball blew the whistle on the practices of the Houston School District, found 3000 unreported dropouts and 9th grade classes bulging with students who were eligible to be promoted, but who were held back because of their possible inability to perform well on the test. Kimball, it turns out, was correct. As a result of a settlement in the Federal Whistleblower suit filed by Kimball, his letter of reprimand was rescinded, he was paid $90,000, and several school board members resigned their positions.
The Houston School District, it turns out, is just like every other urban district in the country. It has its strengths and its weaknesses. What is different is that powerful and unscrupulous politicians used kids to promote their own ideas and policies and caused harm along the way. The so-called Texas Miracle was a lie, and it was just another lie perpetuated by the Bush campaign. The Texas Miracle wasn’t and the Education President isn’t.