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Friday, July 09, 2004  

News: Texas education miracle wasn't

Education in Texas was the recipient of boxcar loads of attention a few years ago. When it was in the news, it played to the tune of a mariachi band. George W. Bush rode into the White House, or at least into the Supreme Court, partly because he claimed mastery of one of the major domestic dilemmas in the country -- the failure of our schools to teach and graduate more literate people. Bush then appointed the man he claimed had shepherded the Texas education miracle, Rod Paige, U.S. secretary of education. Now, cue the violins. The truth about the alleged miracle has emerged. The 'miracle' seems to have consisted of frauds on several levels.

The Houston Chronicle reports the Texas has the highest proportion of dropouts in the country, and, it is not improving.

For the second straight year, Texas has the lowest percentage of high school graduates in the nation, according to a U.S. Census Bureau study released Tuesday.

Seventy-seven percent of Texans age 25 and older had a high school degree in 2003, the same percentage as a decade earlier, when Texas ranked 39th in the country. So while other states have seen their graduation rates improve -- a record 85 percent of Americans have high school degrees -- Texas is treading water.

Defenders of the situation have tried to blame low graduation rates on the state having a large population of Hispanic immigrants. But, knowledgeable sources disagree, pointing out that 85 percent of Hispanic students are American born. Additionally, they say that the high rate of Hispanic dropouts, about 40 percent in cities such as Houston, shows the educational system is failing 34 percent of the state's population. There isn't a moderate achievement, not to mention a miracle, with such a level of failure occurring, they say.

Education officials understated the dropout rate in Texas by not acknowledging most dropouts. But, why would educators want to make a mockery of their commitment to education? The Daily Texan asked an expert.

'The dropouts become absolutely necessary because what they are trying to do is get the [test] numbers up, not improve the education of the children,'' Rice University researcher Linda McNeil said. ''What this system sets up is it rewards the principals who get those kids out of the building.''

It's called a ''leaver'' code system, and it's used to disguise dropout rates, said Maria Robledo Montecel, San Antonio-based director of the Inter-cultural Development Research Association.

School districts in Texas can use any one of about 30 ''leaver'' codes to explain a student's disappearance. About 20 of the codes, ranging from pursuit of a GED to imprisonment, exempt a student from being counted as a dropout, which, along with standardized test scores, is used to determine a district's annual accountability rating by the Texas Education Agency.

The TEA claims only 1.3 percent of Texas students dropped out in 2001-2002. The others, just 'left.' An independent group pegs the figure at 39 percent.

But, claims of fraud don't stop with falsified dropout numbers.

HOUSTON, June 25 - Three years after Rod Paige left his job as schools superintendent in Houston to become the federal secretary of education, his successor and several of his closest associates are stepping down, some amid questions about how business dealings have been conducted in the district.

The New York Times reports that associates of school board members and administrators were awarded profitable contracts by the Houston school district. A school board member quit when her husband was not awarded an additional contract for architectural work after investigators began probing the situation. Other officials have left claiming a need to spend more time with their families.

The revelations suggest a pattern and practice of dishonesty.

In the seven years that Dr. Paige was superintendent, Houston reported such gains in student achievement that George W. Bush's supporters hailed the progress in the 2000 presidential campaign as a Texas miracle. It helped Dr. Paige earn his cabinet seat and enabled the Bush administration to use Houston as a model for the No Child Left Behind education act. With Dr. Paige's departure for Washington, Ms. Stripling, a onetime teacher, was named to replace him. In 2002 the Broad Foundation, based in Los Angeles, awarded Houston a $1 million prize as the best urban school district in the United States.

But in 2003, a state audit of records at 16 middle and high schools in Houston showed that more than half the students who should have been reported as dropouts in the 2000-2001 school year had not been. Those findings were followed by the discovery that Houston had also failed to report thousands of schoolhouse crimes, raising doubts about the district's credibility with all kinds of data and attracting nationwide attention from the news media. . . .

We are all familiar with the adage, 'if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.' Yet, when people in high places try to sway us with tales of miracles, we are sometimes succeptible. The false impression of a very successful educational system in Texas, crafted by a coterie of interested parties, misled a nation. We should not allow ourselves to be fooled again.

Reasonably related

I learned about this topic from Dirtgrain, a teacher and blogger who regularly researches and writes about issues in education. You can read his weblog here.

11:30 PM