Owner's Box

Chapter 8: Shameful Ambition

Do you remember the “Texas Miracle?” It was the supposedly successful approach to public education that then-Governor George W. Bush touted in his run for the presidency in 2000. In short, the Texas Miracle was Bush’s claim that an increased emphasis on high-stakes accountability tests resulted in plunging dropout raise and soaring test scores. Even more, the accountability system was allegedly responsible for narrowing the achievement gap between white and African American and Hispanic students.

The credit for the Texas Miracle was given to Houston ISD Superintendent Rod Paige. Once in office, President Bush named Paige as Secretary of Education and used the Texas Miracle to push his brand of education reform—the No Child Left Behind Act—through Congress and into law.

But there was a problem. It turned out that the Texas Miracle was actually a myth. Instead of helping students stay in school, administrators simply cooked the books. Rather than address issues that can only be solved by systemic reform within an entire feeder pattern, Paige—and others like him—chose to look for a short-term solution that proved detrimental to the very students he was supposed to serve. The story was really one of shameful ambition.

Let’s take Houston’s Sharpstown High School. Assistant principal Robert Kimball noticed something was strange when his school claimed that not a single student had dropped out in the 2001-02 school year. As Kimball explained, “I had been at the high school for three years, and I had seen many, many students, several hundred a year, go out the door. And I knew that they were quitting. They told me they were quitting.”

Sharpstown was not alone that year in terms of incredibly low dropout numbers. In fact, Houston ISD reported an astounding dropout rate of only 1.5 percent. Considering experts put the statewide rate somewhere near 33 percent, the figure reported by Houston seemed incredible. Further, when educators and experts put the true dropout rate as high as 50 percent, it became clear that something did not add up.

Despite this fuzzy math, Paige and Bush touted the success of the Texas Miracle and Houston ISD’s approach to education. Paige’s policy held principals accountable for their students’ scores on the statewide accountability tests. Working under one-year contracts with the potential for bonuses, principals were under severe pressure to deliver immediate results—or else they could be out looking for a job as soon as the test scores rolled in.

So what did they do? Simple addition by subtraction: prevent, however possible, the weakest students from taking the statewide exams. A legal loophole allowed principals to exclude from testing those students who were likely not going to pass in the first place. This in turn would insulate the teacher—and the school, principal, and superintendent—from the poor score that the student would have likely produced. A school could simply apply for a waiver that would allow them to hold back as a ninth grader a student who had failed just one ninth grade course. Holding this student back would prevent them from taking the tenth grade state accountability exam—and thus ensure that their score was not included in the school-wide tally.



But what about those students? What about the students who could have been promoted to the tenth grade and retaken their failed course, but for the fear that their test score would drive down the school’s average? The result is predictable: they would lose interest in school and consider themselves a failure. And most importantly, they would be much more likely to drop out of school. After all, why stick around for a second year of ninth grade when you passed every class but one? Why retake English, social studies, and math, when all you failed was science?

A January 2008 study called “Avoidable Losses” from Rice University’s Center for Education sums it up: “the accountability system itself is complicit in the very losses it claims to reverse. The losses are avoidable, but not while this accountability system governs schools.” Paige’s shameful ambition now infects other superintendents who have used his model for similar success: send students home, transfer them to charter schools, or move them to other high schools just in time for high stakes tests. Improve your numbers, keep the school out of sanctions, and then ask for the next bonus from unknowing school board trustees.

So next time someone talks to you about the Texas Miracle, know that it was actually a myth. Systemic reform means smaller class sizes, up-to-date technologies, rigorous curriculum, and certified teachers. Systemic reform does not mean superintendents cooking the books to make themselves look good, while students get left behind. After all, when superintendents cook the books, what kind of life lesson is that to the children we serve.