One of the claims made for George W. Bush’s tenure as governor of Texas was that he had galvanized the state’s educational system. Bush’s supporters pointed proudly to lowered dropout rates, improved attendance, and—the Holy Grail—higher test scores. The education issue helped make Bush more attractive to many voters, and he used the Texas model of tests and accountability as the backbone of his “No Child Left Behind” education legislation. He also rewarded Rod Paige, superintendent of the high-achieving Houston school system, by naming him U.S. Secretary of Education.
Now school districts all over the country are struggling to duplicate Texas’s feat and live the “Lake Woebegone Dream”—to reach that blessed radio land where “all the children are above average.” Schools face increasingly stiff penalties if they fail to measure up in attendance, dropout rate, and test scores. Here in West Virginia, the state just released a list of over three hundred of our schools which are “low performing”—including every high school in our region. Calhoun County High School, Gilmer County High School, Braxton County High School, Roane County High School, Ritchie County High School, and Wirt County High School—they’re all on the list..
The problem? Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure. A belated audit has revealed that thousands of school dropouts in Texas were hidden by showing the students as having “transferred” to another school. Students who would lower test score averages were pushed out of the system. In Houston, twelve out of fourteen schools rated among the “best,” based on the data which they originally submitted, had to be reclassified with the “worst” once the audit was completed. Moreover, teachers claim that test scores were altered to show significant improvement. And subsequent testing has shown little if any narrowing of the gap between black and white students in math and science.
Paige did make improvements in aspects of the Houston school district. He improved the district’s self-image, raised teacher pay, and improved morale. He improved special education services. But the bottom-line measures—dropout rates, test scores, and attendance figures—were gussied up. The model we’re following, it turns out, isn’t a model of dramatically-improved teaching and learning. It’s a model of fabricated figures, falsification of records, and phony publicity. It’s to education what Enron was to the business world. Both served to promote the career of Mr. Bush. Both appeared to be spectacular successes. Both, in fact, were colossal frauds.
So why isn’t this a major news story? Trent Lott’s bumbling tribute to Strom Thurmond, or Bill Clinton’s reprehensible conduct with Monica Lewinsky, could draw headlines for weeks or even months. But those events are trifling compared with this story. Every public school in the country has the demands of “No Child Left Behind” hanging over it like the sword of Damocles.
Parents and teachers know that education builds skill by skill, concept by concept, and that the building takes time. But “No Child Left Behind” assumes that schools, with the same teachers and the same kids they had last year, will transform themselves in what, educationally, is the blink of an eye. Because Texas did it, under Mr. Bush. Just as Enron could regularly turn profits of 20% or more annually. A lot of people bought Enron stock. And voted for Mr. Bush as an “education President.” Welcome to the real world.
© Tony Russell, 2003