Caution on school reform
Arizona Daily Star
July 11, 2003
The revelation that the Houston public schools were lying about their dropout
rate includes an important cautionary lesson for educational reformers: Put too
much emphasis on difficult-to-achieve results, and you increase the incentives
to lie and cheat.
In Houston, that pressure resulted in middle school and high school
administrators claiming that about 3,000 students were enrolling in other
schools, when, in fact, there was no evidence for that. Under the Texas rules,
those students should have been listed as dropouts.
Some students even were pushed out the door. Robert Kimball, assistant principal
at Sharpstown High, told The New York Times that many schools had assistant
principals who acted as "bouncers." Their job was to push kids to quit if they
frequently showed up late or were absent. Additionally, some students were held
back in the ninth grade so they wouldn't have to take the tenth grade test.
The revelations are having a large impact on Houston schools. The state auditors
who discovered the dishonesty are recommending that the Houston school system be
ranked as "unacceptable." That's a huge fall for a school system that last year
won a $1 million prize as the best urban district in the country.
It's possible the scandal will affect former Houston Superintendent Rod Paige,
whose supposed success at the district played an important part in President
Bush naming him U.S. secretary of education. Paige already is having to defend
his record in Houston.
The ramifications reach far beyond Houston and Washington, D.C., however.
Here in Tucson, for instance, TUSD Superintendent Stan Paz has created the
potential for abuse with his unrealistic goals in his "BOLD! Game Plan."
As Paz frequently has explained, his "plan" calls for every single student to
exceed the standards on the state's AIMS test. Every student is to graduate.
Every student will be at school every day he or she is not sick. Not a single
student will be held back a year. Not a single student will be suspended or
expelled. Not a single student will drop out.
We have criticized those goals before as being unachievable. In turn, we have
been criticized by three business leaders, who wrote in an April Guest Opinion
that "These are high goals indeed, but ones that this community must and should
To the contrary, the Houston experience carries a simple but important lesson:
Educators are human. Put enough pressure on them to achieve unrealistic results,
and at least some of them will do so in the only way possible: dishonestly.
That's a caution Paz and, indeed, the state of Arizona needs to heed.