Houston's School Dropout Debacle
New York Times
July 21, 2003
As a presidential candidate and Texas governor, George Bush boasted that his
state's school accountability system would be a model for the nation. A focus on
basic skills and frequent testing had turned around an underperforming set of
school systems in a state with a large poor, nonwhite population. In particular,
he said, Houston was leading the way. When he was elected president, Mr. Bush
selected Rod Paige, the Houston superintendent, as his education secretary.
It turns out the Houston schools have not lived up to their billing. Their
amazingly low high school dropout rate was literally unbelievable - the
educational equivalent of Enron's accounting results. The school district has
found that more than half of the 5,500 students who left in the 2000-1 school
year should have been declared dropouts but were not.
Dr. Paige, who has declined to comment on the Houston scandal, can remain silent
no longer. He was brought to Washington to provide national educational
leadership. With Houston facing a crisis of fiddled data, he owes it to the
country to share his thoughts on how this happened and what it means.
Houston is still, by most accounts, one of the nation's better school systems.
If it is losing its battle against high school dropouts, it is not alone. All
the focus on improving elementary schools over the past decade or two in Texas
and elsewhere amounts to little if the students cannot hold on to those gains
into high school. Clearly, far more needs to be done nationally, including a
fairer distribution of money to urban systems, better teacher training and
probably smaller classes.
Creating successful urban middle and high schools is the holy grail of American
education, the difference between offering real opportunity to our
underprivileged young and merely claiming to do so. The federal law requiring
yearly testing in grades three through eight is fine but, as they say on the
farm, you don't fatten cattle by weighing them. Increased testing may not be
pushing students to drop out early, but testing alone will not do much to stop
A recent survey in Philadelphia suggests that students drop out of school
because they are not engaged by their studies. Troubled youths need help with
family problems, violence and pregnancy. They need to understand the value of
staying in school. At the same time, improving the courses they take - making
sure that poor readers and those behind in mathematics get the academic help
required - could go a long way. Conquering the dropout rate will probably
require far more creative rethinking than simply copying the approach used to
raise elementary school scores and doing more of the same for high school.