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Volume I, Number 9, September, 2003

Engineering Educational "Miracles"

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

Some of the change strategies being used against American schools by the current administration have already been tried in Texas but recent news reports cast doubt on the integrity, authenticity and value of those change strategies.

What was once proudly called the "Texas Miracle" - an impressive (apparent) shift in school performance - might have been more of a flimflam1 operation in some places than a true miracle, judging from the harsh audit report published by the TEA (Texas Education Agency) ruling on procedures used by the Houston ISD when reporting dropouts in 2000. Read the TEA audit report in PDF format (click here).

As far back as the year 2000 when the current President was Governor of Texas and the Secretary of Education was Superintendent of the Houston ISD, the TEA (Texas Educational Agency) issued a harsh report warning that the Texas system for recording dropouts when combined with various incentive programs would lead to serious under-reporting and under-counting. (Dropout Study: A Report to the 77th Texas Legislature) In short, the report stated that some schools and districts might sweep the dropout problem under some magic carpet. Instead of taking care of these troubled students, the system might erase them.

Quoting from the report . . .

Dropout Definition. Critics point out that because the TEA definition of a dropout is a product of the accountability system, it excludes some groups of students who typically would be considered dropouts.

The agency’s definition excludes students for two policy reasons: (1) to avoid providing unintended incentives for district behavior that is not in the best interests of students and (2) to avoid unfairly penalizing districts and campuses through the rating system. The exclusion of these students from the dropout count results in a lower dropout rate.

Dropout Rate Calculation. Critics of the dropout rate calculation used by TEA in the accountability system question the ability of an annual indicator to accurately portray the success or failure of districts and campuses to keep students in school until they graduate. As a snapshot of school dropouts over a single year, the annual dropout indicator measures a different group of students over a more limited period of time than other calculations, such as a longitudinal dropout or high school completion rate, and produces a lower rate as a result.

Data Quality. Critics have questioned whether the school leaver data system has adequate safeguards against undercounting dropouts due to poor data quality or misreporting by school districts. Data used to rate public school districts and campuses undergo screening as part of an accountability system safeguards audit process designed to assess data integrity. Nevertheless, given the high stakes associated with use of the dropout rate in the accountability system, and the absence of a routine audit of every district’s dropout data submission, concern about the accuracy of the dropout data submitted by school districts remains high.

No (poorly performing) Child Left Behind (in School)?

One way to improve test scores is to remove the bottom ten per cent of a class from school. In urban schools, removal of 30-40% of the weakest students does wonders to the test results. Without improving the actual education in those buildings in any way, test results can sky rocket. Such manipulation of data is a matter or smoke, mirrors and overlooking the castoffs, the failures and the least hopeful children of our land.

The astonishing thing about this group of self-proclaimed miracle workers is their persistent effort to apply the same tactics to change throughout the land. While thousands of Texas students were allowed to drop out of school and were left behind in the worst sense, the leaders who should have been trying to keep them in school were promoted to Washington and given a chance to repeat the damage nationwide. These leaders seem unconcerned by the apparent deception regarding Texas dropouts and unaware of the ironic nature of their catchy slogan - No Child Left Behind.

Education Secretary Defends School System He Once Led
July 26, 2003
New York Times

The change strategies employed in Texas were seriously flawed and incredibly hurtful to many students. We should ask that Congress call a halt to NCLB before the Texas Miracle works its way across America like some perfect educational storm, a twister, cyclone, or tsunami wave of monstrous proportions.

A recent report suggests that several states have been seriously under-reporting the number of students who fail to graduate:

Graduation Study Suggests That Some States Sharply Understate High School Dropout Rates
September 16, 2003
New York Times

Threats and Bribes

When the TEA did an audit of the Houston ISD's record-keeping for the year 2000, the last year the current Secretary of Ed was running the show in that district, it reported that sixteen secondary schools under-reported dropout numbers and changed the classification of those schools from excellent to failing.

The state audited 16 middle schools and high schools and found that of 5,500 teenagers who had left school in the 2000-1 school year, about 3,000, or 55 percent, should have been reported as dropouts. The audit recommended lowering the rankings of 14 of the 16 schools, and said Houston's school system should be ranked unacceptable. (Quoting from the New York Times article cited above.)

Who was to fault for a system that allowed thousands of students to fall through the cracks while bragging that the problem had disappeared?

When the top leader creates a system with short term contracts, lucrative cash rewards for certain numbers (low dropouts and high scores) and an atmosphere of "accountability" that keeps the pressure cooking at high levels, it is a recipe for disaster. That is exactly the system installed by the superintendent of Houston and the governor of the state. They called the results a "miracle." Now some folks are wondering if other words might fit better. Will there be additional audits and a broader investigation into the huge sums awarded to Houston schools and administrators for reporting good results in other years? Will the reports of the previous six years be left unexamined?

The TEA did an audit on a single year, but principals could win as much as $ 5000 per year in state funds for reporting excellent results. What if an audit were conducted for six years and it turned out that great results were based on false claims? How much money should be returned to the State? And who should be held responsible for the false claims? Is it a criminal offense to obtain state funds with false data?

Ignoring Research in Change

We have decades worth of research to help guide change efforts in schools. The NCLB proponents and self-professed miracle workers seem convinced that fear and punishment is a great motivator, and yet there is no evidence, scientific or otherwise, in the research on organizational development in industry or schools that validates the worth of fear, anxiety, stress and intimidation as incentives and conditions to engender growth and progress.

To the contrary, those who indulge in top-down management seeking to impose their will, their ideologies, their bias and their visions on those who must do the actual work are apt to suffer the fate of most dictators and demagogues. The failure to recruit, persuade, encourage and support those who must deliver the actual results is likely to create the kind of fake miracles we have just witnessed in Texas - not only on the educational front but also in the corporate world where numbers were exaggerated and manipulated to make the bottom line look better than it was in truth.

The false notions, dangerous misconceptions and harmful strategies embedded in NCLB are just now coming to the surface as the time release aspects of this law begin to kick in and thousands of schools are suffering from measures that leave them struggling to survive.

Heart of Darkness

At the heart of this damaging approach to education is a social doctrine near and dear to conservatives - Social Darwinism2 and survival of the fittest. But in this case it is applied to the life of schools. Schools with many struggling students are viewed as failures.

Give schools two years to straighten out. If that's not enough time to reach high standards, let them die. Open the flood gates. Turn their students loose on the so-called good schools of the district. If they have no open seats, let them taste the joys of the corporate educational market place.

Sadly, some of the schools with stubbornly low scores have excellent principals, passionately committed teachers and decades of experience working with children who arrive in school at kindergarten not ready to learn (despite the promises of an earlier President Bush). NCLB fails to address the root causes of poor school performance such as poverty, low nutrition and weak starts in life. NCLB fails to bring Head-Start to full funding. It simply imposes high standards without developing capacities. And the impact of open floodgates will be the destruction of schools that actually have substantial capacity to work with disadvantaged children.

How sad that these "miracle workers" are telling parents that their children will become better readers simply by changing schools. Even if there were empty seats in these other schools, there is no way to predict how well advantaged schools in affluent neighborhoods will be able to transform the performance of children who begin school without a decent start in life.

Lurking behind this NCLB program is an educational VIRUS or WORM much like the Sobig.F virus that recently struck computers globally. The hidden agenda of NCLB is to shut down urban public schools and send their clients into the brave new world of corporate schooling, even though there is no convincing evidence that these free market alternatives will reverse the long established patterns of poor school performance. We've watched a handful of corporate pioneers try but fail to impress with industrial schools for more than a decade.

After two more years of NCLB, parents, teachers and communities will rise up and demand an end to the interference, the false promises, the gimmickry and the rash experimentation.

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved. This article may be e-mailed to individuals by individuals, but all other duplication, distribution, publication and use is prohibited without first receiving explicit permission. Contact for information.
What can you do to change this law before it does great damage to the schools and children in your state and town?
  1. Subscribe to "No Child Left" to stay informed about efforts to repeal NCLB. Click here.
  2. Speak with the school board members, administrators and teachers in your community to learn how NCLB will change schools and learning in your town.
  3. Start communicating with your Senators and Representatives to let them know you want this law changed to put more emphasis on capacity building and support rather than testing and punishment.
  4. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper expressing your concerns. Illustrate the dangers of this law with specific and compelling examples.
  5. Emphasize concrete alternatives that would do more to improve the futures of disadvantaged children.

A List of ESEA (NCLB) Amendments

1. Fund social programs that impact school readiness so that all children actually enter school ready to learn as the first President Bush promised long ago.

2. Fund capacity building (enhanced teaching and learning) in districts and districts for several years before engaging in punishing labels and reckless choice provisions. Capacity building might mean providing hundreds of hours of training in effective reading strategies, for example. But it does not mean training everybody in a single highly scripted program endorsed by the administration for pseudo-scientific reasons.

3. Devote public money to truly public schools. Be careful not to divert funds to reckless experiments or diploma mills.

4. Fund enough construction of new schools within public systems so parental choice is real.

5. Support informed school choice within public systems.

6. Emphasize rewards and incentives rather than sanctions.

7. Hold all publicly funded schools to standards for performance and quality, whether actually private, charter or truly public. Be careful about simplistic notions of high stakes testing.

8. Fund recruitment and preparation of effective teachers and aides from all racial and economic groups to close the gap between current staffing levels and what is desirable.

9. End the insulting, broad brush assaults on teachers and administrators struggling against difficult challenges.

10. Capitalize on the good research conducted to discover what works best in schools and avoid simplistic panaceas and platitudes imported from the world of business and medicine.

11. Enrich the options available to all children. Forswear tightly scripted, robotic programs and the fast food approaches to school improvement.

12. Build school improvement on a richly defined foundation of alternatives and strategies.

13. Eliminate Trojan horses, hidden agendas and shameful politics from ESEA.

14. Stop using Madison Avenue techniques to hide the harsh realities of so-called compassionate conservatism.