April 16, 2003
Throughout the country, leaders are being encouraged to follow the Lone Star State's example in demonstrating "great strides in student learning." School data from Texas in the years President Bush was governor and Secretary of Education Rod Paige was superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, however, reveal an alarming picture.
A complex mathematical game in Texas has disguised the student dropout rate in a manner that even the best actuary could not explain. The startling fact is that, according to the state education agency's records, in school year 1998-99, 18,221 seventh-graders were in the Houston school system. Two years later, 9,138 ninth-graders were in the same sprawling school system. That's an ugly attrition rate of 53 percent. Many other urban districts in Texas have similar dropout rates, regardless of what percentage was officially reported.
The entrance of our Federal government in providing some funds for kindergarten though 12th-grade education was based on the promotion of public policy encouraging equal and universal access for "all children." This important objective increasingly is threatened by actions that remove a large number of children from public schools. Some of these children are intimidated into leaving by uniform standards of testing that condemn them to failure. Others are encouraged to leave by school officials who do not want them bringing down scores.
The potentially most-damaging fallout is the false sense that student learning, measured by standardized tests, is on the upswing. The reality is that the remaining students are better prepared and form the group being measured. Publicity about better outcomes, therefore, may be artificial.
Horace Mann, known as the father of American education, championed public education as part of the birth-right of every American child, rich or poor. He believed that through education, poverty and crime would decline as would violence and fraud. A century and a half after Mann's death, we still are trying to establish the birth-right he articulated.
When Bush and Paige entered office, they did so touting their education record in Texas, where Bush was governor and Paige was superintendent of the nation's 7th largest school system, the 208,000-student Houston Independent School District, which was touted as making great strides in student learning.
Numbers out of Houston indicate that the measured improvements were made in an effort to offer a high-quality education to all students. However, a disturbing contradiction must be noted: the figures do not include the huge number of students who dropped out.
Just before the 2000 presidential election, several groups, including Rand Corp., released studies calling into question the dropout numbers. In fact, the dropout-rates section of the state's accountability system already had faced scrutiny and criticism from multiple sources, including education experts and newspapers, but few in the general public seemed to understand the gravity of the accusations.
Interviews with school administrators who also are students in graduate courses in school leadership in Texas suggested the severity of the dropout and the undercounting problems. They spoke of the tremendous pressure they were under to disguise dropouts in novel ways, and talked of fudging records so that dropouts would appear to be students who transferred. They said they were told to not count students who were transferred to "alternative education," even if they knew these children would never show up.
But the effect of these dropout rates is not easily disguised by semantics or special calculation. Because a high-school diploma, at a minimum, is required for virtually all jobs that pay a living wage, a number of these students are unemployed and some of them resort to crime.
Neglected by the public-education system, deprived of the common school Mann worked to implement, these students become the burden of society, whether it is through the payment of welfare and unemployment or by subsidizing their stays in the justice and prison systems.
is Distinguished Research Professor at the
University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer
of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data