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The Houston ISD version — pg. 1

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If money talks, is it a miracle? (p. 1 of 2)

By Jim Trelease, © 2002-2005

INDEX for these two pages

This page:

Page Two:

  • Washington Post discovers how the 10th-grade math scores went to 99%: leave most (and worst) of the class in 9th grade.
  • Dan Rather and 60 Minutes II visit Robert Kimball and the Houston "miracle."
  • State audit finds Houston's "college-bound" numbers are a mirage, not a miracle.
  • Enron's lesson for Houston ISD: Cook those books until the numbers work, thus boiling away 2,330 incidents of school violence to win a national urban school award.
  • Dallas Morning News investigation turns up 400 schools with suspect TAKS scores, including the state's most celebrated.
  • List of news articles on Houston ISD scandals.
  • Dallas and New York City versions of "cooking the books" to raise their scores.

n the incessant quest for education miracles, there arises the thought that government regulation could possibly be a cure-all. Simply put, if we wave enough money around — or threaten to withhold enough money — everyone is going to work harder: teachers, students, administrators, even parents. Or, as Lord Byron once wrote, "Ready money is Aladdin's lamp." Rub enough money in people's faces and miracles will appear — like the genie.
    And that is what appears to have happened in some school districts: education miracles. The keyword here is "appears."

   The first thing to understand is that a district's scores are immediately affected by the number of at-risk students who take the test. The more at-riskers, the lower the district's score. Therefore, since curriculum changes/improvements/teacher certifications take years to evidence themselves, if a district is under pressure from local, state, or federal authorities to raise the scores quickly, the fastest way is to lower the number of at-risk students taking the test.

   So when Southern states began boasting about the sudden rise in their NAEP reading and math scores in 2002, only a few people were alert enough to look at the real reason behind the rise: most states had raised their "exclusion" rates — at-risk 4th- and 8th-grade students not taking the test — by as much as 400 percent and thus raised state scores. It looks good on paper but it's a mirage (call it an "Enron moment"); no overall improvement in learning actually has taken place. ["Southern Progress May Be Illusory," Letters, Education Week, Mar. 6, 2002, p. 45; also: Bracey, Gerald W., "Research: Ignorantia Affectata," Phi Delta Kappan, Sept. 2003, pp. 87-88; Rhoades, Kathleen and Madaus, George, "Errors in Standardized Tests: A Systemic Problem."]

'Turning the screws' on school managers

   But what happens if there are education problems that money can't fix but the "powers-that-be" are demanding it be fixed or else no money (as much as $10,000 for a Houston ISD bonus), maybe even "no job"? If you do this to frustrated, stressed-out, underpaid principals, someone is going to cheat to get the money or keep the job. When you unrelentingly turn the screws (raise expectations) on managers in charge of things they can't always control, you're setting the table for abuses: see the FBI, 2001; Enron, 2002; Arthur Anderson, 2002; and Wal-Mart cleaning contractors, 2003.

   Which brings us to the "Texas Education Miracle," one of candidate George W. Bush's campaign slogans in 2000. Specifically — the "miracle" of Houston Independent School District, an urban district brimming with impoverished Latinos but cited again and again for its remarkable gains in everything from student scores to a dropout rate that was the envy of the nation. In fact, it was good enough for President Bush to make its superintendent, Dr. Rod Paige, his secretary of education.

   With the nation's attention diverted by Sept. 11th, the economy, and then the war in Iraq, the "miracle" went unchallenged until February of 2003 when an assistant principal at Houston's Sharpstown High School couldn't believe his eyes: a "zero" dropout rate for his school. Even though 1000 students had started as freshman and by senior year only 300 were still there, no dropouts. (Left unsaid is that many of the missing 700 were at-risk students who might have brought down the school's scores, a fact uncovered in a similar scandal in New York. When the Houston assistant principal, Robert Kimball, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and Vietnam veteran, looked into the matter, he found a can of worms that resulted in a state audit reducing the academic rating on 15 of the district's 16 middle and high schools that had been rated "outstanding."

   In addition to Sharpstown's missing 700, there were an additional 2,300 missing HISD students who should have been labeled "dropout." While many may drop-out, in such instances many also are pushed-out, encouraged to leave by frustrated administrators bent on raising the scores. Four months before the Kimball furor, George Washington University's Mary Hatwood Futrell and Iris C. Rotberg predicted the "dropout-pushout" in a Commentary essay in Education Week entitled "Predictable Casualties: Do We Risk Leaving More Children Behind?"(Education Week, Oct. 2, 2002, pp. 48, 34.)

   In Houston's case, the incentive to change the academic records was "education mandates" — the ones handed down by the superintendent to principals. As Kimball told The New York Times' Michael Winerip, "They want the data to look wonderful and exciting. They don't tell you how to do it; they just say, 'Do it.' . . . You need to understand the atmosphere in Houston. People are afraid. The superintendent has frequent meetings with principals. Before they go in, the principals are really, really scared. Panicky. They have to make their numbers."

Principals who 'make their numbers'

   In establishing Houston's obsession with "miracle" numbers, Winerip's investigation showed that in January 2003, just before the scandal broke, Houston's deputy superintendent announced the mandates for 2003. "The district-wide student attendance rate will increase from 94.6 percent to 95 percent. The district-wide annual dropout rate will decrease from 1.5 percent to 1.3 percent."

   Winerip wrote:

   "As for those who fail to make their numbers, it is termination time, one of many innovations championed by Dr. Paige as superintendent here from 1994 to 2001. He got rid of tenure for principals and mandated that they sign one-year contracts that allowed dismissal 'without cause' and without a hearing.
   "On the other hand, for principals who make their numbers, it is bonus time. Principals can earn a $5,000 bonus, district administrators up to $20,000. At Sharpstown High alone, Dr. Kimball said, $75,000 in bonus money was issued last year, before the fictitious numbers were exposed."

[Michael Winerip's entire article (above) can be found in The New York Times, Aug. 13, 2003, "The 'Zero Dropout' Miracle: Alas! Alack! A Texas Tall Tale." (For a $3 fee, the column can be found online at:]

   Understandably, most other Houston ISD administrators have remained silent about Kimball's charges since their careers might be in jeopardy if they behaved otherwise. But one other assistant principal came forward with this letter (Jan. 23, 2004) to the Houston Chronicle:

Look at dropout 'epidemic'

The Houston Independent School District seems content to exonerate itself from the problem of dropouts by confining it to one campus, Sharpstown High School. In an effort to shoot the messenger (no matter how ugly the message actually is) the district has stooped to ad hominem attacks and lock-step conformity.
    Whatever methods [the former Sharpstown assistant principal] Robert Kimball used to draw attention to the issue should not excuse the fact that there is a dropout epidemic in Houston schools. Three high schools reported zero dropouts and the Texas Education Agency cited others for submitting inaccurate reports.
    Did these other schools willfully submit false information? We may never know the truth because the district is choosing not to investigate those schools with a fine-toothed comb the way it did Sharpstown.
    As a former administrator at Sharpstown High School, I realize that the principal did a poor job explaining the initial dropout issue.
    What should have occurred was the building principal assuming responsibility and initiating an action plan to correct the problem, find out who was at fault and draw up a prevention program.
    Instead, the principal, area superintendent and their minions tried to paint certain individuals as villains. This was poor leadership.
    I was reprimanded in this debacle for "using poor administrative judgment" in signing a form that my principal asked me to sign. Indeed, the reprimand even said I was not "responsible for dropout data." But because my direct supervisor asked me to do this, I foolishly allowed my record to be tarnished.
    I refused to sign my letter of reprimand because it merely scapegoated me and also had several misstatements. I cannot justify my lapse in judgment, but there are others being asked to take the fall for administrators who are not dealing with the reality of the problems facing our schools.
    Mine is an example of the district looking for villains and not facing up to this issue.

— Andrew Monzon, Houston

[Editor's note: Monzon received a letter of reprimand from HISD for his actions. He subsequently applied for and was hired for a different job in the district.]

   Am I the only one asking, "Where were the other whistle-blowers in Houston ISD?" Fifteen schools were censured and only two educators had the courage to stand tall in the saddle? Are Kimball and Monzon the "lone stars" out of a thousand administrators with a sense of smell or outrage? Well, at least they aren't completely alone. They've got Enron's Sherron Watkins for company in the same town. As most whistle- blowers sadly learn, "Ready money really is Aladdin's lamp."

UPDATE: In April, 2004, Robert Kimball filed suit against the Houston ISD for his treatment after calling district and public attention to the inaccuracies of the dropout rate. Two months after Kimball filed suit, Houston ISD settled the suit, paying Kimball $90,000 and offering a neutral job reference in exchange for his quiet resignation. The reaction of the Houston press can be found at:

   By September 2004, Kimball joined the faculty at the University of Houston Clear Lake teaching graduate students headed toward a Master of Arts degree and certification required of Principals. In September, 2004, Teacher Magazine did an extensive profile ("After the Whistle") on Kimball that included personal background that explained much of his dedication to Houston's children of poverty who were being so badly served. The article included:

  Kimball grew up desperately poor in Nashua, New Hampshire, in the 1940s and ’50s. His father died young, leaving his mother, who had never learned to read or write, to raise Kimball and his 10 siblings by herself. "We went to school dressed in rags, and not always clean, and we were treated accordingly," he recalls. Although his skin has been tanned by a long spell in the Texas sun, a faint, incongruous New England accent still tugs at the vowels of his careful diction. Once, when he raised his hand to answer a question, he recalls, he was told by his 6th grade teacher, "Put your hand down. You don’t need to ask questions. You’ll never graduate anyway."

   She was right. Kimball dropped out in the middle of 10th grade, trailing a string of D’s and F’s behind him. At 16, he took a factory job in nearby Manchester, then joined the Army. While in the military, he got a GED, then received a BA in social science from what is now California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and served two tours in Vietnam. After retiring in 1989 as a lieutenant colonel with a chestfull of combat medals, he started teaching history and English in Houston, got his doctorate in educational leadership, and became an assistant principal.

excerpted from
"After the Whistle" by Jerry Jesness
Teacher Magazine, September 2004


Senior editorial writer George Scott of devoted 25 columns in 2003 to the constant manipulation of Texas school scores to deceive parents and communities. Those columns and more can be found at:

rick casey imgHouston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey also has covered Texas education fiascos with incisive reporting, consistently uncovering the hype and deceit in the "education miracles." Much of his reporting can be found online, and once included:

Did the new Texas schools commissioner really work miracles in Galena Park ISD where she served as superintendent? The governor who appointed her says, Yes, but the numbers don't add it and Casey's three columns prove it:

  1. TEA chief's inflated grades
  2. TEA numbers counter chief
  3. 'All we trained on was TAAS'
n June 2004, researchers at Johns Hopkins University completed a massive national study that would interest those pondering dropout woes and why's: "Locating the Dropout Crisis: Which High Schools Produce the Nation’s Dropouts? Where Are They Located? Who Attends Them?" by Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters. ( Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University, June 2004, available as a PDF file at:

Birmingham's numberS game

   The fiasco at HISD surely came as no surprise to Boston College professor Walter Haney who had been examining Texas test scores since the "miracles" were first declared earlier in the decade and was sounding alarms years before Kimball and The New York Times. Haney's research, "The Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education," can be found online in the Education Policy Analysis Archives at:

   Steven Orel, director of the World of Opportunity Adult Education program in Birmingham, AL, wouldn't have been surprised by the Houston dropout stories either. After all, it was less than three years ago that he witnessed similar number-crunching. While the Birmingham Business Journal was boasting about Alabama's amazingly low dropout numbers, Orel had already discovered the story behind the story. He'd been running a G.E.D. program for the Birmingham public schools when a flood of 16-year-olds began appearing at his center, all of them carrying withdrawal slips from Woodlawn High School. The forms cited "lack of interest" as a reason for withdrawal. As The New York Times reported:

   "Kids were coming to us within a week or a month of leaving high school," Mr. Orel said. "It defied logic to me: Why were these kids coming to me if they lacked interest?"
    Mr. Orel enlisted the support of Virginia Volker, a Birmingham school board member, who learned that some 522 students, or 5.6 percent of the high school student body, had similarly "withdrawn." They were told to leave school after Feb. 15, when the state calculates reimbursement levels based on enrollment, but before April, when they would have taken the Stanford Achievement Tests, and could have dragged down their school's scores, Ms. Volker found.
   "A lot of our parents are poor and overworked, and they didn't object," Ms. Volker said.
    A spokeswoman for the Birmingham public schools, Michaelle Chapman, said that it was not the prospect of poor test scores that caused the withdrawal of so many students. At least some of the students involved, whose records the district examined, had missed more than 100 days from school, she said, and would not have passed anyway.

from "Ninth Grade Key to Success, but Reasons Are Debated"
by Diana Jean Schemo, The New York Times
1/18/04, p. 23

   A May 15, 2004 article in The New York Times found the national G.E.D. statistics growing at an alarming rate, with strong links to NCLB:

   Nationally, teenagers accounted for 49 percent of those earning G.E.D.'s in 2002, up from 33 percent a decade earlier. Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York were among the states where teenagers accounted for more than half of those earning G.E.D.'s. in 2002.
   "The proportion of teenagers getting G.E.D.'s has doubled since 1989, while overall high school graduation rates have declined slightly," said Duncan Chaplin, an economist at the Urban Institute in Washington.
    The growth has been especially pronounced in New York City. Last year, more than 37,000 school-age students were in G.E.D. programs run by the school system, up from 25,500 two years earlier.
    Most educators view the G.E.D. as a valuable option for people who do not make it through high school, but they do not consider it equivalent.
   "The G.E.D. was intended to be a second chance for adults; it was never intended to replace a high school education," said Anita Caref, director of the adult literacy program at Brooklyn College.
    Experts attribute the flood of young people in part to the difficulty in finding a decent job without a high school diploma, and in part to the increased difficulty of earning a traditional high school diploma in many states. New York, for example, has made passing five Regents exams a condition of graduation, and no longer offers a lesser diploma for weaker students.
    Under the federal No Child Left Behind law and state efforts to hold schools more accountable, schools have more incentive to discourage weak students from staying. Students who transfer to G.E.D. programs are usually off school rolls, but in many states are not counted as dropouts.

— "More Youths Opt for G.E.D., Skirting High-School Hurdle,"
by Karen W. Arenson
The New York Times, May 15, 2004, p. A14

Writing off your losses

  Now let's multiply the "ready money" effect on school districts nationally. Not only is the superintendent and principal's job security aligned to the numbers, but so also is the teacher's in many districts. In a survey of 4,200 teachers nationally, the National Board of Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston College found that in states with high stakes testing, 70 percent of the teachers noted "the state testing program leads some teachers in my school to teach in ways that contradict their own ideas of good educational practice." How long will it take for this to impact on whether experienced teachers remain in education?

   Much of the Texas education miracle was predicated upon the numbers found in the state's mandated  test — TAAS. It was the rising scores on these tests that politicians used to trumpet the "miracle" and usher in the No Child Left Behind Act. But what if those scores were a mirage? What if those tens of thousands of Texas students also were taking another test, a national test that showed very different improvement rates, indeed, a test that showed what little gains there were evaporated by high school? On December 3, 2003, the New York Times was back with more figures, this time contrasting 75,000 TAAS scores from Houston ISD with the same students' scores on the Stanford Achievement Test from 1999 to 2002. To see highlights of The Times findings, as well as the response of three Texas educators, click on Times Findings.

   In June, 2004, the Houston Chronicle responded to parent complaints about Texas state test scores having no correlation to the students' SAT scores. They found the percentage of 10th-graders passing the state TAAS test increased from 61 percent in 1996 to 86 percent in 2002. But they also found the following:

  During that same time, scores on the SAT and ACT, the two main college entrance exams, dropped slightly. And half the students enrolling in public colleges statewide were so ill-prepared academically that they needed remedial coursework, causing a financial drain on colleges as well as taxpayers, who this biennium will spend $183 million to teach college students what they didn't learn in high school.
    ... At TSU [Texas Southern University], 79 percent of the entering freshmen needed remedial help in 2000-01, the most recent data.
    The discrepancy between scores on the TAAS and college entrance exams has been particularly significant in some Houston-area districts, where SAT and ACT scores dropped at the same time a smaller percentage of students took the tests. Typically, scores rise when a more selective group of students takes the exams.
    Consider the Aldine Independent School District. In 2002, because of rising TAAS scores, all of the district's five high schools were rated either "exemplary" or "recognized" in the state's accountability system.
    Yet Aldine's high schools overall reported a six-year drop on SAT scores, despite fewer students taking the test. At the same time, only about one-third of Aldine's graduates entering public colleges scored high enough on college readiness tests to avoid remedial classes.

"TAAS scores rose as SATs fell,"
by Melanie Markley, Houston Chronicle,
June 6, 2004

   The Chronicle's findings coincided with those of researcher David C. Berliner and Audrey L. Amrein in their study "The Impact of High-Stakes Tests on Student Academic Performance" and "An Analysis of Some Unintended and Negative Consequences of High-Stakes Testing." Their 20-year study showed that in the majority of states with high stakes testing, SAT, ACT, NAEP, and advanced placement scores dropped in that period of time.

HOUSTON page 2: How Houston's math success went to 99% (not!)

INDEX for all NCLB, NRP, and Reading First essays and articles



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