Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 14, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

THE TEXAS MIRACLE....Via Tom Spencer, this New York Times article is a pretty good summary of the scandal over the "Texas Miracle":

Robert Kimball, an assistant principal at Sharpstown High School, sat smack in the middle of the "Texas miracle." His poor, mostly minority high school of 1,650 students had a freshman class of 1,000 that dwindled to fewer than 300 students by senior year. And yet and this is the miracle not one dropout to report!

Nor was zero an unusual dropout rate in this school district that both President Bush and Secretary of Education Rod Paige have held up as the national showcase for accountability and the model for the federal No Child Left Behind law. Westside High here had 2,308 students and no reported dropouts; Wheatley High 731 students, no dropouts. A dozen of the city's poorest schools reported dropout rates under 1 percent.

....In February, with the help of Dr. Kimball, the local television station KHOU broke the news that Sharpstown High had falsified its dropout data. That led to a state audit of 16 Houston schools, which found that of 5,500 teenagers surveyed who had left school, 3,000 should have been counted as dropouts but were not. Last week, the state appointed a monitor to oversee the district's data collection and downgraded 14 audited schools to the state's lowest rating.

...."This isn't about educating children," Dr. Kimball said. "It's about public relations."

If Houston officials were interested in accountability, he said, they would assign him to a high school to monitor the dropout data that he has come to understand so well. Instead, after he blew the whistle on Sharpstown High, he was reassigned, for four months, to sit in a windowless room with no work to do. More recently, he has been serving as the second assistant principal at a primary school, where, he said, he is not really needed. "I expect when my contract is up next January, I'll be fired," he said. "That's how it works here."

For the district as a whole, the reported dropout rate was 1.5%, while experts estimate that the actual rate was about 40%. That's not exactly a small mistake.

This deserves more attention. Anyone who has spent any time at all in management knows that whenever you set up goals and the systems to measure them, you also spend a lot of time talking about how the goals can be met and whether the system can be gamed.

All managers talk about this. It's practically an obsession, in fact, because it's such common knowledge that measurement systems often flounder on the fact that there are ways to meet numeric goals without actually meeting the goals themselves: you can change definitions, you can refuse to accept low-performance students who might drag down your average, you can outright cheat, etc. As Ken Lay demonstrated, there are plenty of ways to make numbers look good even when the company is going down the tubes.

Any manager interested in genuine progress, therefore, monitors the numbers carefully and looks for signs that the system is being gamed. It defies reason that an experienced administrator like Rod Paige didn't recognize an enormous discrepancy like this, and since all this happened while he was superintendent of the Houston school district it's hard to avoid the conclusion that either (a) he knew this was going on, or (b) he simply didn't care as long as the numbers made him look good.

This scandal reflects directly on Paige's character and judgment, and it reflects especially badly on a man who has made "accountability" a cornerstone of educational policy. In any system of goals and metrics, the public should be absolutely certain that the person responsible for implementing them is genuinely trying to improve actual performance, not simply trying to make the numbers look good.

Rod Paige is apparently not such a man. He should not be running the Department of Education.

Kevin Drum 12:35 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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