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All the innovation was in the spin

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Posted: Friday, July 25, 2003 10:00 pm

So many problems for George W. Bush and so little time, even on summer vacation, to closely follow all of them.

To name but a few, we have the continued tragic killings of American soldiers in Iraq, the infamous 16 words, the missing weapons of mass destruction, the deepening deficit, mounting unemployment, the quagmire in Liberia and saber rattling about North Korea, Iran and Syria.

What all of that means for Bush is a plunging approval rating. I for one never bought into the lofty 70 percent showings. Those polls must be taken in Crawford, Texas.Joe Guzzardi

With all of the urgent international and domestic issues dominating the print media, the strange and curious case of Secretary of Education Ron Paige and the Houston Independent School District is small potatoes.

You will recall that Bush appointed Paige as his Education secretary because of Paige's outstanding record when he was HISD superintendent. Among the most visible achievements at the HISD was its almost non-existent dropout rate. In the academic year 2000-01, only 1.5 percent of students who left school were declared dropouts.

Based on those statistics, Houston was dubbed the "Texas Miracle in Education." The city's emphasis on grading school performance became the model for the rest of the nation under Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.

Paige, who was superintendent from 1994-2001, took all the bows for the Houston successes. And he parlayed that into his current big job in Washington, D.C.

But now it looks like those well-publicized educational triumphs may have been gained by pushing under-performing students out the door.

According to a recent state audit of 16 middle and high schools in Houston, more than half of the 5,500 students who left school in 2000-01 should have been counted as dropouts but were not. Instead the schools recorded them as transfers to continuing education, GED preparation and the like. In reality, most of the students who left never returned to any type of educational institution.

As a result of the audit, 14 schools that had been ranked "best" will soon be designated "worst." And a further recommendation was made to rank the entire HISD school system as "unacceptable."

That's an especially long drop for the HISD, Just last year, Houston won $1 million from the Broad Foundation for being the best urban school district in the country.

Paige and philanthropist Eli Broad announced the award jointly. And in a written statement, Bush added:

"Congratulations to the students, parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders of the Houston Independent School District for winning the first annual Broad Prize for Urban Education. Despite facing many challenges, HISD has shown all of us how innovative leadership, hard work, and high academic standards can help ensure that no child is left behind."

Now, unfortunately, it looks like most of the innovation went into cooking the books and not cracking them. Falsified records and altered data generated the phony success.

To Rick Noriega, a state representative who once ran a dropout prevention program, the claim of zero dropouts was infuriating. He requested the state audit.

Then a Houston vice principal, Robert Kimball, added his endorsement to an audit when he noticed that the math wasn't working out.

"We go from 1,000 freshmen to less than 300 seniors with no dropouts," Kimball wrote. "Amazing!"

Paige refuses to talk. Dan Langan, his spokesman, issued this incredible statement: "The secretary stands by his record of accomplishment in Texas. Dr. Paige has a very strong record of success in education reform in Houston and promoted a culture of accountability."

But state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, a harsh critic of the Texas accountability system, sees things differently.

"The education miracle in Houston is all spin and PR," Coleman said. "My belief is it's deceptive and started not with the current superintendent but with the previous one (Paige). The accountability system and the test are good tools. But when you put somebody's job on the line for somebody else's performance, you're going to have people cutting corners."

This is not the time for Paige to stay silent. He owes the people of Houston a candid explanation of what went wrong. And as secretary of Education, he needs to set a better example for the youth of America than saying "no comment" when he is on the hot seat.

Joe Guzzardi, an instructor at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly opinion column since 1988. He can be reached via e-mail.

Comments about this column? Send mail to the News-Sentinel newsroom.


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