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Volume I, Number 10, October, 2003

A Lost Generation? A Million Left Behind?

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved

Total missing from 1996-2003 is 986,3601 Texas students!

As the Secretary of Education releases new proposals2 to close achievement gaps in American high schools, it pays to examine the Houston ISD and Texas record on school performance, looking past misleading dropout statistics to attrition figures that call into question the so-called "Texas Miracle" and undermine the credibility of the President, the Secretary and this administration's change strategies and proposals.

PRESS RELEASE - "Paige Unveils Series of Measures to Close High School Achievement Gap" - DOE

This new set of proposals is mere window dressing - drips and drops in a very large bucket of school loss and failure that this administration failed to address in Texas and is now failing to address nationally. We see gimmicks and rhetoric but little that passes any rigorous test of authenticity. Lots of talk but less than $15 million dollars of grants and action.

Where have all the children gone?

Hundreds of thousands of Texas students never made it to graduation from their high schools in the past seven years, but the reported dropout rates of many Texas school districts came through in small single digits.

A miracle? Hardly. More like a disgrace, a statistical sleight of hand that does more to cover up failure than demonstrate success.

The Texas ATTRITION RATE (on the right) provides a far more revealing (and harsh) portrait of what actually happens to many Texas students.

Where are those thousands of children today? Were they simply LEFT BEHIND? Discarded? Many were lost, forgotten, neglected and in some cases even PUSHED OUT. Push out the weak students and you will see test scores skyrocket.

If you were running for President or Secretary of Education, which number would make you look better, the dropout rate or the attrition rate?

Enrollments for the Houston ISD in 2001-2002
Source: The Dallas Morning News - August 31, 2003

Attrition Rate (%), by Student Group
Texas Public Schools, 2000
Grades 7-12
Grades 9-12
Asian/Pacific Islander
Native American
Economically Disadvantaged
Source: Secondary School Completion and Dropouts in Texas Public Schools
Texas Education Agency

"In 2001-02, Texas schools enrolled 364,270 freshmen – and 225,756 seniors. The state's official annual dropout rate: 1 percent."

Source: The Dallas Morning News - August 31, 2003

"True dropout rate? It takes calculating" By JOSHUA BENTON
A destructive approach to schooling is spreading throughout the land with the stealth we have come to expect from a computer virus.

Folks who oversaw a system that masked school dropout failures and ignored the plight of the victims - the children who ended up out the door and on the street - have risen to spread these tactics across the land in the name of the very children they ignored and neglected back home in Texas.

Posing behind the seemingly laudatory name, "No Child Left Behind," the current federal approach to school change is laced with punishment, bad education and unhealthy ways of managing schools and treating children. Borrowing techniques reminiscent of corporate friends and neighbors like Enron, WorldCom and Arthur Anderson, the architects of the Texas dropout "solution" have made their way to Washington.

After a decade of rewarding schools and school leaders for minimizing dropout rates or creating pseudo achievement gains based on selective sampling, the magicians now seek to bring their brand of learning and managing to a school near you.

A Peculiar Style of Accounting

Much like some of the corporate trendsetters in "imaginative" accounting methods, Texas began to change the definitions of school "dropouts" in 1994-95 - a move that was later lamented by a 1999 report of the TEA (Texas Education Agency) because the system would tend to under-report dropouts while providing cash incentives of up to $5000 to school administrators who could report declining dropout rates and rising scores.

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 from the books. "Transferred."

Dearly Departed, How We Loved Thee

There are creative ways to "fix" a dropout problem without actually taking good care of students. One way is to change the labels used to explain why students have departed. In a related strategy, a state may fail to fund the enforcement and auditing necessary to guarantee that districts verify their choices of labels with appropriate documentation. By extending the list of reasons that were not considered dropping out and by neglecting enforcement, remarkable progress can be achieved even while many students were no better served than earlier. The numbers can change on the reports and the state can create virtual reform while the harsh realities of these students' lives may not have diminished at all.

Differences Between 9th and 12th Grade Enrollments
and Graduating Seniors in Texas
1996-1997 1997-1998 1998-1999 1999-2000 2000-2001 2001-2002 2002-2003
9th grade enrollment 343,923 348,093 350,864 359,492 360,857 366,899 375,136
12th grade enrollment 195,291 207,226 212,773 217,977 220,324 226,431 238,882
12th grade% of total 5.10% 5.30% 5.40% 5.40% 5.40% 5.40% 5.60%
Graduated 197,186 203,393 212,925
12th Grade % of 9th Grade 57% 60% 61% 61% 61% 62% 64%
% Gap 43% 40% 39% 39% 39% 38% 36%
# Missing 148,632 140,867 138,091 141,515 140,533 140,468 136,254

986,360 students missing from 1996-2003!

White 9th graders 44% 44% 43% 43% 42% 41% 40%
White 12th graders 53% 52% 52% 51% 51% 50% 49%
Hispanic 9th graders 35% 39% 39% 40% 40% 41% 42%
Hispanic 12th graders 30% 31% 31% 32% 32% 33% 34%
African-Am 9th graders 15% 15% 15% 15% 15% 15% 15%
African-Am 12th graders 13% 13% 13% 13% 13% 13% 13%

Leave But Please Don't Drop Out!

During the time George W. Bush was Governor, Texas made liberal and creative use of "leaver codes" to explain why students left their schools. While many states tend to under-report dropouts, Texas advanced the art several steps by coming up with "kinder and gentler" leaver codes for many students who had previously been counted as dropouts. Texas also failed to budget sufficient resources to support a robust auditing system to make sure the assignment of leaver codes was backed up with proper documentation. Given the large cash incentives to "fix" the dropout problem, it is not surprising that 15 of the Houston ISD 16 secondary schools were found by a TEA 2003 audit to lack documentation to justify many of the "kinder and gentler" leaver codes assigned to students in 2000-2001, the last year Dr. Paige was Superintendent of Houston ISD.

A Failure to Enforce the Code - "Where there is smoke . . . "

The TEA admits that there have been data problems with the state dropout reports, as follow-up to verify leaver codes has been imperfect and the budget for enforcement was limited. The audit of the Houston ISD took a look at a single year, but there has been no more extensive audit of other years and other reports dating back through all the years Dr. Paige was superintendent.

Given the past award of cash incentives to school administrators to report low dropout figures, it is difficult to understand the failure of the TEA to ask the A.G.'s office to conduct an investigation into the possibility of criminal misconduct and fraud during those years. The results of the single audit conducted were sufficiently damaging to suggest the need for a comprehensive investigation.

How do the "kinder and gentler" leaver codes work? They are fully defined in the following report issued by the TEA (Texas Education Agency).

Secondary school completion and dropouts in Texas public schools, 1999-00

© 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.