Paige's methods at HISD reassessed

Zanto Peabody
August 3, 2003

Three years after Superintendent Rod Paige left HISD to head the U.S. Department of Education, some of the luster is fading from the district's achievements under his leadership.

State test scores improved markedly in HISD's rise to national prominence, but other performance measures have not improved nearly as much. And on the new statewide test, the achievement gap between white and minority students is nearly as high in some subjects among high school students as it was when Paige took over in 1994 (SEE CORRECTION).

One of Paige's most trumpeted achievements was the pronounced decline in HISD's dropout rate in 1996, after the state threatened to revoke its accreditation. But today, the district's "acceptable" accountability rating is threatened because it vastly undercounted dropouts in the last year of Paige's administration, the only year reviewed so far by state investigators.

The former football coach and professor at Texas Southern University won national acclaim because of HISD's improvement in three key areas: student performance, district management and school choice.

"I think my record stands for itself," Paige said in an interview with the Chronicle. "I will let the data speak for itself. But any objective review of that data will show that Houston is an outstanding school district."

Even critics agree that Paige raised the district's self-esteem, improved students' performance on many measures, rooted out special-education and cheating scandals and raised teacher pay and morale.

"As far as I'm concerned, he walks on water, snow and weak bridges," said Alma Allen, a Houston member of the State Board of Education. "For a black man to achieve what he has achieved, he has to. He politically can lay claim to all that's going on in education."

But the dropout controversy and the reappearance of the achievement gap have sparked criticism that Paige created a boiler-room, no-excuses atmosphere that effectively forced employees to massage scores and statistics.

Teachers say pressure and performance-based bonuses encouraged corner-cutting. But Paige's defenders counter that dishonest reporting by administrators at substandard schools is only an unintended consequence of otherwise successful reforms.

In 1995, Paige told administrators to re-evaluate the way they were counting dropouts because some students were leaving school for reasons that did not meet the official definition of "dropping out."

Later, he attributed the significant turnaround in dropout numbers to new training for employees who determine the "leaver" codes that categorize the reasons students quit.

This year, when the Texas Education Agency accused HISD of improperly coding thousands of leavers, Paige's successor, Kaye Stripling, said those same district employees did not know how to decipher TEA's matrix of codes.

After TEA's dropout findings became public,Stripling, who replaced Paige when he became education secretary in 2001, pointed out that the misclassifications had occurred under Paige.

"The data in question now was initially submitted in October 2000," Stripling told the Chronicle's editorial board in June, "before I was superintendent."

In 1999-2000, when then-Gov. George Bush praised HISD's academic progress, students in the district already had made significant strides on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Paige wanted more. Before the next school year, he told administrators they could lose their jobs if their students did not improve.

As a result, in that year alone, the number of top-rated schools in Houston jumped from 11 to 35. The number in the state's top two categories rose from 87 to 123.

Some now say the big improvement was illusory.

One teacher told the school board last month that she had complained for years about cheating on TAAS tests at Wesley Elementary.

"Wesley's exemplary status was achieved through alteration of test scores," teacher Donna Garner said. "These scores are not valid."

High school geography teacher Patricia Anderson said instructors felt they had no choice. They were handed kids with poor parental support, little academic background and limited language abilities and told to bring them up to speed with everyone else.

"It's not the only thing, but part of the problem is some of the goals are really impossible," said Anderson. "When you order schools to do things they cannot do in the time given or suffer repercussions, things are going to get done, real or not. People are going to fix records and cheat."

Dennis Spuck, dean of the College of Education at University of Houston, Clear Lake, contends educators are pushed to improve test scores but not to educate students any better.

"It's hard to argue with the fundamental logic of the accountability system," said Spuck. "But when you consider the pressure and incentives and bonuses, there are strong temptations to show progress that may not be. It's the down side of such a stringent system."

Teachers have said students who passed all their classes are sometimes held back to keep their low test scores from affecting accountability records in the next grade. Poor performers are also weeded out with disciplinary expulsion or alternative placement.

Further, about 75 percent of the students at state charter schools in the Houston area could claim HISD as their home district. About 5,000 of those students are in low-performing schools, meaning their students did poorly on state tests. Without the charter schools, most of those kids would be in HISD, dragging down test-score averages.

"That is addition by subtraction," Spuck said.

Much of the case for Paige rests on the narrowed achievement gap between white and minority students, which is based on the results of the TAAS. But breakdowns of TAKS - the more difficult test that replaced TAAS this year - show that in the last nine years the gap changed little on math and science exams and narrowed only on some reading tests.

HISD students have also made incremental improvement on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the American College Test and the Stanford Achievement Test since Paige took office in 1994. But on each, the achievement gap persists, with minority students consistently scoring much lower than white students.

Gayle Fallon, president of the largest local teachers union, said most of Paige's reforms were not directed at high schools.

"It was mostly for reading and the lower grades," Fallon said. "We're getting the remnants of that now. No one knew what to do with kids already in middle schools. I hated the thought of writing off a generation, but we are starting to see the gains of the younger kids coming through the system."

To restore confidence in the district, Paige had to please several constituencies, said Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, who has conducted election polls for HISD and other local school districts. Parents were an important element, Stein said, but only 20 percent of households in Houston send kids to school in HISD. The business community loomed just as large, Stein said, and Paige, a Republican, had substantial credibility with political conservatives.

"What Rod Paige was very capable of was bringing these elements together, Stein said. "He was like Nixon going to China."

Rob Mosbacher, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate and lieutenant governor as a Republican, has been a key link between the Greater Houston Partnership and HISD. Paige, who earlier had been a delegate for George H.W. Bush, served on the Mosbacher for Senate committee.

"Mosbacher and the business community wanted to see the dropout rate drop," Stein said. "They wanted to see evidence of that."

By 1998, political opposition to HISD had been blunted and a proposal to issue $ 390 million in bonds was approved by 72 percent of voters.

Public perception of HISD's academic performance continued to improve under Paige. Stein said he could not say whether the district's improved image was deserved, but that there was significant political pressure on HISD to show improvement.

"With the dropout rate as one measure of success," he said, "the pressure that some of the principals and enrollment officers were under was quite extraordinary."



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