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Houston's 'Zero Dropout'

Fall 2003

By Michael Winerip

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 one percent.

Now, Dr. Kimball has witnessed many amazing things in his 58 years. Before he was an educator, he spent 24 years in the Army, fighting in Vietnam, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and touring the world. But never had he seen an urban high school with no dropouts. "Impossible," he said. "Someone will get pregnant, go to jail, get killed." Elsewhere in the nation, urban high schools report dropout rates of 20 percent to 40 percent.

A miracle? "A fantasy land," said Dr. Kimball. "They want the data to look wonderful and exciting. They don't tell you how to do it; they just say, 'Do it.'" 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. In early August, the state appointed a monitor to oversee the district's data collection and downgraded 14 audited schools to the state's lowest rating.

Not very miraculous sounding, but here is the intriguing question: How did it get to the point that veteran principals felt they could actually claim zero dropouts? "You need to understand the atmosphere in Houston," Dr. Kimball said. "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."

Pressure? Some compare it to working under the old Soviet system of five-year plans. In January, just before the scandal broke, Abelardo Saavedra, deputy superintendent, unveiled Houston's latest mandates for the new year. "The districtwide student attendance rate will increase from 94.6 percent to 95 percent," he wrote. "The districtwide annual dropout rate will decrease from 1.5 percent to 1.3 percent."

Dropouts are notoriously difficult to track, particularly at a heavily Latino school like Sharpstown, with immigrants going back and forth to Mexico. Dr. Kimball said that Sharpstown shared one truant officer with several schools. Even so, Houston officials would not allow principals to write that the whereabouts of a departed student were "unknown." Last fall, Margaret Stroud, deputy superintendent, sent a memorandum warning principals to "make sure that you do not have any students coded '99,' whereabouts unknown." Too many "unknowns," she wrote, could prompt a state audit — the last thing Houston leaders wanted.

A shortage of resources to track departing students? No "unknowns" allowed? What to do? "Make it up," Dr. Kimball said. "The principals who survive are the yes men."

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.

Dr. Paige's spokesman, Dan Langan, referred dropout questions to Houston officials, but said that the secretary was proud of the accountability system he established here, that it got results and that principals freely signed those contracts.

Terry Abbott, a Houston district spokesman, agreed that both Dr. Paige and the current superintendent, Kaye Stripling, pressured principals to make district goals. "Secretary Paige said, and rightfully so, the public has a right to expect us to get this job done," Mr. Abbott said. The principals were not cowed, he said, declaring, "They thrive on it." Every administrator under Dr. Paige and Dr. Stripling, Mr. Abbott said, has understood "failure is not an option" and "that failure to do our jobs can mean that we could lose those jobs — and that's exactly the way it should be."

As for adequate resources for truant officers to verify dropouts, he said individual schools decided how to use their resources, but added, "Money is not the problem, and money by itself won't solve the issues we deal with every day."

To skeptics like Dr. Kimball, the parallels to No Child Left Behind are depressing. The federal law mandates that every child in America pass reading and math proficiency tests by 2014 — a goal many educators believe is as impossible as zero dropouts. And like Houston's dropout program, President Bush's education budget has been criticized as an underfinanced mandate, proposing $12 billion this year for Title 1, $6 billion below what the No Child Left Behind law permits. "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."

Michael Winerip is the education columnist for the New York Times.
Reprinted with permission.

Fall 2003