Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/21/opinion/21MON2.html?ex=1059822683&ei=1&en=a6b73910334cfcd0

Houston's School Dropout Debacle
New York  Times
July 21, 2003

As a presidential candidate and Texas governor, George Bush boasted that his state's school accountability system would be a model for the nation. A focus on basic skills and frequent testing had turned around an underperforming set of school systems in a state with a large poor, nonwhite population. In particular, he said, Houston was leading the way. When he was elected president, Mr. Bush selected Rod Paige, the Houston superintendent, as his education secretary.

It turns out the Houston schools have not lived up to their billing. Their amazingly low high school dropout rate was literally unbelievable - the educational equivalent of Enron's accounting results. The school district has found that more than half of the 5,500 students who left in the 2000-1 school year should have been declared dropouts but were not.

Dr. Paige, who has declined to comment on the Houston scandal, can remain silent no longer. He was brought to Washington to provide national educational leadership. With Houston facing a crisis of fiddled data, he owes it to the country to share his thoughts on how this happened and what it means.

Houston is still, by most accounts, one of the nation's better school systems. If it is losing its battle against high school dropouts, it is not alone. All the focus on improving elementary schools over the past decade or two in Texas and elsewhere amounts to little if the students cannot hold on to those gains into high school. Clearly, far more needs to be done nationally, including a fairer distribution of money to urban systems, better teacher training and probably smaller classes.

Creating successful urban middle and high schools is the holy grail of American education, the difference between offering real opportunity to our underprivileged young and merely claiming to do so. The federal law requiring yearly testing in grades three through eight is fine but, as they say on the farm, you don't fatten cattle by weighing them. Increased testing may not be pushing students to drop out early, but testing alone will not do much to stop them.

A recent survey in Philadelphia suggests that students drop out of school because they are not engaged by their studies. Troubled youths need help with family problems, violence and pregnancy. They need to understand the value of staying in school. At the same time, improving the courses they take - making sure that poor readers and those behind in mathematics get the academic help required - could go a long way. Conquering the dropout rate will probably require far more creative rethinking than simply copying the approach used to raise elementary school scores and doing more of the same for high school.