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Education secretary goes to war on teachers
How Rod Paige left the Houston schools behind

By Cindy Beringer | March 12, 2004 | Page 2

EDUCATION SECRETARY Rod Paige grabbed headlines last month when he called the nation's largest teachers' union a "terrorist organization." What was the National Education Association's (NEA) "crime"? Opposing the Bush administration's education policy--in particular, the No Child Left Behind Act passed two years ago. After an uproar in the media, Paige was forced to take back his slander--but he repeated his denunciation of NEA leaders who "use fear, distortions, misinformation and disruptive tactics."

The real crime is the No Child Left Behind Act itself. The law sets draconian standards and requires complicated procedures, all designed to label schools, teachers and students as "failures."

The cornerstone of the legislation is never-ending testing. Based on these tests, schools are rated on a scale from exemplary to low performing--with low-performing schools suffering a range of punishments. This is bad enough. But the administration has proved just how little it cares about schools by underfunding the new law--to the tune of $27 billion since it was enacted.

As the administration's chief salesperson for No Child Left Behind, Paige has plenty of practice spouting lies and distortions. As the former superintendent of the Houston Independent School District--where he was the only public schools chief in the U.S. to employ a full-time public relations expert--Paige collaborated with then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush to create the fairy tale of the "Texas miracle" in education for inner-city schools.

When he was nominated to be education secretary, the New York Times reported that Paige "led the school district to strong improvement in test scores, a sharply reduced campus crime rate, falling dropout rates...and improvements in management that have saved taxpayers money." But all this was smoke and mirrors.

Last fall, an investigation by the Washington Post uncovered numerous scandals in Houston high schools revolving around underreporting dropout rates. In fact, the Post reported that a Houston schools employee admitted to following a superior's orders to falsify the district's dropout statistics.

Meanwhile, Houston high schools routinely inflate scores for tests administered in 10th grade by not allowing students out of 9th grade--before they could lower the statistics. For example, at one high school in 2001, there were 1,160 students in 9th grade--and just 281 students in 10th grade. A New York Times investigation into differences between state-administered achievement test scores and SAT results concluded that while "88 percent of Houston's student body is black and Latino, only a few hundred minority students leave high school 'college ready.'"

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, high crime statistics can result in a school being labeled "persistently dangerous." But Paige's district had a solution for that, too. In the last four years, according to the New York Times, the Houston school district's own police force entered 3,091 assaults into a database shared with city police--but reported only 761 school assaults to the state education agency. One of cases never reported to the state agency was the rape of a 17-year-old disabled student--because the attacker was jailed before he could be expelled from school.

While head of the Houston school district, Paige was known for contracting out many areas of school operations. One major contract was with Community Education Partners (CED)--for a controversial system of alternative education for students who commit school-related felonies. CED was started by politically connected businesspeople from Tennessee and former private prison executives--all with no experience in education.

Paige bragged that CED had raised the average student 2.4 grade levels in reading and 2.1 in math. But a research specialist from the Houston district found exactly the opposite--that after a year at CED, students' test scores went down by one grade level. The specialist lost his job.

Doctored reports and fictitious statistics aren't unique to the Houston school district. They are bound become even more commonplace--because the No Child Left Behind Act sets impossible standards.

No amount of funding--and no amount of appeasement by Democrats like John Kerry, who says he wants to change the law, but not get rid of it--will make No Child Left Behind less terrifying. It's time for teachers, students and parents to organize to give this farce of an education bill the failing grade it deserves.

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