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Schools Find No Help in Carrots and Sticks

The vaunted policy has led to numbers trickery and scandals, not better education.

August 08, 2003|Jeannie Oakes | Jeannie Oakes is director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

Is California's scheme to reward or punish schools for their performance just making things worse? This summer's scandals in two big-city school districts suggest that this may be the case.

The very policies touted as a way to "leave no child behind" could actually push more students out of school as administrators, under pressure to show improved scores, attempt to rid their enrollment rosters of low-achieving students. Can California's accountability standards, imposed to improve education, wind up doing the opposite -- pushing marginal students out the door and doctoring records to cover it up?

In two cases that came to light this summer, schools in Houston and New York City -- under intense pressure to improve -- falsified records and sacrificed students.

In late June, we learned that 16 middle and high schools in Houston had falsified students' records, making it seem that kids who had in fact dropped out were merely moving or transferring to other schools. That way, a school appeared to reduce its dropout rate while ridding itself of struggling students and doing better on the state's accountability rankings.

The reward for lowering the dropout rate included cash bonuses for administrators and national attention for the district.

For years, observers had suspected that increasing numbers of dropouts lay behind the Texas school-reform "miracle." After all, when the lowest-achieving students are excluded, the school's test score averages climb.

Texas officials now have reclassified nearly 3,000 Houston students as dropouts, and the cheating schools face demotion from their prized state ratings as "exemplary" or "recognized" to "academically unacceptable."

The Houston school district has been held up as a paragon of accountability. It is the school system that propelled former Supt. Rod Paige to his current position as U.S. secretary of Education. The district was the urban role model for George Bush's "no child left behind" legislation that now determines federal education funding for poor children. It was named the best American big-city district and was the winner of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation's $500,000 prize, the "proof" -- trumpeted in Sacramento -- that test-based teaching and accountability would close the achievement gap.

Paige raised Houston's test scores 20% and cut the dropout rate by half, and now we know how. The pressure on Houston school officials to cook the books was palpable. Under Paige's leadership, principals "agreed" to forfeit their job security in return for higher-paying performance contracts. That meant, lose your job -- no questions asked -- if you don't raise test scores and lower dropout rates.

The second shoe dropped earlier this month in New York. Investigators discovered that thousands of New York City's lowest-achieving students had been pushed out by officials desperate to make their schools look good on the state's graduation tests. The educators covered their tracks by reporting falsely that the students had "transferred to another educational setting" when, in fact, the students had dropped out.

Is the same thing happening in California? Each year, for every two young Californians who claim high school diplomas, a third has disappeared. In 2002, more than 140,000 who were ninth-graders four years earlier -- a whopping 30% -- failed to graduate. Among the missing were 41% of the Latinos. California school officials cannot even tell us what happened to them.

The state's declared dropout rates are much lower than these numbers, and far too low to be believed. In 2002, California's official four-year dropout rate was 11% overall and 15% among Latinos. These reports are so questionable that the federal government won't use them. When asked, state officials deny undercounting, using excuses like "students move" and that different districts use different definitions of "dropout."

When the 2003 state test scores are released next week, hundreds of schools are expected to fail to meet required "growth targets" (test score gains) for the second year in a row.

Dire consequences are in store for the schools that have accepted the state's "help" (money) to improve but come up short. They will be labeled "low-performing." State Supt. Jack O'Connell can reassign their principals, let students choose "better" schools, allow parents to start charters or shut schools down altogether. Guaranteed to "shake up" schools, these sanctions have little hope of improving them.

These are "no excuses" policies. Schools won't be let off the accountability hook even if they lack qualified teachers, suffer textbook shortages or are forced to cut days out of the school year because of overcrowding -- conditions that are rampant in Los Angeles and across California.

Bush, Paige and many influential Californians believe that high-stakes accountability (threats of firings and school takeovers) motivates teachers to teach and students to learn. In fact, real motivation takes place at the students' desktops.

Up-to-date books are motivating. Fully credentialed teachers are motivating. Clean, safe and uncrowded facilities help students and teachers want to learn and teach.

Instead of telling the truth about neglected schools and children, these carrot-and-stick enthusiasts blame the problem on a lack of professional will. Inevitably, this discredited motivational theory produces the collateral damage that surfaced this summer in New York and Houston.

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