Federal Opinion

The Texas Miracle Revisited

By Diane Ravitch — April 05, 2011 3 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I am sure you recall that when No Child Left Behind was under discussion, there was a great deal of publicity about “the Texas Miracle.” I remember newspaper accounts of the wonders that had been accomplished by the simple strategy of testing and accountability.

Soon after the election of George W. Bush as president, we learned that he was the architect of this miracle in Texas. The miracle occurred because of this strategy: the state tested every child every year in grades 3-8; disaggregated their scores by race, ethnicity, and other characteristics; published the scores; and then honored the schools where scores went up and shamed the schools where they did not. Mirabile dictu, it worked! Or so a credulous press told us. Test scores went up, graduation rates went up, and the achievement gap began to close.

A few scholars warned that the miracle was an illusion. Walt Haney of Boston College and Stephen Klein of the Rand Corporation published critical reviews of the claims in Texas, but Congress ignored them. The singular feature of education reform in the 21st century is a willing suspension of disbelief. Reformers today believe in miracles. They believed in the Texas miracle, and they believe in every journalistic report of a miracle school where 100 percent of the students pass the tests, graduate, and go to college—no further investigation needed. Eventually, all such miracles are explained. (Where is Harry Houdini now that we need him?)

But the Texas miracle was good enough to persuade Congress to pass sweeping legislation that affected every public school classroom in the nation, imposing federally mandated testing (by states, not by the federal government), a federally mandated goal of 100 percent proficiency (a goal not reached by any nation in history), federally mandated remedies (none of which was validated by research or practice), and federally mandated punishments (which have led to the closure of many public schools).

Now U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan tells us that by next year, at least 80 percent of our nation’s public schools will be stigmatized as failing, based on NCLB’s stringent and totally unrealistic expectations. This is sheer madness.

But what we now know is that there never was a Texas miracle. At best, it was wishful thinking. At worst, it was a lie.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress of reading, 8th grade students in Texas had exactly the same score in 2009 as they had in 1998. No progress, period. No miracle. Texas is not at the top of NAEP, nowhere near the top.

Just recently, former first lady Barbara Bush wrote an opinion article in the Houston Chronicle, arguing against budget cuts to education in Texas. She wrote: “We rank 36th in the nation in high school graduation rates. ... We rank 49th in verbal SAT scores, 47th in literacy, and 46th in average math SAT scores.”

Wait a minute: Ten years ago, we were told by presidential candidate George W. Bush and the national media that there had been a miracle in Texas. They were wrong! There was no miracle! We have a national education policy based on a myth, on a campaign slogan, on a fabrication. Texas confronts the same problems as every other state.

Meanwhile, the Texas model of testing and accountability has been foisted onto the nation by a credulous Congress. Will they rectify their error? Will they stop the wanton destruction of American public education? Will President Obama step back from his embrace of Bush-era policies? Will he throw out the punishments, sanctions, and “reforms” that are ruining education in this country? I hope so.


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