College & Workforce Readiness

Despite Disputed Data, Houston Backers Say District Merited Prize

By Catherine Gewertz — September 24, 2003 6 min read
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When the Houston school district won what was billed as the nation’s most prestigious prize in urban education, the honor added yet another layer of luster to a district whose academic success helped mold federal education law and propel its former superintendent into the country’s top education job.

Nearly a year later, the winner of the Broad Prize for Urban Education is defending itself against claims that its gains were illusory. And critics are wondering how the judges could have awarded the $1 million prize to a district that substantially undercounted its dropouts.

Even as the district was accepting the Broad Prize last October, it was struggling to address a high dropout rate that had troubled officials there for years. Many people locally knew that the rate was far worse than was suggested by Texas’ required calculation method, which in 2001 pegged Houston’s dropout rate at 1.4 percent.

“We’ve told our community for years that our dropout rate is complete baloney,” said Jeff Shadwick, a Houston school board member. “Nobody around here was surprised when in fact it turned out to be complete baloney.”

State Rep. Rick Noriega, a Democrat who represents Houston, finds it troubling that the biggest district in Texas was held up as a model when so few of its students complete high school.

“Without question, our achievements have been horribly inflated,” he said. “The Broad Prize ignores the significance of the dropout rate. We won the prize at the expense of those students [who don’t graduate]. You have to ask yourself if it’s worth it.”

The promotional materials for the prize, awarded by the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation, tout its “rigorous, comprehensive process” for selecting the prize winner. The process is driven by “compelling data and complete analysis,” the materials say.

The data analysts affiliated with the Broad Prize steered clear of Houston’s own dropout figures—which the Texas Education Agency later found to be inaccurate in 15 of the 16 schools audited—in assessing the district. Aware that dropout- calculation methods vary nationally, they used a report from the Manhattan Institute, a New York City-based think tank, which estimated the portion of a district’s 8th grade class that went on to graduate from high school.

On that list, Houston ranked 43rd out of the nation’s 50 largest districts, with a graduation rate of 52 percent.

“Both the review board and the selection jury were well aware of the dropout situation in Houston at that time,” said Bradford C. Duggan, the president of the Austin-based National Center for Educational Accountability, which analyzed data and conducted site visits for the Broad Prize. “But their rate wasn’t that unusual compared to [other] urban districts’.”

Worrisome Symbol?

Noting that honors for urban districts are all too rare, some educators lament that Houston’s has been brought into question by the dropout controversy. They worry that the scandal could dim the prestige of the Broad Prize, which was awarded this week for the second time, and erode its intended result: to boost public confidence in big- city school systems.

“We desperately needed this example,” said Ted Sanders, who is the president of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based policy-research group, and who serves on the review board that determines the Broad Prize finalists. “If it is now tarnished by the lies of a few people,” he said, “that would be a shame.”

Philanthropist Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, announce Houston as the winner of the first Broad Prize for Urban Education last October.

Philanthropist Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, announce Houston as the winner of the first Broad Prize for Urban Education last October. Supporters say Houston deserved the prize, but skeptics say recent revelations of data problems there call into question the district’s claims of success
—File photo by Allison Shelley/Education Week

The creation of the prize was announced in March 2002 with great flourish at the U.S. Capitol. Philanthropist Eli Broad was flanked by a bevy of congressional leaders and U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Houston’s former superintendent. Major newspapers covered the event; Education Week, whose coverage of leadership issues is supported by a grant from the Broad Foundation, reported that Mr. Broad hoped the honor would be the educational equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

The list of judges for the Broad Prize boasts luminaries in education, politics, and business. At $1 million, it is the richest annual award to a district: $500,000 in scholarships goes to the winner, and $125,000 in scholarships is distributed to each of four finalists.

When Houston won the award last October, again in a ceremony at the Capitol, President Bush sent a written statement congratulating the district for showing what can be done “to help ensure that no child is left behind.” Federal education legislation by that same name, passed the year before, had imposed strict new accountability provisions modeled in part on Texas’ example.

Those who have long believed that the “Texas miracle” may produce higher test scores but not necessarily higher-quality learning, see the prize as a symbol of what is worrisome in demanding greater accountability for academic results.

“The Broad Prize is part of a carefully crafted political and public relations campaign to create the appearance of doing something without making a serious investment in schools,” said Linda McSpadden McNeil, a Rice University education professor and a longtime critic of Texas’ test-driven accountability system. “Test scores can go up. But it’s a short-term gain at the expense of long-term learning.”

But those who believe the state’s accountability system has helped the 210,000-student district raise student achievement defend the prize and the district’s other national acclaim as richly deserved.

Many people, both inside and outside the prize-selection process, believe that Houston’s achievements are unsullied by its problem in accurately reporting its dropout rate. They point out that many factors went into Houston’s selection, and they contend that it shows solid and significant improvement in student progress overall, and in raising the achievement of poor and minority children.

“Dropout statistics are notoriously unreliable,” said Susan H. Fuhrman, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education. “Any district that might have won that prize might have had the same problem. It doesn’t change my view that Houston deserved it. They didn’t win it because they were perfect.”

Many Factors

Because districts’ data on dropouts were unavailable, unreliable, or calculated differently, Mr. Duggan of the National Center for Educational Accountability said his group used the Manhattan Institute figures. For districts not included in the institute’s report, the center used that same method to calculate the graduation rates for finalists.

Other factors analyzed by the judges included state test scores over a three-year period, including how poor and minority students performed relative to their wealthier and white peers; results of college-entrance exams; data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress; the numbers of students taking Advanced Placement classes; and the rates of attendance and special education designation, Mr. Duggan said.

During visits to the finalist districts, teams interviewed administrators, teachers, and school board members about policy and practice, from curriculum to the use of data to monitor student performance.

Dan Katzir, the managing director of the Broad Foundation, said Houston’s dropout rate and its more recent trouble with unsupported data have not altered his view of whether it should have won.

“Despite that, Houston really is a place people can look to demonstrate best practice moving children, particularly those of color and those from low-income families, up the academic-performance scale,” he said.

To Laurie Bricker, a member of the Houston school board, the district’s acclaim and controversy show both its strengths and flaws. “We have data-integrity issues that need to be resolved, just like many other districts,” she said. “Our district showed we are just as vulnerable as any other district in the country.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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