While district leaders downplay the extent to which Houston administrators fudged their dropout data, those skeptical of the district’s claims to success say the system has long fostered a pressure-cooker atmosphere that places greater emphasis on showing the right numbers than on what happens to students.
Under policies adopted by former Superintendent Rod Paige, now the U.S. secretary of education, the student data that principals report help determine how much they earn and whether they keep their jobs.
Mr. Paige, who served as the district’s schools chief from 1994 to 2000, ended tenure for principals, offered them bonuses based on their respective schools’ results, and made it clear he expected principals to show improvement. Those policies and expectations have continued, observers say, under Superintendent Kaye Stripling.
The exhortation from district offices to lower dropout figures fosters a climate in which pressure to perform pushes some principals to cut corners, said Dennis W. Spuck, the dean of the college of education at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. “The promotions, the financial bonuses—all of this is tied to these numbers, so yeah, there is an incentive,” he said. “A principal wants to be seen as successful. If everyone else is doing it, you’re going to do it too.
“Philosophically, it’s tough to argue against those folks’ being held accountable,” Mr. Spuck said, “but the amount of pressure that is brought to bear on administrators, who transfer it to teachers and students, is extreme.”
‘Writing on the Wall’
Houston principals, who at the high school level on average make $86,000, are eligible for annual bonuses of up to $5,000 if their schools are recognized as some of the district’s best-performing on a range of measures, including achievement on state tests and dropout rates. Thirteen area superintendents, who oversee operations in several schools in a community, can earn up to $15,000 more.
“Principals are scared,” said Robert Kimball, a former assistant principal at Sharpstown High School, who contacted a local television station to blow the whistle on his school for altering dropout data. “They don’t want to lose their jobs. It’s hard to become a principal.
“You do what it takes,” he continued. “People saw the writing on the wall.”
The TV station, KHOU, reported in February that Sharpstown High had changed its data to report no dropouts, which in part helped the school receive a “recognized” rating under the Texas accountability system and earned school employees cash bonuses.
Mr. Kimball was transferred to a windowless district office for four months and now works at an elementary school in the district.
The fallout over the dropout scandal at Sharpstown triggered a state audit whose findings have reverberated throughout the 210,000-student district. School leaders have been replaced at Sharpstown, and an investigation into dropout reporting at 16 Houston middle and high schools found inaccuracies at 15 of them. Fourteen saw their accountability ratings changed to “low-performing” as a result. As part of its response to the problem, the Houston school board in July adopted a new policy under which principals and area superintendents would be denied bonuses if inaccurate data were reported.
Abelardo Saavedra, the executive deputy superintendent of the Houston schools, said the district intends to correct its mistakes.
“It’s unfortunate that what has happened has lead some detractors to say this has tarnished the district,” he said. “The academic achievement of students over the last several years is real.”
The inaccuracies in the dropout data occurred because schools were not vigilant enough in keeping up with the documentation needed to identify where students go when they leave school, he said.
“I don’t believe anyone has intentionally fudged the numbers,” Mr. Saavedra said. “Yes, there is pressure school administrators feel, but I can’t say that cheating is something that can be expected because of the accountability system.”
Mr. Saavedra served as the district’s hearing officer investigating the alleged improprieties over dropout data at Sharpstown High. A computer specialist at Sharpstown who changed “leaver codes” for several students so that the school could report zero dropouts claimed he was told by an assistant principal at the school to make the changes. Mr. Saavedra found no evidence the computer specialist was ordered to make the changes, however, or that the specialist changed the codes back to their original codes the next morning, as he claimed he had done.
But Mr. Saavedra’s Aug. 29 report found that the school’s administration had “contributed to a data-reporting climate that encouraged the reporting of unrealistically low dropout numbers.”
There was, he added, a “lack of adequate supervision and administrative oversight on the reporting of dropouts.”
District officials say Mr. Kimball was partially to blame because he did not take steps to ensure that the data sent to the state were accurate.
‘Reign of Terror’
One former Houston principal, who still works in the district and asked not to be named, said the pressure on school leaders to improve test scores and keep students from dropping out defined the climate when he was a principal.
“Under the Rod Paige ‘reign of terror,’ he put it to us that if children were not passing the tests, then teachers were not teaching and principals were not good administrators,” he said. “Pressure is put on principals, and the principals put pressure on the teacher. The scare tactics don’t work.”
Mr. Paige has said that he stands by his decision to hold principals accountable for results.
Mary King, the high school services director for the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals, said the state’s accountability system has increased the stress felt by many school leaders.
“When extreme amounts of pressure are put on people, extreme things happen,” she said. “But by and large, principals are not going to become dishonest connivers.”
State Rep. Garnet F. Coleman, a Democrat who represents Houston and is a parent of two students in the Houston Independent School District, described the relationship between those in the schools and district administrators as a “command-and-control situation.”
Mr. Coleman believes that the district is still in denial about the problem, and that it has not properly handled the revelations of flawed data. “They are not trying to solve the dropout problem,” he said. “They are trying to solve the PR problem.”
But Kaye Stripling, Houston’s superintendent, defended the district’s national kudos as well deserved and said it is confronting problems by, among other things, assigning a monitor to work with the schools found to have problems with dropout data.
“Our academic reputation around the nation has been earned because our story is real: our children really did make that academic progress,” she said last month in a statement.
Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, takes issue with those who say that the accountability system makes cheating inevitable.
“All jobs have pressure to perform,” Ms. Fallon said. “How you respond speaks to your ethics. Unfortunately, we have a number of principals in HISD that have no ethics. Right now, HISD is backsliding.”
In contrast to critics who have questioned Mr. Paige’s tenure in Houston, Ms. Fallon said the district’s current troubles make her long for the days of more decisive leadership.
“We’re just not doing as well as when Rod [Paige] was here,” she said. “I used to butt heads with him, but this would have been handled differently. You would have seen principals and assistant principals fired.”
Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.