How is the Texas Public School System Like ENRON?
Texas schools are like Enron
By RICK CASEY, Houston Chronicle, June 1, 2004
Here's a riddle for summer vacation: How is the Texas public school system like Enron?
The answer is provided by Linda M. McNeil, longtime head of Rice University's Center for Education.
Enron and Texas schools both structured a system of rewards and punishment for executives and staff based on "a single indicator of success."
For Enron, it was the price of stock.
Stock price was so important that more fundamental values were sacrificed to it. Such as actually making money.
The pressure to "do deals" so as to book optimistic future profits led to doing bad deals.
The pressure to get good publicity so as to boost stock prices led to vastly exaggerating the prospects of new operations, such as "broadband marketing."
The pressure to hide losses and loans led to the establishment of off-the-books entities.
All the above led to the collapse of the company and, in some cases, to prison.
McNeil makes a strong case that Texas schools, like Enron, subvert their basic mission to score well on the only measure that counts: the TAKS test.
How important are the results of these tests? When results last month showed that the Houston Independent School District had not done well, Robert Stockwell, HISD's chief academic officer, sounded the warning:
"We may need to make changes at the schools in terms of leadership and staffing," he said.
Human nature being what it is, many principals and teachers react just the way Enron did. They subordinate the mission to the measurement. McNeil points out some ways in her chapter of a book edited by University of Texas professor Angela Valenzuela scheduled to be released later this year by SUNY Press.
·Hiding the failures: McNeil shows methods through which tens of thousands of students have been exempted from taking the test. (Her data is from the TAAS test, used until two years ago.) Many were held back in ninth grade, which wasn't tested with the TAAS, when they had failed only one course. McNeil believes this led to an increase in dropouts as these students became bored and discouraged.
·Manipulating the data: Test scores were regularly recalibrated so that the percentage of correct answers needed to pass was low enough to hide the dismal performance.
·Forgetting the "product": Many teachers in fields not covered by the TAKS were told they had to devote part of their class time to preparing for the test. Practice tests are repeatedly given, taking time away from regular teaching. And children who are seen as risks are pulled out of classes to drill on the test, resulting in more boredom and less learning.
A classic technique is classifying students as "special ed" so they won't have to take the test.
There have been cases of principals encouraging absences on test day and of telling test monitors not to wake up children who fall asleep during the test.
The pressure on TAKS results in dumbing down as well. Parents have reported that in the last weeks of school, after the TAKS test, their children did little more than watch videos in class.
A neighbor put his son into a neighborhood school with a curriculum of "Spanish immersion." By third grade, his son was perfectly fluent in Spanish. But that was the first year for TAAS tests.
"They knew he wouldn't have any trouble with the test, so they put him on the shelf," he said. "He got no attention as the teachers drilled the students they were worried about."
We don't need to do away with testing any more than Enron needed to do away with stock prices.
You wouldn't trust your money to a broker who applied only one measure to all companies.
Why would you trust your children to a school system that uses just one measure?
You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.