Clearly, a major centerpiece of George W. Bush’s success as Governor of Texas and a significant plank in the platform for his Presidential candidacy was his leadership of the Texas public education reforms in accountability and standards of the mid to late 1990’s, and nowhere were these reforms in more evidence than in Houston, which was recognized as the best urban school district in America in 2002. But now, as we move to the next level of accountability, this reform “miracle” is being called into question by discrepancies leading to allegations of fraud in dropout reporting as well as the preliminary results of the new, more rigorous, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, which, depending on your perspective, reflect either a lack of true student achievement progress in many areas or a backsliding in progress previously reported.Recently, this debate was sharpened with the release of the results in five major U. S. cities of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, in which Houston participated on a voluntary basis, and the results were mixed at best. On one hand, I agree with many who say that these five major urban school districts deserve praise rather than criticism for their courage in submitting to the testing. However, it is very difficult for me to find anything positive about the Houston results, particularly the reading proficiency levels for the fourth- and eighth-grade students in the Houston Independent School District, which were scored at 18% and 17%, respectively. When over 80% of our children cannot read proficiently by the third grade, it is a travesty of enormous proportions, particularly when compared with the TAKS reading test results (even after a significant standard deviation adjustment), their comparison with national norm-referenced test scores, and the wide gap between scores of white and minority children. To compound this tragedy, we know how to fix it—the education establishment knows how to teach teachers how to teach at-risk children how to read at a very early age. We also know all too well the current deficiencies in teacher preparation and how to fix them, as Secretary Rod Paige has so well illustrated in his first two reports to Congress on meeting the highly qualified teacher challenge. What is missing is the will to do so.
The fact that Houston scored comparably well with other urban districts just won’t cut it. Houston, not to mention Texas as a whole, can’t plead ignorance—it has known of the problem and the required solutions for at least ten years. My question: When are we going to come to grips with the fact that this problem deserves nothing less than the equivalent of a declaration of war by urban school districts on the illiteracy of our young children?