When the News is Unbelievably Good, Don’t Believe it

The “Texas miracle” in education, Governor Bush’s implausible account of which the media never bothered to scrutinize when he was running for President, turns out to be based largely on hocused numbers.

In particular, Rod Paige, the Houston school superintendent whom Bush promoted to Secretary of Education and who was the chief salesman for “No Child Left Behind,” turns out to have taken a long summer vacation either from his ethics or from his common sense. He purported to believe, and paid bonuses based on, numbers showing that one high-poverty high school after another had zero dropouts. *

Since every school has dropouts, any large school that reports zero dropouts is reporting what must be untrue. Yet the Houston authorities never queried the numbers, and took predictable revenge on the assistant principal who blew the whistle. (He was assigned to no job in a windowless office, is now second deputy principal at a primary school, and expects to be fired in January: his contract, like all the others, allows dismissal without cause. Remember, we need to get rid of all those pesky civil service job protections if we’re going to make government work.)

Now that the truth is out, Paige, instead of expressing outrage, blandly refers all questions back to Houston. I wonder how much of what he said about his Houston record at his confirmation hearing and in congressional testimony about No Child Left Behind he demonstrably knew to be false?

I can’t pretend to be surprised; after all, this is just another instance of Dukenfield’s Law of Incentive Management, which holds that, since anything worth winning is worth cheating for, an incentive to “perform” is also an incentive to rig the count. But you don’t have to be surprised to be outraged, if not by the fact of cheating by its blatancy and the evident indifference to it of the folks in Houston and Washington who sold the whole country a new education policy based in substantial part on obvious hogwash.

Footnote: Boy, am I ever glad that Howell Raines is no longer editing the New York Times! Under his shrill, partisan regime, this might have run on the front page rather than in the middle of Page 19.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com