Making (Up) the Grade
Two educational gurus visited Houston last spring to evaluate HISD's privately contracted alternative schools, operated by Community Education Partners. Educational historian Diane Ravitch and Mary Butz, the founder of the Manhattan Village Academy, wrote a report filled with effusive adjectives, describing the "tranquil" hallways and the school's overall "sense of serenity."
HISD Superintendent Rod Paige traveled to New York in January to present Ravitch's report at the Manhattan Institute, a policy think tank. Paige bragged that in less than one academic year the school raises the average student 2.4 grade levels in reading and 2.1 in math.
When Tom Kellow read about the presentation on HISD's Web site, he was outraged. The specialist in HISD's Department of Research and Accountability had done his own study and found that after a year at CEP, students' test scores went down one grade level.
On January 26 Kellow e-mailed about 1,800 statisticians on the American Evaluation Association Discussion List asking if there was an "evaluators crisis hot line."
"I've no idea where he got this data, unless the negative gain signs in my report were altered to be '+,' " Kellow wrote. "I am furious."
His colleagues wrote back that he should hire a lawyer and start looking for a new job.
The CEP program was born in 1995 when legislators rewrote the Texas Education Code to require Harris County and other large counties to provide classes for students who had been expelled for committing a school-related felony. "The concept was no child in the state should be expelled into the streets," says John M. Danielson, CEP vice president.
Harris County selected the bid from Nashville-based CEP, a company freshly created by some politically connected Tennesseans with limited education credentials. Two were former state Republican Party chairmen in Tennessee. Danielson himself worked in various GOP causes and was an underling to presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander when the former Tennessee governor was U.S. education secretary. Two of the top CEP officials were an executive in a private prison chain and a company officer for Hospital Corporation of America.
CEP set up its first school in the Heights. Paige says he toured it and liked what he saw. At that time HISD alternative schools cost $12,000 per student each year. CEP was about $3,000 cheaper. Plus, Paige wasn't satisfied with the alternative school's academic gains; CEP said it could be more successful. The HISD contract was the most lucrative for the company -- with the full 2,500-student quota, the company would take in about $22.4 million.
Overall, CEP has a Houston enrollment of 2,233 students, which includes kids from Pasadena schools and the county's Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program. They are the ones who act up in class, can't seem to learn and disrupt others from learning.
"This is a safety net," says CEP's Danielson. "This exists to save them."
In 1997 the Beechnut school opened in an abandoned Sharpstown Wal-Mart. A year later the Ferndale campus was opened in the old Foley's furniture warehouse. There's a CEP school in Dallas and one opening in Philadelphia.
The schools in the rest of the district are safer and calmer with the troublemakers at CEP, says Terry Abbott, HISD spokesperson. And teachers are happier because the company has taken disruptive kids out of the classroom, says Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers.
The Ferndale school reflects the differences from regular instructional regimens. Kids wear khaki pants and school-issued jerseys and walk through metal detectors. Jewelry is forbidden. They stay in the same classroom with the same teacher all day, at computer stations lining the walls. Several other aspects of the operation are unique, including the reliance on computer programs and videos.
The Ravitch report raves that these kids are "engaged" staring at computer screens, yet the report is contradictory. Its top recommendation is to have less computer-based learning, which can alienate and isolate already alienated kids. It notes that teachers don't actually do much teaching, but often serve primarily as monitors.
But the bottom-line findings are the same as in CEP's press releases. The Ravitch reviewers did no independent testing of the students, but relied on data furnished by CEP. It embraces the school's claims of two-grade learning jumps for students after just one year.
Last September HISD's Kellow did his own evaluation, based not on CEP-generated findings, but on recognized testing standards for all the kids in the district. Kellow looked at CEP students' scores on the TAAS and the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT-9). He found that both reading and math scores on the Texas Learning Index (which shows growth) and the percentage of students who passed the TAAS were actually lower after they attended CEP. The same for the SAT-9.
"When I first started looking at the data, I was shaking my head," Kellow says. "I ran it and reran it. It seemed like as soon as you hit the door it didn't do you any good -- but the longer you stayed there, the worse you got."
Kellow's results were sent to Paige in a September 10 memo. Then Paige sent out a memo of his own, Kellow remembers. Paige wanted to know how many HISD students were needed from every school to fill out the CEP program, Kellow says.
In late February Kellow was sitting at his desk when his boss, assistant superintendent Kathryn Sanchez, told him to bring her the e-mail message he had sent to the association of evaluators. HISD officials had been getting phone calls.
Kellow went to the on-line archive, printed out his message and walked into her office.
"Have you ever read 1984?" Kellow now asks. "I felt like Winston Smith -- I had betrayed the Ministry of Truth, and it was only a matter of time before they picked me up. I felt the same relief he felt."
He says Sanchez asked him how he could do this. He didn't have the authority.
"I felt both an ethical, but more importantly, a moral imperative to make sure people are aware," Kellow says. He recalls telling her, "You're sending these kids to an educational death camp."
Sanchez told Kellow she had to talk to her supervisors, he remembers. Kellow walked back to his desk, backed up all of his personal files on a disk and went home.
A copy of his CEP report was already in his grandmother's safe.
The next morning Kellow couldn't log onto his HISD computer. He asked Sanchez if he was fired. No, she said. But he was going to get an "official letter of reprimand" and an "independent work station," which would not have Internet access, e-mail or even a printer. "Show me a computer I can print on, and I'll tender my resignation in five minutes," Kellow says he told her.
Kellow remembers Sanchez giving him a hug and telling him that he was an intelligent man who needed to realize that he couldn't save the world. He handed her his letter of resignation.
Paige says he doesn't know if Kellow made a mistake or if he had some sort of malicious intent. All Paige knows is that the results are wrong and the incident "is disappointing."
"When you get data from a statistician, you should be able to believe it," Paige says.
Richardson, CEO of the company, argues that the TAAS isn't a good measure of progress; students may improve by multiple grade levels and still be so far behind that they don't pass TAAS standards at their grade level. However, in an effort to illustrate progress at the school, Richardson brought a sample student's improved TAAS scores to the Press. (Kellow also examined scores on the Texas Learning Index, since they show growth.)
Richardson thinks Kellow, like Ravitch, should have just used CEP's data. Its evaluation method has been validated by Mike Beck, the Pleasantville, New York, assessment expert who validated the TAAS. "We can't lie," Richardson says. "The tests have been validated."
However, Kellow's not the first researcher to differ with CEP's claims. For the last four years the county contracted Carl Shaw, former executive director of HISD student assessment, to evaluate the CEP program. Shaw found minimal academic gain. But often he has confirmed Kellow's results.
"You gotta wonder what's going on," Shaw says. CEP and the HISD administration dispute Shaw's findings because his test has yet to be officially validated by the Texas Education Agency. HISD spokesman Abbott also says that Kellow's research was poor because Kellow didn't personally visit the school. Kellow says he wasn't allow to visit.
As for on-site visits, Margaret Baudat, acting director of the Harris County Community and Juvenile Justice Education Department, made an unannounced appearance at the Beechnut campus the first week of school. She found that CEP didn't seem ready for the students.
Roughly 95 percent of the kids were returning from CEP summer school or the previous year, yet all of them were required to go through the two-week orientation with new students. And students didn't have course schedules or textbooks. While CEP usually boasts it has one instructor and an assistant for every 25 students, Baudat noted that class rosters showed 30 to 34 students per room with only one instructor.
"It seemed as if they were a bit ill-prepared," Baudat says. "We were a little upset."
Another unexpected visitor was Harris County sheriff's deputy Lennon Evans, a certified crime prevention specialist. He did a safety audit of CEP in mid-November. Evans saw students arriving unsupervised, the security gate arm up and metal detectors not working properly.
"The opportunity for crime is high throughout the campus," Evans wrote.
Ken Thomas, CEP director of operations, responded to county officials that all security measures were under control. Everything was fine, he assured.
More assurances flow from teachers' union president Fallon. Her 13-year-old godson is a CEP student, and she says the program has worked wonders for him. So much so that she has enrolled him for another year.
Only hours after she and others met with the Press to defend CEP, Fallon wrote her own e-mail to the evaluators' association. She decried Kellow's credibility and defended the administration's punishment of Kellow for improper use of HISD computers.
Kellow stands firm that his numbers are accurate; he only wishes the situation had stayed quiet long enough for him to run a second set of tests to further support his work. For all the recent flap over his findings, his CEP report had been routinely accepted by supervisors without question.
HISD administrators now issue blanket rejections of that report, but haven't re-examined the points raised or reviewed the competency of statistics supplied by the company.
Given Paige's push to use contractors in many areas of HISD operations, the sharp differences over CEP's performance raise questions about the district's desire to objectively evaluate the privatized programs it touts. Paige himself talks eagerly about making this program his showpiece on a grander scale.
"We are proud of the success of our unique partnership with CEP, and we look forward to putting this program on the national stage," he said in a press release.
Kellow thinks that the administration will ignore the academic inadequacies of CEP because, if nothing more, the program keeps bad kids out of the regular classrooms.
"It's a nice big rug to sweep things under," Kellow says. "And it's an attractive rug. What more could you want if you're interested in tucking away kids?"
E-mail Wendy Grossman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.