Blowing the Whistle on the Texas Miracle

An Interview with Robert Kimball by Catherine Capellaro

Robert Kimball was the assistant principal at Sharpstown Senior High School in Houston, Texas, when Houston’s schools were being lauded nationally as the forefront of education reform under then-Superintendent Rod Paige. In the 2001-02 school year, Houston schools were reporting dramatically reduced dropout rates. Overall, the district claimed a 1.5 percent rate; Sharpstown, which served many low-income students of color, reported a dropout rate of zero percent.

Kimball knew something was amiss and wrote to his principal in November 2002, “We go from 1,000 freshmen to 300 seniors with no dropouts. Amazing!”

When nothing happened, Kimball contacted a local television station. Because of Paige’s prominence, the national media picked up on the story, and Kimball appeared on “60 Minutes II.” As a result of the media scrutiny, the district investigated and confirmed that the miraculous dropout rates were faked. A state investigation showed that the district under-reported dropouts by 2,999 students. Kimball, a high-school dropout himself, recently spoke to Rethinking Schools’ managing editor Catherine Capellaro.

Rethinking Schools: In the past year, the media picked up on the story that you helped break, the story of how Sharpstown High School was “cooking the books” to hide an official dropout rate that was much higher. What made you risk your career to blow the whistle on the “Texas Miracle”?

Kimball: I did it for the students. The District had canceled all of its GED programs because they felt that dropouts were not an issue since the dropout rate in Houston was only 1.5 percent. On almost a daily basis I observed school administrators telling students to withdraw because of their attendance or behavior problems. Almost all of the students that were being pushed out were at-risk students and minorities. I decided to go public when community activists told me that they had been trying unsuccessfully for 15 years to convince the district that it was in denial on the dropout problem.

As a high school dropout myself, I understood the dropouts and was angry that the district denied a problem existed. I was also angry at the total lack of integrity among the school board members and senior administrators.

After the media’s attention to the issue, every board member and superintendent said that they never believed the district had a 1.5 percent dropout rate. However, each year they approved reports going to the Texas Education Agency that stated that the district only had a 1.5 percent dropout rate.

RS: What were the personal and professional repercussions of your decision to go public about Houston’s real dropout rate?

Kimball: I was immediately removed from my duties as a high school assistant principal and placed in a windowless room for four months with no duties. When school began in the fall, I was assigned to a small primary school (PreK-2nd grade) that had never had two assistant principals. My pay grade was reduced. I was not given the duties normally assigned an assistant principal. I was given menial custodial and clerical duties. When I complained, I was moved again, to an even smaller primary school (100 students) located in a Buddhist Temple where all classes were taught in Spanish. I was placed in a closet with no computer, phone, or duties normally given an assistant principal. The district had hoped that by humiliating me, they would persuade me to resign.

RS: In response to an episode of “60 Minutes II,” Secretary of Education Rod Paige said the Houston case “shows the power of accountability that’s the linchpin of the No Child Left Behind Act.” What do you think of Bush and Paige’s education legacy?

Kimball: Secretary Paige bears responsibility for Houston Schools cooking the books when he was the superintendent and for the continuation of his policies after he departed the district. He wanted Houston’s school district to look like it had performed a miracle in order to make the candidate George W. Bush look better during his run for the White House. As a reward for his deceptive practices, he was made the Secretary of Education. The Bush/Paige team has done more harm to public education than any other administration in the past 50 years. They have developed policies to cause public education to fail. The purpose of these polices is to privatize public education.

RS: Presidential candidate John Kerry voted for the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Will things change significantly if Kerry is elected?

Kimball: The Kerry administration would be open to the community’s ideas on how to improve public education and what to change in the NCLB.

RS: What do you see as the systemic reasons for the achievement gap between white students and students of color? What kind of policies promote educational equality and what policies increase stratification?

Kimball: Institutional racism is the main factor in causing the achievement gap. Educators should be taught in colleges and in schools how to recognize racism and develop policies that result in an excellent education for all students, regardless of color or ethnicity.

RS: What has changed for you?

Kimball: After I filed a whistleblower lawsuit, the district offered an out-of-court settlement, which I accepted. I did not want to spend the next five years in court fighting a lawsuit. I have chosen to be an activist and am working with several organizations to bring about change in the Houston schools. I have also accepted a full-time teaching position with the University of Houston Clear Lake, where I will be teaching graduate students who are in a program that leads to a Master of Arts degree and certification to become a school administrator in Texas.

RS: What is your educational background?

Kimball: I dropped out of school in the fall semester of my 10th grade. I joined the U.S. Army a few days after my seventeenth birthday. As part of the battery of tests to all new recruits, I was given the GED tests and passed. After spending three years in the Army, I entered college full time and received a B.S. in social studies from the University of California San Luis Obispo, Calif., in 1971. In 1972, I received an M.A. degree from the University of Oklahoma. In 1991, I received a doctorate in education from the University of Houston.

RS: You’ve talked of a “dual education system” in Texas, one for whites and another for students of color. What do you see as the root causes of that? What can be done to remedy it?

Kimball: Again, it is institutional racism. However, there is another force that causes two systems of education in Texas. Schools in Texas are quickly becoming schools where only minorities attend. In Houston, only 9 percent of students are white and in Dallas, only 6 percent are white. A major goal of school districts in large urban areas in Texas is to bring whites back to the schools. Most whites have been persuaded to return to public schools because they are assured that their children will be placed in predominantly white classes and classified as gifted and talented. This policy demonstrates that institutional racism is alive and well in Texas.

Fall 2004