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Stealing from Children: When Schools See Only Test Scores

Everyone knew from the start that Andre Hornsby, the disgraced former schools superintendent of Prince George's County, was bad news.

Even on the day his appointment was announced in 2003, the best anyone could say about him was that, as school board member Dean Sirjue of Bowie put it, "we need someone who can find the underlying problems of student performance and focus on that. Everything else will fall in line."

The "everything else" was the fact that Hornsby came to Prince George's from New York having been fired from a school system where he feuded with the mayor and lost the confidence of the teachers and principals. Worse, Hornsby had been accused of improperly taking a golf trip and a hand-held computer from companies that did business with his school system.

But Prince George's hired Hornsby anyway, and he lasted just two years before being engulfed in scandal. Even then, the school board sent him away with a lovely parting gift, a $125,000 severance package.

Yesterday, Hornsby was indicted on federal fraud, witness tampering and obstruction of justice charges. He denies any wrongdoing.

What's remarkable in looking back at the record of Hornsby's hiring is that there was no enthusiasm about him at any point. Even in those first few days after the board made its choice, the only good thing that was said about Hornsby was that he raised students' test scores. The numbers were apparently the only thing that mattered to the school board, a sad and enduring legacy of the federal government's obsession with testing as the sole and all-powerful measure of the success of schooling in this country.

It was plain to anyone who looked at Hornsby's record that he had run into trouble pretty much wherever he had worked. Good, smart people chose to ignore that because they had come to believe that the only way to establish their school system as a success was to raise those scores--at any cost. "We're on the verge of being the least-functional school system in the state of Maryland," board member Robert Duncan of Laurel said on the day Hornsby was hired. "We've got to find a way to make dramatic improvements now."

One of the few voices that rang out against the selection of Hornsby back then was that of Rushern Baker III, the former state delegate who is now running for county executive against incumbent Jack Johnson. "As a parent, I'm concerned about whether in fact he's going to be able to come in and really turn the school system around and take it to where it needs to go," Baker said in 2003. "This hiring of Hornsby doesn't immediately give me confidence that we're making the giant steps we need to make."

But far too often, when it comes to our kids, we choose the quick and easy path, in this case, the flashy leader who promises to produce the magic numbers that really tell us so little about whether our children are learning how to learn and how to love learning.

Prince George's appears to have learned a painful and important lesson from the Hornsby debacle; the new superintendent, John Deasy, at first glance, appears to be committed to improving the quality of work and the atmosphere in the classroom, rather than simply the bottom line on the test sheet.

But the system, in Prince George's and pretty much across the nation, is now geared very much toward reducing the education of children to a simplistic series of numbers, which drives one system after another to eliminate the "frills" that are at the core of raising a well-rounded and inquisitive child--the arts, physical education, hands-on science, experimentation with numbers and mathematical concepts, a wide range of literature.

Andre Hornsby may go to jail for what he is accused of doing--meeting with co-conspirators in a hotel in Bowie, scheming to hide secret payoffs, suggesting that he be paid by corporate vendors in undetectable goods, such as a truck, a yacht and works of art. But the children who sit in the classrooms of Prince George's will never be repaid for the years they spend being taught test-taking skills rather than being lured into the joys and satisfactions of learning deeply about the world around them.

By Marc Fisher |  August 23, 2006; 7:30 AM ET
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You are so on target with these comments! It is shameful that our school systems have changed in such a manner. As with the rest of our dog-eat-dog society, an unhealthy competition is at the heart of this; competition for Federal dollars based on adequate test scores of students. What educators at all levels, including Federal, need to ask themselves is what is it that we really want to teach our children? To get the best grades or to seek knowledge, use that knowledge well, and be a caring person? Look around you and if your neighborhood is anything like mine, success seems to be defined as the amount of financial assets one has acquired - to quote a frequently seen bumper sticker, "he who dies with the most toys wins." What a pitiful commentary on human beings. And now a man who was entrusted to assure that the children in his district received a sound education is exposed for allegedly engaging in behaviors that none of us would want our children to copy. I hope that this experience opens the eyes of board members so they begin to see what's really important.

Posted by: maggieO | August 23, 2006 8:54 AM

The problem with Hornsby is that he is an alleged fraud and criminal, and the problem with the school board is that they knew this about Hornsby at the time and chose to ignore it. None of this has anything to do with test scores, and Marc's painful attempt to tie the two topics together is simply a non sequitur.

Put another way, Hornsby could have pursued higher test scores without resorting to criminal fraud, and the board could have pursued higher test scores by hiring an honest superintendent. The two issues are entirely unrelated.

Or to put it still a third way, it's also possible that a superintendent who is not focused on test scores might turn out to be a failure or a fraud. If some commentator were then to suggest conversely that that superintendent's criminal behavior was somehow tied to his _failure_ to focus sufficiently on test scores, Marc would rightly ridicule this suggestion.

Posted by: Tom T. | August 23, 2006 11:32 AM

Lock him up!!

Greed and Power vs. Morals

Posted by: Frankey | August 23, 2006 11:40 AM

Mont. Co. is equally hog-tied to test scores. A few years ago when my son was in fourth grade here, he had been out of school for a while for health reasons, but the county had sent a tutor to our home a few days a week so he could keep up with his class work. Well, when it came time for standardized tests to be administered we made sure our son was present to participate. However, he was sent home because although he was one of the brightest kids in the class, he had not been present for the drills, etc. and the school was afraid he would bring down the averages. Shameful that they would not assess his competency level and only focus on the class/school average scores.

Posted by: qwerty | August 23, 2006 12:04 PM

that is the most horrible story I've heard about our education system in America. Shame on this administration....our labor is going the way of the dodo too!

Posted by: Anonymous | August 23, 2006 3:30 PM

I blame it all on no child left behind. The program is designed to keep parents and students caught up over test scores and school rankings instead of the more serious issues.

Posted by: hogboss | August 23, 2006 4:01 PM

If we had had a county executive that leads on education then Hornsby never would have been hired. Instead of leading Jack Johnson only has excuses.

By contrast, Rushern Baker has proven once again that he is leader. He takes a stand for children no matter what it might cost him personally.

While Johnson was absent, Baker's judgment was correct.

For the sake of our children we need Rushern Baker to lead Prince George's County.

Posted by: Yockel | August 24, 2006 6:58 AM

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