If you were to stop an average Houstonian on the street and ask if he or she supports education reform, nearly all would say yes … and then they would go on to rattle off four or five improvements they would make, given the chance. Very few, however, would be able to detail plans for funding their proposals or the tradeoffs they would be willing to make in order to see them to fruition.
And that is just the problem. While everyone admits that Houston’s public education system is struggling, very few are willing to come forward with solutions that are both bold and realistic. And those who do take such a risk find themselves beset by critics at every turn.
Almost everyone agrees that the status quo doesn’t cut it anymore. According to Children at Risk’s annual calculations, the six-year dropout rate in the Houston Independent School District reached 43 percent for the class of 2007. For the class of 2010, only 29 percent of graduates enrolled directly at a four-year institution in Texas. A majority (60 percent) of HISD public high schools fall within the bottom quartile of all public high schools in the state of Texas. Among these lowest-performing schools, the average six-year graduation rate is just 54 percent.
The data are sobering, and the implications are clear – something has got to give.
I argue that change is desperately needed in HISD, but no one seems to want to admit that bold reform almost always requires sacrifice. Too many of our policymakers seem happy to pay lip service to reform, even as they are nestled comfortably in the status quo.
Houston knows that Children at Risk has no problem telling HISD when things are going wrong. But we also want to be fair and acknowledge where things are going right. As it stands now, things are far from perfect, but there is still much that is worthy of praise, and the man who best embodies the positive forces of bold, transformative change is HISD Superintendent Terry Grier.
Whether you agree with him or not, no one can deny that Grier has made some audacious reforms. The Apollo 20 program, which places an emphasis on extended learning time, intensive tutoring and selective hiring of teachers and administrators, has been implemented in some of Houston’s most troubled schools. In many ways the flagship initiative of Grier’s tenure, the Apollo 20 concept is backed by best practices research and has been highlighted in the national media as a daring experiment in public school reform.
Early results from the Apollo 20 schools have been mixed, and the overall success of the effort has yet to be determined. Whatever the final result, Grier should be applauded for trying a new approach in failing schools, and his entrepreneurial spirit should be encouraged rather than quashed.
At the Texas Education Center‘s recent school board candidate forum, the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they supported the direction HISD is headed under Grier. I was dismayed to see that only two of the seven were brave enough to signal their support.
This lack of vocal support for Grier is mirrored in the community at large, and it should trouble every reform-minded Houstonian. Reasonable people can disagree about whether his reforms will prove successful in the end, but at least he is taking a risk and doing something. How can we expect HISD to ever improve if every leader who sticks out his neck and tries something new is immediately swatted down?
Furthermore, Grier’s reform agenda is far from erratic. Many of his signature efforts, including extending learning time and replacing poorly performing teachers, have been extensively researched and proven effective. Rather than throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, Grier’s reforms are well thought through.
Reform is desperately needed, and Grier should be applauded for taking some commendable first steps. But reform cannot happen without the active involvement of parents and the community. The HISD school board election is scheduled to take place on Nov. 8, and I urge all HISD parents and concerned community members to make sure they take the time to vote for reform-minded candidates.
Many of his opponents argue that Grier’s plans for reform are too sweeping. According to this line of thinking, more measured, gradual changes are the preferred mode of reform.
While gradual change has its place, the window for this approach has come and gone. Houstonians should be glad to have a superintendent who is willing to push back against the forces of inertia. It takes a lot of time for incremental change to add up to much, and with HISD’s six-year graduation rate hovering around a dismal 57 percent, Houston’s schoolchildren simply cannot afford the delay.
Sanborn is president and CEO of Children at Risk, a research and advocacy nonprofit dedicated to speaking out and driving change for the children of Texas.
As published in the Houston Chronicle on October 26, 2011.