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Failing grade

Houston Chronicle
February 19, 2015

Houston Independent School District may be the best urban school district in the country, as Superintendent Terry Grier bragged last week in his annual state-of-the-schools address. Unfortunately, the field is not very competitive. The Broad Foundation recently announced that it is not going to award its prestigious educational prize this year in part as a result of "sluggish academic results from the largest urban school districts in the country."

Grier's speech highlighted many innovative HISD programs. Take Emerge. Last year, the HISD initiative helped 64 students gain admittance to Ivy League and Tier One schools. Only a tiny fraction of students in HISD will be attending these elite schools, but each student will receive a full academic scholarship valued around $250,000. These scholarships represent a $16 million boon to Houston families and life-changing opportunities to the admitted students. Similarly, HISD's dual-language program and Home Field Advantage Program both represent solid progress. HISD has almost doubled the number of its dual-language schools to 52 and has started a program this year that provides transportation to students whose families move frequently.

HISD's partnership with the community college system is another bright spot. More than 300 HISD students graduated with an associate's degree last year. HISD students also enrolled in thousands of college-level Advanced Placement exams in the hopes of earning college credit. "Put another way, these students earned 25,000 college credits, saving themselves and their parents $7.3 million in tuition," according to Grier. While some college professors worry these classes aren't rigorous enough, the dual-credit program succeeds in encouraging many first-generation college students to pursue college degrees.

By concentrating limited resources in pilot programs, HISD has made impressive gains in targeted areas. Unfortunately, too many HISD schools are still failing their students. The Houston-based nonprofit Children at Risk gave 26.5 percent of HISD schools a "D" or "F" ranking last year. "The truth is, the list of Houston schools that most of us in town would refuse to send our own children to is longer than the list of schools we consider acceptable for our own children," Grier acknowledged in his speech.

That's a stunning observation, in and of itself - more so to hear it from Grier. And while we appreciate his self-awareness of the failures, we did not hear solutions that will help more schools rise to meet students' needs. Flashy programs grab attention. The harder task is building an infrastructure that will support taking worthy programs to scale.

The building block of learning is the teacher-student relationship, but HISD teachers aren't happy. It's not just that teachers deserve to be paid more. Teachers want to be free to focus on real learning instead of continuously subjecting students to tests that are beyond what the state requires. We want a reliable way to measure student performance, of course, but HISD should stop over-testing.

Teachers are voting with their feet. The district lost 2,600 experienced teachers last year, according to Gayle Fallon, President of Houston Federation of Teachers. In the past three years, she added, HISD has lost over 50 percent of its teachers, many of them quitting midyear despite penalties and incurring a black mark on their employment jacket. We made multiple attempts to confirm teacher-retention figures with HISD, but didn't hear back. Until Grier places a greater emphasis on recruiting and retaining quality teachers, it is unlikely that the district will make significant progress.

Grier has been in Houston for nearly six years. HISD is the only urban school district to have won the Broad Prize twice. This prize is one legitimate measure of achievement and recognizes real, tangible gains. Another measure is whether quality teachers want to work in a district's schools. Ultimately, even HISD's innovative programs will falter if the district continues to hemorrhage good teachers