Sunday, June 14, 2009

Should Houston Follow Oakland? (Or Make the Road By Walking?)


The Houston Independent School District (HISD) has avoided becoming just another urban system in perpetual crisis. Its leaders have encouraged racial and political moderation and incremental reforms. The district pioneered magnet programs, and continues to offer families a host of specialized, high-quality choices, particularly at the high-school level. Its students outperform school districts which have opted for radical reform in most categories of the recently published National Assessment of Educational Progress comparisons.

Now some members of HISD's nine-member elected school board want to change course and adopt drastic measures. They want Houston to follow in the footsteps of school districts like Philadelphia, Washington D. C., New Orleans and New York City by choosing a new superintendent in the mold of Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein [chancellors of D.C. and New York City schools, respectively].


The candidates were discouragingly inadequate, both in number and in scope of experience. Despite months of lead time that this position would need to be filled; the district had only been able to scrounge up three people for us to interview, two had been held for a few weeks and one was slipped in at the very last minute that very same day. These three are the only ones who had supposedly passed downtown's screening test and who would be willing to work at a 2000-student, comprehensive high school, a school which holds nearly 16% of OUSD’s high school student body.

Of these three candidates, only one had substantial high school administrative experience. One had a few years of administrative experience at a 260-student charter middle school. The other was just slightly more experienced than that, and was the only one who had ever worked in OUSD.

The district rep confessed to us that OUSD is in a crisis because it can’t get people to apply as principals for its schools. The district can’t attract people to apply for other types of administrative positions either, according to a teacher-now-working-in-a management-position friend. Apparently, they are quite passive headhunters.

When an already weak school district has been heavily destabilized for six straight years by the manipulations and mismanagement conducted by a sequence of Broad-trained, disruptive-force minded state administrators, what would be the appeal to working in that district, especially when the pay is less than in neighboring places?

Sadly for Providence, the best map for where we're headed is The Perimeter Primate.

1 comment:

A. Mercer said...


I lived in Oakland for 10 years, taught there for 4 years (3 subbing) before moving up to Sacramento. I think the problem goes back farther than the "state takeover" and "reform" movements you cite (both of which happened after I left, BTW).

There already a number of emergency permit principals at the elementary level, and vice principal level in secondary while I was there. My last year teaching featured a whopping 3 different principals (4 if you count the sub principal covering vacation under the year round calendar). The longest lived of them was the pulled out of retirement in his 80s at the personal request of the new superintendent, then given no support AT ALL, even with a crisis about mold in old portables descended on the site. Some genius at the district "volunteered" a number of schools in the district including that one, for the state's version of intervention and improvement. The school was reconstituted a few years later (strangely with the same principal, but having worked with her previously, I thought she was fine). They are now in Year 4 or 5 of federal program improvement and the district is trying to figure out if it should be reconstituted again. Remember most of this is happening before the Broad-types came in. I'm sure that was just the maraschino cherry on a turd sundae.
My point? The district was dysfunctional and serving as a revolving door for all levels of educators for years, something needed to change, although I would agree that it seems like the answers being offered are ill-suited to the problem.
I think personally the district never recovered from the white-flight during the 1960s and 1970s, and the one leader who seemed poised to deal with that effectively, Marcus Foster, was assassinated by a bunch of nuts.