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The Houston School Reform Status Quo, or how to make everbody mad

At one point or another over the past twenty years, I have angered union leaders and school administrators; and, at other times, I have allied with good principals and with the union when they are on the side of providing a better education or ensuring basic fairness to individuals.

A few years ago, several union members went after a well-meaning principal at my school. I resigned as steward and defended her and that was one of the proudest non –teaching moments of my educational career.

To be clear, the union leadership did not start the drive to remove that principal—it was a few teachers at my school, but my concern was the lack of a meeting or process where members uncomfortable with what was happening could voice our opinions. Some of us felt squeezed out of having a voice.

I had spent my twenties founding a union, the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees (MASE), in my home state, and I wanted an organization I believed in to go about things in the cleanest possible way.

Every fight is a moral fight, not in puritanical terms, but in terms of what is in the public interest. When you do the right thing, you sometimes pay a penalty for it whether its disagreeing with administrators or the union, but you earn capital for later fights, in part because the wrong eventually comes out in ways that effects not just you but others as well.

The principal I defended was transferred, and under her successor, we have seen a dramatic fall in the number of seniors passing Advanced Placement exams and a noticeable increase in minor discipline problems. To be fair, the looser rule enforcement and decline in traditional and standard practices such as giving homework may have kept more low performing students hanging on until graduation.

Asking less of students reduces friction, but it may pull down the performance of kids in the middle, those willing to work and behave well but who are not in magnet classes. Adolescents are greatly influenced by the kids around them and working-class students rarely rise above what teachers ask of them.

When I refused a request to reopen grades for five seniors who had failed my class in 2007, the new Principal reassigned me from teaching magnet classes, as I knew he would, and when I filed for the second step of the grievance process, he and an East District official denied my grievance rights—something that surprised me.

After begging and complaining, I eventually got some effective representation from my union. I have been fighting this frustrating, unproductive battle for three years but I would do the same thing again.

When you take a stand against people who have a little power, they will make you pay a price in dignity, in waiting for the right thing to happen, or worse if they can.

At my grievance hearing on this Wednesday, the evidence was on my side, so an attorney paid by HISD, Ellain Spalding, attacked my reputation as a teacher, saying three years ago I had not given students sufficient opportunities to pass. My first thought was, how would you know, Ms. Spalding?

I offered after-school tutoring sessions, gave extra points for attending those sessions, added ten points to everyone’s final exam, provided weekly progress reports instead of one per six weeks (as in policy), and called parents to warn them a week before final exams if their kids were in danger of failing.

I am the only teacher I know who has spent entire holiday vacations home visiting failing students without pay, though, admittedly, I did not come up with that idea until a couple of years ago. I am a disorganized person, so I have some weaknesses as a professional, but fairness is one of my strengths.

As for Ms. Spalding, she was clever and smart and made the best out of a weak case. But I was glad she was not my daughter. Willingness to lie for money is so common in our society that doing it has become acceptable, but I would want my daughter to be clever for good causes and to find a way of making a living without slandering people who are in a difficult position.

Sam Sarabia and Richard Barajas lied and denied my due process rights, but each of them has certain strengths. I like both, and I do not want anybody’s head on a plate, including mine.  If HISD wants leaders to act like this, it is their business. I simply want a quiet, private apology and my assignment back and a guarantee of no future harassment of my AP Government classes.

This bitter taste of this adversarial legal process is not that different from the urban school politics fight between teachers’ unions and reformers. Everybody has a side and interests to protect, but the best solution available now in Houston is creating a balance on the school board, which is why Juliet Stipeche needs to win this District 8 position on the HISD Board of Trustees.

Reformers now control the school board, but where is reform outside the nine Apollo 20 schools? Are teacher bashing and this tiny program the sole expressions of school reform? Do we let KIPP have a monopoly on the only model we know that works because they have helped some board members win election?

Ironically, the reform members of the board may be the least likely to offer real reform, because they are tethered to private interest groups desiring charter expansion. Perhaps some of them will surprise us in the future, but you need five votes to carry out reform. To have real reform, we have to diminish the influence of the reformers. We need to elect people who care about improving the schools we have.

I would not trust an entirely union-controlled school board, but now six or seven votes usually go the other way for some bad policies, such as doubling bonuses for administrators at nine Apollo 20 schools. Having two viable factions, with a couple of swing votes, on the school board would ensure better vetting of policies. Anybody who has taught knows the problems we face go much deeper than having a few bad teachers.

We need reform, and it needs to be comprehensive, and it needs to be at neighborhood schools across HISD, not just at nine or twenty schools.

Ms. Spalding spoke highly of my principal and Milby High School saying he is exactly what HISD wants in its principals. My response was: “I hope not.” But there was some evidence she was right—and in spite of a reformist school board majority—six of eight—the district appears to be lowering rather than raising standards to receive course credit and graduate—not for their own kids, of course, but for kids in poor neighborhoods. How often have you seen kids rise above the standards their schools set for them?

 The reform test we should all have to pass is to answer this question. Would you send your own kids to a particular school? If you would not send your kids to a particular school, that school needs to change. You cannot say, well that is a Hispanic school, or that is an African-American school—it’s good enough for them.

And it’s good enough for us to process those kids through, throw a piece of paper at them and say good luck buddy. You read at a sixth grade level, but you are a proud high school graduate of Milby or Reagan or Yates or Madison or Lee or Scarborough.

The reformers are right our schools need to change—but they are self-serving when they imply people out of Teach for America have a monopoly on solutions to improving schools. The District of Columbia Public Schools, which served mainly poor, African-American students, became a jobs program for affluent white kids after they left Teach for America. Like the government bailout of the finance industry, that represented some serious redistribution of wealth upward.

Reformers are also wrong to suggest schools serving poor kids can achieve great gains without addressing social issues. Reformers should aim some of their passion, or hot air, at immigration policies and labor laws not at teachers.

The best we can do is expert triage, but if we did that well, it would be a great leap forward from where we are at now. In every one of my regular classes, I have ten students who would achieve much more if they were placed away from trouble makers in a school with moderately higher academic standards—yes, in a KIPP-like charter school, but there is no reason we should not offer parents that option within the public schools.

The unions are right to protect good, veteran teachers. The best teachers usually are veterans, because when you first start out, you confuse energy with achievement, personal excitement with measurable improvements. Later on, you can tell the difference between how you feel, and what students are actually learning.

It is also true that we slow down some as we age—I am not sure I could get 28 kids to pass AP exams in a year ever again—but you do not throw people overboard just because they hit forty or fifty or because they slow down or because experience has given them a point of view.

In Houston, the union is also waging a valiant effort to keep a single well-financed interest group from taking over the local school board. The problem for veteran teachers and unions, is the reformers have a narrative and plan for improving schools—and, most importantly, more money.

The union must represent a broad array of teachers—and we do not always agree with one another. It’s not true there are a lot of bad teachers out there. It is true teachers have different philosophies about teaching and varying ideas of what makes a good teacher. That makes it difficult for a teachers’ organization to create a narrative and set of policy goals towards improving schools.

It is not so much the union is too busy defending bad teachers to contribute to reform—it is that teachers do not agree among themselves. So the union presses a reform agenda at the national level, but rarely in individual schools where it matters most. I only write about secondary schools, what I know, so this may not apply to elementary schools.

These divisions exist even among reformers, with Teach for America emphasizing more nurturing approaches with cultural sensitivity training, and the charter schools geared towards retraining kids in the basics of how to be good students. The former puts the onus on the teacher, and the latter emphasizes mutual responsibility.

I lean towards the latter. As a poor kid who got into some trouble in high school, I never believed other people could do it all for me and that self-sufficiency saved me. The most others can do is give you opportunity and second chances. You have to take the ball from there and run with it. Every good student I have ever met practices self-teaching during some of their free time.

We have not come to the truth that poor kids of whatever race usually do not do well in school unless we go on a big retraining mission; or unless they go to class-integrated schools and are surrounded with lots of education oriented role models.

Scaring or bribing teachers, and doing everything else the same as we have always done, will not improve schools. It will lead to cheating scandals. Many of those are just around the corner. Accumulations of cheating scandals will further erode trust in public schools.

The current HISD Superintendent seems to talk out of both sides of his mouth on academic and behavior standards. Adopting easier methods of earning course credit, such as credit recovery, establishing night schools and suggesting putting kids with a history of anti-social behavior back into regular classrooms, on the one hand, and criticizing the low percentages of HISD graduates succeeding in college and requiring remedial courses, on the other hand, does not offer clarity. Do we lower standards to get higher performance?

 The first thing I noticed going into urban public schools is airy rhetoric about excellence covering up a reality of too much deflating compromise and staggering under-achievement. How is this any different? Apollo 20 is obviously unique, but the rest of the policies are more of what we have been trying for thirty years.

The source of educational under-achievement is economic inequality not race or poor teaching, but sometimes I think the politics of race keeps the neighborhood public schools fearful of doing what the charters do—a complete retraining of how and why students should be on their best behavior in school.

You cannot in an efficient manner teach kids who do not want to learn. You can manage their behaviors through compromises. You can get along with them. You can establish good relationships. But those are different things. That is why we do need testing to check the claims of administrators and teachers when they claim success.

The compromises teachers make, and are encouraged to make, lead to graduates who need massive intervention in college to reach freshman 101 courses. Actually, most do not even try for college. With all due respect, Dr. Grier has diagnosed the illness very well, and he deserves credit for this, but he has yet to offer a cure.

When I hear critics say he should not badmouth his own district, I disagree. Listen to a caring parent badgering a daughter or son who has made big mistakes or are failing. Nobody who cares ignores problems. You identify it to attack it. But you have to come up with solutions, however imperfect they are destined to be, and however much political opponents will exploit every minor failure.

To be fair, HISD does offer a lot of good choices for parents who want their kids in challenging schools. An aggressive, knowledgeable parent can find a good school in the public system, but neighborhood schools should have some standards for the good of the whole community, whatever the predominant opinion of neighborhood parents.

You cannot run an inner-city neighborhood public school as I would like, being overly idealistic about standards, though you can do that in a magnet program; but even in the regular program there should be a middle ground between charging forward and pandering to every lowest common denominator.

Some of our school administrators are like parents who let their fifteen year old daughter drop out of school and shack up with a twenty year old loser.  The long-term consequences of parental weakness at that point are devastating to that girl, who could have been so much more; and weak school leaders, empowered by misguided policies, reek the same quiet, long-term devastation on the lives of young people in Houston every year.


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