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The Provocateur: Terry Grier and the future downsizing of the Houston Independent School District

Terry Grier was known for his provocative style when he ran school districts on the east and west coasts. "Grier-ended" was the familiar refrain of critics in his home state of North Carolina. But in the Houston Independent School District, it might end up the other way around for this bi-coastal talent. The manufacturing of conflict may be the reason Grier was hired, not just a side effect of aggressively pursuing reform.

The new Superintendent blew angry hot air at teachers from the day he took charge at HISD, chastising us for substandard performance at schools in low-income communities. One of his first proposals was to terminate teachers based on student test scores. Then he pushed for evaluations ensuring fewer teachers received positive reviews.

In a time of cutbacks for other HISD programs, and when many Houstonians faced financial constraints, Grier asked for big bonuses for administrators, doubling the size of average principal bonuses, at the nine schools in his Apollo 20 turnaround plan.

Since HISD already provided extra funding for Apollo 20 schools, the lavishing of outsize bonuses on administrators seemed excessive, though apparently Grier felt his budget could handle it.

Given the plans of charter schools to recruit 20,000 students out of HISD, sucking the best talent from our neighborhood schools, the district might be expected to launch more reform rockets lifting expectations in all its schools. HISD has apparently been unable to raise standards outside of the Apollo 20 schools.

Charter-school backers helped four HISD trustees win election, and seemingly had a hand in Grier's selection as Superintendent. So keeping two balls in the air at the same time, district-wide reform and Apollo 20, may violate the rules of the game laid down by the charter-schools' corporate sponsors.

Or it may be more than Grier, his administrative team and board allies are capable of handling. Certainly, few districts have proved capable of bringing two comprehensive reforms to fulfillment at the same time, though logic demands HISD try, considering the competition faced by the public schools.

Dual reform programs would require strong and flexible leadership, cooperative relations with teachers--because people have to work together to achieve something like that--and sustained focus over time for all parties involved. It would not be a task for leaders with short attention spans and limited imaginations.

Intentionally divisive politics, restricting reform to a few schools, and failing to raise education standards leads to closing more neighborhood public schools as parents go seeking in charter schools what they cannot find at home in HISD, swelling the charter schools with growth and confidence, and leaving Houston's once-proud public schools to limp along with waning vigor and diminishing resources.



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