From guest blogger Alyssa Morones
For the second time, the Houston Independent School District has been named the winner of the Broad Prize for Urban Education for its success in improving student achievement and reducing academic gaps.
As the 2013 winner, the district will receive $550,000 in college scholarships from the Broad Foundation for college-bound high school seniors in the district.
Philanthropist Eli Broad and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came together at the Library of Congress in Washington this morning to commend Houston’s leaders and those of other large urban school district that have made strides in recent years in boosting student achievement and reducing achievement gaps between low-income students and students of color and their more advantaged peers.
The nation’s 75 largest urban school districts automatically qualify for consideration each year for the prestigious prize from the Los Angeles-based foundation. The four finalists were selected by a 17-member review board composed of education researchers, policy researchers, practitioners and executives from leading universities, and education associations, think tanks, and nonprofits. An eight-member selection jury chose Houston based on student performance data and district policies and practices analyzed by education practitioner on site visits.
The three other finalists for this year’s prize were Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina, the San Diego Unified School District, and Corona-Norco Unified School District in Riverside County, Calif., which, along with Houston, was also a finalist in 2012. Each of the runners-up will receive $150,000 in scholarships for their graduating seniors.
The nation’s seventh largest school district, Houston serves approximately 210,000 students, 80 percent of whom qualify for federally subsidized free and reduced price lunch. The district is 62 percent Hispanic, 26 percent African American, 3 percent Asian, and 8 percent white.
Houston was recognized for its students’ academic achievement gains, its ability to increase the district graduation rate faster than any other urban district in the running for the prize, and its progress in narrowing the achievement gaps for low-income and Hispanic students and improving students’ college-readiness, among other achievements.
Despite the district’s high poverty rate, Houston’s students exceeded expectations in almost all areas following the 2012 adoption of more rigorous state testing. Its graduation rate rose from 64.3 percent in 2007 to 78.8 percent in 2012, according to data provided by the district, and it narrowed the achievement gaps between the district’s Hispanic students and Texas’ white students by more than 50 percent on state tests in high school math and science.
Houston also has the highest SAT participation rate of any urban school district in the competition—two-thirds higher than the Texas average—and showed the highest increase in Advanced Placement exam participation for all students.
In an interview with Education Week prior to the announcement, Houston Superintendent Terry Grier credited the district’s success in part to its focus on making quality teaching available to every student in every classroom and its commitment to site-based decision-making, which Grier said allows principals and teachers greater flexibility in managing their schools and addressing students’ needs.
In an effort to get more highly effective teachers in front of more students, the district implemented a merit pay plan “to recognize the most outstanding teachers.”
Grier said, “We know what and how you teach is very important. We believe that the quality of teachers we have in our classrooms is key.”
As a choice district, families can select which school their student attends as long as that school has space.
“School improvement is not easy, but it is possible,” said Grier. “We made the decision that a child’s zip code will not have a negative impact on his or her access to a quality education.”
Houston was awarded the first ever Broad Prize in 2002 under the direction of superintendent Rod Paige, who later became President George W. Bush’s secretary of education. Evaluators at the time commended the district’s clear academic goals, professional development programs and its principals’ and teachers’ close monitoring of students.
The district’s merits and merit of the prize itself were later questioned, however, when news surfaced that Houston’s actual dropout rates were far worse than Texas’ required calculation method suggested.
Eleven years later, questions surrounding the validity of the Broad Prize continue. Andy Smarick of the Fordham Institute, a conservative nonprofit education policy think tank, this week noted that, despite the gains made by Houston and the Broad finalists in raising achievement, students’ overall performance in all those districts remained lower than many would hope.
That point was also echoed today by Eli Broad, the founder of the philanthropy.
“I think even the four districts would agree that their work isn’t done, but they’re moving in the right direction, and that’s what counts,” he said.
Photo: Houston Independent School District Apollo School Support Officer Ken Davis, left, and Assistant Superintendent Lance Menster, right, react during a watch party to the announcement that HISD is the winner of the 2013 Broad Prize for Urban Education, September 25, 2013. (Dave Einsel/Houston Independent School District)
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.