No Simple Answer

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It seems that every group with a stake in education is offering a quick-fix solution to the problems facing public schools.

H.L. Mencken once quipped that "for every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong." He might have been talking about school reform in 2000.

It seems that every group with a stake in education is offering a quick-fix solution to the problems facing public schools. Teachers promise salvation through higher pay, conservatives through the marketplace. Parents want more parental control, chambers of commerce more accountability. Still others put their faith in higher standards, more standardized tests, charter schools, voucher programs, smaller classes, school-based management, a ban on social promotion, mandated phonics—you name it.

In Houston, we have heard all of these proposals, and we have embraced quite a few of them. But we have resisted the temptation to think that any one of them is powerful enough to bring about the changes needed to equip today's students—all of them—with the knowledge and skills they need to function in today's society.

To use a most uncatchy term, we have taken a holistic approach to school improvement, and it appears to be paying off. Between 1994 and 1999, the proportion of students in the Houston Independent School District passing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills rose from 44 percent to 64 percent, the dropout rate declined from 6.3 percent to 2.8 percent, and performance gaps between minority and nonminority students narrowed considerably. All of this occurred as the proportion of low-income students in the district was rising.

We started by recognizing that no school system can be better than its governing body. We went to Houston's leaders—business, religious, civic, and others—and got them to identify and then back the campaigns of people who would work passionately and skillfully for a world-class education for our children. Houston now has a first-rate board of education whose members do not shy away from hard decisions.

Some of the courageous decisions they have made involved recognizing our limitations. The school district runs the city's largest transportation system, but none of us professional educators knows much about how to keep buses running. Nor do schools of education offer courses in food service, building maintenance, and waste disposal. So we hired people who understand these industries, paid competitive wages, and authorized them to draw up contracts with the best firms they could find. That allowed us to concentrate on what we could do best: educate children.

The real work of a school system is what happens in classrooms and schools.

We understand that the real work of a school system is what happens in classrooms and schools. So we decentralized management and made the individual school the basic unit of accountability and improvement. Principals were authorized to make their own decisions about hiring, teaching methodologies, and whether to engage "Big Bug" pest control. The only condition was that they and their staffs had to work in teams.

In another outside-the-box move, district superintendents, principals, and others with management responsibility were put on private-sector-style contracts under which their jobs became dependent on performance, not guaranteed tenure. A management-training program was initiated to help them operate in the new climate.

In keeping with the spirit of decentralization, the Houston school system introduced parental choice, and we have encouraged the creation of 20 charter schools that enjoy even greater operational autonomy on the condition that they meet certain learning goals. Charter schools are often portrayed as a radical new invention. In fact, they represent the original premise of public education in this country, harkening back to a time when every town had its own school with its own rules and procedures. We simply reinforced the idea that charter schools, like teachers and school administrators, need the active support of a responsive system.

To be successful, schools must focus on instruction, and everyone involved—students, teachers, administrators, and parents—must understand what the teaching and learning objectives are for each subject and grade. We accomplished this through Project Clear, which defines the common core of academic subjects against which every student's progress is measured. We were careful to make sure that there was close alignment between state and local objectives, textbooks, and tests.

Recognizing that educational costs vary from student to student, we established a Targeted School Fund that gives more per-pupil funds to students with greater needs. We also launched a major effort to generate community input into the budget process—an effort grounded in the conviction that every member of the public is our "customer," including people with no children in school and parents who send their children elsewhere or teach them at home. Because the public now has a better understanding of what we are doing and how we do it, the board was recently able to adopt a budget that requires a 6 percent tax increase.

We made it clear that we do not accept full responsibility for the education of every student.

Finally, we made it clear that we do not accept full responsibility for the education of every student. Students have responsibilities as well. We cut out social promotion and set up a system whereby students must take more academic courses and meet standards for grades and test scores. Those who fail to do so, even after attending summer school, must repeat grades and receive special interventions.

The same progress is required of all students. Nearly three- quarters of Houston's students are disadvantaged, but the factors that make them disadvantaged have nothing to do with ability to learn. They may need help, but they can learn. The untapped power of student effort is a major missing link in the school reform movement.

We will be taking additional steps in the future. We need to make better use of the news media, and changing family structures mean that we must develop new paradigms of family-school relationships. We believe that public funds should go to students, not institutions, and there may be a time when vouchers will be part of the mix.

Houston is no utopia, but we have made considerable progress because we resisted the temptation to put our faith in any single gimmick or formula for school improvement. School systems are complex—and looking for a simple solution is, well, simple-minded.

Vol. 20, Issue 10, Page 48

Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as No Simple Answer
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