School & District Management

Boosters Call Houston’s Chief ‘A Good Thing, and We Know It’

By Robert C. Johnston — October 04, 2000 8 min read
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Scanning the clear, early-morning horizon, Rod Paige speaks calmly into the cell phone buried in his hand. He wants to know if his van is coming. “Good,” he responds. “We need to be smokin.’” The leader of the nation’s seventh- largest school district is on the move.

After nearly seven years as the self-effacing catalyst behind management improvements and rising student achievement in the Houston schools, Mr. Paige is emerging as one of the country’s best-known and most highly regarded superintendents.

Today, he’s on his way to give a convocation speech to freshman at Texas Southern University, where he was the dean of the college of education. In the past year, Mr. Paige, 66, has won two national awards and been widely sought out as a speaker on urban education.

An adviser to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, he could be tapped as U.S. secretary of education if the Texas governor wins the White House in November, some political observers say. Mr. Paige laughs, perhaps too eagerly, when asked if he’d be interested in the job: “Absolutely not!”

The athletically built former college football coach, whose parents were public school educators, stands out for being on the job here nearly three times as long as the average urban schools chief. More important, though, are the changes he has brought to a district with 210,000 students and a $1.6 billion budget.

Under his leadership, the Houston Independent School District has linked principals’ contracts to student performance, contracted with private businesses to manage most nonacademic services, declared English literacy a goal for all students, and shifted toward phonics-based reading instruction.

That he has survived— and thrived—despite uproars over his clear-cut policies underscores his ability to lead and unify diverse groups on the political high road, his admirers say.

“These schools are set up for the entire community,” Mr. Paige said in a recent interview. “There are ethnic priorities and political priorities that take over a public school system. If that’s the case, you’re a dead man walking.”

Rising Scores

Success also helps. In addition to rising test scores, district leaders can point to Houston voters’ approval of a desperately needed, $678 million school construction bond in 1998. A smaller bond measure was rejected just two years earlier.

While the district has room to improve—student performance could be better and teacher relations stronger— Mr. Paige’s contract has been extended to 2004. His annual salary is now $275,000.

“He gets job offers every single day,” said Laurie Bricker, a member of the school board. “We’re sending a message: We have a good thing and we know it.”

The going wasn’t always so good for Mr. Paige, a Mississippi native who earned a doctorate in physical education from Indiana University in Bloomington.

In 1989, as the education school dean at Texas Southern here, he won a seat on the Houston school board. In 1994, the board picked him as superintendent. The move, which did not include a national search, incensed leaders of the Hispanic community. They had wanted one of their own in the post and felt excluded from the selection of Mr. Paige, who is African- American.

“From the Hispanic perspective, the way he was picked was very controversial,” said Houston City Councilman Gabriel Vasquez, a former school board member. “It created a real rift.”

Then, voters turned down a $390 million school construction bond in 1996. In a further blow to the district’s credibility, a state comptroller’s audit made 228 recommendations on how it could save $70 million.

Mr. Paige rolled up his sleeves and went to work. “The relevant thing is to get the job done,” he said. “You’re going to be bloodied. You’re going to be beat up. There will be crises. That’s part of getting the job done. You can’t duck this.”

With the backing of a board majority, Mr. Paige contracted out the management of school maintenance, food services, and the district’s $65 million employee-benefits program. The board also hired an outside firm to operate alternative schools for hundreds of students with discipline problems.

Using the jargon of the organizational theory he avidly studies, Mr. Paige said such moves help to “narrow your focus to your core competence.”

“When I became the superintendent, we had six big trucks picking up trash bins. Where did they teach me to run a garbage operation?” he said. “You must do what you know how to do. Teaching is what we know how to do.”

To be sure, Mr. Paige’s efforts to streamline the district’s business have been smoothed by Texas’ law prohibiting collective bargaining for most public employees. Still, Mr. Paige eased the way by guaranteeing that no employee would lose his or her job.

Iris Perkins, a past president of the Houston Council of PTAs, worries that kinks still need to be worked out. “Schools are not always clean,” she said of the private services, “and there have been complaints that the food is not always good, or what’s on the menu.”

Academic Moves

In addition to the changes on the business side, Mr. Paige aligned classroom curriculum across the district, beefed up high school graduation requirements, and opened 20 charter schools. Most important, some educators say, was the district’s mandate to blend more phonics into its reading program.

“Rod has been good at getting a real reading program in Houston,” said Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, the influential local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “There is choice at the schools, but the program has to be research-based.”

The compliment is noteworthy because Ms. Fallon and Mr. Paige barely spoke during the early part of his tenure, owing to tensions over employee issues and the diminished access she had, at least initially, to the new chief. Mr. Paige struggled with other employee groups as well when he threatened the job security of his 12 subdistrict superintendents and each of Houston’s principals. They now work at his pleasure, under contracts that are linked to performance.

“It didn’t make me change my job, but it made me look at results,” Charlotte Parker, the principal of Roosevelt Elementary School in north Houston, said of her contract. “I had to gauge the outcomes of what we were doing for the kids’ sake and for my sake.”

As with most of Mr. Paige’s changes, the shakeup in the principals’ world offered enticements, not just threats. Principals’ salaries jumped from a base of $45,000 to $52,000. Building leaders also have new leeway to pick staff members, spend money, and contract for services. Next year, responsibility for 82 percent of each school’s budget will be delegated to its principal.

Ms. Fallon said the pressing issue now is getting rid of bad principals, some of whom have 50 percent teacher turnover at their schools after two or three years at the helm.

Little Mercy

Mr. Paige’s initiatives seem to have helped in raising student achievement and, as a result, bolstered public support for the Houston schools. City voters approved the 1998 bond with a striking 73 percent yes vote.

“He changed the climate so that the business community and people who didn’t have children in the schools felt part of the district,” Ms. Bricker, the school board member, said of Mr. Paige. “There’s an undercurrent of trust and relationships that was not there in 1996.”

Test scores are also up. Between 1994 and 1999, the proportion of students passing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills rose from 49 percent to 74 percent, even as the percentage of economically disadvantaged students rose from 58 percent to 71 percent. The scores for minority students rose at even greater rates. Houston’s enrollment is 52 percent Hispanic, 34 percent African American, 11 percent white, and 3 percent Asian. More than 25 percent of the students are not proficient in English.

Under the district’s own accountability system, which measures improvement in 251 schools, Houston has 20 “exemplary” public schools, twice the number as last year. The number of schools designated as “low- performing” and “low-acceptable” has dropped to 18, from 53 last year.

But middle schools and high schools have been slow to reach the exemplary and “recognized” categories; just one high school and one middle school are rated “exemplary” this year.

Mr. Paige, the recipient last month of the Harold W. McGraw Prize in Education, is far from satisfied. He wants every city school to be at least “recognized” by the district’s rankings.

For the laggards, the district will offer help, but little mercy: “We don’t want everyone to be motivated by fear, but we do have the reality that we have to perform,” said Mr. Paige, who donated his $25,000 award to his district. “If performance is not forthcoming, we will make changes.”

Paul Ofield, the executive director of the Houston Association of School Administrators, worries that Mr. Paige’s rhetoric might be too strong.

“It’s very easy to say that all schools will be exemplary, but it’s like saying every child will score 100 percent on a test. All kids can learn, but some learn at different levels,” Mr. Ofield said. “Some principals who feel that they might not get the support they need are going to outlying districts that pay more money.”

Board Stability

If there is a lesson in Houston, it may be as much about stability and mission as it is about ideas or a single person.

Before he became the superintendent, Mr. Paige was part of a reform-minded school board coalition that drafted a list of values and beliefs in 1990 that still guides the district.

“Dr. Paige came in at a time when the system lacked a common vision,” Councilman Vasquez said. “This [document] provided it not just for the system, but for the public in general. This enabled him to push ahead.”

While Mr. Paige has drawn on the knowledge and relationships he gained as a board member, the board’s decision to elevate one of its own to the superintendency might not be wise elsewhere, experts say.

“In most places, that would not be a good model to emulate, but it works there,” said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.

Mr. Paige said he was grateful to work with a board that shares his vision but stays away from making personnel recommendations—a sticky issue in many districts.

“The quality of the board is the strongest determinant of school effectiveness,” he said. “If the board is functioning well, is organized, and has a clear vision, you have a prayer. If they don’t, you have no chance.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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