School & District Management

Houston’s Broad Prize Slammed, Defended

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — October 02, 2013 2 min read
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Last week, the Houston school district officially became the first two-time winner of the Broad Prize for Urban Education, an honor bestowed on an urban school district that’s shown improvement in recent years. Houston was the very first winner of the prize in 2002.

This year’s award apparently dumbfounded at least one prominent education observer: Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, published a piece for Education Next called “End. The Broad Prize. Now.,” in which he points out that Houston’s scores on the NAEP test have barely risen in recent years. “The committee is obliging us to swallow the uniformly deplorable condition of urban districts by mordantly ‘awarding’ best-in-breed status to two failing districts,” he writes. Just one in ten Houston 8th graders is reading on grade level, he reminds us.

Smarick, a former deputy education commissioner in New Jersey, is an advocate of dramatic change for city schools, starting with governance; his most recent book envisions an “urban school system of the future” that looks more like New Orleans and less like...well, Houston. Smarick commends the Broad Foundation for singling out excellent charter operators with a new prize, but says that “If we want to help disadvantaged urban kids, we must stop propping up the failed urban district.”

That raised the ire of Mike Casserly, the longtime director of the Council of the Great City Schools, who says that Smarick is ignoring some telling data in order to make a point. Casserly replied to Smarick’s piece on the Flypaper, an education blog hosted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, emphasizing that the prize was meant to celebrate improvement, rather than achievement. Houston’s Broad Prize was deserved, Casserly argues: “Houston’s improvements [in student’s 8th grade reading scores] since 2003 were twice as large as the nation’s gains and identical to the gains of the ‘distressingly low’ large cities--which, by the way, include urban charter schools, Smarick’s favored delivery system,” he writes. Casserly touts the district’s African-American students’ gains in math scores, and says that Smarick has some “hostility” toward urban school districts. Game on!

The short pieces are both worth reading, as they raise good questions about the purpose of the prize and highlight some of bigger-picture disagreements about how to improve urban schools.

The Fordham Institute, which published Casserly’s defense of Houston, found some common ground between the two pieces:

Smarick was willing to concede at least one point: Casserly’s (AP-level?) vocabulary:

Sadly, Casserly does not have a twitter account.

Meanwhile, the Houston school district is touting its win, unfazed by the East Coast squabbling.

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

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.