Sunday, April 25, 2010

Race for Reform

By Ericka Mellon | Houston Chronicle
May 2010

Grier focused most of his State of the Schools address on his efforts to ensure that every HISD student has access to top-notch teachers and principals. “All our policies and practices should be driven by the realization that our teachers and school leaders are the solution, pure and simple,” he said. “If we provide our students, and I mean all of our students, with effective teachers and leaders, then there’s almost nothing anyone can do to prevent them from succeeding.”

Grier already has begun to change the interview process for hiring all staff members, using a model based on the research of Martin Haberman. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor emeritus has spent three decades studying the qualities of educators who best serve disadvantaged students.

Under the Haberman screening, job candidates are asked how they would respond to certain situations, such as the need to improve student performance, and are evaluated on their values and problem-solving skills: Do they have high expectations for all children? Are they persistent?

Grier used the interview method in Guilford County and in San Diego and said it helped weed out those who wouldn’t succeed with diverse students. “If you do not have high expectations for all students, you cannot be an effective teacher in an urban setting,” Grier says. “We can teach you how to teach. Colleges and universities can teach you how to teach. They can’t teach you how to have different values and beliefs.”

The Houston school board has made improving human capital its top priority, and Grier has secured a partnership with The New Teacher Project to help the district assess and improve everything from recruitment to job evaluations to professional development.

Consultants with the New York nonprofit, started by Michelle Rhee before she was appointed chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, plan to present recommended changes to the district this summer. To ensure their report doesn’t collect dust, Grier says, staff from The New Teacher Project will embed themselves in the district’s human resources department.

The initial consulting cost the district $200,000—donations covered most of it—but the ongoing training and implementation is estimated to top $8 million over four years. Grier has pledged to raise private dollars. “There’s no question that our partnership with The New Teacher Project is going to have a dramatic impact on the school system,” he says.
The National Spotlight

And with all the changes and Grier’s reputation, it didn’t take Grier and the Houston school board long to make national news for their reform efforts. The board members asked for a policy to make it easier to oust ineffective teachers, and Grier eagerly gave it to them: Teachers whose students consistently fall short of expectations on standardized tests, based on a value-added analysis, can now be fired. And those value-added marks will be included in teachers’ evaluations.

The school board unanimously approved the policy in February. According to HISD’s data, 421 of about 13,000 HISD teachers are at risk of losing their jobs if they don’t improve their value-added marks. Some firings could come at the end of this school year.

HISD has been using the same value- data since 2007 to determine which teachers, principals and other school staff receive performance bonuses. This year, the district doled out $41 million, with the top teachers eligible for more than $10,000. “If you spend $41 million on merit pay using value-added scores, how can you be opposed to using those same scores to identify teachers at the bottom end of the scale?” Grier says.

Parent leaders supported the teacher-dismissal policy, as did several national advocacy groups, including the Education Equality Project and Democrats for Education Reform. But the district’s largest teacher association turned out 800 members to protest the school board’s vote.

“They feel Terry Grier only has one scapegoat and that’s teachers,” says Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. “When you constantly show that lack of respect, teachers are prone not to want to work for you.”

Fallon questions the accuracy of the value-added data and says her members don’t believe they should lose their jobs based on a complicated statistical analysis of standardized test scores that doesn’t take into account a student’s home life.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, had recently expressed support for more aggressive teacher policies, but she blasted Houston for focusing so narrowly on student test scores.

“I try not to take the attacks personally,” says Grier, who plays golf or tries new restaurants—Southern comfort food is a favorite—with his wife to unwind.

Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has followed Grier’s career since he was superintendent of Guilford County (N.C.) Schools and says that Grier should interpret the pushback on his reforms as a compliment. “If there aren’t people criticizing you,” the Seattle consultant says, “you really don’t have an improvement agenda.”

Ericka Mellon is a K12 education reporter for the Houston Chronicle.

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