HISD Needs a Houston Insider

Paul T. Hill
Portrait: Paul T Hill
Paul T. Hill Founder - The Center on Reinventing Public Education, Research Professor - The University of Washington Bothell, Former Nonresident Senior Fellow - The Brookings Institution

January 7, 2001

Superintendent Rod Paige’s nomination as secretary of education is good news for the country, but it poses a serious challenge for Houston. Can the city build on the progress Paige has made? Or will Houston join other cities in a cycle of short-term superintendencies and prematurely abandoned initiatives?

If it goes the way of many other cities, Houston will ignore what has been accomplished to date. It will hire someone who knows little about Houston but is a caring person of the right race, gender or ethnicity. It will hang all hopes on that person until he or she annoys an important interest group. Then it will endure a period of declining support and dashed hopes, leading to the superintendent’s resignation or a board-initiated buy-out. Then, after only two or three years, it will start all over again.

This can all be avoided if the board and community acknowledge that something important has happened in Houston and resolve to keep it going. Thanks to Rod Paige’s leadership, and to a school board that has held a steady course for years, Houston is making progress.

As led by Paige, Houston school reform starts with the truth: Many children are not being adequately prepared to participate fully in the community’s economic and political life, and some schools are not capable of preparing children to meet this standard.

Paige’s strategy seeks to strengthen schools in three ways:

  • First by increasing principals’ and teachers’ freedom of action, so that they can use their time and talents effectively for the individual students they serve.

Second, by refocusing the central office away from regulating schools and toward helping them.

Third, by making accountability real. Paige and the Houston school board leave high-performing schools alone. They find help for schools earnestly struggling to improve. And they create alternatives for children in failed schools.

Decentralization in Houston’s public schools is like decentralization in business. Leaders at the top of the system take responsibility for ensuring that dollars are allocated fairly and schools that need help get it. If there are shortages of key resources like good teachers, the system develops new suppliers. As long as principals and teachers use their time and expertise effectively, top leaders do not try to control everything that happens.

Houston’s strategy has endured because Paige and others didn’t hide failures, but learned from them. Faced with evidence that the first efforts to decentralize school budgets led to inequitable results, or that the alternative certification program was not producing good teachers, Paige made changes and got it right. In that way, the basic strategy (and the leaders who supported it) could both survive and continue to make progress.

HISD’s school reform strategy can continue after Paige’s departure. But it won’t happen by accident. As my colleagues and I have learned from our studies of education reform in big cities across the country, abandonment and chaos are normal. Sustaining a coherent strategy takes serious work on the part of the city’s political, ethnic, business and foundation leaders.

Superintendent selection is too important to be left to the school board alone. The city’s top leaders need to insist that the next superintendent be recruited to follow and improve upon the existing reform strategy. Any materials used to solicit applications must make clear that HISD’s is not a generic superintendency: there is a reform strategy in place and a new person must continue it. People who do not approve of the existing strategy, or who would
be unhappy following a course already laid down, should not apply. Finalists for the superintendency should demonstrate that they understand what has been done to date and why. They should be evaluated on their grasp of the strategy and on the plausibility of their ideas about how to continue and strengthen it.

If the Houston community is really serious about continuing Paige’s strategy, it will not recruit an outsider. It will persuade a prominent Houstonian – one who already knows the city well and has his or her own local political connections – to take the job. The person can come from inside the school system or from another walk of life, like Paige and San Diego’s highly effective superintendent Alan Bersin, a former federal district attorney. What matters is his or her ability to lead in the Houston context.

Paige’s local knowledge and established connections with key groups have contributed enormously to the effectiveness and staying power of the current reform. A new superintendent without these advantages will face an uphill fight accomplishing anything, whether sustaining the current reform or leading in some other direction.

Business and political leaders also need to work on the city’s behalf in Austin, lobbying for the amendments and waivers to regulations necessary to allow Houston public schools to fulfill Paige’s vision of an all-charter district with school-level control of hiring, administrative structures, use of time and spending.

If local civic leaders can take on these tasks, Houston can avoid being the only city in America that loses when Rod Paige becomes secretary of education.