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Interview With Terry Grier

A plainspoken leader takes Houston ISD in innovative directions—and holds all parties accountable.

Texas may be known for its con­servatism, but under Superintendent Terry Grier, Houston Independent School District (HISD) has been innovative and experimental.

Grier came to Houston in 2009 after serving as superintendent of San Diego Unified School District for 18 months; prior to that he headed Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, North Carolina, for nearly eight years.

Since his arrival, the hard-charging Grier has expanded collaborations with charter networks and alternative teacher-training programs, increased AP offerings, and brought in $100 million in outside funding. In response to cheating incidents, Grier pulled teachers from proctoring exams and ordered that test booklets be stored in rooms with security cameras.

Voters showed their support for his efforts by passing the largest school bond package in Texas history in November;  and HISD was a 2012 finalist for the Broad Prize for urban district excellence.

Q What did you already know about Houston schools before you arrived?
A I did my research before coming to Houston because I wanted to make sure the school board’s commitment to impactful reform matched its reputation. Three years later, they have more than confirmed this. They approved one of the most rigorous and effective teacher appraisal and development systems in the nation.

Q What’s HISD doing that’s different or better than other big-city school systems like L.A., New York, or Chicago?
A We are now in the third year of our Apollo 20 partnership with Harvard EdLabs to turn around 20 of Houston’s lowest-performing schools using the best research-based practices from America’s top charter schools. Harvard economist Roland Fryer has analyzed the data and found our Apollo 20 students are making gains that match, and sometimes exceed, those made by students in the best charter schools. We can’t declare victory yet, but we’re getting there.

Q What do you wish someone had told you about HISD before you came here?
A I wish someone had told me how seriously outdated HISD’s high school buildings were. The school board addressed that by calling for the state’s largest-ever school bond election, which won 69 percent voter approval.

Q How did HISD become a national leader in terms of charter school collaboration, and how does the district benefit?
A It started with former superintendent Rod Paige. He encouraged innovative thinking by people like Mike Feinberg, who was an HISD Teach for America corps member when he cofounded the first Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) school as a charter within HISD. In Houston, we don’t care who gets credit for good ideas. We care about kids, all of them. It’s not about benefiting the district, although we certainly do benefit from the competition. It’s about benefiting Houston’s children.

Q If a colleague asked you whether they should participate in an Apollo 20 initiative, would you tell him or her to go for it, or to move carefully?
A Go for it. Full steam ahead, and damn the torpedoes. My only regret about Apollo 20 is that we began with nine secondary schools and waited a year to add 11 elementary schools. We should have done it all at once.

Q What’s wrong with pilot programs?
A Attacking problems of this magnitude with small pilot programs never works. Pilot programs are easily derailed by bureaucracies and critics. Apollo 20 is not an experiment. It relies on educational approaches that are proven to work. It’s not magic. It’s effective school management. Everyone knows what it takes to turn around a school. Not everyone has the political will to do it.

Q Were you disappointed or secretly relieved to find out that HISD didn’t make the Race to the Top district finalist list?
A Disappointed. Houston schools have lost more than $120 million in state funding over the past two years because of state budget cuts. We hoped to use Race to the Top money to further redesign our career and technical education programs to help more kids graduate with associate’s degrees and professional certifications in job areas that are key to Houston’s continued economic growth.

Q What did you or others in the district learn about yourselves by going through the Broad Prize competition?
A We learned that we don’t like being a runner-up. We want to win the Broad Prize, because our kids need and deserve that $550,000 in scholarship money.

Q What lessons can Houston share with the rest of the country about performance pay and the Aspire program?
A The most effective performance pay systems are selective. When HISD began Aspire, more than 90 percent of teachers were receiving awards. That didn’t make sense because we know that not everyone is a high performer. Today, fewer than half of HISD teachers are getting the individual awards. Each year, we retain 92 percent of our highest-rated teachers. On the other hand, fewer than half of those who received the lowest rating returned to work in HISD classrooms this school year.

Q Are district leaders paying too much attention to the student achievement part of teacher evaluation and to ending last in, first out (LIFO), or not enough?
A In Houston, we don’t follow a last in, first out philosophy. Schools are for kids; they are not jobs programs for adults, and no one is entitled to a lifetime job without accountability. Charter schools have figured this out. We know from research that seniority, advanced degrees, etcetera, have little to no effect on student learning. So why are we still making personnel decisions based on those factors? Retaining ineffective veteran teachers at the expense of effective, less experienced teachers is bad for kids. That said, it is incumbent upon us as school leaders to ensure that all teachers have the training and tools they need to help their students achieve. The “no excuses” philosophy applies to everyone, and it begins at the top.

Q What’s the most important thing a superintendent can do to create and maintain political will for reform efforts?
A Superintendents must be transparent about their organization’s weaknesses. You can’t be a Chicken Little, constantly crying that the sky is falling. And you can’t walk around with rose-colored glasses. When we clearly identify our goals and our shortcomings, we can arrive at a common focus and begin to address these collectively. This is how real change happens. In Houston, we have been clear with all stakeholders—parents, business leaders, social activists, and politicians—that our students’ reading performance is unacceptable. We also heard from them that our career and technical education programs need improvement. So that’s what we’re doing together.

—Winter 2013—

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