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Inside Track on Houston School Reform Effort (An Education World E-interview With Donald R. McAdams)


Education World assistant news editor Ellen R. Delisio talks to Donald R. McAdams, author of Fighting to Save Our Urban SchoolsAnd Winning! Lessons from Houston. McAdams, a Houston Board of Education member, discusses the board's push for reform beginning in 1990 and how board members and the superintendent worked with residents and the business community to improve student performance, accountability, management, and teacher performance. Included: Twelve Lessons from Houston School Reform.

Fighting to Save Our Urban Schoolsand Winning! Lessons from Houston, written by Houston (Texas) Independent School District (HISD) board of education member Donald R. McAdams is the story of the reform movement in the Houston schools that started in 1990 and continues today.

Adams, who is in his third four-year term on the HISD board, is the director of The Center for Reform of School Systems at the University of Houston College of Education. He is also a former college president.

The HISD reform effort began among some new board members. They began to feel a growing concern about a lack of initiative by the superintendent and the need for change. The board crafted a mission statement, Beliefs and Visions, that included four essential points:

  • HISD exists to support the relationship between the teacher and the student.
  • HISD must decentralize.
  • HISD must focus on performance, not compliance.
  • HISD must require a common core of academic subjects for all students.

Over seven years, and through several board elections and two new superintendents, veteran board members continued to rely on Beliefs and Visions even as they adjusted their priorities. In February 1994, the board named one of its own, Rod Paige, an African American, a former dean of the School of Education at Texas Southern University, the new superintendent. His appointment sparked criticism from members of the Hispanic community who felt left out of the process.

Read about Rod Paige's nomination as U.S. Secretary of Education in today's Education World article Ed Secretary Nominee Has Fans in the Field.

Twelve Lessons from Houston School Reform All school districts can learn from the 12 lessons acquired by people involved in the reform efforts of the Houston Independent School District, according to school board member Donald R. McAdams, author of Fighting to Save Our Urban Schoolsand Winning! Lessons from Houston

*The superintendent and the majority of the school board members must share a common vision and work together for an extended period to make for urban school reform possible.

*Boards of education cannot reform urban school districts, or probably any school districts, without superintendent leadership. Only superintendents can lead change; boards can create environments in which reform can take place.

*Non-traditional superintendents might be the most effective reformers. These would include strong leaders with political and management skills as well as broad experience in areas other than education.

*Only minority leaders can reform America's urban school districts, with a few rare exceptions. "Urban schools are mostly minority schools. And race matters," according to McAdams.

*School district administrators and building principals are the people who develop reform policies, put them into practice, and make them work.

*The focus on school reform should be on results, not methods.

*School trustees must not accept low levels of performance from poor children.

*Partisan politics must stay out of the board of education room.

*Business leaders play an important role in urban school reform.

*Urban school reformers need help from the state.

*The core issue in urban school reform is governance.

*The root cause of failing urban schools is apathetic citizens who do not vote and have a limited understanding of the realities of urban education.

In his book, McAdams calls Paige's appointment "the single most important event in the reform of HISD. Without Paige, shared decision making would never have taken root, accountability would not have become firmly established, and decentralization never would have happened. Without Paige, there would have been no PEER [peer review] task forces, no performance contracts for administrators, no modified vouchers, no business outsourcing, and no incentive pay for teachers."

Reform began in earnest under Paige, who remains superintendent. Shortly before Paige's appointment, the board had approved a decentralization plan drafted by an outside consultant, and a task force was quickly established. As part of the decentralization process, 12 new district administrators were appointed, with one- or two-year contracts. In a break from practice, the administrators were offered salary increases of an average of 15 percent and the possibility of performance bonuses. In exchange, they agreed to waive their right to appeal if their contracts were cancelled.

Just two months into Paige's tenure, though, local media broke the story of alleged fraud in the HISD Alternate Certification Program (ACP), which trained and certified non-education majors to be teachers. The district was allowing uncertified teachers from other countries to teach bilingual education when many could not speak English, had failed basic skills tests, and had submitted fraudulent foreign college transcripts, the media charged.

An investigation by a board-hired law firm revealed those problems and more, including mismanagement of funds, conflicts of interest on the part of ACP staff, and the manipulation of tests and interviews to ensure certain candidates passed. By the 1994-1995 school year, the department had been revamped, according to McAdams's book.

Paige also set up a process called Peer Examination, Evaluation, and Redesign (PEER), which consisted of committees of district employees and community experts to review every major functional area of the school system to improve its efficiency.

By 1996, leadership for the reform effort had shifted from the board of education table to the superintendent's office. The board's 1990 mission statement, Beliefs and Visions, had given way to the superintendent's plan, New Beginnings for HISD, which focused on accountability, best efforts, choice, and decentralization.

McAdams recently responded to some questions about his book and lessons learned about school reform in Houston.

Education World: Most of the major reforms in the school system seem to have taken place between 1996 and 1997, although talk of reform began in 1990. Would you characterize the efforts before 1996 and 1997 as groundwork for major reforms? Did the change in administrations play a major role?

Donald McAdams: I believe the two most important reforms were the establishment of the Houston accountability system in 1993-1994 and district decentralization in 1994-1995. The first occurred during the closing months of Frank Petruzielo's superintendency, although it was driven by the board of education. The second took place during the first and second years of Rod Paige's superintendency and was driven equally by the board of education and Dr. Paige.

The reforms of 1997 -- reforms in governance, personnel management, district charter schools, business outsourcing, and so forth -- were made possible by impact on the board of the failed bond election in May 1996 and the Texas School Performance Review by Comptroller John Sharp in October 1996. In these reforms, the leadership of Rod Paige was decisive.

EW: It is interesting that opposition to proposals for change was limited -- and I believe you characterized them as barely noticed by the media in 1996 and 1997. To what do you attribute the change in public and media attitudes?

McAdams: The public supported the reforms of 1996 and 1997. In fact, most business and community leaders and active parents had long been pushing for some of these reforms. The opposition came from within the district, mostly from employee groups. A failed bond election and an audit gave the board political cover for bold reform steps. It was largely in response to these reforms that public opinion shifted from negative to positive.

EW: The unions -- particularly the ones representing the teachers -- come across in the book as obstacles to reform. Has that changed at all?

McAdams: The employee groups are much more positive now than during the period 1990 to 1997. Some of the reasons for this are the district's improved public reputation, the fact that the reforms did not have the negative impact expected, and the affection that most employees have for Dr. Paige. It is difficult to be a critic when the organization is doing well.

EW: How has reform progressed since you finished the book?

McAdams: Reform has progressed at a rapid rate during the past three years. In fact, I would say it has been a golden age for reform. The board has approved, and the administration is implementing, new policies and systems in the areas of school accountability, promotion standards, weighted student funding, bilingual education, technology infrastructure, management training, professional development, etc.

EW: The level of business involvement in school board elections and other issues seemed to be unusual. How do you view it? Do you see intense involvement by the business community as critical to changes in school systems?

McAdams: I believe business and community leadership in school board elections is essential and the key to improving urban schools. Without it, long-term reform is probably impossible.

EW: The problems with the teacher-review process and the Alternative Certification Process seemed to take many people in the system and the board by surprise. What checks and balances were missing that allowed these issues to go undetected?

McAdams: The district had inadequate management systems and internal controls, and there was too much management by fear. I believe these issues are mostly things of the past.

EW: Some of your "lessons from Houston" and recommendations could be viewed as controversial -- such as recommending hiring only minority superintendents in urban districts. What kind of feedback have you received about that?

McAdams: I do not believe that only minority superintendents should be hired. I do believe that except in unusual circumstances, they should be preferred. Non-minority candidates who have a strong connection with a city, such as Alan Bersin in San Diego, are well suited to be superintendent.

EW: When you say that direct democratic control is a hindrance to urban schools, what would you suggest as an alternative? Do you think urban boards of education should be appointed?

McAdams: I actually prefer elected boards to appointed boards, except in emergency situations. Elected boards can be less involved in direct democratic control if candidates are elected at large. Contracting out services also places boards at arm's length from management.

EW: Do you think the four original priorities of Beliefs and Visions were met?

McAdams: No, not fully. We still do not have a truly decentralized and accountable system. The current three-year phase-in of weighted student funding, which will have money follow the child and give schools the freedom to configure the workforce, carry over gains and losses, and buy goods and services from within or without the district, will move us much further in that direction. Making every class child-centered is probably a dream forever, but we keep pushing.

Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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