Education News

Progress Or Precarious? Two Takes On The State Of Houston Schools

Both the superintendent and some critics agree there needs to be more equity in Houston schools.

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Progress or precarious? Innovation or stagnation?

How well Houston public schools are doing depends on who’s talking.

At his sixth annual update, the superintendent for the Houston Independent School District said they are among the best in the country.

But the same morning, dozens of activists took to the streets to highlight problems they see, like high-stakes testing at the expense of librarians and art teachers.

The two different takes on the state of Houston schools follow different approaches to education, but seem to agree on one thing: a need for more equity in education.

Overall, Superintendent Terry Grier outlined what he called a “bold, aggressive and creative” approach and previewed some new initiatives.

That included:

  • more dual language schools, including the first Hindi language immersion school in Texas;
  • more technology and giving laptops to every high school student in HISD by next year; and
  • college counselors for 20 high schools that currently don’t have one.

“We’re going to increase college-going rates by at least 20 percent, and we’re going to significantly increase the number of students who actually stay in college and finish,” Grier said at the address.

He announced that there will also be more counseling for students who are low-income and have the grades to attend Ivy League universities.

Both expansions of college counseling are funded by $8.5 million in grant money from the Houston Endowment.

That second program, called Emerge, will grow from 25 campuses to 45 and target students like Felipe Guillen, 18.

He graduated from Chavez High last year. Now he’s at Stanford, thanks in part to that mentoring.

“I’ll never forget the moment this quarter when one of my professors gave me positive feedback on an essay I had written. And I quote: ‘I don’t know what kind of training you had, but whatever your teachers taught you, keep doing it, this is great,’” said Guillen, who is the first in his family to attend college.

While about 2,000 guests applauded Grier’s update inside the Hilton Americas Hotel downtown, outside on the sidewalk, a few dozen people held an alternative address.

“Teach to the dream, not to the test! Teach to the dream, not to the test!” chanted people from a coalition of education advocates, union leaders and parents.

They made their rally interactive, with a “selfie” station, a raffle for a librarian and a quiz.

“Would you like to take this test to see if you’re smarter than a fifth grader? Only five questions!” asked Loretta Brock, as she carried a copy of a standardized exam for fifth graders on a clipboard.

She said it’s an example of high-stakes testing.

 “We’re over-testing, how some of our first graders are taking as many as 16 high-stakes test during the school year. Which is a waste of time, it’s a waste of money — we’re teaching to the test,” Brock said.

The protestors described the state of Houston schools with words like precarious, stagnation and inequity.

“Inequitable because we don’t have equity in access. We don’t have equity in funding. We don’t have equity in staffing, materials or facilities, so inequity would be my word for Houston ISD,” Brock explained.

After the address, Grier said he’ll listen to his critics.

He said he supports standardized tests, because without them, it would be hard to know what a student has actually learned.

But Grier said too much testing isn’t good either.

“But we got to figure out a three bear recipe: can’t be too hot, can’t be too cold, it’s got to be just right. I don’t have the answers, but I can tell you (that) you don’t have school unless you have testing,” Grier said.

But there is something else that both the critics and Grier seemed to agree on.

That’s inequity.

Grier pointed to programs for gifted kids.

White students are five times more likely to be identified as gifted and talented than their African-American peers. Those programs offer more advanced classes and have extra funding — about $400 more per student. 

Grier said he is forming an equity council to take a hard look at everything the district does.

“Because we can’t allow a kid’s ZIP code to determine the quality of education they get here in Houston, and that’s been the case not only here but around this state and all over this country for much, much, much too long,” he said.

 

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