Greg Meyers |
Houston Independent School District – Trustee for District VI |
Greg Meyers, HISD Trustee for District VI, enthusiastically outlined the district’s new strategic direction at the Gulen Institute’s Luncheon Forum. He presented a series of measurements showing definite improvement in Houston schools after only a year of implementation, and though Meyers spoke like a businessman, his presentation was infused with the sense of urgency that motivates educators: “These kids get one shot.” From this perspective, incremental improvements are not enough. “We’ve thrown out the word ‘reform,’” Meyers proclaimed. “We are working now to transform Houston schools and to make HISD the best district in the nation.” The new strategy, recently developed with the help of the local community, intends to bring about such wholesale change, ensuring college and career readiness among all Houston students. The first two items of the new strategy acknowledge the need for an effective teacher in every classroom and an effective principle in every school. To this end, Meyers informed, the district has implemented new teacher appraisal and development systems. As classroom data has become more available, teachers can now be held directly accountable to the district’s expectations. Meyers repeatedly emphasized the importance of data in teacher evaluations: without it, the district is incapable of gauging how best to improve the educational environment. The same is true of principal evaluations. If these leaders are not held accountable by the district to the quantifiable performance of their school, there is little to prevent administrative decisions from devolving into political maneuvers.
It is ultimately the students who suffer from an underperforming school, and Meyers was adamant that the district should not hesitate to take action. He acknowledged that it is the district’s responsibility to provide support, training, and professional development for its teachers, and if personnel changes must be made, they can be guided by data-based evaluations. But new career pathways and compensation structures are also needed. Currently, the only advancement possibilities in the field of education lead out of the classrooms. The district is working to change that, Meyers assured, by providing new incentives for its best teachers to continue doing what they love to do. This also means developing a new “pipeline for leaders” within the HISD system. It is incumbent on the district to identify and grow potential new principals from within the school system, for these leaders will dictate the culture of the school and actively shape its future educational climate.
The district’s new plan also places an emphasis on rigorous instruction and support. Meyers stated that every child should be challenged; this is the only way to foster a rigorous and disciplined learning environment. “Too many times we raise the floor,” he declared. “We are going to raise the ceiling.” At the district level, this involves preparing students for the new STAAR test and implementing a new, comprehensive preK-12 literacy program. Meyers suggested that encouraging a certain amount of uniformity across the district is essential to transforming the expectations of the Houston community, and so the strategic plan is designed to hold them all accountable to the same high academic standard. Also, high mobility rates within the district make this the only way to ensure that students receive consistently excellent instruction at every grade level.
Meyers then turned to the final features of the new strategy: an increased reliance on data-driven accountability and the development of a culture of transparency between the school board and the community. The district is in the process of developing a “data-warehouse” which will enable the previously discussed teacher and principle evaluations. Here, Meyers reiterated the need to “cut through the politics of the school board to make data-based decisions.” The ultimate measure of success and failure should be student performance; in every case, the district must base its consideration on what is best for the schools and for the kids. He also promised more transparency in school board decisions as the district continues to redesign its website and develop other two-way communications vehicles for community feedback.
After outlining the core tenets of the district’s strategy, Meyers shifted his focus to the performance of Houston schools under the new plan. “I’m extraordinarily proud of this direction,” he proclaimed, presenting a series of comparisons between the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years that depict remarkable improvement. Graduation rates have increased across the district and are currently at record highs. Accordingly, dropout rates are at a record low after just one year under the new plan, and the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students and between white and African American students has narrowed by seven points.
These statistics reveal a school system in the midst of change, with the district working hard to “develop a culture of high expectations.” Meyers pointed out a 13% increase in the number of students scoring at a commended level on the TAKS reading test, accompanied by a 9% increase in the math and 6% increase in the writing tests. Most impressive is the 35% increase in the number of students scoring at the commended level on the science test. Meyers attributed this leap in part to the last bond issue, which put a science lab in every district school. The district’s new emphasis on “rigorous instruction” has also led to a 20% increase in the number of dual credit courses completed and an impressive 98% increase in the number of kids taking AP tests. Even with this increase, Meyers proudly reported, the number of kids passing AP tests rose by 27%. He boasted that Booker T. Washington High School produces more MIT entrants than any other high school in the nation and noted that the Ivy League has begun reaching out to Houston students, who are now receiving more scholarship dollars than ever.
Meyers ended his review of the district’s achievements with a summary of the progress of Apollo program schools. With the help of intensive tutoring, sixth and ninth grade math scores at these consistently underperforming schools have increased tremendously. This sort of academic intervention has been made possible by the help of the Houston business community, and Meyers stressed the importance of such contributions. “We know education is not a business, but you need focus. And once the broader business community saw how serious we are about performance, they stepped up to the plate.” Every segment of the community has got to be engaged in the work of education, Meyers concluded. HISD’s new strategic plan articulates the vision, but it is up to board members, principals, teachers, and the local community to enact the necessary changes.