The Curriculum Question

Businessman John Privett thought he had a solution to the problems of some of Houston's troubled schools. The parents wanted to try it. The teachers wanted to try it. But HISD administrators said no.

When Houston businessman John Privett talks about fixing the schools, he still burns with anger at the way Houston's education leaders treated him. In the spring of 1993, Privett thought he had something magical going. The teachers of three elementary schools and one middle school had voted overwhelmingly to get their instruction program from his private company as opposed to that of the Houston Independent School District.

Privett had warned the schools' teachers that his curriculum was going to be tough; it was the same one Wesley Elementary School Principal Thaddeus Lott had used to significantly raise the reading and math scores of his poor African-American students. When he met with the faculty of Kelso Elementary, a predominantly black elementary school in southeast Houston, he told the teachers they would have to work much harder to master the company's daily lesson scripts. "That's the way it has to be!" Privett recalls the teachers responding. When he told them that every minute of the 110 to 150 or so daily minutes of instruction time would be directed by an on-campus company trainer, one teacher, Privett says, responded, "It's the teacher's job to follow the trainer." When he warned them that the program was so difficult that some teachers might abandon education forever, Privett was encouraged to hear several teachers yell back, "Then they shouldn't be teachers."

At Kelso, teachers voted 34 to 1 in favor of adopting the curriculum and training of Privett's Performing Schools Corporation. At largely Hispanic Wilson Elementary in Mon-trose, the vote was 28 to 1 in favor of Performing Schools. To show that the program had more than just the teachers' backing, Wilson's Parent-Teacher Organization solicited 70 letters of support from its approximately 200 sets of parents and sent them to district headquarters.

At predominantly black Foster Elementary, the principal was a former high school teacher who had seen firsthand that nearly all school failure in later years is caused by the failure of elementary schools to teach children basic skills. Foster's Shared Decision-Making Committee of teachers and parent representatives voted unanimously to adopt Privett's curriculum. So did the committee at E.O. Smith Middle School, one of HISD's most troubled schools and a longtime dumping ground for bad teachers and student troublemakers. Privett hadn't wanted to take on a middle school at first, but when his experts tested E.O. Smith's children and found that 70 percent of them couldn't read, he decided he couldn't refuse them.

Privett had expected some principals to be receptive to his proposal, but he wasn't prepared for such a positive response from teachers, who are often blamed for the sorry state of public education. All over the nation, teachers concerned about issues of accountability and academic independence had been resisting efforts to privatize the public schools. Yet surprisingly, Performing Schools was endorsed by the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, whose membership includes about half of HISD's 10,000 teachers.

Privett won that endorsement, says the union's president, Gayle Fallon, by consulting with the union about certain sensitive issues. Both the union and Privett agreed that teachers had to want the curriculum for it to succeed. They also agreed that school principals, not the private company's trainers, would conduct all teacher evaluations. Privett says he didn't want to manage the teachers anyway; he wanted to manage the principals. And although Performing Schools offered carefully scripted lessons, it also, Fallon points out, gave teachers a great deal of discretion about how to use the rest of their time, and a good deal of independence and responsibility in making the system work.

But the most important reason teachers were interested, says Fallon, was Performing Schools' trainers themselves. Though HISD provides teacher training, Fallon says her membership constantly complains about its quality. "If you get a new program," she says, "they'll crowd everyone into a big room and do a ses-sion on how to use the thing. But the follow-up is minimal."

Privett, in contrast, was offering immediate, on-site assistance with instructional problems, a kind of support, says Fallon, that HISD teachers don't usually get. Also, since Privett's plan called for teachers to ultimately become trainers, he offered them the promise of managing themselves.

Privett's plan was popular in part because it reflected a national trend to take power away from federal, state and district bureaucracies and give it back to teachers and parents. And since 1990, HISD had been talking about innovation, decentralization and "site-based" management. Privett arrived with a plan based on a curriculum that had proven results with inner-city children. Some principals wanted it even at the expense of cutting personnel, and many teachers wanted it even though they would have to give up a measure of autonomy. The parent representatives wanted it. Even the Greater Houston Partnership's chamber of commerce, looking for innovation in the schools, supported Privett's plan.

All of the pieces seemed to be in place. And then, as Privett watched, it fell apart. Then-HISD superintendent Frank Petruzielo refused to approve the cuts in staff positions needed to fund the program at E.O. Smith, and the middle school had to be dropped from the proposal.

Then the school board wilted. Citing financial difficulties, Petruzielo never put Performing Schools on the board's agenda. Trustee Arthur Gaines, in whose district two of the four schools slated for Privett's program were situated, was outspoken in his opposition. Even Wesley Elementary Principal Thaddeus Lott, who had made a name for himself by using the same curriculum that Privett offered to provide and had fought the central administration in order to use that curriculum, shared Gaines' sentiment. "Why," Lott asked, "should we pay this man a million dollars to do something we should be doing already?"

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