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.

Like Privett, Alvarez was drawn to DISTAR's phonics-based method of teaching reading. Alvarez visited Thaddeus Lott's school and then flew to Oregon at his own expense to be trained in the curriculum. Because his school couldn't afford a trainer, he tried becoming the trainer himself, a solution that proved unworkable. He also tried to force the curriculum on his staff, creating some resistance that was only untangled through the help of Privett, Fallon and the teachers union.

While Alvarez has made impressive progress -- some of his kindergartners are finishing the first and second grade, while some second-graders are reading fourth-grade materials -- he's had to scrounge to pay for his consultants, asking for donations from local businesses. Jerry Silbert, Privett's partner in Performing Schools, has donated part of his time to Alvarez's school because, he says, he's passionate about the bilingual aspect of the program. If Alvarez had aggressive support from his district, Silbert says, there's no telling what the school could accomplish.

Silbert, who has projects going in tough inner-city schools in Chicago and rural schools in Utah, is saddened by what he sees as the denial of his and Privett's curriculum.

"St. Petersburg, [Florida] recently cleaned out a whole school and put in whole language," Silbert says, "but with direct instruction they will barely let us come into two classrooms. We should be invited in."

Though Privett was pushing DISTAR, he says he would like to see education, a $100-billion-a-year national industry, opened to many approaches other than his own. Giving the opportunity, he says, businesses would be more than willing to supply the curricula and training to receptive districts. But as long as the curriculum is kept in the hands of the educational bureaucracy, he says, little is likely to change. It's too slow in recognizing problems, and even slower when it comes to addressing them.

Privett says he worked with HISD for months to figure out accountability models. It was, he recalls, a frustrating process. For instance, he says, HISD didn't, and still doesn't, have a baseline accountability process, because it doesn't test students until the third grade. So how could he tell whether his first-graders were doing better than the system's other first-graders?

The failure of the schools to institute a thorough and comprehensive evaluation system, says Privett, is the most profound symptom of educators' failure to understand the simplest of management procedures: quality control. While business has been rapidly adjusting to a competitive climate where products and failed services are systematically scrutinized for failure, educators have not.

"The people who understand the problems of education are not educators," Privett says. "If you want a person who will understand education," he says, "don't take a lawyer or a writer or an economist and go to a school. And certainly don't take an educator. They don't have the background. Take an engineer. I've never taken a good engineer into a school who didn't immediately see what the problem is. There's no system. It's unmanaged. Management does not mean beating people up. Management means equipping them with skills and resources so they can do their job. I know that sounds very academic, but it happens to be true. It is an unmanaged system."

So what Performing Schools was offering was a management system. It was not going to manage the janitors, or the cafeteria; it wasn't going to install computers or video technology. It was going to offer a principal the resources with which to manage a school, resources that Privett and his supporters insist HISD either couldn't, or wouldn't, provide. And without those resources, without that willingness to take initiative, Privett insists, HISD is going to just keep muddling along, whatever its rhetoric.

HISD Superintendent Rod Paige seems almost indignant when he is asked why the district turned Privett's proposal down. To emphasize his point, Paige raises to his full height, well over six feet, and walks restlessly around his office. Why, Paige wants to know, is he being asked about a plan that was rejected a year and a half ago as risky and expensive, when there are so many other positive stories in HISD? He tells about a middle school teacher who helped turn a gang member around by getting him to clean up his image, down to wearing a necktie to school. He points out that Houston schools are decentralizing and emphasizing site-based management. Principals and teachers are being given a blank sheet of paper and are being encouraged to reinvent education. And if a school goes bad, he says, the central administration stands ready to clean it out and restaff it. Besides, he says, schools that want to are already using the curriculum that Privett proposed to provide. Not only that, but what does Privett know about education? He has never been a teacher or an administrator.

It's difficult to ask a question because Paige lectures almost nonstop for an hour about how HISD welcomes innovation, and about how poor Privett's proposal was. Occasionally he turns to his chief of staff, Susan Sclafani, to underscore or amplify a point.

Sclafani, a quiet, dark-haired woman with a doctorate in education, has served HISD for many years in top administrative positions. Widely regarded as the real power in HISD administration, Sclafani spent months negotiating a contract with Privett. She also wrote him the letter of rejection that was signed by Petruzielo. Sclafani wrote Privett that he had a nice proposal, but the board needs to go slowly, especially when it comes to spending public money. Maybe, she suggested, he would apply again next year?

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