"Uncross your arms," Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier semi playfully pleaded today with some members of his huge audience at his first ever State of the Schools address for teachers, administrators, business leaders and politicians.
He wasn't booed as he was at the last school board meeting when he led the charge on adding new criterion to the way teachers can be dismissed from the district (if the kids in their classes don't improve on statistical testing and in fact, regress), but not everyone was singing his praises either if body language was any measure.
"Change is painful. We get comfortable being who we are," he said before crossing his own arms and wriggling his torso about before asking them to just try to take a breath and not dismiss the new out of hand. At least one other table toward the back of the room at the fourth floor ballroom at the Hilton Americas Hotel downtown kept up a steady side conversation throughout his speech, whether they were commenting on Grier or talking about Tiger Woods is anyone's guess as they chowed down on a luncheon whose centerpiece was Cornish game hen (and was not paid for by taxpayer dollars, so stop gasping! And Hair Balls and the other media members got turkey sandwiches, chips and water!)
Like anyone who wants to rope people into a conversation long enough to get to touchier ground, Grier began by praising Houston ("great sports town," "can-do spirit") and HISD ("this is a phenomenally good urban school district" which got him his first cheers of the speech) before introducing his "buts."
Among them: "Some of our schools have been failing for too long. More than 70,000 students aren't reading on grade level. Our graduation level is too low and our dropout rate is too high."
"It's just not good enough to take regular courses, record grades of A and then go on to college and struggle."
"Our curriculum is not rigorous enough; it is not engaging enough for all students."
And perhaps most damning to the group assembled: "We don't have a quality teacher in all classrooms."
He went on to talk about his proposal for a new department of Innovation and Research that will determine whether any of the multitude of programs HISD has actually work and are actually able to close the achievement gap. "Tough decisions will be made on whether to eliminate programs," he said.
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Potential principals and teachers will be hired based on how well they fit the needs of "Team HISD, not based "on who they know or their political affiliation."
Grier called for a closer working relationship between the City of Houston (Mayor Annise Parker and several city council members attended) and HISD and also said he has spoken with Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston system who is willing to work with HISD on the question of how best to prepare college students to become teachers.
While calling them "friends," Grier directly challenged charter schools and their representatives who were in the audience. "We're not afraid of your competition. We will not sit idly by and watch our parents leaver failing schools to go to charters....I can promise you we will get busy."
And good news for students. In an effort to entice more kids into taking Advance Placement exams and passing them (3 on a scale of 5), he floated the idea for finding a sponsor to give out laptops or cars as incentives for students who take five or more AP tests.