HISD's Terry Grier: Agent Provocateur

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Prediction: In a year, Superintendent Terry Grier will either be a celebrated hero, or the scapegoat for pretty much of everything that goes wrong in the Houston Independent School District.

As Hair Balls said before, there doesn't seem to be a go-slow switch in Grier's arsenal. This past weekend at the school board retreat (held in-town at the Post Oak Hilton) he was carrying the banner for "transformation."

Board President Greg Meyers was one of several board members drinking the Kool-Aid. "We've been reforming for decades. This is the time to transform."

So what's the difference? Reform is tinkering, while transformation is some sort of wholesale morphing, the best Hair Balls could figure out. For years the district has brought in outside consultants to go through department by department and pulling out the things that weren't working. "It was like weeding a garden," Grier said.

Teachers already know their student test scores are going to be looked at, especially if they've had three years of ever lower scores.

Stated publicly Saturday: Not all the executive principals are going to end up with jobs as the newly designated School Improvement Officers (who will oversee schools, but in a different lineup than the executive principal system used.)

So what else are they looking at?

-- Does HISD really need all those employees at Central Office?

-- Why does HISD have people in Central with the same job descriptions as people out in the Regional Offices? And why don't these folks talk to each other, share documentation?

-- Why are some of the principal candidates Grier saw so lousy and would the administrators who recommended them really want them to be teaching their own children? (Grier thinks not.) "We have to get away from hiring people just because we know them and like them."

-- If KIPP and Yes Academy have elongated school days, weeks and sessions, why can't HISD? "They don't own a patent on those strategies," Grier said.

-- There isn't equity among the district's schools in terms of what they offer, how good a job they're doing. It needs a fix. As Deputy Chief Academic Officer Chuck Morris put it: "A parent should never be concerned about the teacher a student has."

-- Why shouldn't teachers be paid as much as principals if they are truly exceptional and they'd be most effective in the classroom?

-- Teachers coming out of universities don't know how to teach reading. What kind of in-district training is needed?

-- The district has spent a gazillion dollars on a whole bunch of programs going on at its schools. But why haven't these programs been evaluated to see if they work? "We're doing a lot of things out there. We don't know if they're working," Grier said.

-- HISD has a ton of data, but getting to it requires an experienced programmer, Chief Financial Officer Melinda Garrett readily admitted. So how can it be redone so any teacher can log on and get the information she needs quickly? "In the past two years, we've bought a lot of data systems," trustee Paula Harris noted. "The systems themselves each have data; now we need them to talk to each other," Garrett said.

-- Redoing principal and teacher evaluations. How to involve teachers in the process?

-- Summer school is going to have a different look to it. Should we save the summer teaching slots for only the best teachers? As trustee Harvin Moore succintly commented on the present state of summer school: "Summer school is a tragedy, a complete loss."

-- The so-called "parent engagement" system is a joke at some schools where the principal just runs the meetings instead of listening to parents. Moore pointed out that parents attending a recent magnet-schools meeting to discuss possible changes in the program "felt the central administration had not bought into all this." Whereupon Grier said: "They were correct in that assumption. It is as if a 10-foot concrete wall is surrounding them." Grier said he even overheard some administrators saying "Why did he invite them [parents]?" Of course, this led to trustee Manuel Rodriguez being upset about not knowing about the magnet meetings ahead of time. Chief of Staff Michele Pola said there was a memo, but apologized anyhow.

-- Are HISD's internal charters sucking the life out of the neighborhood schools the kids would otherwise be attending? How does HISD keep going as a self-proclaimed district of choice? Internal charters that aren't doing well should be shut down, Grier said

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