Terry Grier Says Please, Please Mr. Postman

Houston ISD Superintendent Terry Grier has been busy writing letters, in one responding to state Senator Mario Gallegos, who has questioned whether some people are making money through Apollo 20 who shouldn't be, and a second and more immediate one to counter today's Houston Chronicle banner story on "teacher-assisted" cheating on tests in HISD, saying it might paint the district's 13,000 teachers "in an unfair light."

About two weeks ago, Gallegos shared a letter with Hair Balls in which he hurled some more accusations at Grier, the superintendent he has found wanting so many times.

Gallegos had said there are ethical questions involving HISD, the HISD Foundation (which he says is involved in fund-raising and contracting for the project), Harvard University's Ed Labs, whose Roland Fryer is the brains behind Apollo 20, and Blueprint, Inc., which he says has been hired by the district to implement the project.

HISD and the HISD Foundation are essentially the same, Gallegos said, as are EdLabs and Blueprint. And, Gallegos said, "An examination of the Apollo program suggests that certain individuals may be enriching themselves at the hands of our children and taxpayers."

The Grier letter, dated July 12 and released to Hair Balls today, says that while, yes, there is some overlap between HISD and the HISD Foundation, there is no conflict of interest and that while the Foundation Board assists HISD, it does not run its programs. He went on to thank the Foundation (board trustee Harvin Moore also sits on the Foundation board) for raising $13 million from private sources for the turnaround school project.

The Foundation doesn't just raise funds for Apollo, though, Grier wrote, but also supports such things as the Minute Maid after-school soccer program, the KBR Science Teacher of the Year award and the Devon Energy science grant awards.

In the same fashion, while the Harvard University EdLabs assists the district with Apollo, it is HISD that is calling the shots, Grier wrote.

He did go on to say that he has asked the HISD legal counsel to review the potential conflict of interest questions Gallegos raised. Grier also said that neither EdLabs not the Blueprint Schools Network were receiving any compensation from public funds. He said any private funds, he believed, were being properly accounted for.

In the second letter, sent out to the "HISD supporters" today, Grier said the Chron story "Signs of Cheating" might be guilty of "unjustly calling into question their [teachers'] ethics."

To be fair, Hair Balls has to say that this year's evidence of cheating -- substantiated at one school this year and another one last year -- pales in comparison to some of the district's more widespread cheating scandals of years past. Unfortunately, with teachers' bonuses relying in large part on their students' standardized test scores, it's not impossible to understand how someone might be drawn to the dark side.

According to Grier's letter, independent law firms hired by HISD found there was a substantiated case of cheating by one teacher during the 2010-11 school year and by two teachers at one school during the 2009-10 school year. There were two other cases last year in which teachers "offered inappropriate assistance to elementary school students," but they were not judged to be intentional cheating.

According to the Chron story (this morning Hair Balls put in a request for the same documents as the Chron received and HISD is still sorting through them, figuring out the redacted parts), Willie Jones, a fifth-grade teacher at Cornelius Elementary, helped kids cheat on the 2010 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills science test. According to the Chron, Jones "retired from the district in lieu of termination last February." According to Grier, another teacher at the school has been "proposed for termination" for the teacher-aided cheating.

At Lockhart Elementary, a teacher there "actively participated in cheating," Grier said, using "nonverbal cues" to assist students. The principal wants to keep the teacher, but not let her administer the TAKS test. Grier said his administration has that under review.

At Tinsley Elementary, a teacher was accused of improperly assisting limited-English students in their test. Investigators didn't think this rose to the level of deliberate cheating; the teacher was removed from testing duties and the kids got to take the writing test over.

An investigation into Scott Elementary was sparked by a whole lot of writing compositions that looked pretty identical. Hey, this one wasn't judged to be cheating -- just bad teaching of too formulaic writing techniques. The suggestion: cut it out.

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