Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools...and Winning! Lessons from Houston
reviewed by Grace Cureton Stanford - 2002
Title: Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools...and Winning! Lessons from Houston
Author(s): Donald R. McAdams
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807738840, Pages: 312, Year: 2000
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Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools…and Winning! Lessons from Houston by Donald R. McAdams provides a vivid and compelling description of urban school reform. McAdams shows how extremely difficult and painfully slow the process was and the many obstacles that surfaced during the seven year period of reform. As a member of the board of education of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) since 1989, McAdams draws upon his insider status to provide a rich portrayal of the struggle to reform Houston’s public schools from 1990-1997. McAdams does not offer simplistic formulas that limit themselves to superficial issues; rather, he takes a broad view that shows the need for multiple and simultaneous changes that deal with systemic reform.
Chapters one through fourteen focus on reform issues as they unfolded. These issues include strained relations between superintendents and the business community, infighting among board members, stringent opposition from the teachers’ union, misunderstandings with community leaders, and misguided state officials whose actions were politically motivated. In chapter fifteen, McAdams provides a discussion of ten key lessons learned from the reform process. While the lessons themselves may appear somewhat obvious at first glance, the explanations he offers contain many insights that could be used to inform future attempts to reform large urban school districts.
A major strength of the book is the description of numerous political battles that served as a constant backdrop for Houston’s school reform. The political struggles often threatened to undermine the tenuous reform process as self-interests replaced improved student learning as the primary focus. According to McAdams:
Everyone who wants to change or protect the status quo wants to influence the schools. And public education is big business. Schools are about vendors, contracts, and jobs. School reform is not reasoned debate about children, curriculum, teaching, and learning. It is political combat (p. xvi).
One of the political battles occurred when the board announced its choice of Rod Paige as superintendent in January 1994. Having served for several years on the HISD school board as a major proponent of reform and having enjoyed widespread support from Houston’s business, political, ethnic and civic leaders for years, Paige seemed uniquely qualified to lead the school district through the reform process. His selection, however, outraged members of the Hispanic community who strenuously objected to the selection process rather than the selection itself. The controversy resulted in widespread criticism of the board by the media, a lawsuit by the Hispanic Education Committee, and heated disputes between the African American and Hispanic leaders that almost derailed the reform efforts. Eventually, the lawsuit was dismissed and ethnic politics took a backseat as Paige and the board moved forward with major reform issues.
Another political battleground involved Gayle Fallon, the powerful leader of the Houston Federation of Teachers, Houston’s largest teacher union. Fallon proved to be a formidable foe for some of the board members and the superintendent. Fallon’s ties with organized labor generally garnered her the support of minority board members because their districts supported organized labor. Fallon voiced strong opposition to key reform strategies.
McAdams clearly describes the reforms that eventually became a reality for HISD. The board and superintendent agreed that decentralization was fundamental to reform in order to give schools control over key issues such as budgets, personnel, and curriculum and instruction. Decentralization of HISD was followed by other reforms that included elimination of social-promotion, accountability for teachers and administrators, curriculum alignment, a modified voucher program, public school choice, charter schools, student assessment, and outsourcing of business to private companies for management.
In conclusion, McAdams succeeded in documenting the reforms that took place in HISD from 1990-1996. He accomplished this by discussing the issues with both clarity and frankness. McAdams offers preliminary data that show an increase in student achievement and a lower dropout rate in HISD since1996. A recent study that examined dropout rates in the 35 largest central cities from 1992 to 1995 indicate that Houston’s dropout rate was among the highest. Thus, a reduction in the dropout rate over time is an important goal for evaluating the ultimate success of HISD reform. Meanwhile, those involved in reforming urban school districts that are faced with many of the challenges that confronted HISD can learn valuable lessons from this book.