Saturday, January 8, 2011

How to Destroy a District

The Houston Independent School District (HISD), the 7th largest school district in the country, has received the report prepared by the independent consultant it hired in the fall to analyze and make recommendations on changes to the HISD Magnet Schools program. The report, prepared by Magnet Schools of America, is a shock to many - including the Grass Widow household, who enjoy their fine arts magnet elementary school quite a lot, thank you very much. Here is a summary of the report's recommendations:

1. Stop testing for admission to all magnet programs. This might not be that bad for elementary schools, since testing of 4-5 year olds is not much a predictor of elementary school performance. But the study proposes not testing for any middle or high school programs, which truly will hurt the magnet program more than almost anything I can think of. The testing that the magnet schools currently use is a report that (1) combines a child's grades, Stanford and NNAT test scores, and a teacher recommendation, then (2) weighs those elements, and (3) gives the child a score on a scale of 100 points. Magnet schools currently establish a cut-off point for their program, then either rank children and accept them 1, 2, 3, etc, or throw all qualified students in a pot and pick with eyes closed. Without this testing element, the schools will not get the best qualified students for their programs, and the best qualified students will not be rewarded for their prior years of hard work with the opportunity to attend a magnet program. To me, one of the things that makes magnet programs work is the motivation that the children bring to the table. Empowered by the ability to choose a school, rewarded for their past successes, they can work toward more achievements in an environment filled with like-minded and motivated children. To me, this is one of the things that makes a magnet program in such a large district so special: it can pull kids from all around the city - kids who may be very different from one another in many ways, but who all have a common goal of high achievement.

2. Eliminate almost half the magnet schools and pull their funding. The report admits that our own elementary school is of the highest quality, full of motivated and intelligent teachers, administrators and students, and possesses a high quality of fine arts education. It states the same about several other nearby magnets that it also recommends be eliminated. These schools are all rated "exemplary" by the TEA, and several of them have been and/or are currently on the TBEC's list of the best schools in the state. But they shouldn't be magnet schools, even though they are some of the best programs in the district. The stated reason is that they are at capacity (perhaps because they are so good?), but it is not suggested that they are failing at their mission as magnet schools because of the crowds.

3. Force each magnet school to mirror the district-wide demographics. HISD is currently 8% white, 92% non-white. Some of the magnet schools - in particular most of the ones that are to be eliminated - are currently not racially normed to the district as a whole. For example, our elementary is approximately 33% asian, 33% white, and 33% black or hispanic. We also have over 40 birth countries represented by the student body (no, not the parents - the students themselves. seriously). But because we are only 66% non-white, and because of the neighborhood demographics we will never reach 92% non-white, the report recommends eliminating our school from the program. It doesn't state this as the reason to eliminate us (see #2 above) but if the goal of the magnet program is racial norming, you can't make it when schools like ours are counted. Even though our school may be the most diverse in terms of ethnicity, life experience, cultural background - you name it - in the entire district, it doesn't meet the narrow definition that Magnet Schools of America has given the word "diversity". For all the schools that remain in the program and who are not at 92%, the report recommends requiring them to decrease their white population by 2% per year or face losing their magnet status as well.

4. Remove magnet funding from the Vanguard program. HISD Vanguard schools are magnet schools that focus on academics rather than have a specialized subject like fine arts. They are some of the most sought-after schools in the district, and many have a very high rank within the city and even state-wide. Quite frankly, they need the magnet designation because they need the funding it provides. Taking it away may make sense on paper, since they don't "specialize" the way a traditional magnet program does, but they shouldn't be punished for their good results by losing badly-needed money.

The report is long, and full of other recommendations that change the nature of some of the schools who would be allowed to stay magnet programs. But in summary, the long and short of it is this: Magnet Schools of America is committed first to the goal of "desegregation, equity, excellence, and the expansion and improvement of magnet schools." [emphasis added] When HISD hired them to perform this study, the outcome should have been known before their consultants set foot on a single campus. I am not going to suggest here (or indeed anywhere) that desegregation is not a good goal for a school district that has discriminated against its students. But I will state quite clearly that I do not believe desegregation is or should be the goal of a good magnet program (which is what HISD currently has). The goal of HISD's magnet program should be to improve the quality of education throughout the district, and to provide students with good schools from which to choose from to educate them not only in the basics but also in the specialized subjects that interest them most. It should provide public school choice to students who work hard, get good grades and test scores, and who want a good education as a ticket to a better future. With the right recommendations and leadership HISD's program can do all of this, but this report does not provide a roadmap for doing so. Instead, this report merely suggests that a minority student in a poorly performing magnet school will be better off it the district takes the magnet program away from a non-minority student in an exemplary magnet school. In fact, neither student in that scenario benefits, and in the end both will likely suffer as HISD looks less like the success it is currently and more like the failed urban school districts in other large cities around the US.

I sincerely hope that the HISD administrators, teachers, and board will see this report for what it really is: a ticket to the destruction of a district that in the past has deliberately avoided many of the mistakes of other large city districts. Every student in HISD deserves better than the plans this report has for them. Every. Single. One.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Gives me a sinking feeling in my chest. A systematic effort to deny something to a population that benefits from it.