A Q&A With Mimi Swartz
The executive editor on the controversial superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, the politics involved in public education, and how parents need to be more vocal and vigilant.
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Budget cuts, including teacher layoffs, are rolling through almost every school district in Texas—at the expense, most parents would argue—of our children. So how do educators provide opportunities and an enriching curriculum with limited resources? The Houston Independent School District, the largest in the state, thought it was on the right track to find a solution when it hired Terry Grier as its superintendent in 2009. And at the start of his term, he was en route to improving teacher quality, standardized test scores, and graduation rates. And then the wheels came off. Executive editor Mimi Swartz has been following Grier’s trajectory and the ensuing maelstrom at HISD. Here’s the story behind the story.
According to your story, Terry Grier could very well be one of the most hated men in Houston. But what was he like in person? Did you find his characterizations by others to be accurate?
I found Grier to be smart and articulate and charming, but that doesn’t mean that other people’s characterizations weren’t accurate as well. We all have different sides to our personalities, especially when we are under pressure, and he is certainly a person under tremendous pressure.
Grier has been the superintendent of HISD for only two years. Do you think radical and effective change is possible within such a short time frame? If given a couple of more years, could Grier turn things around for the better?
I don’t think two years is long enough to effect much sustainable change. I think Grier could turn things around for the better if he would listen to and respect some of the people around him who know the community better than he does.
The discontent over his performance has been blogged about in Houston. How does Grier feel about this? And why do you think it hasn’t affected his stance on HISD’s education or the way he operates?
Grier likes to tell a joke: How can you tell the difference between a skunk and a school superintendent who has been hit by a car? Answer: There are skid marks on the skunk. Some of this criticism goes with the territory, and he knows it. I think Grier has been doing what he has been doing for a long time, and he might be set in the ways in which he does things. Also, in his defense, it must be very hard to separate legitimate criticism from race based or special interest criticism.
What drew you to this story? Why now?
Somehow it began to dawn on me that examining the life of a school superintendent was a way to look at the country right now—it’s a place where it is possible to examine our values and our politics on a very intimate scale. And Grier has a large personality. People think reporting on education is boring. It isn’t. The politics are just brutal.
In your opinion, how has education changed since you were in school? What are we missing today? What are we good at today?
I feel that I got a pretty good education in the public schools. I also feel that my son did, in HISD. But what’s different is that my parents didn’t have to be as vigilant as I did for my son, in terms of being sure he got what he needed. I agree with a lot of experts that the quality of the teachers and the principals is so important. I went to school at a time when a lot of smart women were still teaching. Now they can be doctors and lawyers and CEOs. We need to find ways to elevate the profession.
Some public schools in Houston are excellent, by the way. Not just the magnets, but the schools in better neighborhoods where the parents are vocal and vigilant. It still stuns me that two different superintendents wanted to get rid of the magnet program, which has done nothing but reflect extremely well on HISD. I understand the need for some retooling, but in general it is a program that works.
What is the most interesting thing you learned from writing this story?
If I could have written a longer story I would have written more about the corruption on the HISD school board. How it works, who is most guilty, how entrenched it is. There are reformers who believe this corruption dooms the whole system, and there were days when I agreed. Because so many educated, powerful, and wealthy people send their children elsewhere, the board doesn’t have the kind of leadership it should have. The kids just don’t come first.
In dire times, people are desperate to point fingers and attribute blame. Is the problem really Grier?
The problem is a combination of things: Grier could be more open minded, more attuned to local issues. Other interest groups could be more flexible. There should be more money. This is our work force we are raising, not to mention our future society. And too many people simply do not care. They feel like their kid is taken care of, and don’t care about their neighbor’s kid.
What’s in store for HISD in the near future?
I think it depends on whether Grier goes or stays, and how he stays. He has scheduled some public meetings for people to air grievances. If he and his staff learn to listen better, and stop micromanaging the good teachers and principals, maybe he will be able to be more successful. Already some of his enemies are afraid that if he leaves, someone worse will come in. Room for compromise, I say!
To learn more about education reform and HISD specifically, check out these websites and suggested books.
The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch
Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform, by Frederick M. Hess
Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools, by Steven Brill
houstonisd.org (Apollo 20)
tntp.org (the New Teacher Project)