Super Collider

Can Terry Grier save Houston’s struggling public schools? That was the question on everyone’s minds when the get-tough reformer was hired as superintendent of the state’s largest ISD in 2009. Two controversial, tumultuous, and frustrating years later the city’s parents, teachers, and politicians are asking something else. Can anyone?
Super Collider
Terry Grier
Photograph by Jeff Wilson

When you mention the name Terry Grier to certain people with ties to the Houston Independent School District—certain teachers, certain principals, certain parents, certain politicians—you are likely to get a reaction not unlike something you might have seen in The Exorcist . The current HISD superintendent has managed to make some people so angry, in fact, that their eyes almost roll back in their heads and their tongues waggle at just the thought of him. They flame him on the Houston Chronicle ’s School Zone blog and call for his head at houstonisdwatch.com. They flood one another’s email boxes with conspiracy theories. They comb the HISD budget for improprieties when they should be eating dinner with their families. They tell anyone who will listen that Grier doesn’t listen, that he took a dysfunctional school system and made it even more dysfunctional. That Houston’s ISD is going to look as gutted as Detroit’s by the time he’s done with it. That he came to town with an agenda. That he doesn’t speak Spanish. That he is a bully and a liar and a weasel, a category-5 hurricane and a sociopath. They compare him to Harold Hill—the con artist in The Music Man —and to Osama bin Laden and, as is the norm for these sorts of things, Adolf Hitler.

So it can be a little peculiar to visit Grier in his sprawling, sunny office overlooking Loop 610 South and find him energized and in good spirits. He is a tall, vigorous man of 61, with red hair, elfin ears, and a somewhat diabolical widow’s peak. When he is at ease, he displays the charm of his native North Carolina, and thanks to a salary and perks that exceed $300,000, he is more polished than the usual superintendent; his expertly contrasting tie-shirt-suit combos could give any local trial lawyer a run for his money. When we met this past August, right before school started, the delight he showed in recounting a recent visit to New York with his wife and 82-year-old mother belied the harsh, dictatorial capo described by those who toil in Houston’s administrative and educational trenches. The only clues to a “morale problem,” as Grier put it, were the somewhat edgy presence during our interview of Jason Spencer, HISD’s senior manager of media relations, and Grier’s religious adherence to his own talking points. “I know how change can be disruptive to people,” Grier told me, leaning forward from the depths of a plushly upholstered chair. “What I have found is that people talk about what they want until you produce it.”

The maelstrom around Grier should not be surprising to anyone remotely familiar with modern public education. In the past few decades, according to almost any measure you’d like to use, the American public school system has been a system in decline. This trend, coupled with a recent cinching of the economic belt, has made the usual tangle of competing interests—parents, educators, politicians, state and federal government, vendors, consultants, and unions—even knottier. It’s also made the job of superintendent of a large urban school district virtually impossible. Any move forward or backward or even staying in place is guaranteed to infuriate someone. In Texas, the position is particularly hard: earlier this year, facing a massive state budget shortfall, the Legislature made an unprecedented $4 billion in cuts to education, and schools from Houston to El Paso are now grappling with as many as 49,000 employee layoffs.

Even without those challenges, running HISD could make a sane person certifiable. With more than 200,000 students, it’s the largest school district in the state and the seventh-largest in the nation. It is 62 percent Hispanic, 27 percent black, and 8 percent white. More than eighty languages are spoken in the district, 63 percent of students are classified as at risk, and 79 percent are poor enough to qualify for free lunch. “You can’t look at this with the naked eye. You have to look at this with a microscope,” said Mike Feinberg, the director of Knowledge Is Power Program Houston, or KIPP, the public charter school network that, along with charter YES Prep, has become HISD’s major competitor for minority students. “You’ve got five hundred special interests who all think their one issue is the most critical issue and that if you pull their lever you’re going to fix public education,” he continued. “Even if those layers were peeled away, HISD is still a thirty-thousand-person, two-billion-dollar organization. That’s why every time I get a call asking if I want a superintendent’s job, I say, ‘No, thank you. I’m too busy putting bamboo shoots under my fingernails.’ ”

But Grier’s term was going to be different. Hired two years ago by a unanimous board, he was hailed as the rarest of combinations: a reformer with longtime experience in education. He had a doctorate from Vanderbilt University, he’d worked in eight school districts in 25 years, and he specialized in working with at-risk kids and lowering dropout rates. He’d spent almost eight years—a lifetime in the annals of superintendents—as the head of the Guilford County Schools, in Greensboro, North Carolina. He seemed indefatigable. His credentials wowed the suits in the all-powerful Greater Houston Partnership, who were finally beginning to grasp that their future workforce was woefully unprepared. “We are serious about being the best school district in America. I want a quality principal in every school and a quality teacher in every classroom,” Grier told me when we first met, in July 2010. “This is about students. We are not a jobs program for adults.”

Back then, Grier was still a pretty popular guy. Some described his management style as brusque, but a great many others in Houston’s leadership positions felt that Grier was just what the city needed: a tough guy for tough times. He had come in with a host of initiatives—online credit-recovery classes to draw dropouts back to school, a new push for accountability for teachers and principals, a determination to create a

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