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?

October 2011By Comments

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 more standards-based curriculum, an edict to give all children breakfast in the classroom—that seemed to promise that HISD could not just maintain but also upgrade its image, and not just in the city but also nationally. That teachers and principals groused about the changes only supported the view that Grier was on the right track.

“Grier has the energy and passion of an evangelist, qualities he will need in abundance if he is to make a difference,” I wrote a little over a year ago in the pages of this magazine. “If he fails, the reasons will be complex and worthy of examination.” With that idea in mind, I spent much of the 2010–2011 school year, his first full year on the job, following the superintendent’s progress, talking to his friends and enemies, visiting periodically with him, trying to understand the seemingly intractable problems associated with effectively running, let alone reforming, an educational bureaucracy as large as HISD.

Not surprisingly, it was a hard year. By this summer, the number of academically unacceptable schools in the district had actually increased. Test scores—the ostensible measure of college or workforce readiness—hadn’t soared, as Grier had promised. A parents’ survey released this August showed that satisfaction with the district had dropped during Grier’s tenure, from 79 percent to 54 percent. Many had begun predicting his departure, though Grier, for his part, insisted he wasn’t going anywhere. He loves his work, he told me in his office. “It’s a great opportunity to break the cycles of poverty,” he said, his chin set. “I try not to be defensive and listen to my critics, but I’m not going to stop doing what’s right for children unless someone can come up with a better idea.” Then he softened. “We want to do a better job communicating,” he added, though that didn’t mean he would alter his approach. “Children have only one time in school.”

Still, during the year I spent watching Grier, two questions emerged: Can anyone, even someone as hard-driving and determined as Grier, actually effect change in a calcified system? And at the same time, have the current education reforms he champions—most notably, an obsession with accountability, stringent benchmarks for teachers, and a dependence on philanthropists and education consultants—gone too far? Put another way, should we see Grier as a true reformer, as he says he is, or simply the product of the same system that keeps kids from progressing, decade after decade?

After an hour of conversation, Grier paused for breath and became uncharacteristically pensive. He blinked, and then he looked at me square on. “What are people saying about me?” he asked.

The modern history of American public education is a toxi-comic combination of politics, fads, paranoia, and failure. Everyone and no one has the answer for how best to educate children, particularly poor children, and the fact that they aren’t getting an education is almost always someone else’s fault. Ever since “A Nation at Risk,” the groundbreaking report published in 1983 by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, warned of “a rising tide of mediocrity,” politicians and educators alike have been searching for a magic bullet that ensures our kids are college-bound or at least, in the new parlance of the times, “workforce-ready.”

But the solutions keep changing. “A Nation at Risk” was a response to the reforms of the creativity-worshipping seventies (who needs grades? Who needs desks? Who needs classroom discipline?). The next major touchstone in education—a call by Congress in the nineties to set concrete standards, as laid out in its National Education Goals—was replaced by the No Child Left Behind Act, in 2002, and the cry for accountability: schools were now judged by how well their students did on standardized tests. High scores and low dropout rates in his home state—and more specifically, Houston—prompted President George W. Bush to tout the “Texas Miracle” and hire HISD superintendent Rod Paige as his Secretary of Education, a fact that put the Bayou City on the map as a center of educational innovation. But in the ensuing years, NCLB has been widely decried for replacing good teaching with standardized test prep. NCLB’s ambitious goal of having every student be proficient in math and reading by 2014 was shelved last summer by Barack Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who knew an impossible deadline when he saw one.

One obsession still remains: closing what is known as the achievement gap. As of 2007, white children scored 27 points higher than black children in reading and 31 points higher in math on tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress—a chasm that has attracted the attention of philanthropists like Bill Gates, who, along with myriad private corporations and consulting firms, tie donations to their own ideas about education. This, in turn, has boosted the proliferation of charter schools, which, depending on whom you ask, are supposed to either encourage public schools to step up their game or, conversely, put them out of business. (None other than Oprah Winfrey gave Houston’s YES Prep $1 million last fall.)

This is also the era of the celebrity school superintendent: former prosecutor Joel Klein became an education star after agreeing to take on New York City’s school system in 2002; the young Michelle Rhee, who had been a teacher for all of three years before being made chancellor in Washington, D.C., was featured in 2008 on the cover of Time for trying to clean up the city’s schools and now heads her own consulting firm, StudentsFirst. Test scores and accountability still matter, as do new methods of teaching educators to do better. But it has become an article of faith that the best people to clean up bureaucratic, big-city dinosaur school systems are outsiders.

It was against this backdrop that HISD’s superintendent of five years, Abelardo Saavedra, announced his intention to step down in 2009. Saavedra had been an HISD insider and its first Hispanic superintendent, and he was unassuming to the point of near invisibility. The school board at the time was made up of nine members: three blacks, four whites, and two Hispanics. Some were reform-minded—such as Natasha Kamrani, a firebrand attorney and Teach for America grad whose husband founded YES Prep—while others had never voted against a teacher, no matter how bad, or were known to enjoy cozy relationships with HISD vendors. None were elected at large (each person represented his or her own district), and given that HISD was one of the biggest employers in town, this allowed members to build their own financial fiefdoms. Still, they all shared a view that HISD should sit higher in state and national rankings.

In Texas, Houston then sat 563rd out of 953, ahead of Dallas, San Antonio, and Fort Worth but behind Austin and other suburban districts like Cypress-Fairbanks and Plano. Compared with many big-city districts, it had much to be proud of. High schools like Bellaire, Carnegie, Lamar, DeBakey, and the High School for the Visual and Performing Arts routinely scored very well in various national rankings. According to its Declaration of Beliefs and Visions, a statement of purpose first released by the school board in 1990, HISD was also a “district of choice”: if students didn’t like their neighborhood school, they could try another in Houston—there were more than a hundred magnet and advanced educational programs—and ride free buses to get there. Principals were given latitude in running their schools, as were teachers in their classrooms. In general, HISD shared with its city a self-image tied to innovation and entrepreneurship.

That HISD compared favorably with other urban districts in the country, however, was akin to being, in one trustee’s words, “the tallest midget.” Since the 2005–2006 school year, the district had lost about 14,000 students, mostly poor minorities, to charter schools; most whites had fled to private schools long before. The dropout rate of 18.7 percent was still perilously high; the graduation rate of 68 percent was still embarrassingly low. So the board wanted change—just not too much. Talk of hiring former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings or recruiting someone like Rhee or Klein was too radical. Still, trustees weren’t willing to settle for the status quo by promoting from within HISD. The five-month search was conducted in secret, as is the norm, with a search firm collecting around $100,000 to drum up potential candidates.

Grier was neither the first nor the last choice. His negatives, such as the board could determine, could be seen as positives: sure, his eighteen-month stint as superintendent in San Diego had been colored by a pitched battle with the teachers’ union—but if HISD was going to improve teacher quality, it needed someone tough to stand up to Gayle Fallon, the crusty 26-year head of the Houston Federation of Teachers. And sure, there had been yard signs that declared “We’ve Been Grier Ended” during his term as superintendent of the Guilford County School District—but Grier had lasted eight years in the job and, according to his bio, had cut the dropout rate in half, more than doubled the college scholarships available to high school seniors, tripled enrollment of minorities in Advanced Placement classes, and increased the high school graduation rate to 80 percent. That controversy seemed to follow Grier everywhere he went did not concern the board members too much; his skills as a manager were not as important to them as his ability to share their vision for HISD.

Grier told me he wasn’t looking for a job when the search firm approached him, but he had recently lost the support of the school board in San Diego, which meant his days there were numbered. His wife, Nancy, read HISD’s Declaration of Beliefs and Visions and suggested he take a look. “You could have written this,” she told him. Houston represented a huge step up: HISD was about twice the size of the San Diego Unified School District, with about twice the budget. Grier studied the list of goals—reducing the achievement gap, recruiting and retaining good teachers, and more—and felt Houston might be a good fit. He was impressed with the board’s ambition and intuited that the trustees wanted change, and quickly. “Maybe it was all too good to be true,” he told me.

Grier and his wife arrived in Houston in August 2009. They settled into a luxury apartment downtown, and he got his first look at the city’s schools. He was appalled. Exposed to the vast differences within HISD, he did not have the laissez-faire response of the average Houstonian. Yes, there were schools that had won all sorts of national awards, but then there were schools that didn’t have textbooks. “How do you explain it?” he asked me, reenacting the discussion he must have had with himself at the time. “Values? Beliefs? Expectations? I don’t think a kid should ride a school bus across town to get an education.” The inequities haunted him. “If you find it, what do you do about it?”

In the first few months of that school year, Grier became a one-man educational SWAT team. He ordered teachers to serve students breakfast in their classrooms, during instructional time, lest any child start the day hungry. He instituted a program in which students just a few credits shy of graduation could catch up online without repeating an entire year. He settled a long-standing lawsuit that had been costing the district millions. He fired a scandal-plagued principal at Kashmere High School whom Saavedra had attempted to demote before being overruled by the board. He demanded that all students in AP classes take AP tests, so that no one would miss out on college credit. He brought in consultants from around the country to assess everything from curriculum to hiring practices. He stood up to 750 teachers who’d stormed a board meeting after he’d announced a plan to punish those whose students did not show enough improvement. And finally, he created his own answer to the charter schools with an initiative he dubbed Apollo 20, installing a KIPP-style curriculum in five failing middle schools and four seriously underperforming high schools.

Not surprisingly, Grier’s changes did not result in universal happiness. “In making all those corrections, we let people go,” he told me. “Every one of these people had friends.” Trustees suggested he slow down and take the time to get to know the community. But Grier’s response was always the same: there was no time to waste. His zeal did little to offset his management style, which was seen by his employees as dictatorial and downright rude. He kept a group of principals waiting for more than an hour and a half for their first meeting. He failed to greet a Principal of the Year when she was honored at an Astros game. In meetings, he tended to be negative about anything that wasn’t his idea—“Nothing good in education ever came out of Texas,” he was heard to say—and he had a habit of bullying and shaming people publicly. His consultants seemed to think their ignorance about HISD was an advantage. In one meeting with principals, a group of education experts described the district as a place where guards were a necessity and teachers outran students for the exits at the end of the day. “You guys don’t work at schools, you work at custodial institutions,” one lectured. The principals were shocked. “I remember thinking, ‘What the hell is this?’ ” one told me.

The freedom to make decisions had long been a prerogative of HISD principals; it was part of the Declaration of Beliefs and Visions. But soon Grier had accelerated a plan by Saavedra to centralize the district, replacing five regional heads with just three administrators for elementary, middle, and high school operations. He also began moving principals to other schools with an indecipherable logic and limiting their independence in other ways: they now had to call their supervisors when they planned to leave campus, for example, even if it was for as little as thirty minutes. The changes rubbed many the wrong way. After Grier was dismissive of Lee High School’s popular and successful principal, Paul Castro, during a meeting, Castro left to become the head of schools for KIPP. Other colleagues soon followed.

Teachers fared worse. The popularity of Waiting for “Superman,” a 2010 documentary about the failures of public education, marked the culmination of a years-long national campaign to put teachers under the magnifying glass. HISD had already green-lighted a teacher-accountability program under Saavedra, known as the Education Value-Added Assessment System, or EVAAS for short. Now Grier moved it forward with the speed of a starving cheetah, pushing for ways in which teachers who did not meet standards could be fired more quickly. Foreseeing the legislative budget crisis that would hit the following year, he also used financial estimates to sack more than seven hundred of them. “I fired eighteen teachers in six months,” a principal told me. “[Grier] brought in [his] team, and the bloodletting began in full force.” A culture of fear took root at HISD; principals could now hide behind the budget cuts to fire not just bad teachers but also those they didn’t like.

The traditional opposition marshaled itself against Grier—and got nowhere. Fallon, the head of the teachers’ union, was pilloried for calling Grier a jerk when he tried to sever ties with an organization that ran two alternative schools for students with behavioral issues. Houston senator Mario Gallegos, who sits on the Senate Education Committee, decried Grier’s divisiveness. But Gallegos had his own history of divisiveness in the city, and as HISD gossip went, he was angry simply because the board had failed to consult him while conducting its superintendent search. A volunteer organization, Parent Visionaries, also butted heads with Grier. But the group, headed up by Mary Nesbitt—a mother who had been active in HISD and was close to several trustees from wealthier districts—included mostly white, prosperous parents, and critics accused them of ra­cism and selfishness, of not wanting money to flow from kids in their neighborhoods to kids in poorer ones.

What dissent there was went underground. Two blogs, School Zone, run by Houston Chronicle education reporter Ericka Mellon, and houstonisdwatch.com, became the repository for anti-Grier sentiment, which grew more livid by the day. (One of many posts: “Anyone who can get away from Grier and the culture of destruction he is creating is doing so ASAP.”) Grier countered by hiring a new communications expert, who promptly created a “Myth Busters” page on the HISD website in time for the 2010–2011 school year designed “to clarify misinformation or rumors.”

Grier had support where it counted: on the board and in the business community. Anna Eastman, a trustee from the liberal Heights area who replaced Kamrani in January 2010, stood by Grier in his firing of teachers. “Our kids deserve to have an effective teacher in every classroom,” she insisted at a particularly rancorous board meeting. Also applauding his toughness were Larry Kellner, the former CEO of Continental Airlines and the chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership, and James Calaway, the head of the Houston Independent School District Foundation, which raises private money for the district. “I really do believe that every morning the only thing he thinks about is standing up for kids and fighting against these damn adult interests that get in the way,” Calaway told me. “Whatever we had been doing was producing schools that were failing thousands of low-income kids and relegating many to impoverished lives, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or something far from just. I think Grier has just had enough.”

It is easy to understand how Houston’s superintendent would have no patience for an education system in gridlock. Terry Grier grew up poor, in a speck of a tobacco farming town in North Carolina called Fairmont, and spent his summers working in the fields. His grandfather never finished second grade, and his father never finished middle school. His mother worked in a local factory as a seamstress until she opened her own dress shop. Grier also grew up in segregated communities, with separate school districts for blacks and whites. As the first member of his family to go to college, he knew firsthand the difference that higher education could make; his doctorate from Vanderbilt was no doubt a source of pride, an indication of just how far he had come. (Grier is rarely referred to as Terry and far more often as Dr. Grier.)

By the time he was 34, he had advanced from coach to teacher to his first superintendent post. Since then, almost all his jobs—whether in Amarillo or Akron, California or Tennessee—have been colored by a tireless work ethic but also rancor and imperiousness. His short temper could reflect his hardscrabble upbringing or simply be the effect of working for decades within a public system that doesn’t have much to show for itself. Regardless, after more than thirty years in education, Grier knows how the game is played. He knows, for instance, that a superintendent who moves too slowly is often fired for accomplishing nothing. That’s one of the reasons that all superintendents on the fast track have a novel program that attracts attention and helps them advance when the end comes, as it inevitably does.

For Grier, that program is Apollo 20. The seeds for the project were sown soon after he moved to Houston, when he met a young, engaging black Harvard economics professor by the name of Roland Fryer. Fryer had formed an education consulting company, EdLabs, to research why black children in particular were not progressing in schools. The findings were not exactly rocket science: the kids needed more time in class, more one-on-one attention, and better teachers to instill in them the idea that they could succeed. Frequent testing was necessary to assess their progress. But if someone could actually institutionalize these notions and create a system that could be replicated nationwide, well, that person might solve the education crisis—and probably become rich and famous in the process.

Grier’s outreach was part of a national trend in public schools: education consulting is, along with testing, where the action and money are these days. Grier was intrigued by Fryer’s proposal for a three-year experiment that aimed to change the culture of failing schools by adopting the qualities of the best public education programs and charter schools (the latter of which are, not coincidentally, HISD’s biggest competitors). Fryer’s timing was good. Grier had four high schools and five middle schools that were facing potential closing by the state, and KIPP and YES had declined to take over any failing schools. Promising new and better teachers, longer school days, extensive tutoring, and “data-driven instruction,” Grier christened the project Apollo 20—a nod to Houston’s space program—and brought in the likes of Geoffrey Canada, the president of the successful Harlem Children’s Zone nonprofit and one of education’s brightest stars, to tout it. “No one’s tried to do this in public schools. They just have not. Because of how hard it is,” Canada stated in an impeccably produced HISD video guaranteed to appeal to Houston’s can-do spirit. With just a few months of preparation over the summer of 2010—he is nothing if not fast—Grier got Apollo up and running just before school started in August.

At first glance, only the stingiest tea partier could grumble about Apollo. These schools are located in some of Houston’s worst neighborhoods, and the students are some of the most deprived in the city. In one promotional video, for instance, a sunny twelve-year-old, Angelica Garcia, talks about wanting to go to college but, in the meantime, must take care of her siblings after school while her mother and grandmother work at McDonald’s. There was, however, the issue of Apollo’s cost: the estimated price tag ranged anywhere from $19 million to $26 million for an eventual total of 13,500 students, at a time when both administrators and teachers could see that the state’s projected budget shortfall would soon affect plenty of other, equally deprived kids. But Grier said he had the Apollo bill covered. He promised he would not dip into HISD’s general fund but rather would use federal money, along with money he raised from private foundations. Fryer, meanwhile, would donate his time.

Grier’s initiative was greeted with the usual chorus of competing voices. Support came in early: the Houston Endowment chipped in $250,000, Wells Fargo and local entrepreneur Michael Holthouse contributed $100,000 each, and the Gates Foundation pledged a stipend of $10,000 for every candidate hired for Apollo through its own Effective Teacher Pipeline program. But the expense also garnered critics, particularly after Grier began to raise doubts about Project Grad, a 22-year-old program started by former Tenneco head Jim Ketelsen. (Project Grad, which had been established in 66 schools to serve 45,000 at-risk children and had sent 5,000 to college, looked a lot like . . . Apollo 20.) Furious, Ketelsen began blasting Grier in the business community. At the same time, the fact that most of the Apollo schools were in poor black communities, when HISD was 62 percent Hispanic, had quickly brought the wrath of Senator Gallegos. “It is time for all of us to start thinking about what is in the best interest of our children,” the politician wrote in a screed addressed to trustees and local leaders. “It is time to start looking for new, effective leadership for HISD before it is too late.”

In November, a few months into the school year, I attended an HISD board meeting. Anyone who has ever visited this kind of assembly knows that it’s an exercise in Kabuki theater, with various board members attempting to behave like civilized adults while they protect their interests with a voraciousness that would impress a hyena. Racial tensions roil just beneath the surface, as do animosities over who on the board has given HISD business to friends, competent or not. On this day, I observed an added dynamic: fear of Grier. Despite the fact that he ostensibly works for them, several trustees behaved as though he might, at any minute, send them to the principal’s office. Grier, in fact, reprimanded a couple members for being negative or asking questions. I noticed how one or two others spoke with their heads slightly bowed and their voices dropped, as if they were loyal functionaries addressing Kim Jong Il.

The trustees had voted back in April 2010 to pay substantial bonuses to principals who agreed to take jobs at Apollo schools. The bonuses ranged from $10,000 to $30,000 if performance goals were met, on top of $5,000 signing bonuses. Now, with Apollo entering its fourth month, Grier asked the board to rubber-stamp a new formula that would allow the program’s nine principals to include the bonus amounts in their retirement calculations.

But the trustees seemed to be at odds. They had just sat through a hostile debate over a school that Grier intended to close in the poor black district belonging to trustee Carol Mims Galloway. The former city councilwoman, who has big hair and wears designer glasses rimmed in gold—on this day she’d matched a coral bracelet and her jacket’s coral flower to her coral blouse—was furious that the school would be shuttered after the start of the academic year with little notice to the school or the surrounding community. The argument had lasted for about half an hour before Grier pointed out through gritted teeth that the school cost almost $3 million a year to run—for all of 54 pregnant teenagers, most of whom didn’t live in the neighborhood. And, besides, schools exclusively for teenage mothers and pregnant girls were now, as he’d hissed, “Ee-lee-gal.”

The night suddenly felt very long, and I had the feeling that I was witnessing the type of fight that happens again and again throughout the system. The previous year, most of the trustees had warned Grier against poaching from their districts for Apollo. Now, as the superintendent turned his attention to the program, he reminded them that only two principals from HISD had applied for the jobs. “I am pleased to tell you that of the two who applied, both were selected,” he sneered. “Both were selected.” The donations, however, had not come in as Grier had hoped: so far he’d raised only $1.3 million and he needed an additional $6 million to meet his goal. He insisted once again that he was not borrowing any funds from other schools.

Then, teachers’ union representative and master teacher Andy Dewey, a middle-aged man who walks with a cane because of childhood polio, approached the podium. The summer before, he pointed out, teachers’ salaries had been frozen. As the state budget crisis loomed, more teacher layoffs were being predicted, and he and his wife had just had a heated discussion about whether they could afford the 25 percent increase in their health insurance. “My wife determined that we could not,” Dewey said. The money for the bonuses, he proposed, should go into teachers’ salaries instead. “The general public sees on one hand, you’re screaming poverty, and on the other hand, you’re paying forty-five-thousand-dollar bonuses”—a starting teacher’s pay, he noted—“to principals.”

As in so many education fights where the funds are tight and the stakes are high, both sides had a point. The board wavered. Its two newest members, Anna Eastman and Mike Lunceford, delicately asked whether, in these troubled financial times, they might be cheating HISD’s other poor students by giving so much to Apollo. But by then the windowless room was almost empty, the air-conditioning had hit subzero range, and it was nearly ten o’clock. The bonus measure passed, by a vote of 7 to 1, the only “no” coming from Galloway. For the moment, Apollo had triumphed, and so had Grier. But the skirmish would prove to be part of a much longer, bloodier war.

Something about Mary Nesbitt suggests you wouldn’t want to be on her bad side. She is a pretty, middle-aged woman—always nicely made up and turned out—with green eyes that sparkle with the same intensity as the diamonds she favors around her neck. Though she wouldn’t like the comparison, she shares a few traits with Grier: she speaks in a rush, she exudes a relentlessness that can be exhausting, and she avows unstinting dedication to public education. Her two fifth-grade daughters have been students at a highly ranked HISD elementary, and she has been a tireless parent volunteer. From the usual PTO duties, she moved up to HISD’s Shared Decision-making Committee, its Bond Oversight Committee, and the Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Committee. In May 2010, she was singled out from among 25,000 other volunteers and honored for her service with HISD’s Jean Davis Myers Award.

Of all the forces a superintendent must contend with, none is perhaps so deeply passionate as the parents. As the founder of Parent Visionaries, Nesbitt certainly turned her seven-hundred-member watchdog group into a mighty force. She knew how to send an email blast, and she knew how to use the press. Saavedra, for instance, ran afoul of the organization when he tried to limit bus service to magnet schools as a cost-cutting—and potentially school-killing—measure. Parent Visionaries won. Though it is hard to say how or when Nesbitt and Grier had their parting of ways, both recall it happened early. Certainly it had to do with opposing philosophies, but their strong personalities also put them on a collision course.

It was in January of this year, when he decided to alter the magnet program, that Grier handed Nesbitt the match for her powder keg. As any Houston parent will tell you, nothing in HISD is more sacrosanct. The program was the great innovation of the seventies, designed to stave off forced busing by drawing white kids to outstanding specialty schools in poor and minority neighborhoods and giving poor kids access to quality schools in better neighborhoods. Over time, some of Houston’s magnet schools—for the arts, for advanced academics, for engineering, for health professions, and so on—became some of the best in the country. But the system also grew like kudzu, sometimes through favors to school board members: there were programs for business, foreign languages, law enforcement and criminal justice, architecture and graphic design, even aviation sciences. Funding was uneven, and admissions were chaotic and, often, political. (It was common to lobby principals for spots supposedly filled by a lottery.)

On the other hand, HISD’s magnets were, for many parents—specifically white parents—the only reason they kept their kids in public school. When Grier arrived in Houston, fully 72 percent of white kids in HISD were in schools with magnet programs. Yet as he grew into his tenure, the superintendent seemed to become increasingly convinced that magnets thrived at the expense of neighborhood schools. Paula Harris, an ebullient, well-connected black woman who became president of the school board this past January, felt the same way. Every day, the thinking went, many of HISD’s best students got on buses bound for other parts of town, leaving behind inferior teachers, facilities, and classmates. To bolster his case, Grier did what any shrewd superintendent would do: he commissioned a study—to the tune of $269,000—which, as such things often do, happened to support his view.

Soon after I began to follow Grier, rumors started to swirl that the superintendent had the magnet program in his sights. Focus groups he commissioned did nothing to calm parents’ fears. At one meeting in early 2010, a North Carolina consultant hired to analyze the program seemed spectacularly ignorant about Houston’s public system. “You mean to tell me that any student can apply to enroll in any school across HISD?” she asked. Worse, when told yes, she looked at Grier and said, “You really do have a mess on your hands.” It struck at least one person in the room that the consultant hadn’t been brought in to facilitate discussions but to facilitate the dismantling of the program.

Things went downhill from there: within Parent Visionaries, it became a given that Grier intended to “trap kids in underenrolled schools,” as Nesbitt put it. Posted one parent on houstonisdwatch.com: “It is easy to say that if the best and brightest students attended their zones’ schools, that would improve the zoned schools. However, what you are really talking about is putting conscientious and bright students into academically and criminally dangerous environments. I will make it simple. If HISD curtails or eliminates my son’s access to effective Vanguard or Magnet programs, our house will be up for sale before you can say ‘fire the moron superintendent.’ ”

Publicly, Grier stressed how he understood that change was difficult and that nothing was set in stone. Within HISD, a whispering campaign kicked into high gear; rumor had it that parents like Nesbitt really just didn’t want their kids in class with, as one teacher put it, “Juan and DeWan.” (“That is ridiculous,” Nesbitt told me in response. “The white parents who stay in the district want diversity for their kids, and magnet schools enable that to happen.”) Then there was the money: in Texas, education dollars follow students, not schools, so if a child stayed in his neighborhood instead of getting on a bus for a magnet, the money would stay there too. This meant the magnets would end up with less; the neighborhood schools would get more.

The magnet study was released in January and marked 55 of the 113 magnet programs for execution. Sensibly, it suggested ending expensive programs that few students attended. But it also suggested an end to magnet status at some of the best schools—Bellaire, Lamar, and Westside—because of overcrowding. Busing to magnets would also be cut, meaning that parents would either have to drive their kids across town or put them in neighborhood schools. And then there was the bizarre suggestion that magnets limit their number of white students to 8 percent, the same percentage as in HISD. Overall, the study seemed more enthusiastic about Apollo than magnets: “By developing a schoolwide accelerated program in the content areas through the Apollo support program, students are more likely to be focused and perform at a higher level,” the report noted.

Harris, it appeared, was ready to end the magnet program on the spot. “There’s no way you could look at all that data and think it should stay like this,” she told the Chronicle. But parents like Nesbitt were appalled. “I am hopeful that you have had a chance to read through the [magnet study] without going into cardiac arrest,” she wrote on the Parent Visionaries Facebook page. “If the goal of this magnet audit is to reduce diversity, limit access, reduce choice, and create greater inequity for students, these recommendations knock it out of the park.”

In March Grier came out with a revised plan to kill only 25 magnets. A nine-hour board meeting followed, with three hundred furious community speakers who did everything but spit blood. (“We have officers here to help if anyone cannot adhere to the rules of order,” Harris announced at one point.) Three days after that, Grier announced that he was tabling any decision on the magnet program. He wanted to concentrate on the financial crisis, he said. His opponents saw a different reason: several members of the board had sided with Parent Visionaries, and Grier most likely did not have the votes to get what he wanted.

Grier’s annual address on the state of the schools, in February, held in a sprawling ballroom at the Hilton Americas downtown, received a tepid reception. By then, Houston had gotten a good look at Grier’s methods as a change agent. In anticipation of the brutal legislative session just under way, Grier, to his advantage, had spent much of the school year preemptively slashing and burning his district’s $1.6 billion budget, ultimately finding $106 million to take out of the 2011–2012 school year, with more to follow the next year. (The cuts came to about $275 per student.) Special ed, school nurses, arts programs, PE, central office jobs, and sometimes entire schools had gotten the ax, all in the name of savings. As had, of course, hundreds of teachers.

A year earlier, Grier had been greeted with resounding applause. This time, as he delivered his prepared remarks, few in the audience could summon much enthusiasm. “We were about documenting and firing people,” one former principal told me. “People were taking pay cuts to leave because they couldn’t sleep with the knowledge that what they were being asked to do conflicted with their moral compass.” Grier had not helped when, on one visit to a high school, his first question to a teacher was “So, to turn this school around, how many people do you think we’d have to fire?”

The shift in reception was not lost on the business community. In fact, some months earlier, a few suits had set out to fix Grier’s “people problem” by dispatching Bill King, a local power player and sometime mayoral candidate, to help soften the superintendent’s rough edges and instruct him in the byzantine politics of Harris County. Though King’s tutelage had little effect in February, it did bear fruit the next month, when Grier appeared before the Senate Education Committee in Austin to testify in support of a bill that would allow an early start for his Apollo schools.

On March 22 the superintendent found himself face-to-face with one of his harshest critics, Senator Gallegos. A former fireman, Gallegos had been in the Senate since 1994; he’d been in the House for two terms before that. For more than a year, he had been writing fiery op-eds about the superintendent in the Chronicle and pelting the school board, the Greater Houston Partnership, and the teachers’ union with anti-Grier missives. Though Gallegos had told me he had “nothing personal” against Grier, he admitted that he had been deeply offended when the superintendent did not attend a 2009 event honoring two local political “icons,” Felix Fraga and Leonel Castillo. Then Grier had begun firing people from schools in his legislative district. “He was bringing in Hispanics I didn’t even know,” Gallegos said.

The senator, it is fair to say, had been waiting months for an opportunity to grill Grier publicly. He had long railed that the superintendent was doing in Houston what he had done in his previous jobs: marginalizing his opponents by labeling them enemies of reform and using marketing techniques to convince the public he was on the right track. “Dr. Grier’s tenure . . . should not be about ‘reform’ for reform’s sake, scapegoating teachers, centralizing all functions into his corner office, or forgetting commitments made to our community in past bond elections,” Gallegos had written in one of his letters.

Now the hefty, moonfaced politician tore into Grier, pounding him with question after question. But he went too far. Gallegos seemed, in a word, unhinged. Red-faced and spitting, he lambasted the superintendent and the Apollo program. As he ranted, onlookers poured into the committee room to watch. Gallegos did everything but challenge Grier to step outside. “No, no!” he shrieked. “Come on! If we’re going to get straight, let’s get straight. I don’t want no rhetoric! . . . Who knows the answers here? . . . I’m asking questions, and I want answers. You’re not giving me nothing but rhetoric and double-talk!”

Grier, coached by King to remain calm and reasonable in such situations, exhibited a restraint to rival the great Zen masters. Ga­llegos’s performance backfired: the sympathy went to Grier. Apollo was allowed to start early. Before long, money began to roll in too: $50,000 from the Simmons Foundation, $950,000 from the Brown Foundation, and $2.5 million from JP Morgan Chase. Apollo’s boosters moved to bring the opposition into the fold. James Calaway, for one, met with Nesbitt for a three-hour breakfast. Over endless cups of coffee, the boyish, amiable head of the HISD Foundation suggested it was time for Nesbitt to lay down arms. (She, in turn, left the meeting feeling threatened.)

But though Gallegos’s criticisms had been obscured by his delivery, soon Houstonians began to wonder if the politician might have had a point. In April the first Apollo numbers were leaked to Mellon’s School Zone blog—and gave detractors like Nesbitt just the ammunition they needed. Despite Grier’s attempt to put a good face on the test scores, they were mixed. “We think we are off to a good start,” he told the Chronicle, reminding readers that this was a three-year experiment. In fact, he had been livid that the scores were obtained by the media before his communications staff had had the chance to give them a better spin. “He was absolutely furious,” a former administrator told me.

Near the end of May, the Chronicle ran an op-ed by Jennifer Mathieu Blessington, an about-to-be-former award-winning teacher in HISD. She spoke for many teachers in the district when she wrote that she mourned the changed culture at HISD, the loss of teacher and principal autonomy, and the constant emphasis on testing. “The district’s focus on standardized test scores has become so intense, I dream about bubble sheets,” she wrote. The essay was an indictment of Grier, all the more powerful because the Chronicle had been, up to that point, almost universally supportive. “I thought I would retire from this district, and it’s still strange to think I won’t be returning next year,” Blessington concluded. “Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Terry Grier.”

One of the most fraught subjects in education today is teacher accountability. For obvious reasons, bad teachers get a lot more attention than good ones: it has become conventional wisdom that the single most 
important influence in a child’s life, aside from parents, can be a teacher. Waiting for “Superman” cited a study that suggests that if the bottom 6 to 10 percent of all teachers were replaced with merely mediocre instructors, the achievement gap could be closed. Hence, the push to weed out the worst educators as swiftly as possible—with help from for-profit testing companies—is more pressing than ever.

Encouraged by the board, Grier had announced early in his tenure that he would move forward with the Education Value-Added Assessment System, which had been approved by Saavedra. With the help of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit founded by Rhee dedicated to teacher effectiveness, and $6 million from a former Enron trader, he designed a version of the system in six months and moved to institute it as quickly as possible, despite the pleas for pilot programs by Gayle Fallon. The open meetings he promised to have with principals were not exactly that; those who asked questions about the evaluation system were often reprimanded for being rude. By then, Houston had already lost 950 teachers, 567 due to budget cuts, 163 due to poor performance, and the rest to attrition. (Normally, HISD removed about 40 teachers a year.) “When you think about conditions for learning,” one principal told me, “adults have the same needs as kids do: a sense of respect, a feeling of belonging. You have to be able to discuss your values and beliefs.” That no longer happened, he said. As another principal put it, “It’s the factory model.”

The fact that Rhee’s organization was also working on a new teacher-recruitment plan for HISD, seemed, well, odd. It was widely suspected that more-expensive, veteran teachers were to be replaced by young, ambitious, compliant counterparts. In February 2010 the board voted to factor unsatisfactory EVAAS metrics into the list of reasons a teacher could be fired. Approximately one third of teacher evaluations were now tied directly to how well their students performed on standardized tests, including the TAKS and the Stanford. That was a lot of testing: by the following year, HISD’s high schools were featuring 45 days of standardized testing, not counting all the attendant study days. (In middle schools, the seventh-grade Stanford exam didn’t match the seventh-grade curriculum, so teachers abandoned lesson plans a month early to cram.)

Educators, already enervated by so many changes, reacted in disgust. Under EVAAS, every teacher now had to show “growth,” meaning improvement on test scores. The system had its champions, who believed that rooting out bad teachers had to start somewhere. But flaws became apparent all too quickly: EVAAS, it turned out, was not very effective at judging teachers at either the bottom or the top of the heap. If a kid in a gifted-and-talented class had a bad day, for instance, and scored a 98 instead of a 100, his teacher could be penalized because the student hadn’t shown “growth.” If that teacher was afraid of losing his job—in a milieu where firing had become routine—then he might be inclined to spend class time on TAKS worksheets instead of on Julius Caesar. Students also caught on: one teacher told me that her kids joked about flunking the TAKS as a way to get her fired.

In May 2011, before Blessington’s op-ed came out, the board approved the most stringent iteration of the evaluation system yet, which continued to rely heavily on EVAAS scores. Secretary of Education Duncan praised the board’s actions, declaring, “Houston is providing a model for the state and other districts to follow.”

A couple months later, I went to visit Fallon in her office. A silvery blonde, with a voice like coarse sandpaper, the head of the teachers’ union has thirty-odd years of experience with HISD, including seven superintendents. “When I hear about ‘transformative change,’ it’s like fingernails on a blackboard,” she told me, hiding exactly zero contempt for the educational buzz phrase. She had watched as experienced teachers got the boot in favor of young Teach for America workers, so-called Apollo tutors taught full loads, and educators’ livelihoods were upended for she wasn’t sure what. Ideology, she told me, had trumped common sense. “The board wanted reforms, but they didn’t look at the unintended consequences,” she said, referring, in part, to the massive teacher firings, which had actually left HISD with sixty openings before the beginning of school. She had no disagreement with Grier’s desire to put an effective teacher in every classroom. “Except that it’s about how you determine ‘effective,’ ” she said.

As the 2011 school year drew to an end, Mellon posted a story about the departure of at least five principals to charter schools. She quoted Grier, who suggested that the small exodus represented “promotions” for the educators. The superintendent later met with HISD principals and urged them to speak frankly about problems in the district. “I want you to feel like you can talk to me. I probably won’t remember your name anyway,” he cracked. Later Grier told me that he thought the meeting had gone extremely well.

But then someone leaked statewide statistics to School Zone, and the numbers didn’t look good. “HISD School Ratings Projected to Drop” read the blog on May 25. Based on test scores, HISD had an estimated 24 academically “unacceptable” schools, a significant increase from 17 the previous year. The number of “exemplary” or “recognized” schools had fallen from 169 to 146. Grier haters were jubilant: “HISD problems are because the board decided to hire in secret a proven failure and rubber-stamp his crazy bullying style of ‘management,’ and gave him free rein for the past two years,” wrote one of 44 commenters in response to the news. “Grier has been allowed to destroy morale, ruin the careers of proven professionals, enrich himself and his cronies, create chaos at every level of HISD, and hurt our children.”

Just before school was scheduled to start again in August, Grier gave his principals a pep talk at Chavez High School, in a working-class neighborhood just off the Gulf Freeway. The auditorium was crowded, but the mood was restive, even more so when Grier announced that the number of principals who had left the previous year was “the same turnover we have every year.” Then he showed a video with success stories from Chavez: a fresh-faced black student devoted to drama, a Hispanic teenager in love with chemistry, a white girl tending to goats as part of her course work. It seemed like a film from a fading era, one before budget cuts and teaching to the test. The only genuine applause came when Grier singled out the Chavez principal for praise.

If HISD’s students had enjoyed a summer break, the same could not be said of the district. More principals had, in fact, departed—33 in all, according to the Chronicle—and scandals had surfaced on the school board. Longtime trustee Larry Marshall was discovered to have taken a trip to Costa Rica at the invitation of an HISD vendor (Marshall said he was learning about health care options, to better help the district with its plan), and suspicions were swirling around Harris, whose best friend appeared to have benefited from HISD contracts worth more than $2 million. The Greek chorus had quickly weighed in on the blogs: “All [Marshall and Harris have] done is oversee the decay of once successful, predominantly African American public schools while they’ve enriched themselves, their families, and their friends.”

Meanwhile, rumor had it that Grier’s hold on the school board was weaker than ever. Trustee elections were coming up in November, and already parents, ministers, and politicians were rallying to find candidates who would vote Grier out. “I have heard from all corners of this city about a growing loss of confidence in this district,” said Eastman at the August board meeting. “We have allowed dysfunctional practices to develop in our rush to do the right thing.” Among educators, there was already speculation about how long it would take the district to rebuild in Grier’s wake. “Please don’t say we’re all bad,” one teacher begged me. “Some of us love working in the trenches, and we’re still here.”

I caught up with Grier for the last time after the first week of classes. As usual, he was sharply dressed and optimistic. He was awaiting some potentially game-changing Apollo numbers from Fryer (“Twice the results they got at Harlem Children’s Zone,” he hinted) and seemed undaunted by the decreasing confidence in him as evidenced by that month’s parents’ survey. The budget and magnet cuts had been an issue, he told me. (HISD had, in fact, cut too much and fired too many people: there was a move to restore the extra $18 million, though Grier had made no promises about bringing back the teachers.) But to assess his work, he told me, I should focus on the numbers. “The dropout rate is lower, the graduation rate is higher, the test scores are up, as is attendance”—the only metric for which he offered a figure, 95.5 percent. “I’d be interested to know if another district can compete with that number,” he said proudly.

He admitted that a good number of his schools were still struggling. But he seemed, like many CEOs, to accept that the chaos he had created was a necessary part of change. “I believe we have it going in the right direction, and that is very difficult in a district this size,” he said. He insisted that his relations with principals and teachers were improving and that people who said he didn’t listen sometimes just didn’t like what they heard. He had, however, backed down on the use of test scores in teacher evaluations for one year.

As we talked, I thought about the questions that had set my relationship with him in motion. Was the vociferous discontent with the superintendent due to his lightning-rod position in a sprawling, impossibly diverse school district? Or was Grier the problem? It was easy to blame his management style; a softer touch might have rallied the troops to carry his reforms into the classrooms. But now I wondered whether those reforms were even the right ones. Just before school started, news had broken of widespread teacher-led cheating on standardized tests in schools in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C, and there was even a hint of one at HISD. The testing scandals seemed to cast serious doubt on Grier’s reliance on scores to assess educators. Certainly in implementing his myriad reforms, HISD had lost much of what was good about it—creative educators, a dedication to innovation—and instituted more rigidity and rote learning. No one, it seemed, had yet found the best way to quantify good teaching, much less that mystical quality that brings out students’ strengths and changes their lives.

As it was, the rumor mill had Grier moving on. A few months earlier, Nesbitt, who had decided to put her daughters in private school, had made a discovery by reading a Google alert: Fryer had formed a new education consulting firm called Blueprint, which had signed an agreement with the HISD Foundation for more than $60,000 a month to replicate Apollo-like programs across the country. Many guessed that Grier might land there too. “Apollo is Blueprint, Blueprint is Apollo,” Gallegos said to me. Grier, who had long insisted that no general funds had been used on Apollo, finally admitted otherwise. “Critics think it should have gone to all students,” he told me. “No one would have given you the money.”

I decided to end my journey where it had begun: at Sharpstown High, an Apollo school I visited and wrote about at the outset of my reporting. A year ago, the halls had been dingy and the kids gloomy. Once a vibrant school in a middle-class neighborhood, it had succumbed to the area’s poverty and violence. But this year, the new principal, Rob Gasparello, had hung college banners on the walls and philodendrons in the windows. In most classrooms, kids and teachers were busy working on lessons—just as they were in better schools across town. The small, cramped room where I’d first observed potential dropouts take credit-recovery courses online had doubled in size. There was a food bank on Fridays so the kids could stock up for the weekend, in case no one else bothered to see that they were fed.

I spoke with a group of students—black, Asian, Hispanic, and just about everything in between—and asked them what they wanted to be. Their answers included forensic scientist, history professor, engineer, graphic designer, zoologist, and combat medic. Some wanted to go to a community college or the University of Houston. Others were aiming for the University of Texas and Harvard. “I feel like they care,” one student said, when I asked about the changes at her school. “We know the difference between right and wrong,” a junior named Taylor Mills added. She wasn’t talking about her own values but those of the people running the schools—and, for that matter, the state. “If we were left behind before, it’s only fair that we be allowed to catch up,” she said.

I left both buoyed and dismayed. The Apollo kids, I realized—and the kids who attend HISD magnets and the nice public schools in nice neighborhoods—are the lucky few. More than anything, education is governed by pendulum shifts: the superintendent comes in, makes changes, and then leaves, and today’s reforms become yesterday’s news. Already those planning for Grier’s departure are talking about the benefits of incremental change—which wouldn’t be so bad if there was any indication that the district could actually find a middle ground between razing everything and razing nothing. Most likely, Grier’s departure would mean a dismantling of the three-year experiment that’s given a handful of kids a taste of what they should have been getting all along.

“My contention is, we’ve known what’s worked forever,” Grier had told me. “We just haven’t had the political courage to do what we know.” I wouldn’t want to be the one to explain that to Taylor. And I wouldn’t want to have to tell her that she lost her chance to get ahead because the most powerful adults around her couldn’t stop behaving like children.

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