When the Houston school board announced Terry Grier as its pick for superintendent last fall, he broke the ice with a self-deprecating joke. "There's one difference between a dead superintendent lying in the road and a dead skunk," he said. He immediately drew laughs with the punch line: "There are tire tracks in front of the skunk."
Superintendents pushing reforms as big and as quickly as Grier come to learn that critics come with the territory. "You don't take yourself too seriously in this job," Grier told the Houston crowd. "Any time you do what I do for a long time, you're going to have a lot of allies and you're going to have a lot of critics. The key is, you want to be able at the end of the day to know that you made a difference in the lives of children."
Grier, who began his career as a teacher and a coach in North Carolina, has run nine school districts in six states over the last 25 years. His allies and critics agree on one thing: Grier pushes change at lightning speed. That's a main reason the Houston school board recruited him from the San Diego Unified School District.
Trustees of the nation's seventh-largest school system have charged Grier with accelerating progress. Grier, who officially took the reins of the Houston Independent School District in September, inherited many challenges, including a stubborn 68 percent four-year graduation rate and 70,000 students— out of more than 202,000—who don't read on grade level.
Three of the district's high schools have failed to make adequate yearly progress for five straight years under No Child Left Behind, and the district as a whole fell short of the federal standards last year because of low special education test scores in reading and math. "We wanted someone that was reform-minded," says Greg Meyers, the president of the Houston school board. "It's easy to have the status quo, and as a board we knew we didn't want that."
Grier spent his childhood in Fairmont, N.C., a small tobacco-farming town. During the summer, he worked the fields. His father, a middle school dropout, was a selfmade small business owner. His mother was a factory seamstress who later ran her own dress shop.
Neither attended college, but they preached its value to their son. "For me it wasn't a matter of going, but it was where you could go that [my parents] could afford," he says.
Grier ended up close to home, at East Carolina University, a familiar place where he had attended football camp in high school. As an undergraduate, Grier majored in health education and biology. He returned to East Carolina for his master's in school administration and then earned his doctorate of education from Vanderbilt University.
By age 33, Grier was superintendent of his first district, McDowell County Schools in North Carolina, where he stayed for three years. After that, he ran the school systems in Amarillo, Texas; Darlington County, S.C.; Akron, Ohio; Sacramento, Calif.; and Williamson County, Tenn., where he met Nancy Peckham, who would become his wife, through a school district receptionist.
Their son is a pediatrician and their daughter is a fifth-grade teacher in South Carolina. His stepdaughters are both in North Carolina—one is a first-grade teacher and the other is a tax assessor for the state. His longest gig was running Guilford County (N.C.) Schools, which lasted from 2000 to 2008. The N.C. Association of School Administrators named him the 2008 N.C. Superintendent of the Year. The San Diego school board poached him from there, and Houston called about a year and a half later, after Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra retired.
Under Saavedra's leadership, student performance on state-mandated tests rose dramatically, and the school district fared well compared with many of its urban counterparts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
A Premier School District?
Grier, in his first State of the Schools speech in February as Houston's superintendent, described HISD as "a phenomenally good urban school district." And then he set a lofty goal: to make it "the nation's premier school district—not the nation's best urban school district or the largest school district."
"I think many times districts that have been designated urban because of the students they serve have not been held to the same [high] standards that districts in affluent areas are held to," says Grier.
Speaking to about 2,000 business leaders, educators and elected officials in a downtown hotel ballroom, Grier detailed what he had already done in six months—and what he planned to do—to take Houston schools to the next level. One of his early successes was a $4 million initiative that placed a lab—with laptops, credit-recovery software, and specially hired graduation coaches—in the district's 27 comprehensive high schools.
Students at risk of falling behind or dropping out are able to repeat, at their own pace and online, courses they have failed. Such labs, Grier says, "ought to be in every high school in America."
Michele Pola, Grier's chief of staff, points to the fast opening of the graduation labs—within three months—as trademark Grier. "I think we all know he works with a sense of urgency," she says.
Top-notch Teachers, Principals
Grier focused most of his State of the Schools address on his efforts to ensure that every HISD student has access to top-notch teachers and principals. "All our policies and practices should be driven by the realization that our teachers and school leaders are the solution, pure and simple," he said. "If we provide our students, and I mean all of our students, with effective teachers and leaders, then there's almost nothing anyone can do to prevent them from succeeding."
Grier already has begun to change the interview process for hiring all staff members, using a model based on the research of Martin Haberman. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor emeritus has spent three decades studying the qualities of educators who best serve disadvantaged students.
Under the Haberman screening, job candidates are asked how they would respond to certain situations, such as the need to improve student performance, and are evaluated on their values and problem-solving skills: Do they have high expectations for all children? Are they persistent?
Grier used the interview method in Guilford County and in San Diego and said it helped weed out those who wouldn't succeed with diverse students. "If you do not have high expectations for all students, you cannot be an effective teacher in an urban setting," Grier says. "We can teach you how to teach. Colleges and universities can teach you how to teach. They can't teach you how to have different values and beliefs."
The Houston school board has made improving human capital its top priority, and Grier has secured a partnership with The New Teacher Project to help the district assess and improve everything from recruitment to job evaluations to professional development.
Consultants with the New York nonprofit, started by Michelle Rhee before she was appointed chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, plan to present recommended changes to the district this summer. To ensure their report doesn't collect dust, Grier says, staff from The New Teacher Project will embed themselves in the district's human resources department.
The initial consulting cost the district $200,000—donations covered most of it—but the ongoing training and implementation is estimated to top $8 million over four years. Grier has pledged to raise private dollars. "There's no question that our partnership with The New Teacher Project is going to have a dramatic impact on the school system," he says.
The National Spotlight
And with all the changes and Grier's reputation, it didn't take Grier and the Houston school board long to make national news for their reform efforts. The board members asked for a policy to make it easier to oust ineffective teachers, and Grier eagerly gave it to them: Teachers whose students consistently fall short of expectations on standardized tests, based on a value-added analysis, can now be fired. And those value-added marks will be included in teachers' evaluations.
The school board unanimously approved the policy in February. According to HISD's data, 421 of about 13,000 HISD teachers are at risk of losing their jobs if they don't improve their value-added marks. Some firings could come at the end of this school year.
HISD has been using the same value- data since 2007 to determine which teachers, principals and other school staff receive performance bonuses. This year, the district doled out $41 million, with the top teachers eligible for more than $10,000. "If you spend $41 million on merit pay using value-added scores, how can you be opposed to using those same scores to identify teachers at the bottom end of the scale?" Grier says.
Parent leaders supported the teacher-dismissal policy, as did several national advocacy groups, including the Education Equality Project and Democrats for Education Reform. But the district's largest teacher association turned out 800 members to protest the school board's vote.
"They feel Terry Grier only has one scapegoat and that's teachers," says Gayle Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. "When you constantly show that lack of respect, teachers are prone not to want to work for you."
Fallon questions the accuracy of the value-added data and says her members don't believe they should lose their jobs based on a complicated statistical analysis of standardized test scores that doesn't take into account a student's home life.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, had recently expressed support for more aggressive teacher policies, but she blasted Houston for focusing so narrowly on student test scores.
"I try not to take the attacks personally," says Grier, who plays golf or tries new restaurants—Southern comfort food is a favorite—with his wife to unwind.
Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director of education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has followed Grier's career since he was superintendent of Guilford County (N.C.) Schools and says that Grier should interpret the pushback on his reforms as a compliment. "If there aren't people criticizing you," the Seattle consultant says, "you really don't have an improvement agenda."
Ericka Mellon is a K12 education reporter for the Houston Chronicle.