A Texas School District Mimics Charters, Hoping Success Will Follow

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Classrooms are festooned with college pennants. Hallway placards proclaim: ?No Excuses!? Students win prizes for attendance, and pore over math problems with newly hired tutors. They start classes earlier and end later than their neighbors; some return to school on Saturdays.

If these new mores at Lee High School, long one of Houston?s most troubled campuses, make it seem like one of those intense charter schools, that?s no accident.

In the first experiment of its kind in the country, the Houston public schools are testing whether techniques proven successful in high-performing urban charters like those in the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, a national charter chain, can also help raise achievement in regular public schools. Working with Roland G. Fryer, a researcher at Harvard who studies the racial achievement gap, Houston officials last year embraced five key tenets of such charters at nine district secondary schools; this fall, they are expanding the program to 11 elementary schools. A similar effort is beginning in Denver.

?We can?t sit idly by and let parents think that only the quality charter schools can educate poor kids well,? said Terry Grier, Houston?s hard-charging superintendent. ?If you see something good, why not try to replicate it??

When first conceived 20 years ago, charter schools ? which are publicly funded but independently operated ? offered two distinct promises: to serve as an escape hatch for children in failing schools, and to be incubators of innovation that, through market forces, would invigorate neighborhood schools. There are scores of examples of the former, but almost none of the latter. Instead, years of bickering have ensued among charter advocates, school boards and teachers? unions.

?One of the rationales for charters was that they would figure out practices that could be adopted by school districts,? said Grover J. Whitehurst, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and former federal education official. ?I hope Roland succeeds because if he does it?ll be a very important demonstration that bad public schools can be fixed.?

Houston is an apt laboratory. It is the birthplace of KIPP as well as home to 105 charters that compete with the district?s 300 schools for students and tax dollars. Texas is also a right-to-work state, which means school districts often have more leeway in managing teachers? work than elsewhere.

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