Instead of a blog post this month, we encourage you to read this op-ed by Matt Barnes concerning the governance of HISD’s Board of Education. The following article is from the Houston Chronicle, available on its website.
Houston ISD’s misdiagnosis and the cure [Opinion]
There is nothing worse than misdiagnosing a disease. A stomach pain gets treated with an antacid and pain reliever when ulcer surgery is actually required. The patient wastes precious resources and time, making treatment more difficult.
I fear the Houston Independent School District’s board of trustees has misdiagnosed its core problems.
In recent years, the HISD board has argued over what problem to fix. Some believe the problem is aging schools, or too few neighborhood schools, or too few magnets, or too many magnets, or schools named after Confederate soldiers or maybe it’s the ethnicity of the superintendent. The list is long, but this disagreement over the problem leads to the same behavior: otherwise sane board members abandoning reason and decorum in order to battle for their preferred solution to their preferred problem. Meanwhile, another cohort of students enter the world of work grossly unprepared.
Having sat on six educational boards from Early Start/Head Start through university and having consulted with several districts over the years, I see a different set of root problems that should be obvious to all.
The first, and most egregious problem, is the common enemy that should unite the board and the larger Houston community. This problem is that our district is producing far too many students who are chronically and predictably unprepared to compete in the global economy.
Look at any measure of academic performance and there is no other conclusion that can be reached. Until the board becomes laser focused on student outcomes, it will continue prescribing antacid tablets and arguing amongst themselves about which brand is best. Every meeting, every conversation, every act should be with this singular purpose in mind. Without it, another generation of students will be lost.
The second core problem is related to the first, and it is no surprise. It is governance. No institution can function without good governance. Not a business, not a family and not a school district. Governance sets a clear vision, with meaningful and measurable goals, and then places achievement of these goals on the leader’s desk. For any district, good governance means closely monitoring the progress while keeping board trustees’ hands out of operational duties. I have heard of board members bargaining with superintendents about personnel decisions, pressing for funding of specific programs and, yes, advocating for certain contractors. Terrible.
This is what happens when governance breaks down and, make no mistake, its corrosive effects reach the entire district. From the superintendent who has to spend her time managing nine different board members with nine different agendas, to the principal who fears board members’ meddling, to the teacher who gets discouraged because board members’ behavior is not aligned to her daily struggle to educate kids, to the parent who is distracted from the real and persistent academic gaps facing her child, to students who feel like pawns in some larger war, poor governance destroys organizations from the top down.
Effective governance is the least sexy part of running a district but, as witnessed over the last several months, its absence is the surest way to destroy an institution.
Let me add one more root problem. And this time, I’ll place myself (and possibly you) under the bus. As critical as I am about the current board, at least its members are in the fight. For whatever reason, they stepped forward to lead. I thank them for this. But it’s time for a change.
Many of us have had lots of board experience. We know how to move an organization toward a goal that matters. We know how to hold a CEO accountable and how to monitor and plan for financial matters. And we also care about education and the future of Houston’s youth. So the last problem is the lack of competent citizens running for the HISD school board.
Believe me, I know all of the reasons why no one would want to run. But, if last week taught us anything, it showed how important capable, rational and outcome-focused leadership is to the district’s effectiveness.
So, those of you who understand good governance. Those of you uninterested in using the school board to position yourself for a statewide office. Those of you uninterested in shepherding contracts or jobs to your friends. Those of you who are as angry as I am about young people growing up unprepared for adult life. Get ready. The cure to HISD’s governance problem starts with us running (and voting) in 2019.