The Houston Independent School District has become the first district in the nation to be awarded the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education twice.
Houston first won the prize, awarded to large urban districts that show impressive academic gains, in 2002. In total, 75 districts around the country were eligible. This time around, HISD was rewarded for increasing their high school graduation rates by 12 points between 2006 and 2009 — nearly double the average of graduation rate increases of all eligible districts over the same period.
The question other school districts are asking is: How did Houston do it?
Some of that success can be attributed to centralized standards, which Superintendent Tony Grier implemented shortly after joining the district in 2009. The standards change was prompted by focus groups in which students questioned whether the district believed in their ability.
“Some of the students would say to me, ‘Do you think that we’re not smart because we’re kids of color?’” Grier says. “I would probe and ask ‘Why?’ and they’d say, ‘Well, we don’t have any Advanced Placement courses at our schools. We have to go to schools in the affluent neighborhoods to be able to take AP courses.’”
So the district mandated a set number of AP courses in all schools, starting with five and working their way up to 15 AP courses over three years.
As the winner, HISD will receive more than half a million dollars that it will be able to use for college scholarships for its 2014 high school class. According to Kelsey Sheehy of US News & World Report, the scholarship money will make a real difference for a district where 80% of students come from families that fall below the federal poverty line. Its two wins combined bring the total Broad Prize money awarded in Houston to $1.2 million.
Dallas, another Texas district, was one of this year’s Broad finalists, but as Tawnell Hobbs of The Dallas Morning News put it, for the city, the ultimate win remained out of reach.
For many urban district leaders, the Broad Prize, awarded by the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation, is the ultimate validation, but this opinion of the prize is far from universal. As RiShawn Biddle of Dropout Nation notes, the prize awards relative rather than absolute success. Among the four finalists for the prize announced last spring, none of the districts really showed performance gains much bigger than those of US students on average.
Houston’s nine percentage point reduction in the number of has reduced the number of fourth-graders reading Below Basic between 2002 and 2011 (as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress) may have been better than the six percentage point decline for the nation as a whole. But it was bested by other districts, including New York City (which reduced illiteracy by 15 percentage points in that period), and Chicago (which yielded a 14 percent decline). Both Big Apple and Second City fourth-graders were reading a grade level higher than peers in 2002; Houston’s fourth-graders in 2011 were only reading half a grade point level higher.