School Reform Lessons from Texas

Published June 1, 1998

Many lessons about accountability can be drawn from the successes of school districts across Texas, according to Policy Review assistant editor Tyce Palmaffy:

Decentralization is critical. In addition to the wide discretion the Texas Education Agency gave districts to run their school systems, the most effective superintendents decentralized even more.

“We have turned the schools loose,” says Houston superintendent Rod Paige. “We tell them that they’re going to be responsible for the pie, so we’re not going to give them the recipe.”

Testing helps schools identify weaknesses. Testing students creates data that can be analyzed to identify weaknesses in both students and teachers, providing both with information needed for specific improvements.

Test data can illuminate good practices. When test scores are combined with demographic data, it becomes possible for educators to identify those schools and instructional programs that are succeeding despite poverty and other obstacles. Those high-performing schools become models for reform.

In troubled schools, involve the parents. When a student’s performance slips, some principals at low-performing schools require teachers to phone parents to prompt them to monitor their child’s study habits or simply to send them to school. Other principals use a variety of methods to get parents to link up with the school.

Success depends on believing “Any Child Can Learn.” “We don’t accept the conventional wisdom that some kids won’t be able to handle the content and that we should lower the standards for them,” comments Houston’s Paige. “There are schools in Houston loaded with low-income kids who perform.”