By Joshua Benton
HOUSTON – Mike Moses sees a lot to like in the Houston Independent School District, but he isn’t prepared to make the Dallas school system into a carbon copy.
“The idea is not to make Dallas into Houston,” said Dr. Moses, the former state education commissioner who has been designated the next superintendent of Dallas schools. “The idea is to get the same levels of performance and results, or better.”
Dr. Moses was in Houston on Tuesday to address a two-day conference on reforms in the district.
With its test scores rising and academic performance improving, Houston has been widely praised as a national model for reforming urban districts.
Superintendent Rod Paige, who has led the reforms, is mentioned as a candidate to become U.S. education secretary should Gov. George W. Bush be elected president.
Last year, Dr. Paige invited some of the nation’s top educational researchers to Houston to examine the job the district has done. On Tuesday, near the conclusion of the conference on researchers’ findings, Dr. Moses praised the district’s work and said there were some parts of the Houston model that could be used in Dallas.
“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
The Dallas Independent School District named Dr. Moses the sole finalist for the superintendent’s job on Oct. 9. Under state law, the soonest trustees may offer him a contract is Monday. He said that negotiations were ongoing with the district and that he expected a deal to be reached by the end of this week.
One of the keys to Houston’s gains, Dr. Moses said, has been stability in its leadership. Dr. Paige has been HISD’s superintendent for six years, and before that he had served on the school board since 1989. The average urban district superintendent stays on the job for only about two years.
“The districts that have had success, like Fort Worth and Houston, have had people with six- or seven-year tenures,” Dr. Moses said. “It makes a difference because it gives someone a chance to succeed.”
He said five of the state’s eight largest districts were without superintendents at some point last year. Under Dr. Paige, Houston has become known for a straightforward, standards-based approach to education. Outside companies handle nonacademic tasks, from food service to garbage pickup.
Social promotion was ended, as were most of the exemptions that allowed some HISD students to avoid taking the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills. Houston also was early to start its own charter schools. The changes encouraged voters to overwhelmingly pass a $678 million bond issue for school repairs.
The academic results have been promising. According to research presented at the conference, Houston’s overall passing rate on the reading portion of the TAAS increased from 65.7 percent of students in 1994 to 81.7 percent in 2000. On the math portion of TAAS, 49.3 percent of Houston students passed in 1994 and 80.1 percent passed in 2000.
In Dallas, the improvement on the reading portion of TAAS was from 59.3 percent passing in 1994 to 72 percent in 2000. On math, 45.2 percent passed in 1994 and 71 percent passed in 2000.
Statewide, the reading test results improved from 76.5 percent passing in 1994 to 87.4 percent in 2000. Math results went from 60.5 percent to 87.1 percent statewide.
Among the elements of the Houston system Dr. Moses lauded: its flexible contracts with administrators, which are modeled on the at-will employee contracts used in private industry; its system of shifting the district’s best teachers to its lowest-performing schools; and its research department, which provides teachers with the data necessary to target the weaknesses and strengths of each student.
Dr. Moses gave a presentation at the conference on the state’s use of testing to create accountability in schools.
He said the most important part of the state’s accountability system is that it rates a school only at the level of its weakest subset. In other words, if a district performs well with most of its students, but it has unacceptable math scores among one racial group, it is rated as unacceptable.
“If there is a genius in the system, it’s that it shines a light on where we have gaps,” he said.
One of his priorities in Dallas, he said, will be to create a focused set of goals for teachers and administrators.
“It’s easy to add too much confusion to teachers’ lives with too many accountability systems,” he said. “I think we need to be very practical and very straightforward what student achievement is our top priority.”
The conference included academic papers on the effectiveness of some of Houston’s efforts, including decentralization, shared decision-making councils and district charter schools.
The first paper presented praised Houston’s business and civic leadership for its involvement in the schools.
Dr. Moses said he has similar aspirations for Dallas.
“My first impression is there is a lot of desire to find common ground for common action,” he said. “There is a lot of energy right now for the district, and one of my biggest jobs would be to see if we can channel it in the right direction.”