For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the message was lost.
For want of a message, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
"For want of a nail the shoe was lost."
When Terry Grier arrived to be the Houston school district superintendent in 2009, not much registered on the campuses where I was a substitute teacher. Then, nothing continued to register——in fact, the chatter in the teachers’ lounges across the city was that he had made executive decisions on the plane ride here without ever viewing any of our campuses. A bad portent, but no one knew just how bad it would become.
"For want of a shoe the horse was lost."
Then, Terry Grier set into motion his “reforms” with the oh-so-not-clever title “Apollo 20”. As in “Houston, we have a problem” with 20 of our schools—-supposedly those schools needed rescuing—-a quick Internet search would have revealed that the actual Apollo 20 space mission was scrapped which would have been a warning to all involved. Indeed, NASA had moved on to space shuttles and the International Space Station in pursuit of scientific frontiers—-yet our superintendent was stuck in the past. Whether he was way off base or not, the message was clear—-schools could be designated as “failing” from on high. No matter if there were whip-smart students or excellent teachers—-when the data points from state tests didn’t measure up, the whole school was doomed. The ripple effect began.
"For want of a horse the rider was lost."
Among the many “reforms” of Apollo 20 were longer school days and a longer school year. Immediately, the substitute teachers who were my close colleagues marked those schools off our lists—-we were very willing to give teaching our all during the school day, but we had children of our own and we wanted to be home. We noted that many of the support staff at these schools also quickly transferred for the same personal reasons. The damage began—the schools that had been part of their communities began to change drastically. There was anxiety—-worries that any school falling apart due to these new guidelines could be added to the “failing” list and thus, large shifts began to occur throughout the district as students and teachers tried to stay ahead of the drastic swings in policy from the Central Office. This became impossible as a coherent, long-range plan was not to be seen—-instead a mood swing de jour seemed to be the guiding light. The unraveling continued.
"For want of a rider the message was lost."
As we made our rounds, the substitute teachers started to notice that this specter of “failure” that hung over the heads of so many schools became demoralizing for teachers. Some didn’t wait around to let their hard work be dismissed by scores from tests from Pearson, a British company—-they left teaching entirely. Others hoped that someone, somewhere would call an end to this testing madness—they hung on and had their careers ended by evaluations based on how well students could think like the Pearson test creators. The students, who are smarter than any test company in existence, became refugees going from school to school (charter and private included) to try to salvage their own futures from the hands of the very people trying to “help” them and dodge the schools that might be designated “problem” schools. The foundation of the district was beginning to shift and more cracks appeared.
"For want of a message the battle was lost."
By now, it became clear that no one actually involved in the schools on a day-to-day basis, believed Terry Grier’s mantra of “effective teachers”, “use of data to drive instruction”, “in-school tutoring” and “a culture of high expectations.” In fact, the district became more a scene from the movie “Titanic” with everyone deserting the sinking schools and enrollment floundering than the film “Apollo 13” where everyone pulled together. Yet, there was never any indication from Terry Grier that he regretted steering those teachers and students into the academic iceberg—-in fact, he kept on aiming directly for it. As the deck began to tilt, it became harder for anyone to maintain their balance and chaos ruled.
"For want of a battle the kingdom was lost."
HISD flounders along. A bond election was held to remodel many HISD schools that should have been rebuilt once Terry Grier first took command in 2009 (if not before, but we can only hold the current superintendent to task). Outside consultants were brought in and paid a quarter of a million dollars, yet they couldn’t manage to go to all HISD campuses—-just some of them—-to give their “expert” opinion. Houstonians realized that several HISD campuses were falling into ruins and voted the bonds in, hoping for the best. Yet, Terry Grier’s manic behavior continued and he began pushing to close campuses—-mainly those in the neighborhoods of lower economic status students or campuses occupying prime real estate. No acknowledgement of how the original policies had undermined communities, blown apart schools or contributed to huge teacher turnover was ever addressed. No lessons learned, since only schools, students and teachers could be “failures”—-not Terry Grier’s ideas. No one can see a better, more cohesive district except for the top tier at Central Office and they seem to be in an echo chamber of admiration for each other. Anarchy rules.
"And all for the want of a nail."
It would be lovely if we all lived in the world where the “education reformers” exist. Somehow, we would all bow down to their superior ideas and visions. However, if they could ever come down off Mt. Olympus and check out the world of mere mortals, they would see that the charter and private schools are growing exponentially every year here in Houston. Thanks to the flourishing energy economy of Houston, the philanthropists can fund the charters and many Houstonians have the income and ability to send their own children to private schools. Yet, the underlying current of public education receding into the background can never be a good thing for any community. There have been attempts to draw attention to this, but energy prices are good and public education doesn’t seem to truly matter. Only when a downturn happens and people once again look to the public sector to help them will these schools be missed—-in fact, Houston ISD’s main strength came from the 1980s oil bust that caused so many to realize that a strong school district was our only way to save the next generation. The bumper stickers from those days begging for another oil boom and promising contrite behavior and more sound judgment have all but been forgotten. Someday, we’ll need our public schools again, look back at 2009, and wonder how we let it all go wrong by letting the little things one by one elude our grasp. We’ll be trying to patch things together from what is left—-all the time, frantically looking for nails.