Houston, We Have an Education Solution

The Houston Independent School district won the largest education prize dedicated to improving urban school districts.

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IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR THE BROAD FOUNDATION - Philanthropist Eli Broad, left, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, right, congratulate Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier after announcing that Houston is the winner of the 2013 Broad Prize for Urban Education, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. As the winner of the award that recognizes the public school district making the greatest performance and improvement gains in student achievement, Houston will receive $550,000 in college scholarships for its high school seniors. The three other finalists—Corona-Norco Unified School District in California, Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina, and the San Diego Unified School District —will each receive $150,000 in college scholarships.

Since 2002, the Broad Foundation has celebrated school districts that achieved the greatest overall improvement in student achievement while also narrowing the gap between students from low-income and upper-income households. The Foundation's goal is to shine a light on excellence, reward those who are accomplishing the extraordinary and demonstrate what is possible for our most disadvantaged students.

The Broad Prize for Urban Education includes $550,000 in scholarships for graduating seniors to attend college and is the largest education prize in America dedicated to improving urban school districts. But what I love most about the Broad Prize (for which I have been a judge in the past) is its potential to get others to emulate the winner's best practices.

This year's Broad Prize winner, which was announced last week in Washington D.C. by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is the Houston Independent School district, the first district to have won the prize twice (first in 2002). Houston is the nation's seventh largest school district and serves more than 200,000 children – 88 percent of whom are African-American or Hispanic and 80 percent of whom are low-income.

The district is now run under the capable stewardship of Superintendent Terry Grier, who did a short stint in San Diego after eight years running Guilford County's Schools in Greensboro, N.C., before heading to Texas. Unlike some of his peers who get used to one way of doing things, Grier decided to adopt many of the strategies used in some of the most successful urban public charter schools to raise the bar on his school system. These include: hiring the best teachers and principals, more instruction time, data-driven instruction, teacher evaluation based on student performance, after school tutoring and a "no excuses" culture that permeates the entire school system.

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Perhaps his most powerful tool of all was using Advanced Placement courses to elevate the quality and rigor of instruction in all Houston ISD schools – starting with  five and going up to 15 courses over three years. AP courses are often considered only suitable for gifted students, but research increasingly shows that offering the more rigorous content boosts participation in the program and its tests while enhancing the overall quality of instruction in schools.

And the proof is in the pudding. Houston boosted its graduation rate by 12 points between 2006 and 2009 – double the average increase at the 75 districts that were eligible for the prize – all the while cutting the gap in achievement between its rich and poor students and its Hispanic students and white counterparts. It doesn't get any better than that! Broad put together a terrific video of all the prize finalists and it's well worth watching.

Kudos to Superintendent Grier, the HISD team and to all of the students whose perseverance and confidence made winning this prize possible!

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