Education reform, educator efforts take center stage at Jones School panel

The contrast between the often-partisan and contentious policy debates over education reform at the federal, state and local levels — think charter schools, vouchers and curricula — and the innovative and passionate efforts of school leaders and teachers to improve students’ learning and opportunities was on full display in McNair Hall’s Shell Auditorium March 2.

From left, local education leaders Celeste Barretto, Tamira Samuel, Mike Olson and Jyoti Malhan participated in a panel moderated by national education reform expert Chester Finn, right. Photos by Jeff Falk

Chester Finn, who for more than four decades has been at the forefront of the national debate about education reform and has authored 20 books laying out the case for radically changing the way American schools function, moderated a panel with four Houston K-12 education leaders on the future of education reform. The event was hosted by the Rice University Education Entrepreneurship Program (REEP), which is housed in the Jones Graduate School of Business, and the university’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

In September 2009, Finn joined the Rice community for a conversation on the relevance of education reform, according to event organizers. Since that conversation, the nation has invested in Common Core (or in Texas, the math curriculum standards revision), Race to the Top and an evolution of No Child Left Behind into the Every Student Succeeds Act. New conversations of school choice and vouchers are emerging, organizers said, as well as discussion of what education reform is, how to tell if it is working and whether it is time to “throw in the towel.”

“(There are) big differences about what education reform means in 2017,” said Finn, the distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative national education policy think tank. He lamented that after many years of bipartisan support, key elements of the reform agenda – higher standards, better teachers, test-based accountability and parental choice – are receiving short shrift in both the Republican and Democratic party platforms.

“On the one hand, conservatives push to maximize school choice of every sort, while loosening the grip of government,” said Finn, who served as an assistant secretary of education under President Ronald Reagan. “And they seek to amplify the freedom of families and schools to chart their own course. On the other hand, many liberals have been redefining education reform into what they would call a social-justice crusade. They tend to construe today’s problems in race and gender terms and press government to do more, not less. (They tend) to do more to advance and protect selected subgroups, a trend that I think was advanced by the Obama administration’s eagerness to write regulations that attempt to advance these causes, which, of course, produced its own backlash, which, of course, added to the Trump team’s deregulatory frenzy and which, of course, widened the schisms that surround us.”

Focusing on ‘the really important work’

REEP Executive Director Andrea Hodge introduced the panel.

The four panelists are all alumni of REEP. Since 2009, REEP has provided a comprehensive management and entrepreneurship experience that enables education leaders to improve the delivery of education. The panelists provided a stark contrast in discussing their vision for and work in education.

“When I think about what ways I’m impacting reform, I think just on a very basic level I’m modeling what it can be for students,” said Celeste Barretto, school leader at KIPP Voyage Academy for Girls who is also teaching seventh-grade English this semester. “What I mean by that is, in my classroom, I feel that I do that, but … more importantly, (in) my day-to-day work as a school leader and every interaction that I have with these 314 souls (the academy’s students) plus the 28 people who work with me every day in the building. That is the really important work.”

Tamira Samuel, manager of support for new teachers in Houston Independent School District, spoke to the power and importance of effective teachers and support systems. “I think more than anything, every single day, the work that my colleagues and I do is to ensure that every single child has an effective teacher, and not just one that is pushing their work with … accountability, but going above and beyond to the whole child. Just unpeeling the layers … making sure that our campus leaders are leveraging the talents and the skills and pathways so that other individuals are connected in the work.”

Mike Olson, founder and executive director of Talent Unbound, a network of private microschools, cast his work as that of an entrepreneur. “As an entrepreneur … I care little for reform and policy. There’s one thing I care about. It’s delivering value to my customers. I am unable to feed my family unless I’m delivering values to the families that walk through my door. I frame that value in terms of our mission as an organization. I believe every child is a genius … and has the capacity to change the world. So we look at each child in a much broader sense than … academic test scores.”

Jyoti Malhan is the principal of the Baylor College of Medicine Academy at Ryan, which she opened in 2013 in the Third Ward. It is the only medical magnet school in the country. “There is a craving for great schools in urban environments and in suburban environments. Everybody wants their kids to go to a great school. You have to have great teachers. One of the … reasons that the school is very successful is that I was able to hire the most amazing teachers.”

REEP transitions to the Glasscock School

At the event, Andrea Hodge, executive director of REEP, announced that as the program graduates its eighth and final cohort in May, it is transitioning the principal certification program to the Glasscock School. The school is nationally known for its Master of Arts in Teaching program and teacher certification programs.

“Rice University is committed to serving this community, and I am excited that our focus on school leadership will continue,” Hodge said. “I would like to thank the REEP team and … our funders who’ve participated in this work. I’d like to thank our students and our graduates, who are here tonight, the broader community and all of friends for the support that we’ve had over these past years.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.