Book: A tale of education reform at Austin’s John H. Reagan High School

The new issue of Texas Monthly also features a book review of “Saving the School: The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids, and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform” by Michael Brick. “Why Johnny Can’t Learn”, Elizabeth Green, Texas Monthly, August 2012.

The book’s author casts education reformers as the enemy:

Reformers, he asserts, are not educators but “profiteers” intent on “selling out” public education by imposing a corporate “reward and punishment system” ill-suited to the task of cultivating minds.

The book’s hero is principal Anabel Garza. Squeezed by regulations, she makes a perverse decision:

He describes, for instance, how Garza works to meet the state’s goal for the “completion rate,” an approximation of the number of students who graduate or get a GED in four years. Garza points out that if students fail to enroll or are absent often enough that she can kick them out, then the won’t be counted among the students who are expected to finish. And voilà! Reagan’s completion rate rises. “I’m going to run it till somebody stops me and calls me on it,” Garza says, explaining her plan to drop student with unexcused absences.

By the end of the 2009-10 school year, the school must either raise its standardized test scores, or it will be closed. The reviewer notes, however, that for this school and for these students, success is hard to define and grasp.

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  1. Dear Ms. Munsinger Cotton,
    Thank you for covering my forthcoming book, “Saving the School: The True Story of a Principal, a Teacher, a Coach, a Bunch of Kids, and a Year in the Crosshairs of Education Reform.” From reading the thoughtful posts on your blog, I can tell you care deeply about education. I’ll be reading from the book at The Twig, 200 E. Grayson (the old Pearl Brewery) at noon on Saturday, August 25. Please help spread the word. I hope to see you there.
    To address your blog post: We may never find a golden bullet for the troubles facing our country’s public schools. But during the year I spent at Reagan High School in East Austin, I did witness one element indispensable to any successful education program.
    In the fall of 2009, Reagan High was reporting standardized test scores well below average, particularly in math and science. The graduation rate measured 47 percent, compared to 74 percent for the district and 79 percent statewide. By those numbers, the school was deservedly rated “academically unacceptable.”
    No matter how well-intentioned, the data-focused reformers of the accountability movement were not getting the job done. More tests, harder rhetoric and letters informing parents of their right to transfer out had only served to concentrate the neediest students in one building, justifiably perceived as a dumping ground. This, too, was documented in numbers kept by the state education agency, including high rates of economically disadvantaged students (83 percent), limited English proficiency (33 percent), and “mobility,” a measure of unstable home lives (32 percent and rising). The “academically unacceptable” rating wasn’t new: For Reagan, this was year four.
    In response, the state education commissioner was prepared to deploy the reform movement’s newest tool, a closure order designed to scatter the teachers and students. My aim was to chronicle the efforts of educators and the progress of students under the kind of sudden death pressure being brought to bear on failing schools across the country.
    It’s worth taking a moment to consider the stakes. Reagan High’s stature, founded on volunteerism, artistic excellence and state football championships, has produced a loyal community of alumni for whom being a Raider constitutes a vital common ground. This proud tradition has helped extend a lifeline to kids who have been abandoned in the state and federal governments’ efforts at reform. Just ask Briana Fowler (class of 2011) and Princess Ohiagu (’10), who each went on to Texas State University with the help of scholarships raised by Kim Ruiz (’86), whose charity golf tournament, named for her late father, Coach Pat Pennington (’65-’90), has provided $25,000 to Reagan graduates in the past six years.
    In her work as principal at Reagan High, Anabel Garza has treated raising scores as a first step toward the broader goal of rebuilding an institution that inspires that kind of devotion. Contrary to your characterization, I never saw her do anything “perverse.” One of her greatest strengths comes from her egalitarian approach to work and life. She opens her door and heart to just about anyone, but holds those who enter to high expectations. When she drops students who repeatedly refuse to show up for class from the rolls and files criminal negligence charges against their parents, she’s not just trying to make the numbers. She’s trying to strong-arm those kids and, perhaps more importantly, their parents. Imperfect? Yes. Tough? Certainly. “Perverse?” I don’t think so.
    Public education has become one of our country’s most vexing social, economic and moral quandaries. Standards are good. Tests are good. Standardized tests are probably even good, in moderation. But one thing is certain: It’s time to stop vilifying teachers in this country. As I learned from watching Anabel Garza and many other passionate, hard-working educators at Reagan High, there’s no accountability quite like a person who gives a damn at the front of the classroom listening, pushing you to succeed when you try and showing you the consequences when you don’t.
    Michael Brick
    Austin, Texas
    July 27, 2012

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