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No Excuses

by Stub
Thursday, January 1, 1998

Houston educator Thaddeus Lott
puts failing schools to shame

Gayle Fallon wanted to give her 10-year-old godson a measure of stability in life. With a father who had compiled a long record of felony convictions and a mother imprisoned for shoplifting after two prior convictions for drug possession, the boy had shuffled in and out of foster care since birth. To worsen matters, he was languishing in the chaotic environment of a dismal urban school. Fallon, the president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, knew that without a decent education, her godson might stumble along the same destructive path his parents had followed. So in 1994 she secured him a spot at Mabel B. Wesley Elementary, an innovative public charter school on the outskirts of Houston.

"I love that program," Fallon says. "I wouldn’t invest my godson in it if I didn’t."

Fallon’s praise evokes a sun-dappled public school set against a leafy suburban backdrop. And so would Wesley’s manicured lawn, pristine brick facade, and buffed floors—if you ignored the barbed-wire fencing and boarded-up houses encircling the school. In fact, Wesley Elementary serves the violent, drug-infested Acres Homes section of Houston. All of its students qualify for federal Title I education funds earmarked for disadvantaged children, and its student body is 99 percent minority (93 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic). The lives of many closely mirror that of Fallon’s godson.

We have come to expect mediocrity from schools whose students are saddled with such tragic circumstances. But since Thaddeus Lott  became its principal in 1975, Wesley has graduated thousands of children whose reading and math scores rival those of their suburban peers. Before Lott introduced his educational philosophy, only 18 percent of Wesley’s third-graders were scoring at or above grade level in reading comprehension on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. By 1980, 85 percent were achieving at or above grade level. In 1996, 100 percent of Wesley’s third-graders passed the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS)  in reading. Statewide, fewer than 70 percent of third-graders in schools with similar demographics passed.

To achieve this astounding turnaround, Lott eschewed popular nostrums—computers, school-to-work initiatives, parental involvement—for the basics: a proven curriculum, rigorous teacher training, strict discipline, high expectations of teachers and students, and a fervent belief that any child can learn.

"It’s a myth," says Lott, "that if you’re born in a poor community and your skin is a certain color that you can’t achieve on a higher level."

Having succeeded at Wesley, Lott wanted to vindicate his beliefs at other troubled schools. In this desire the community saw an opportunity to have every Acres Homes child schooled by Lott. So its residents petitioned the Houston school board to allow Lott to manage Wesley and three neighboring schools as a separate district of charter schools. The contract was signed in spring 1995, making Lott’s district the first charter-school arrangement of its kind in Texas, predating even the state law encouraging communities to establish charter schools. The charter’s goal: To have 70 percent of all children who have spent three years in the charter system scoring at or above grade level.

The charter gives Lott total freedom to train staff, develop a curriculum, and make hiring, firing, and promotion decisions at the four schools. The charter "allows us to feel like we’re not committing a crime by doing things differently," says Lott. "It does not release us from accountability, though. We have a three-year contract, and the community expects results." As the equivalent of a district superintendent, Lott reports directly to the superintendent of Houston schools, enabling him to sidestep several layers of bureaucracy.

Only $2,500 Per Child

It is 8 a.m. at Wesley, and Mary O’Connor’s third-graders are in a hurry. They are leaving on a field trip at 9, and there’s plenty of learning to do before then. Not a moment is wasted as they correct their math homework, recite vocabulary lists, and read from a novel, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie. By 9 a.m., they have accomplished more than many classes do all morning.

This is the typical classroom at Wesley: The pace is quick, the goals are set high, and no disruptions are tolerated. "We have a lot of ground to cover," says Lott. "The success of these kids depends on the percentage of time they are on task. We can’t let one or two students disrupt the educational experience." The first lesson Wesley kids learn is how to walk through the halls quietly, single-file with hands folded. Fighting is forbidden.

The pace is rooted in the curriculum. Upon entering Wesley as principal, Lott purchased the Direct Instructional System for Teaching and Remediation (DISTAR), a program developed at the University of Illinois during the 1960s. Known now as Reading Mastery and Connecting Math Concepts, it is based on the direct-instruction model of teaching, in which students and teachers engage in a lively, interactive regimen of structured drills and sequential lessons, each building on the last. DISTAR’s phonics-based reading lessons are literally scripted for the teacher, who is required to ask 200-300 questions per day, often in rapid-fire sequence. The children’s high-decibel choral responses may sound like a high-school cheerleading squad hopped up on No-Doz, but they are learning the relationships between the sounds and the letters that constitute the English language. And there’s no quibbling with the results at Wesley.

During Lyndon Johnson’s "War on Poverty," the federal government began Project Follow Through, which spent $500 million and many years investigating the most effective pedagogy for disadvantaged students. It concluded that direct instruction was the only method that even came close to elevating poor readers to the 50th percentile in achievement. Child-centered approaches that diminish the teacher’s role in the classroom and reject the teaching of basic skills finished in the cellar. Ironically, researchers also found that direct instruction elevated students’ self-esteem far more than the child-centered methods that ascribe a central role to high self-esteem and maintain that self-esteem suffers in heavily controlled, teacher-directed environments. Disadvantaged students succeed more often with direct instruction, however, and Lott knows that achievement builds self-esteem, not the other way around.

Direct instruction works so well that Lott steers just 3 percent of Wesley students into special-education classes. By comparison, 10 percent of all Houston schoolchildren are labeled special ed.

Houston schools can mask poor achievement by inflating their special-ed ranks because special-education children do not count toward a school’s average TAAS scores. Lott refuses to engage in such subterfuge. By exempting only 3 percent of its students for special ed, Wesley’s TAAS scores represent more than 90 percent of the student body (a small percentage of Hispanic children are exempted for taking the test in Spanish). Only five of 242 other Houston schools test more children; most test well below 70 percent.

"Other principals hire remedial teachers," says Phyllis Hunter, manager of reading instruction for the Houston school district. "Thaddeus hires teachers who keep kids out of remedial classes." In fact, Wesley retains just one special-ed teacher, which helps to trim its costs to an average of $2,500 per child—nearly $1,000 less than the district average. "We’ve always done more with less," boasts Lott.

Lott held to his faith in basic skills while his counterparts swooned over the now-discredited "whole-language" theory of reading, which disavows explicit phonics instruction and views teachers more as "learning facilitators" than instructors. "People started teaching without ever giving kids any decoding skills," Lott says. "They gave them a bunch of books and said, ‘Read.’ That was the fallacy of the whole-language bandwagon."

So many educators jumped on this bandwagon that Lott, in the pre-charter era, had to run candy sales and forgo technology upgrades to purchase DISTAR because it was not on the state’s list of approved curricula. Now the charter allows him to spend his precious curriculum dollars on whichever program he deems best.

Holding Teachers Accountable

In fact, Lott defies convention at every turn. Tracking—the practice of grouping students by skill level—has been accused of pigeonholing students into rigid categories. The first action Lott took as principal was to test his students, rank them by instructional level, and place the top 22 students in one class, the next 22 in another, and so on. The students in each class comprise, at most, three skill levels, making it easier for teachers to tailor their lesson plans to the individual needs of their students.

"If you don’t teach a child on his instructional level," Lott says, "you will teach him at his frustration level. A child’s self-esteem and success at learning are determined by his having an opportunity to be taught at the rate and level that he is capable of being taught."

Moreover, few school districts rate teachers based on performance, yet Lott demands accountability. Early in his career he began testing children at the beginning and end of each school year. By breaking the scores down by classroom, he knows which teachers are succeeding. His personnel decisions and merit bonuses are based on the results. Often he will even post the average student scores achieved by each teacher. "Now that’s peer pressure," says Karen Anastasio, a reading specialist at Wesley.

Teachers are also subject to unscheduled visits from Lott and current Wesley principal Suzie Rimes, who checks on each classroom at least once a day. On one of the days I spent at Wesley, Rimes found a teacher who had not checked her students’ homework. "She’s got a short-lived existence here," Rimes said. "If she can find a place to pay her to do what she wants to do, more power to her." New teachers, in particular, can expect to be observed two to three times a day.

"New teachers don’t come equipped to teach" upon graduation from education schools, says Lott. "So we have a lot of training focused on teaching teachers how to teach. They get so little field practice in college."

Underlying these policies is Lott’s conviction that if a child does not learn, it is the teacher’s fault. "I’m in the education business," says Osborne Elementary principal Ann Davis, another of the Lott disciples in charge of the four charter schools under his management. "If I’m not doing my job, I need to be put out of business."

These lofty expectations would merely provoke resentment among teachers if Lott did not equip them with proven strategies. New teachers attend several days of training before school begins, and Lott will release them from classes for a week to observe an experienced teacher if they need to. "Teachers need to be trained," Lott insists. "They need to know that they are supported." The school year is replete with opportunities for further training and time to share strategies with colleagues. "You can’t as a teacher fail at Wesley unless you don’t want to do the program," says Gayle Fallon, the head of the teachers union.

But Fallon warns prospective teachers that if they want to interpret their contracts literally, Wesley is not the place for them. "I tell them, ‘You’re going to work through lunch, past 5 p.m., and on Saturdays. But you’re also going to get disciplinary support, the materials you need, and all the training you require,’" Fallon says. Wesley typically loses four to six teachers at the beginning of each year because they dislike the program or fail to meet Lott’s standards of competence.

The workload is heavy because students must be graded in five subjects each day. And a linchpin of direct instruction is that students are tested often to ensure they have mastered the material before moving on. These measures enable teachers to give students feedback on their mistakes. It’s no use, Lott says, to have kids practicing bad habits. Or to have them turning the page without having learned the previous lesson. But it also makes the job of teaching that much harder.

The demanding hours and pressure to perform take their toll. The majority of Wesley teachers have fewer than five years of teaching experience, while the average Houston teacher has spent 12 years in the same school. According to Lott, the problem is competition: "We’re surrounded by plenty of less rigorous schools that love to take the teachers we’ve already trained." Several observers say this is integral to Lott’s success: He trains young teachers his way before they become entrenched in another philosophy.

Franchising Success

In terms of education policy, the key question is: Can the Wesley way become a model for widespread education reform? Can Lott succeed without devoting the amount of time to each of his four charter schools that he has always given to Wesley? Which is indispensable, the visionary leader or the approach he has championed?

It’s too early to render a verdict on the charter experiment, but the initial signs are promising. Lott’s first step at Highland Heights was to replace the principal (a power the charter gives him) with Sandra Cornelius, a former Wesley assistant principal. "The last principal was a joke," says Lott. "The place was a mess, and she wouldn’t even show up on time." Cornelius shares his philosophy, and she began by beautifying the school, imposing a sense of order, and adopting the direct-instruction programs.

The results have been remarkable. In 1994-95, the year before Lott assumed responsibility for Highland Heights (where 94 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches), 37 percent of its fourth graders had passed the TAAS in reading. Last spring, a whopping 100 percent passed. In math, 94 percent of the school’s fourth graders passed the TAAS this year. Two years ago, the passage rate was 30 percent among fourth graders.

Osborne Elementary, the third elementary school now under Lott’s management, has been improving steadily ever since Davis was hired as principal in 1993, several years before Lott took over. Fewer than 40 percent of its students had passed the TAAS in reading and math in 1993. Nowadays, more than 80 percent pass. Instead of DISTAR, Davis has chosen to use Success For All, a teaching model developed at Johns Hopkins University that incorporates direct-instruction techniques. Lott, for the most part, has left well enough alone. "All of [the principals] are free to do their own thing as long as they get results," Lott says.

Lott’s most daunting challenge is to revamp M.C. Williams, the lone middle school (grades six through eight) in his care. He spent the first year of the charter battling the old principal, who disagreed with Lott philosophically and has since been replaced. This year the school has a new principal and a new look. Formerly dark hallways now have fluorescent lighting; a once perpetually dirty floor is swept and waxed daily; graffiti is cleaned up immediately; and new principal Roy Morgan himself donned an old sweatshirt one Saturday and painted the front doors bright blue.

Morgan is a constant presence in the hallways and classrooms, and teachers are assigned posts at high-traffic areas during breaks. Their mission: Maintain order. "The teachers and administrators have finally gotten control," says assistant principal Sylvia Jones. These initial renovations are revealing, for they reflect Lott’s priorities. Before attending to academics, Lott says, you must create an environment for learning. That means a clean school with cheery colors, a staff of professionals who treat students with respect, and students who understand what type of behavior is expected of them.

Test scores, however, have only seen minor improvements. Besides the turnover in leadership and the wasted year with an ineffective principal, Williams suffers from a more serious problem: Cherry-picking. Wesley graduates are technically zoned to attend Williams, but few actually enter. Most are accepted by magnet schools throughout Houston or wooed by private schools seeking high-achieving minority students. So Williams is left with hundreds of graduates of other local elementary schools starting well below grade level.

Lott’s solution is to bring textbooks from Wesley into the middle school. "These kids don’t know how to decode a word," he says. "Now we’re having to do what the elementary schools didn’t do." The charter arrangement exempts Williams from regulations forbidding the use of below-level textbooks.

 A Failure To Replicate

Lott’s devotion springs from his deep roots in the community. His boyhood home stands just five blocks from Wesley, and as a child he attended Highland Heights. Back then Acres Homes was largely rural; his parents raised livestock and pumped water from a well. It was a different kind of community, too, "There were more families and they looked out for each other’s children," Lott laments. "My neighbor was as much a guardian as my parents. Now we have drugs, violence, babies having babies—the whole nine yards."

Soon after graduating from Texas Southern University and becoming an educator, Lott and his wife built a home near Wesley. "I wanted my children to know their heritage," Lott says. "I wanted them to sit in their grandmother’s rocking chair."

Even though Lott was told that he would never recoup the house’s full value, it was important to him that Acres Homes kids hold high aspirations. "Children would pass the house and admire it," Lott says, "and say, ‘You can come from Acres Homes and make a difference in the world.’ "

But living in Acres Homes meant his children had to attend Wesley. Finding the education lacking, he sent them to private school and vowed to take the job as principal at Wesley if it ever opened. "I knew what it was like to be a parent looking for a school that taught my kids as well as I was taught," Lott says. "For them to do less is criminal."

Opportunity knocked in 1975, and the swift and dramatic improvements at Wesley soon attracted notice. In 1980, the school district conducted a study of Wesley and 10 other schools with similar demographics. It attributed the sudden uptick in Wesley’s scores to the use of DISTAR.

With these results in hand and a supportive superintendent, more than 300 Texas schools adopted DISTAR in the early 1980s. But since DISTAR had still not been approved by the state education board, public schools had to divert discretionary funds away from other endeavors to afford the program. When classroom computers became the latest rage, these schools largely abandoned DISTAR to purchase computer hardware.

The next superintendent, Joan Raymond, was an ardent whole-language acolyte. Lott’s philosophy was anathema to her, and, according to Gayle Fallon, his success prompted many Houston school district administrators to question the validity of Wesley’s scores. "They assumed that if minority kids were doing well on tests, they had to be cheating," Lott says. The district sent a pair of investigators into the school to look for evidence of foul play, but they came away empty-handed.

The baseless charges provoked an indignant backlash. "[Raymond] got to meet the entire Acres Homes community at the next school board meeting," says Fallon, smiling. The pivotal moment came when ABC’s PrimeTime Live broadcast scenes of Lott’s children reading two and three years above grade level. Raymond squirmed as reporter Chris Wallace questioned the district’s lack of support for Lott and her own prejudices. It had all the elements of a juicy story—a crusading hero, an intransigent bureaucracy, and children’s education in the balance—and ABC ran it twice. Ultimately, it gave Lott an aura of invincibility and forced Raymond out of office.

It also brought a wave of requests from parents throughout the city desperate to enroll their children at Wesley. Some resorted to lying about where their children lived, providing the address of a vacant lot or of a relative within Lott’s district. While most schools take pains to expose such fraud, Lott does not. If they want to come and don’t cause any trouble, he is glad to educate them.

Now Lott has a supportive superintendent in Rod Paige (the two are good friends) along with an adoring community and a national reputation. When Paige impaneled a blue-ribbon commission to settle the reading-instruction debate in Houston, Lott was one of the experts called to serve. The charter-school arrangement sprung from Paige’s desire to "create an environment in which a renegade principal like Lott could flourish," he says. Observers visit Wesley from across the country. And despite the pressures Lott places on his teachers, even the national office of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)  has published approving stories on direct instruction and Wesley in its journal American Teacher.

The most important lessons, however, have yet to be learned. Lott’s direct-instruction programs are still not a part of Texas’s approved curriculum; schools that want to use the programs must either gain charter status or use precious discretionary funds to buy the textbooks. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is contributing $4.4 million over the next three years to bring Reading Mastery (formerly DISTAR) into six low-performing Houston schools, but the school district has made little effort to find out what makes Lott’s program work and encourage other schools to follow it.

The resistance to adopting direct instruction is an apt metaphor for the problems and promise of our decentralized system of public education. Current thought in education circles emphasizes "child-centered" classrooms and collaborative learning groups, values the learning "process" over correct answers, and disavows the teaching of basic skills in math and reading (although phonics has experienced a resurgence as of late). These trends place control over curriculum content largely in teachers’ hands.

Direct-instruction programs do the opposite. Their scripted lessons leave the teacher with little freedom, although Wesley teachers say that having ready-made lesson plans leaves them more time to develop creative supplements. In direct instruction, the teacher runs the classroom and the students focus initially on acquiring basic skills; the primary goal is measurable student achievement. How much a teacher likes the program is of little concern. Most teachers blanch at having their instructional methods dictated so heavily by the curriculum.

Moreover, longstanding traditions of local control in education prevent any superintendent from imposing a curriculum like direct instruction on an entire district. Although that means not everyone will adopt misguided reforms (as happened in California when the state education board mandated whole language statewide and repealed it several years later after a fierce public outcry), it also means not everyone will adopt the right ones. Lott has the pleasure of managing only four schools whose principals were either trained by him or believe in his approach. Imagine attempting to impose a curriculum on 242 Houston principals and their staff, all of whom possess their own educational philosophies.

The failure to replicate Lott’s program reveals another vexing matter in education: Hero worship. Whether it’s Thaddeus Lott, Joe Clark of New Jersey, or Jaime Escalante of California, the latter two made famous by popular Hollywood films, when we elevate educators to the height of myth we place their achievements seemingly beyond reach. For example, when asked why the school district had not tried to replicate direct instruction in other schools, Paige answered, "The error in your premise is that it’s the methodology that makes [Lott] succeed. If I had to choose any single foundation of his success, it is his intense desire to cause children to learn."

Yet Thaddeus Lott spends most of his day in meetings. Although he should be applauded for ensuring that teachers have a well-designed curriculum and the training they need, they ultimately bear the responsibility for whether the children learn. "That’s what bothers me," Lott says, "the people who say you need to have a Thaddeus Lott to change things. No, you don’t."

To prove that there’s nothing unique about direct instruction, Paige’s office provided TAAS scores from 22 Houston schools with demographics and achievement levels comparable to Wesley’s, only a few of which use direct instruction. The office neglected to supply—until asked—a list including the percentage of children in each school who actually took the test.

Of the 22 schools, only two tested more than 70 percent of their kids—and one of the two was Highland Heights, which uses direct instruction. Ten of the 22 actually tested less than 50 percent of their students. No schools had tested more than 80 percent of their students, while Wesley tested 93 percent. Lott does not need to hide low-performing students to prove that direct instruction works.

To be sure, Houston has made great strides in the area of reading—the blue-ribbon committee overhauled the district’s curriculum to include a focus on early systematic phonics, and TAAS passage rates are way up under Paige’s watch. The school district’s accountability system, in which each school is given a grade for its TAAS passage rate, has forced principals to show marked improvement or risk losing their jobs. But schools are also exempting more and more of their students from the TAAS by labeling them special education or giving them the test in Spanish.

The district’s policy of benign neglect toward a man like Thaddeus Lott may allow him to "flourish," in Paige’s words, but education reform demands replicable models for improving entire districts, not just a tiny subset of schools. Lott’s success with direct instruction, and even Davis’s record with Success For All, suggest effective reforms. "Direct instruction will certainly give us a lot more success than we have right now," says Lovely Billups, the director of field services for educational issues at the AFT.

It’s a measure of how low our expectations in education have sunk when a sense of mystique surrounds a man who brought in common-sense reforms such as choosing a research-based curriculum, measuring teacher performance, conducting an on-going effort to train those teachers, and expecting children to master subjects before moving on. Should we really expect anything less?