The Best of Paul Houston's Commentaries

Paul Houston has established himself as one of the leading spokespersons for American public education through his speaking engagements, published articles and media interviews.

One of the most popular features of The School Administrator over the past decade has been his Executive Perspective column.

Since September 1997, Houston has drawn each month from both personal and professional experiences — more often than not his own life’s experience — to share with readers his perspective about important education issues. Everything from gall bladder surgery to safaris in Africa to the Axis of Evil has been fodder for his thoughts. He has recounted tales of being stranded on a highway in New Mexico in the dead of winter along with the moving experience of attending a Royal Military Tattoo in Scotland.

In the end, he always brings the message back to the nation’s young people and the importance of educational leadership in providing every child with a high-quality public education.

What follows are excerpts from 10 of Houston’s most memorable columns.

The Bigotry of Expectations
January 2003

Summary: No Child Left Behind presupposes a level playing field that simply does not exist and fails to provide the resources needed to support its basic goals.

“The sad fact about America is that we have tolerated and, in fact, created systems that allow and support tremendous inequity in terms of financing and support. Those systems were not created by educators; they were created by politicians. You can’t have equity outcomes with inequitable resources that shortchange the children most in need. And educators cannot be expected to overcome the effects of systems they did not create. Simply creating a strict system of accountability that points down from on high and out to schools that are often ‘down and out’ themselves will not solve the achievement gaps. Accountability also is appropriate for those who write the checks.

The first year of No Child Left Behind saw a dramatic increase in funding. Yet less than a month after signing the bill into law, the president sent the next budget to Congress that was a flat-line budget for education. You can’t create landmark legislation and then fail to commit to it in the long run. You can’t achieve results simply by spouting the right rhetoric.

While politicians are worrying about making the tax cuts permanent, I hope they also will consider making that same long-term commitment to our children. Otherwise, the soft bigotry of low expectations will be hardened into national policy.”

Making Great Time on a Lost Highway
October 2004

Summary: By refusing to see the world in wide screen, we risk damaging one system while trying to fix another.

“Current educational reforms are based on a misguided, mechanistic view of the world. This view rests on the Descartian belief that the universe is like a clock where if you change a few parts, you can make it tell better time. A mechanistic approach assumes that by fixing pieces, you can fix the whole and that by leveraging elements, you can move the totality to a different place. …

Mechanical fixes are easy — and ineffective. Organic solutions are hard, but ultimately they are the only way to improve schools. So while we are making good time on creating a system of mechanical fixes, we are lost in the space of an organic universe. …

Einstein once said, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ We can’t measure imagination. We must create interconnected systems of answers to recognize that everything that counts can’t be counted. We must acknowledge there is more to education than data and scores and that simple answers to complex problems will help us make great time as we roar down the lost highway.”

Loosening Our Beltway
June 2007

Summary: Whatever happened to the idea that schools today are preparing our students, the future leaders of the world, to live and work in a global community?

“I am lucky. I had grey hair before I moved to Washington. Were that not the case I am sure you would have seen an overnight transformation in my follicles. You see, I live and work in a town that is untethered from reality.

I noticed this shortly after arriving inside the Beltway. I attended meetings discussing school reform with people who had not been in a school in a long time. …

I recently was Exhibit No. 1 in a Cato Institute policy paper that was arguing that public schools cause conflict. I was featured in the first paragraph because I had the audacity to suggest that public schools were to be places where the ideals of civic virtue were passed down to the next generation and where the children of our democracy would learn to live together.

The author of the policy paper argued this to be wrong because there is conflict in public schools and schools cause this conflict. (I guess his next paper will argue the police cause crime or the fire department causes fires.) He argues that parents should be able to send their children to schools that only have other children who agree with them. He argues that forcing children from different value systems to go to school together just causes conflict.

Yes, it does. But better to have small conflicts now while children are developing their skills at conflict resolution and tolerance than greater ones later when their inability to see a different perspective causes deadly conflict. Now we have a name for that. Let me try to remember…oh yes, Iraq. Time to loosen our beltway so we can get some blood to our brains.”

Liberating Minds and Spirits
February 2000

Summary: If freedom is so wonderful, why do we continue to shackle our children to a confining education system?

“Think with me about how we approach learning. We take our children, who are magnificent in their freedom, and we put them in containers with others. We take control of their time and we try to control their minds. And then we move them to another container and another keeper. We make them sit still and be quiet — totally unnatural acts for a healthy 5-year-old (or a 50-year-old, for that matter). And if they get too restless, we suggest the control themselves or, as Archie Bunker used to suggest to Edith, to ‘stifle.…’

Education is about putting shackles on children’s worst impulses, but it also should be about freeing their minds and liberating their spirits. Education should be about channeling their energy, not containing it. Children are born free. Our task is to let that freedom blossom into a life that is rich with the promise of possibilities.

Education isn’t about setting limits. It’s about widening horizons. It’s about letting children see the world in all its breadth and beauty. Education, at its core, is about creating freedom — freedom of thought and action.

As we look at improving education, let’s spend as much time worrying about that as we do about worrying about test scores. The ultimate act of education is not about following directions. It is about following your dreams and your heart.”

Finding Our Voice
November 2006

Summary: If we expect students to learn, we must move beyond finding out what they know and can do and instead help them find their true voices—who they really are.

“We are living and working in a time when schools and learning are being minimalized and marginalized. Education is being equated with results of norm-referenced tests—seeing who can repeat a few limited notes most accurately. It is also focusing on what you know, not what you can do. I read music, but you would never want me to sing for you. Yet if we really expect our children to learn, they have to be let out of the box and allowed to find their own expression and be encouraged to make the music.

Real learning will happen when leaders use their voices to help teachers find theirs so that students can sing with openness and freedom. The balancing act is for us to make sure they learn the notes and know how to blend their voice with others without giving up their unique gifts.

The meaning of ‘educate’ comes from the Latin ‘educare,’ which means ‘to bring forth.’ The essence of what we must do as leaders is to use our abilities to help our teachers bring forth all that is within them so that they can do the same for children.”

Faith and Fear
September 2005

Summary: Amid a climate of fear, we must have faith in each other to do what’s right for our nation’s children.

“Many of the controversies we see in our schools over curriculum are really about protecting personal values. I often have been criticized by home-schoolers for pointing out the danger to our society if everyone pulled back into their own personal enclaves and avoided engaging others who might have different values. Yet I can readily see why a parent would have that instinct. We want to save and protect our own. The question for a democracy is how can we create common good in balance with our personal values? And the question for school leaders is how do we listen to the fear behind the words and build consideration for creating a safer place for everyone’s child?

The irony in this is that we cannot save or protect ourselves through isolation. We cannot help our children by shielding them from a dangerous and difficult world. We have to give them the tools they need to engage successfully.

The further irony is that one of the greatest tools for fighting danger is by increasing our trust of others. For it is only by doing so that we gain the support we need to move from isolation to integration.

The greatest irony in all of this is that much of it has been couched in religious terms. Many battles in our society have been drawn up as battles based on religious teaching, such as evolution versus intelligent design. Yet the only way through this morass is by having more faith — more faith in each other to work through the problems and more faith in each other that we are mostly driven by good intentions, even if we live in an imperfect world. I believe increased faith will release us from our fears and that might be the best drug yet for building trust.”

Butchers or Tailors?
October 2003

Summary: School has to be about getting our children the right education fit, not cutting them up to fit the kind of education we have to offer.

“Probably what we need most in school reform is an understanding that we don’t need to reform it nearly as much as we need to transform it. We must rethink what schools are about and how we should deliver learning to children. The goal of transformed education is children who are eager to get to school every day — that the school is a place where they want to be.

That means schools must be engaging places where children are involved in their learning in active and meaningful ways. We perform best as adults when we are doing work that we love, work that has deep meaning for us. Why would it be any different for our children?”

A Stake Through the Heart of High-Stakes Tests
December 2000

Summary: Using a single measure at a single time that sets the direction of a student’s life is not just bad education, it flies in the face of the values upon which this country was founded.

“We know that children develop at diff-erent rates and that each of us faces unique obstacles.

For us to be a fair nation, we needed to develop an educational system that took that into account. With all our faults and failings in our current model, it has been a system of second opportunities, a reflection of that very real American value of being able to pursue one’s possibilities despite early failure. Other major developed countries followed a different model where students were tracked into different vocations at much earlier ages. That might be appropriate for places where social stratification is part of the culture, but it does not fit our American brand of egalitarian belief in the possibilities of the individual.

Richard Farson, author of Management of the Absurd, pointed out that training makes people alike and education allows them to be different. We, as a nation, must decide which path to travel. Making kids perform like trained seals at the demand of politicians might be entertaining, but it is not good education. Using a single test to determine a child’s future is a lousy way to create educational improvement. It is even a worse way to educate an American.”

A Novel Notion: Best Teachers at Poorest Schools
April 2002

Summary: We need to ensure that our strongest educators work in our impoverished schools and we need to ensure they stay there by giving them the tools they need to succeed — including compensation.

“The bedrock issue facing schools serving children from low-income families is the quality of their teachers and principals. And that is a variable school districts, states and the federal government can and must address. The fact is schools with high concentrations of poor children often get the poorest prepared teachers and those who are more likely not to be certified. Those schools also typically have the highest levels of turnover….

No easy answers or silver-bullet solutions exist to make certain we leave no child behind. But we might start by admitting what the real problems are and then acknowledging that when it comes to poverty, throwing money at the problem is at least a partial solution.

Perhaps we can’t keep poor children from being poor, but we can make certain they are given the best teachers and principals possible. It is very American to want to see people pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. First we must make certain they are wearing boots.”

A Letter to the President
January 2005

Summary: It’s time we stopped trying to find simple solutions to complex problems and focused on building a public education system that is equipped to raise the skills and strengthen the values of all of our citizens.

“Our children are inheriting a world that is much smaller and much more interdependent than the one in which we grew up. When one country pollutes, another coughs. When one is caught in the undertow of poverty, another pays the price. The economy is global and so must be our thinking. Our children must begin learning the interwoven nature of the world and that America is but one patch in the quilt of humanity.

Yes, our children need the highest levels of skill to compete in the global marketplace, but they also need the skills of collaboration and the practice of humility to survive in a smaller world. And it wouldn’t be a bad thing if we made sure they knew another language. While English is the international language, the acquisition of another language opens a new window of perspective and a little more perspective is exactly what the world needs right now.”