Contrarian at the Helm

AASA’s executive director, with sharp-edged views and colorful prose, promoted public education’s interests like few others by Jay Mathews

Paul D. Houston didn’t learn to read until 3rd grade. His brain, he recalls, was a maze of disconnected ideas that didn’t fit with life in Davis Creek, W.Va. Nor did he enjoy the linear way reading was taught in his rural school, too crowded for individual instruction.

A half century later, Houston found himself out of step again. Other education organizations were lining up behind the new No Child Left Behind bill, but it seemed to him it was another of those measures that had little to offer students like him, who tested poorly even if they were smart. So, as executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, he became one of the few major education leaders to publicly reject the bill, even as it became federal law. In a series of sardonic, sharp-edged opinion pieces over the years, he led many to see he had a legitimate point.

The 143-year-old association has never before seen the likes of an executive like Houston, a fast-talking lover of debate and art and literate prose, a master of the metaphor in his speaking and writing. And someone who enjoys poking good-natured fun at his lifelong profession. (His Top 10 lists, delivered in David Letterman style at AASA national conferences, are memorialized on T-shirts produced each year.)

He’s also a public figure eager to welcome into his corner office and engage in conversation even those in education and politics who disagree with him.

Now 64, Houston is retiring to Tucson, Ariz., a favorite haunt, where he plans to continue his writing. His speaking calendar already is becoming crowded with engagements scheduled over the next year, and he will serve as the education leader for a pair of People to People excursions to Rwanda and South Africa. He also will be able to pursue his spiritual interests as president of the Center for Empowered Leadership, producing books, website content and seminars on the role of spirituality in leadership.

Lively Commentator
Whatever else Houston was in his remarkable 42-year career in education, he was a leader, and a charismatic one at that.

“During my 40 years as an educator I never met a more likable and interesting person than Paul,” says Walt Warfield, former executive director of the Illinois Association of School Administrators. “I say this in light of the fact that I am as conservative as Paul is liberal. He has made me think and caused me to grow as a person, educator and administrator. I am certain Paul has had this effect on numerous people, most far more articulate than I to make the case for what a treasure he has been for AASA and what a loss it will be to see him take the next step in his life journey.”

Most heads of large professional organizations confine their writing to letters and ordinary speeches and an occasional stilted piece in their group’s membership newsletter. Association executives often are content to fill their obligatory columns with promotional fluff.

That was never enough for Houston, who still remembers with pleasure the day Mrs. Crum, his 10th grade English teacher at Barboursville High School in West Virginia, stopped by his desk and asked, “Did you ever think about being a writer?” He had barely gotten out of 9th grade. He thought she had lost her mind. But her words planted a seed. In time he found his offbeat way of thinking about the issues of the day produced fresh insights that publishers loved.

In a back-page essay in 1993 for Education Week, a favorite outlet over the years, he compared a pro-school voucher proposition on the ballot in California, where he was superintendent of the Riverside schools, to firestorms in Malibu: “We need to take a close look at the underbrush that fuels the voucher movement and the winds that feed it.”

In 1998, also in Education Week, he examined the national testing system suggested by President Clinton. “We know from tons of previous tests that kids living and going to school in affluent communities will do well. Those in poor communities will not. Will national tests tell us anything different? More important, will they tell us what to do about all this? If the cattle aren’t getting fatter, is it because there isn’t enough food? Maybe the cows can’t get to the food or digest it properly.”

And in 2007, in Phi Delta Kappan, he summed up his views of the political push to reauthorize No Child Left Behind with some revisions but no wholesale reform: “Have you ever considered that the remedy for being lost is not to drive faster? You have to stop and change direction.”

Houston says he likes to think carefully before he signs off on a piece, reworking key points to generate just the right visual image. The result has been a steady supply of some of the most vivid and incisive essays on how to, and how not to, fix schools, both in his monthly Executive Perspective columns in The School Administrator and in several other independent publications.

“Typically Paul’s column generates more reactions and letters than anything else we publish,” said the magazine’s editor, Jay P. Goldman. The executive director has won column-writing honors in national competitions and plans to keep writing in his retirement, including a memoir on his first years as a teacher in North Carolina.

Holistic Thinking
Houston was born in Springfield, Ohio, on April 10, 1944. It was World War II. His father was working at an Army Air Corps base and his mother in a war plant. But after the war they moved back to their native West Virginia and his father, having started college at age 36, became a Methodist minister.

During his 17 years as a superintendent in Princeton, N.J., Tucson, Ariz., and Riverside, Calif., and then as AASA executive director since March 1994, Houston often has referred to his troublesome early years in school. He was called a slow learner, so whenever the issue of social promotion has come up, Houston says, “Thank God for it because without it I would have been one of the oldest 1st graders in America.

“I have learned after the fact, I am a holistic thinker. My thinking is very much out of the box. When I was in school my brain skipped around and I was always distracted,” Houston says. Then, in 10th grade, he says he felt “the tumblers falling into place. Finally my brain caught up with my situation and school became very, very easy. I put it all together.”

In high school he was a leader in many activities, but “a bit of a smartass with the teachers. They took me as a mixed blessing,” he says. He went to Ohio State University, switching from radio-TV to English as a major in his senior year. He accepted a fellowship to earn a master’s degree in teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It was 1966. Public schools in the South were changing fast. Houston taught in an experimental program in an elementary school that had just admitted some black children. The superintendent, Bill Cody, took a liking to the novice teacher and agreed to his frequently offbeat ideas, like putting away the textbooks for a month and teaching all of the subjects by having the students write, edit and publish a newspaper. “It was a great experience,” Houston says. “The local newspaper came and did a story about it.”

The next year Cody made Houston, then 24, an elementary school principal in Chapel Hill. The young educator was charming in a Southern way that went far with parents. He loved being with kids. It was this time in his life that he hopes to recapture in a book, which he said is already three-quarters written.

“There was this kid named Sheldon,” he recalls. “Sheldon had been thrown out of every school in the district, they said to me, and he set the last school on fire. He had beaten up other kids. They had him in a classroom with one teacher and he beat her up. He was pretty good-sized, 5-8, 5-9, and he was 15 years old, even though he was just a 6th grader. He could not read a lick, had been held back, couldn’t do anything, but I realized he was very bright and creative in his own fashion. He stepped on somebody’s watch one day and the next day he brought it back and had it all fixed. He was very mechanical and very quick-witted. He would get into verbal duels with me, which we had fun with.

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.

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“I made a movie with the kids, and we made him the star of the movie. When it was done, you just had to watch his face and see him get accolades from everybody. I realized that this was the first time in nine years that this kid had had a successful experience in school, and I realized it wasn’t he who had failed, but the school system that had failed him. He is a metaphor for a lot of the poor minority kids that we have in the system and have failed. We spend all of our time telling these kids what they can’t do and what they don’t know, instead of focusing on what they can do.”

Cody, his superintendent, decided the young principal could become a good superintendent himself. Cody encouraged Houston to apply to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was time for him to get a good dose of the theory as well as the practice and get a sense of the pundits whose ideas would be influencing the school boards he would have to deal with if he continued his fast rise.

Houston and a fellow Harvard education school graduate student from Minneapolis, Richard Green, joined forces soon after they arrived in Cambridge. They complained that the school was abandoning its administrative career program, designed to train young would-be superintendents like them, and replacing it with a social policy program. “Superintendents hire social policy people,” Houston told them.

Nobody listened to Green or Houston, but they made the most of their two years at Harvard. One day they barged into the office of the state education commissioner and persuaded him to hire them to plan for the desegregation of the Boston Public Schools, which were approaching a political meltdown.

A Rapid Rise
School administrators who rise as high and as quickly as Houston often tell strange stories about how they got their superintendencies. Houston was an elementary school principal in Summit, N.J., for two years before joining Cody, then the superintendent in Birmingham, Ala., in a series of posts, ending with him being the district’s No. 2 official at age 29. Two years later he applied for the superintendency of the wealthy and prestigious Princeton, N.J., district. He believed he had no chance, given his young age and relatively meager experience, to get the job, but he thought the interview process would be good practice.

After listening to Houston talk about how he would heal the district’s frequent outbreaks of petty politics and professional jealousy, the Princeton school board hired him. He stayed nine years.

In his subsequent superintendent postings in Tucson, Ariz., and Riverside, Calif., Houston augmented his reputation as a master of people skills, a creative thinker and a great writer. Carley Ochoa, director of special projects for the Riverside schools when Houston became superintendent, noticed that as soon as he took charge “the rumor mill shut. It was clear Paul trusted the staff to handle information — no longer did we have the secret, whispered stuff going around.”

When the executive directorship at AASA became available, he grabbed the opportunity to take his message to a national platform, leading to 14 years of battle over federal testing and accountability programs that other organization leaders thought extremely stressful but which Houston considered exciting.

In his early days as a professional, Houston believed AASA was something out of a different generation, not for a 1960s kid on the move like himself. He and Green had been told at Harvard that if they wanted to be superintendents, they ought to join the association. They sent in their membership dues and then went down to the annual conference, that year in Atlantic City, N.J., to see for themselves. They both had long hair. They were wearing the long leather overcoats favored by the 1970s film character John Shaft. They arrived just as one of the general sessions was ending. Long lines of men filed out of the room, all dressed in dress shirts and ties.

“They all looked exactly alike and none of them looked like us,” Houston says. To Green he said that day, “This is our profession?” But the next year he received an AASA graduate scholarship to attend the national conference. He realized the association was a great way to learn, to network with colleagues and to have discussions about big issues that he loved. After that, he missed only one national conference. He became a familiar face for hundreds of other administrators around the country.

Jerry Sellentin, who retired last year as executive director of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators, says when Houston took over the national association he often reminded his members he had two rules: (1) provide outstanding service and programs for members and the profession, and (2) see rule 1.

“Paul has been a leader of leaders,” Sellentin says. “He was an advocate who spoke out on issues. His message was to the point, but at the same time well organized, as when AASA became the first education association to speak out against No Child Left Behind. His written communications were interesting and often entertaining as he told a story or gave an example to emphasize the message.”

Houston always was solicitous of the state affiliates. “He often reminded state executive directors that ‘we are a stronger force working together than going our separate ways,’” Sellentin says. He went to as many state conferences as he could, including four of Sellentin’s, often as the invited keynote speaker.

Houston also kept in touch with other national organizations struggling with the same issues. Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, says she often spoke with Houston in front of joint audiences of superintendents and school board members. They typically would poke fun at each other and themselves and see the smiles of their listeners. Audience members often told Bryant “they found the honesty and the positive criticism of boards’ and superintendents’ inappropriate behaviors refreshing.”

A Willing Confidante
Educators who were pioneering ways to raise achievement among disadvantaged children found reason to forge unusually strong bonds with the free-thinking Houston.

“I could tell from the first conversation I ever had with Paul that he and I were a lot alike,” says Bill Milliken, a co-founder of the Alexandria-based Communities In Schools that works on reducing student dropouts. “We’re both right-brain people, thinking metaphorically and holistically. And as I learned more about his life story, I discovered that both of us had been labeled ‘slow’ when we were kids. Neither of us would have been a good bet for adult success. Caring adults made the difference in each of our young lives, helping us believe in ourselves and reject the negative labeling.”

New superintendents wrestling with their big jobs for the first time found Houston to be a helpful listener and friend. Tom Trigg was in his first year as superintendent of the Blue Valley, Kan., schools in 2004-05. Houston emphasized one point with Trigg. “His insistence on setting aside time to reflect and concentrate on the big picture was the most difficult for me,” Trigg says. “I had always been a person who liked to get things done and then move on to the next project. But by adding the reflection piece in my weekly activities, I have been able to see decisions and accomplishments in an entirely new light. He also required me to slow down and read more.”

A 5-Point Solution for What Ails NCLB

In his back-page commentary for the May 17, 2007, issue of Education Week, Paul Houston offered one of his last major critiques of the No Child Left Behind Act.

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Much of what Houston has written in the last several years is about No Child Left Behind, the watershed issue of his tenure as executive director. AASA was the bipartisan bill’s most significant opponent before it passed seven years ago, drawing considerable ire from the U.S. Department of Education and leading to lukewarm relationships with the last two secretaries of education. Other organizations have moved in Houston’s direction since, which to him is not so much vindication as it is a way to enrich the conversation and to find some common ground.

In his May 17, 2007, Education Week commentary, which read like a farewell address on the issue that had become so much a part of his working life of late, Houston summed up what he labeled the “Seven Deadly Sins” of the federal law: (1) assuming the education system is broken when most schools do well; (2) conflating test results with student achievement; (3) overlooking the drag of poverty on schools doing their best; (4) coercing teachers to drill students for the tests; (5) being too complicated; (6) ignoring the advice of education experts; and (7) failing to meas-ure our achievement against the rest of the world.

He finished with one more appeal for common sense and common purpose. “How can we sustain our creativity while paring down our education to a stimulus-response system of learning that reduces knowledge to a series of test bubbles and communicates to children that what is on the test is the only thing worth learning?” he asked. “The great danger we face is that, in our rush to build skills, we undermine our wisdom. Then we will all be left behind.”

Jay Mathews is an education writer and columnist with The Washington Post. E-mail: mathewsj@washpost.com