by David Safier
TUSD hired a group of five consultants to help it develop a five-year strategic plan. The hiring process has earned the district two days of bad press in the Star (here and here) and put a cloud over Superintendent H.T. Sanchez's head. And rightly so. There are questions that need to be answered. Whether the cloud results in a light sprinkle or a thunderstorm remains to be seen.
I only know what I’ve read about possible conflicts of interest in the Star, so I’m not going to weigh in on that issue. But I do want to look at some problems with the consultants themselves — two in particular, Cathy Mincberg and Terry Abbott. Their backgrounds are inextricably linked to the fortunes of Rod Paige. He was the superintendent of the Houston School District who went on to be George W. Bush's Secretary of Education. During Paige's tenure in Houston, the district used deceptive practices to inflate student scores on high stakes tests. Before the problems were widely publicized, the press was marveling at the “Houston miracle.” When Paige moved to D.C. with Bush, he was instrumental in creating and promoting No Child Left Behind, based in large part on the bogus Houston model.
The two consultants are also linked to some of the heavily funded groups that form a major part of the middle-right-to-a-little-left contingent of the conservative “education reform” movement.
Education consultants bring their own agenda to the table, which often has more influence on their conclusions than the feedback they receive from the district and the community. These two consultants who promoted the failed educational policies of Rod Paige and the Bush administration (along with a third Texas educational heavy hitter on the team, Mike Moses) should not be the people advising TUSD about its future.
Whether or not there were improprieties in the hiring of the consultants, it was a botched job. TUSD should find a way to cancel the consulting contracts, then cancel the February 25 meeting with the community, after which it can restart the search for consultants using greater transparency and deeper research into the people being hired.
Here’s a look at the two most troubling members of the consulting team, Cathy Mincberg and Terry Abbott.
Cathy Mincberg, the President and CEO for the Center for Reform of School Systems, heads the consultant list. According to a 2001 article in the Houston Press written during the early days of the Bush adminstration,
Cathy is a former HISD board president who, like past trustee and then-superintendent Paige, utilized a revolving door to move from an unpaid board position to her $150,000-a-year district job.
In 2004, the New York Times reported,
Ms. Mincberg helped engineer Dr. Paige's rise to superintendent in 1994 while she was on the board and before she became a paid administrator.
Mincberg's Rod Paige connection is definitely troubling. The Paige connection with the next consultant, Terry Abbott, is even closer. He joined Paige as the Houston District’s press secretary in 1997. When Paige went to Washington with Bush in 2001, Abbott followed and became Chief of Staff at the U.S. Department of Education. He wrote,
“I was there to help Secretary Paige help the President get No Child Left Behind ready for approval by the Congress.”
By November, 2001, Abbott was Deputy Commissioner for Communications at the U.S. Social Security Administration.
There’s an abundance of articles about Mincberg and Abbott with too much information for me to include all of it. Here are a few points worth noting.
• When Mincberg was chief business officer for the Houston School District, she received Superbowl tickets from Hewlett-Packard and failed to record a trip to a technology forum paid for by HP.
• Mincberg was part of KC Distance Learning and spoke to the Gates Foundation about online learning as a disruptive (that means positive) innovation.
• The Center for Reform of School Systems (CRSS) is partly funded by the Eli Broad Foundation, which supports the conservative "education reform" agenda. CRSS conducts administrator training for the foundation. (Abbott did work for the Broad Foundation as well.)
• When Mincberg was looking at the Las Vegas Superintendent job, she gave a speech that "extolled the benefits of using a business model to operate an education system. [She] explained how the outsourcing of school food services saved millions in taxpayer dollars in the Houston Independent School District, according to people who attended the meeting."
• Mincberg spoke at the Tucson Metro Chamber's Outlook event in March, 2013. According to an article about the event, Mincberg "is a big proponent of privatizing every aspect of public education possible and actually did so in Houston, where food service and transportation were privatized. Both steps resulted in heightened efficiencies, lower costs and opportunities to move money saved in those areas to better teacher-student interaction.
"She downplayed the role of poverty and ethnic differences as reasons for student underperformance. To support her position she commented on a number of public school districts around the country that have successfully narrowed or eliminated student performance differences based on household income and ethnicity." One slide in her PowerPoint presentation stated, "Instead of doing what works, we hear many people say, 'They're poor, they come to school without breakfast," and so on. In the corner of the slide is the word "Excuses."
• As Houston Schools' spokesman, Abbott was described as "a junk-yard dog. He will stand in front of people who are shooting bullets at you." His way of dealing with the press was to feed it positive information about the district and complain about the media when it wrote anything negative. According to the Houston Press, "Abbott developed a reputation for taking hair-splitting and parsing to new heights when it came to responding to reporters."
• The Houston Press called Abbott "the masterful public relations guru for Rod Paige." It continued, "Many sources credited Abbott with presenting educators and news media around the country with such a wonderfully buffed up image of Paige that he was easily propelled not only into the top education spot but to top honors in awards given by educators."
These consultants are mired in the George Bush, No Child Left Behind past. They're not the people who should be leading the discussion about TUSD's future. The strategic planning process should be stopped and restructured before it causes the district serious damage.
(Hat tip to commenter Mike for bringing this issue and some of these sources to my attention.)