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Houston Independent School District
Philanthropist Eli Broad, left, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, right, congratulate Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier after announcing that Houston is the winner of the 2013 Broad Prize for Urban Education. (Photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision for The Broad Foundation/AP Images)

Houston has long been a darling of education reformers with its extensive and deeply rooted charter school network and experimentation with controversial ideas like merit pay for teachers. Still, the city’s efforts to shake up its education system tend to get less notice than places like New Orleans or Washington, D.C., where reforms have led to heated and sometimes vitriolic debates about the role of teachers unions, charter schools and accountability for teachers.

Houston is getting more attention lately, though, both good and bad, for its long-running reform agenda. One of its main local charter school networks is about to go national, and it just won its second Broad Prize at a ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday after winning in the prize’s first year in 2002.

The Broad Prize recognizes advances made in student achievement in urban school districts. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan presented the prize, which will pay for $550,000 in college scholarship money for Houston students.

Headed by Superintendent Terry Grier since 2009, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) serves over 200,000 students. Nearly 90 percent are African American or Latino and 80 percent are low-income.

HISD has the highest SAT participation rate among urban districts, according to the press release announcing the prize. The percent of Latino and African-American students who take the test is especially high. In 2012, 87 percent of Houston’s students participated in the SAT, and 84 percent of Latino and 80 percent of African-American students took the exam.

Duncan praised Grier for “making tough choices,” including holding teachers accountable through a tiered evaluation system based on student test scores that has awarded teachers at the high-end as much over $136 million in bonuses while providing those in the low tier “growth plans” on how to improve. (A 2012 report by the National Council on Quality Teachers, a pro-accountability research group based in Washington D.C., gave the state of Texas overall a low rating for not providing adequate teacher training and because state data systems do not have the capacity to provide evidence of teacher effectiveness.)

Houston won the Broad Prize in 2002 for making significant increases in student achievement in all grades from elementary to high school, and also because it narrowed the achievement gap between ethnic minorities, something it was recognized for again this year.

Eli Broad, co-founder of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, said that public schools tended to receive negative attention in the media, but that this was an occasion “to put all of that aside and focus on the positives.”

Last year, the Miami-Dade public schools system won the prize mainly because of its success in increasing the graduation rate by 5.6 percent in one year, to nearly 78 percent in 2011.

The three runners-up this year will each receive $150,000 in scholarship money. San Diego Unified School District and Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina were both first-time finalists. The Corona-Norco Unified School District in California had been nominated in the previous year as well.

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