Fort Worth school district is open to reform but slow to change, report says

FORT WORTH -- A new report calls Fort Worth one of the "hotbeds" of education reform but says change is slow and hindered by politics.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute graded 30 cities on six areas to determine how open those communities are to education reform. No city earned an A, but Fort Worth earned a B and was No. 9, just behind Austin (7) and Houston (8) and ahead of Dallas (12). New Orleans was No. 1.

The report said Fort Worth is moving in the right direction with willing philanthropic and business sectors and a "fairly open-minded superintendent."

Melody Johnson, who became superintendent in 2005, has been aggressive about using data to make real-time adjustments to policies or programs, which pushed Fort Worth ahead of many others in the report, co-author Stafford Palmieri said. But she said Johnson is generally risk-averse.

"We did not hear that she was willing to break some eggs to make an omelet," Palmieri said. Johnson works more within the establishment rather than blazing her own path, Palmieri said.

"That's not entirely bad, but that does mean reforms happen at a slower pace," Palmieri said.

Johnson said it is hard for a superintendent to go into a district and make wholesale changes without considering its history and culture.

"You can do things to people or with people," Johnson said. "If you make changes with people, that progress is more incremental but it's more systemic and sustainable."

She pointed to steady increases in student passing rates on state tests in recent years, particularly in math, as a result of cooperative efforts to revamp curriculum.

The report also said that when Johnson does try bold moves, she runs up against a "bickering, irresolute school board."

Board President Ray Dickerson conceded that tensions among trustees are higher than they have been in years. While arguments have become more frequent at meetings, Dickerson said, that hasn't affected the board's efforts to improve the classroom.

"The board comes together quite cohesively when it comes to our students," he said. "We've seen significant performance increases in student achievement that are a result of curriculum changes we've worked on here."

The institute is an educational research and advocacy group that supports school choice and charter schools.

For the report, it graded cities on six areas: talent pool, financial capital for reforms, quality control of education, political environment, openness to charter schools and a district's environment. National and local representatives in areas such as charter schools, alternative certification programs and philanthropic groups were surveyed for the report.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700