In Memory of Thaddeus Lott—A Teacher Who Taught

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    The liberals have Rosie O’Donnell and the non-liberals have Stacey Dash (above)—the choice is obvious.

    Do not think about, write about or deal with  human behavior without determining the effects of incentives. It’s not their money, of course they’ll waste it.

    Wherein we see a memoriam for Thaddeus Lott, a Texas educator who achieved great results with “underprivileged” students. Lott was an early adopter of Direct Instruction. Using Direct Instruction in public education met and meets now, resistance which must be seen to be believed. Effectiveness is not cherished by civil servants.

Remembering Thaddeus Lott, the take-no-prisoners principal
A pioneer in the school choice movement. And my friend.
By Rod Paige, for the Houston Chronicle

Few may realize that Houston had a pioneering role in the school-choice movement. It was here that the state’s first cooperative charter school management organization was established 20 years ago. Leading it was a hard-driving, take-no-prisoners principal who I counted as a dear friend.

That friend, Thaddeus Lott, passed away Oct. 22. When I heard the news, the memories came flooding back — memories of his impact on the students of Mabel B. Wesley Elementary School and later, HISD’s Coalition of School Improvement, the state’s first charter schools, but also memories about his impact in Houston and Texas.

Upon his death, I remembered the situation that first brought Thaddeus to my attention. I was teaching a class on Tests and Measurements at Texas Southern University. One of my students turned in an assignment that contained a listing of school-by-school test scores from the Houston Independent School District’s most recent administration of the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills, the TABS. The district’s 168 schools were listed in order of highest average score to lowest. As I examined the assignment, I noticed that with one exception, all of the schools with predominantly white student enrollments were listed in the top half of the distribution, and all the predominantly black schools were listed in the bottom half of the distribution. The one exception was Mabel B. Wesley Elementary School, a predominantly black school serving the mostly black community of Acres Homes on the city’s northwest side. Wesley’s scores placed it in the top quarter of HISD’s schools.

This was startling, so a few days later I went out to Wesley to see for myself what was behind Wesley’s exceptional student performance. There I met the principal, Dr. Thaddeus Lott, who showed me around the school. There I saw an orderly school environment, the halls were clean and well-lighted, the walls were decorated with posters of black history and career opportunities, and the teachers were intensely focused on instruction. After the tour, he launched into a deep discussion of the fundamentals of teaching children to read. After almost two and a half hours of deep discussions about teaching and learning, touring the school and meeting teachers and students, it was clear to me that this man was special. He was a special master principal.

And so began an enduring friendship — a friendship that would see us spending many meetings over coffee discussing teaching and learning. Thaddeus was mostly a one-issue guy. Of our many meeting and discussions, I don’t recall discussing anything other than teaching and learning.

Thaddeus made his mark as an educational innovator, making his deepest impact with reading. His unconventional teaching methods gained national recognition in 1989, when his first-graders were found to be reading at the third-grade level, and his fifth-graders were working eighth-grade math problems. George W. Bush announced his first gubernatorial candidacy from Wesley while Thaddeus was principal, and Bush would later reach out to Thaddeus to craft a reading initiative for Texas schools.

His example would be instructive in today’s era of school reform, which too often seeks bells and whistles when sometimes the basics — under strict guidance — is the better recourse.

He demanded strict compliance with his "direct instruction teaching methods," which were made up of straightforward explicit teaching techniques, usually teaching specific skills in a way that was highly prescribed and allowed little teacher flexibility. It took a special kind of teacher to teach at Wesley, and Thaddeus carefully selected only teachers who could stand the heat. But the teachers who taught at Wesley had great pride in their Wesley faculty membership because they knew they were a part of something special.

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     This kind of teacher is contrasted with the standard, “worried about my union rights, putting in time until my pension kicks in, wanting more time off and higher wages” teacher produced by government employment.

In 1998, Policy Review at the Hoover Institution swooned over the miracle results Lott achieved in Houston using Direct Instructional System for Teaching and Remediation (DISTAR) system.

Thaddeus’ hard driving methods and strict teacher oversight often put him at odds with district policy and district administration — but he was not satisfied to let the children of Acres Homes off the hook academically because of their life circumstances. There was often a sense of tension between Thaddeus and district administration. When I became Superintendent of the Houston Independent School District in 1994, instead of trying to get Thaddeus "under control," I gave him freedom by establishing Wesley and two other nearby schools as a charter school coalition, and appointing Thaddeus as project director. The coalition, named the Coalition of School Improvement, became the first cooperative charter school management organization in the state of Texas.

It’s hard to accept the reality that Thaddeus is gone. But we can be comforted by the knowledge that his legacy lives on. It’s a legacy of educational excellence, with many children whose lives were made better by Thaddeus’ hard-driving teaching methods. Rest in peace, Thaddeus. You made your mark.

Rod Paige was U.S. Secretary of Education from 2001 to 2005, and is a former superintendent of Houston Independent School District.

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     Thaddeus Lott and Jaime Escalante, two outstanding educators, had two things in common. The first was their extraordinary results in teaching children who  didn’t excel in academics. The second was that their results were so extraordinary that both were investigated for cheating. Both got their results the old-fashioned way, by actually teaching. Their results met every criteria for usefulness, including the most important, reproducibility–the results held true for many different groups of students across time.

Government Job or Respect–Which’ll It Be?
Cheerio and ttfn,
Grant Coulson, Ph.D.
Author, “Power Teaching: How to Find Someone to Teach Your Child when the Education System has Failed.
Cui Bono–Cherchez les Contingencies

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