Rushed & Confused, HISD Trustees Bend to TEA Demands with STAAR-Centered Goals for District

This past Saturday, I attended a special workshop of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) Board of Trustees held at Sterling High School. This workshop was convened because HISD is one of eleven school districts in the state which failed to receive approval of its campus improvement plans by the Texas Education Agency (TEA). In HISD’s case, it had to submit turnaround plans for seven campuses. Here’s more background about the TEA process which ends with “further sanctions, including campus closure or placement of a board of managers over the district.”

The stakes are high.

In October, TEA Commissioner Morath declined to approve HISD’s plans for the seven campuses with a letter notifying the Board of Trustees that he had “several concerns” with the plans and would therefore be unable to approve them. The HISD Board replied to Commissioner Morath on October 25 that, in part, “we ask that you provide us with specific concerns that TEA may have with the plans for these seven schools, so that we may begin considering how to make any appropriate adjustments in a way that will cause the least disruption during the school year.”

It is unclear whether Commissioner Morath responded to this request. What is clear is that the HISD Board is now undergoing “agency-directed governance training.” 

From Saturday’s meeting, it also appears the Board has been ordered to take other actions, such as writing goals for the district and developing the superintendent’s evaluation metrics. Setting goals aren't unusual for school boards, but the specificity by which the TEA is telling the board how to define those goals is shocking.

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Media coverage of the TEA letters that initiated this process merely focused on the TEA’s order for a two-day board training for the targeted districts. In reality, the TEA has outlined a comprehensive, continuous improvement process which is significantly more extensive than simple training. (See page 51 of the workshop manual for an outline of the two-year timeline.) The TEA has set objectives for the Trustees to meet within certain time periods over the next two years, with the looming threat of state intervention should they fail.

It’s now clear that the Texas Education Agency intends to be the primary driver of the HISD School Board’s direction. 

On Saturday, Trustees expressed that they didn’t know how the process was going to work or what was in their future. They only seemed clear on the fact that they had to “earn points.” To answer their questions, they turned to the workshop facilitator, a TEA-approved consultant who had no answers for them, either.

The TEA-approved consultant leading the workshop was Willis Mackey, a TEA contractor—who is a retired superintendent of a 22,000-student, $216 million/year district near San Antonio (roughly 1/10 the the size of HISD). He has launched a company with his former deputy and travels the state providing training for school boards and school personnel. 

He began the workshop by presenting the primary problems he identified at Kashmere and Worthing high schools following a short, one-day visit to each school. His top recommendation for these schools was significant professional development, a service his company just happens to provide. 

Alarmingly, Dr. Mackey's PowerPoint slides and handouts were riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, so much so that they were a comical distraction. One would think that given the seriousness of this training and the threats leveraged by the TEA, that he would have taken more care with his presentation.

So it was against this backdrop that the Board began attempting to draft their goals. For any readers with any experience in special education, you’ll understand what I mean when I say it was like watching trustees (many with no professional experience in education) attempt to draft an IEP for the entire school district. 

Via the consultant, trustees were given narrow constraints by TEA: the goals had to be 3-5 in number (“though the TEA prefers three,” he said) and must explicitly address student outcomes. So, for instance, a goal to put libraries in all schools would be deemed unacceptable from TEA’s perspective, because it doesn’t explicitly address “student outcomes.” 

The goals the Board sets are critical, because they form the metrics for the superintendent’s evaluation and therefore set the tone for the entire district’s management culture.

After a couple of hours of discussion, here are the goals they developed:

And these aren’t even the final goals because the Board of Trustees agreed to let the administration “tweak” the goals, meaning we don’t yet know how they will be changed or if they will even be presented to the Board again before being sent to the TEA for approval. 

As a whole, these goals are effectively no different from the test-centric focus of Terry Grier’s administration. This is not a different direction, and it will continue to put pressure on schools to focus purely on standardized tests. Furthermore, these goals were authored, discussed and approved by the board with ZERO public input.

These goals are a step backwards for Houston ISD.

Some of the most difficult moments to witness during the workshop were points when Board members would raise important discussion points, for example, the distinction between “underperforming” vs. “underserved” schools, only to be shut down each time by the superintendent and Dr. Mackey who deemed it a “values and vision discussion” that could happen later. 

We heard over and over again from the TEA consultant that one of the biggest warnings the TEA had given the Board is that they are not focusing enough on student outcomes, i.e. STAAR scores. The topics of discussion at board meetings will even be under scrutiny by the TEA over the next two years, as the percentage of minutes devoted to “student outcomes” and “accountability” will factor into how many “points” the trustees will earn.

Which brings us to one of our biggest critiques of the process: the Board’s backwards, reactionary approach. 

For many months, it has been obvious that this Board needed to hammer out its values and vision as the board has been divided on many important issues within the past year and several Board members have stated it is time to revisit the values and vision of the district (which hasn’t been done since 2010). Instead of doing that hard work first, they waited until they were under pressure from TEA to simply “check a box” and hastily adopt organizational goals that set the course of the superintendent and district for the next two to three years. 

These draft goals do not serve the students of HISD. There is no mention of art, music, physical education or the essence of the “whole child” that Mr. Carranza emphasized during his speaking tour. There is no mention of special education outcomes for which the district and TEA have come under intense scrutiny as evidence of denying federally protected services has come to light. Furthermore, there was little discussion of poverty, budgeting or resources. No one spoke of any standards or goals beyond state mandates.

The children of Houston need a school district less focused on the STAAR. Less focused on what the TEA wants to hear and more focused on what our kids actually need

For the first time in many years, we have a progressive Board of Trustees who trust teachers to do their jobs, who want to invest in the arts and other evidence-based programs to educate the whole child and rely less on standardized testing as the primary measure of success.

However, it seems that many of those values walked out the door last Saturday when the TEA consultant walked in. 

I understand the state’s interest in fixing “failing” schools, which is the impetus and justification for this process. However, when a school’s likelihood of “failing” under the state accountability system is most highly correlated with poverty (even more so under Texas’ new A-F rating system), it becomes apparent that this whole model is based on a flawed assumption: that teachers and administrators are the problem. These seven schools in Houston are “failing” because they have high numbers of students with poverty. More testing will not fix poverty, but closing neighborhood schools, firing veteran teachers and taking away funding for music, art and PE will certainly maximize its effects in public schools.

We need the Board to be bold enough to stand up and fight the TEA. 

The agency itself isn’t even taking this process seriously as evidenced by the ineptitude of the consultant dispatched to HISD. The prospect of the TEA taking over our district and doing a better job is ludicrous, and contrary to our democracy.

For all of these reasons, and above all, for the sake of students of HISD, I am calling on the Board of Trustees to refuse to engage in the TEA's ridiculous “continuous improvement” process any further. Just as many of them advocated resisting paying recapture in the state's school finance system, we challenge the Board of Trustees to fight the state’s control over our school board and its right to set local education policy. We challenge our trustees to fight the TEA with the district’s substantial legal war chest and call on its constituents to rise up against this gross overreach by the state. 

We challenge on our trustees to lead, not follow.