Houston: The Betrayal of the Public Schools As State Attacks Democracy

Diane Ravitch writes on her blog-

The public schools of Houston are going to be taken over by the incompetent State Education Department, which has never run a school district of any size and which has failed in its previous takeover efforts.

https://dianeravitch.net/2020/01/02/houston-the-betrayal-of-the-public-schools-as-state-attacks-democracy/

The public schools of Houston are going to be taken over by the incompetent State Education Department, which has never run a school district of any size and which has failed in its previous takeover efforts.

The Houston Chronicle hailed the pending takeover, while noting that the Houston Independent School District has been acknowledged in the recent past as the best urban school district in the nation (by the disreputable Broad Institute or Academy). Its editorial saluting the takeover by the state notes that 21 of HISD’s 280 campuses received “failing grades” from the state, and one (1) school–Wheatley High School–has a persistent record of low test scores. The failure of Wheatley–which has an even higher proportion of the neediest students than the rest of the district–triggered the state takeover.  This is a district where 80% of the students are “economically disadvantaged” and many are English learners. So, of course, the state commissioner and the editorial board of the newspaper blame low test scores on the elected school board. Apparently, they believe that democracy is the culprit, not poverty.

The citizens of Houston should rise up in protest. I am a graduate of the Houston public schools. The teachers are not the same. The schools are now majority-minority. The state would not dare to pull a stunt like this in one of its majority white districts.

The state commissioner, Mike Morath, is a software developer who was never a teacher or an administrator in a public school or any school. He served on the Dallas school board, which presumably makes him an expert. Despite the high rate of poverty in HISD, the graduation rate is 81%, but in Dallas it is 88%. This is considered a disgrace for Houston, but who knows how those graduation rates were manipulated? How many were the result of a one-week online credit recovery program?

It is understandable that the rightwing governor Greg Abbott would enjoy stripping democracy from the people of Houston, who don’t vote the way he likes. It is incomprehensible that the Houston Chronicle salutes this blatant removal of democracy from the people of Houston.

Don’t they know that the most important mission of public education is to teach democracy and the skills of citizenship, not to manufacture test scores?

What lesson do they think they are teaching the students of Houston?

I hereby name Governor Greg Abbott and Commissioner Morath to this blog’s Wall of Shame. People whose names are on the Wall of Shame have trouble looking at themselves in the mirror.

HISD at a crossroads: A four-part series by the Editorial Board

Thursday Dec. 26: Time for radical improvement
Friday Dec. 27: Learning from others, and our own past
Sunday Dec. 29: Road map to transformation
Monday Dec. 30: A call to action
Tell us what you think about HISD: What works? What doesn’t? What needs to change? Please use this online form to send letters to the editor. To access the form, point your browser to https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/submit.

HISD at a crossroads: Looming state takeover presents rare opportunity [Editorial]

The Editorial Board Dec. 26, 2019 Updated: Dec. 26, 2019 9:39 a.m

 

A dark cloud has loomed over Houston ISD almost as long as Naomi Doyle-Madrid’s children have been enrolled in the district.
The nonprofit director despaired over the elimination of the arts program at the elementary school her oldest son attended — part of a round of “devastating” cuts to HISD’s magnet programs about seven years ago.
She had to slash through layers of bureaucracy to get special education services for her third-grader. She has seen school safety funds held up by red tape and shaken her head in frustration at school board squabbling and mismanagement that have brought the district to the brink of a total takeover by state education officials.
Now, as the Texas Education Agency prepares to appoint a board of managers to replace HISD’s elected trustees, Doyle-Madrid hopes crisis will turn into opportunity — and that the state intervention will serve as a wake-up call for district leaders and for everyone who cares about educating Houston’s children.
“We have to really shake up the structure in order to have any kind of relevant, effective long-term change,” she told the editorial board.
This is a defining moment for HISD which, at about 209,000 students, is the largest public school system in Texas and the seventh-largest in the country. Once regarded nationally as a leader in education reform, HISD has failed to end a cycle of low performance that has paved the way for state takeover. Among its challenges are a cluster of perpetually struggling schools, a dysfunctional board of trustees that has often placed petty politics above the needs of students, and the abrupt resignation of a superintendent.
Add to that the destructive legacy of segregation and racism, a student population where about 80 percent are economically disadvantaged and many are immigrants with limited English skills, and high teacher and principal turnover at low-performing schools.
It is a recipe for a school district sorely in need of repair. Or, as TEA Commissioner Mike Morath told the editorial board recently, “It is a story, essentially, of chronic neglect.”
HISD’s boosters, and we certain count ourselves among them, may flinch at that description of their district — still home to some of the nation’s best schools. For those in the right school zone or with the know-how to navigate magnets, HISD can deliver an excellent education. The district has an overall B rating and by some measures has improved year over year. But 21 of HISD’s 280 campuses received failing grades from the state this year, including Wheatley High School, whose seventh consecutive failure triggered a state law requiring TEA to either close the school or install a board of managers.
A pattern of inequity that harms low-income, black and Hispanic students persists across the district — as evidenced by wide achievement gaps and schools that underperform on standardized tests year after year. About one-third of elementary and middle school campuses have received at least one failing grade in the past five years under the state’s academic accountability system.
More than half of HISD students — about 117,000 — are not meeting grade-level expectations, Morath told the editorial board. Of those, the vast majority — about 104,000 — are low-income students.
In 2018, the district had an 81 percent four-year graduation rate, which is up from 64.3 percent in 2007 but still not where it should be. In Dallas, which also contends with many of the same challenges facing HISD, 88 percent of students graduated; in Fort Worth, 87 percent did. Houston cannot be OK with a system that sees 1 out of every 5 students fail to even complete high school.
Of those who do graduate, far too many HISD students are unprepared for college and the workforce. Only one-fourth of graduates enroll in college and earn an associates or bachelor’s degree within six years. Many needed remedial courses once they got to college.
The status quo simply cannot be allowed to continue. Not if we care about children. Not if we care about the future of Houston, a city hoping to produce a workforce and citizenry capable of powering one of the nation’s largest cities through the 21st century.
Not everyone agrees that a state-appointed board is the solution. At a series of community meetings in November, hundreds of parents, residents and educators spoke out in opposition to the move, saying it disenfranchises voters in mostly black and Latino district and puts a Republican-led state bureaucracy in control of local schools.
Those concerns are valid and must be taken into account by Morath. He has pledged to appoint a board that is representative of the city and to select members who “believe every child can learn.” That’s a good start, but he must also accept that even good ideas imposed by Austin without significant buy-in from the voters who pay for, and depend on, HISD will be doomed to fail. In our meeting with him earlier this month, he did not seem to have fully embraced the need to leaven with humility the extraordinary authority state lawmakers have vested in him, a sweeping power triggered by Wheatley’s failure.
But for all that, Doyle-Madrid’s optimism is well-founded. Finally, with so much at stake, the takeover will provide a means for great changes for the good. State takeovers of local districts have had a poor track record in the U.S., but we believe in Houston’s case a board of managers can serve as a springboard to revamp ineffective practices and initiate bold, innovative reforms.
If done correctly, and through close dialogue with stakeholders, nothing should be off the table. Regardless of who runs the district — a state-appointed board or an elected one — the main focus should be on meeting the needs of students by drawing from established best practices and turnaround models from other districts around the country.
District leaders should also make use of a scathing but detailed performance review of HISD conducted by the state Legislative Budget Board, which found dozens of flaws in operations, governance, education delivery and oversight, and issued 94 recommendations for change. The audit could serve as a road map for improvement.
The need for improvement is clear. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t also a lot that works well in HISD. Those programs — from wrap-around services to full-day pre-K to the district’s magnet program — should be targets for investment and expansion. Their success and the district’s overall B rating are why parents like Doyle-Madrid stick by the district. Her youngest child is in kindergarten, which she says gives her a vested interest in the long-term success of the district.
For far too long, district leaders have failed the children and parents of our community. It’s time for even HISD’s strongest defenders to recognize how urgently it must change. The state takeover presents challenges all its own, but it is also the best chance in years for the district to reinvent itself.

HISD at a crossroads: Learning from others, and our own past [Editorial]

While Houston has some of the highest performing public schools in the state and the country, the system overall is failing too many children. About 56 percent of students are not meeting grade-level expectations. That’s about 117,000 students who with each passing grade they are left further and further behind.
Even with a state takeover and the best intentions to improve the district, there is no magic formula that can work overnight. In some ways it’s the toughest job in Houston.
“It’s about getting the right teachers in front of kids,” former HISD trustee Cathy Mincberg, president of the Center for Reform of School Systems, told the editorial board. “Sounds simple, but it islike brain surgery, it is like rocket science, to learn what works with what kid.”
But as big a challenge as turning HISD around is, it’s certainly possible. In fact, school districts and states around the country have recovered from far worse positions than HISD finds itself in, and proof of that, with lessons for HISD, is as close as Texas’ second-largest district four hours to the north, and in HISD’s own storied past.
The Dallas model
The Dallas Independent School District’s improvement strategy, known as Accelerating Campus Excellence, or ACE, is based on strong leadership, incentives for highly effective teachers and a data-driven approach to education.
Under the ACE model, targeted schools were given an experienced principal with a track record of improving struggling schools. Those principals could then replace their entire staffs, if need be, with teachers who scored high on the district’s educator evaluation. Top-rated teachers could receive bonuses ranging from $6,000 to $12,000 if they worked at an ACE school.
While HISD has tried something similar to attract talent to poorly performing schools through its Apollo 20 and Achieve 180 program, it hasn’t had the success yet that Dallas has found with its ACE approach. Instead of very large investments in a small number of schools each year, Achieve 180 makes smaller investments in dozens of campuses. And while it has steered $5,000 bonus to teachers in the program, HISD does not require strong performance ratings from teachers, has seen high turnover, and failed to attract enough highly-rated educators to make an impact.
Dallas also renovated ACE campuses, invested in additional social services and extended the school day. The results: In just two years after it launched for the 2015-2016 school year, ACE students had made double-digit gains in reading and math scores and the achievement gap between minority and other students virtually disappeared.
Titche Elementary, for instance, had consistently failed state standards for more than a decade. It went from an ‘F’ rating to a ‘B’ by 2018, jumping from one of the worst campuses in the district for student progress to one of the best under Dallas’ internal School Effectiveness Indices.
All of this takes money — each ACE school costs an extra $1 million a year, and early data shows that some of the improvements fall out when the extra money was redirected. To sustain these and other reforms, Dallas-area voters approved an 13-cent tax rate increase in 2018.
But even more than additional funds, turning the district around required leadership. Though many of the reforms began under a predecessor, many credit Dallas ISD’s success to veteran superintendent Michael Hinojosa, a savvy leader and zealous advocate for the district in the community and in Austin.
“Offering reforms is one thing, implementing them is another — and you’ve got to have both,” DISD trustee Ben Mackey told The Dallas Morning News in September, when the board extended Hinojosa’s contract to 2024. “If leadership doesn’t say this is what we’re going to move forward on, it doesn’t happen.”
The kind of momentum Dallas is experiencing is something HISD has found before.
Best urban district in America
In 2002, HISD won the first-ever Broad Prize for Urban Education. The national award, which came with a $1 million prize to give scholarships to district students, recognized Houston for its student achievement and reduction in the achievement gap.
The award capped a decade of work by the trustees and superintendents to turn around a struggling district, even in the throes of political infighting, scandal and initial public disappointment. In his book, “Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools… and Winning! — Lessons from Houston,” former trustee Donald McAdams details this decade of growth and renewal.
As McAdams recounts, the district improved through reforms such as decentralization, school-improvement plans, school-based budgeting, changes in school attendance boundaries, management audits, employee performance evaluations, performance contracts for administrators, district charter schools and incentive pay for teachers.
“We once made a list of all the things we were working on, and it was, like, 99 things — and all 99 things had to happen in order for us to turn around,” said Mincberg, who was on the board from 1982 to 1995.
The leadership the district needed flowed from a joint belief by the board and the superintendent that student success had to be at the center of every decision they made
.
“There were mistakes all along the way, nothing was perfect,” Mincberg said. “But the board supported the superintendent and the superintendent supported student achievement.”
The changes made and continued efforts by stakeholders eventually netted HISD another Broad Prize in 2013, the only district to repeat the honor.
Even TEA Commissioner Mike Morath, who will hold ultimate authority over the district for several years, says HISD has plenty of strengths on which to build.
“This was an award-wining urban school system that had seen massive improvement and much of those bones are still in existence,” Morath said.
Whether HISD learns from other urban districts or finds the lost spirit that once propelled its highly praised successes, the district has turned itself around before. It can do it again.

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