Houston ISD could have a longer school year, but the process raises concerns for some community members
The state-appointed Board of Managers kicked off the process to lengthen Houston ISD's school year on Thursday, but the proposal could face opposition from an advisory committee that rejected a similar plan in 2021.
Students in Houston's public school system currently attend classes for 172 days each school year. State-appointed superintendent Mike Miles wants to start the year earlier, adding about two weeks of class.
"Kids need more days of instruction, especially at struggling campuses," Miles said. "I would put it at anywhere from 180 to 185 teacher-student contact days."
The proposal will need to clear the District Advisory Committee, which blocked a similar plan two years ago. Committee members were concerned because the process to lengthen the school year requires the designation of Houston ISD as a "district of innovation," which can allow school systems to do much more than just add instructional days.
The designation can also allow larger class sizes — with more students per teacher than normally allowed — as well as the removal of planning periods for teachers and the hiring of non-certified educators, among other changes. 965 of the approximately 1,000 districts in Texas already have the "district of innovation" designation, according to the Texas Education Agency.
"We are now the outlier in being innovative," Board Manager Cassandra Bandy argued, adding that students need additional days of instruction.
Teachers' union vice president Daniel Santos, who also sits on the District Advisory Committee that would need to approve the plan, argued the change could open a "Pandora's Box."
"There’s a number of policies that could be implemented that would be negative," Santos said. "It’s very risky and irresponsible, depending on the ideology of the board managers or superintendent."
The District Advisory Committee includes educators elected by other educators, community members appointed by the superintendent and, importantly, appointees chosen by the elected board members from each electoral district in Houston ISD.
During the August board meeting, the managers removed the requirement that board-appointed committee members represent each electoral district. Because of that change, the managers could revamp the committee with people who are less geographically representative of the entire district.
Santos said he hopes the committee, at a minimum, demands guardrails that narrow the potential policy changes and prevent an expansion of power for the appointed board and superintendent.
Pointing to the lengthy design and approval process, Miles declined to get into many specifics about the various changes allowed by the designation. He said he expects a hearing on the "district of innovation" status Thursday, September 14 at 4 p.m.
Administration switches evaluation system after union lawsuit
Changing the way teachers are evaluated and paid is a key pillar of Miles' plan for the district.
Right now, Houston ISD teachers are paid based on experience — more years in the classroom means more money in their paychecks. This model is the most common in the United States. It was introduced as a progressive reform about 100 years ago in an effort to ward off nepotism, as well as racial and gender disparities in educator pay.
Miles wants to move the district to a "pay-for-performance" model, where teacher pay is largely based on student test scores, as well as "instructional quality" as determined by monthly spot observations and adherence to the district's preferred classroom techniques, like using student-engagement strategies every four minutes. It's long been a part of his playbook, with a similar model introduced in Dallas ISD when he was superintendent there a decade ago.
Miles said the new evaluation system could impact those plans.
"So we’re going to look at that separately, and we’ll put out some information about that later," he said.
His evaluation system for educators faced legal trouble when the teachers' union sued, and a judge granted a restraining order against the implementation of the new evaluation system. The lawsuit argued the evaluation system was implemented without adequate community input, as required by state law.
The district will use a state-approved evaluation system for now, and the bedrock remains the same. It evaluates teachers largely based on student test scores and administrative spot observations.
Chris Tritico, general counsel for the Houston Federation of Teachers, argued that the change represented an acknowledgment that the union was correct. But the union will still file a grievance in an effort to prevent the re-implementation of the previous evaluation system.
"We’re still going to argue," Tritico said.
Miles' plan also called for a forced distribution that rates two out of every five teachers as less than proficient. Three percent of educators will be deemed "unsatisfactory" and fired. During a training session with teachers, Miles acknowledged the controversial nature of the forced distribution but also called it the "flux capacitor" of the entire reform plan, which hinges on preventing too many teachers from reaching the top tiers.
On Thursday, he said a forced distribution could still be on the table if too many teachers are rated highly or poorly.
"We want to make sure that it’s not too rigorous nor too lax," he said.
For many teachers, a forced distribution represents an overly punitive approach. They argue administrators will be encouraged to evaluate teachers too harshly.
"We welcome accountability," Michelle Williams, president of the Houston Education Association, told the board on Thursday. "We do not welcome sabotage."
Four-minute "multiple response strategy" protest
On Thursday, community members who were upset over a new classroom policy disrupted the board meeting.
When administrators stop by classrooms for spot observations, they'll be watching to see if teachers use an approved "multiple-response strategy" every four minutes. The techniques, like having students pair up and work through a problem, are designed to keep students engaged and check for understanding. But some teachers feel the four-minute requirement is too much.
Williams, with the Houston Education Association, said four minutes isn't enough time for a teacher to deliver information and all students to retain it.
"You can’t get it out," Williams said. "We’re talking about children who have, historically, issues with literacy. Literacy is thinking and comprehension, and it takes them longer.
She argued the four-minute mandate is an overwhelming, ineffective strategy for most students, especially those who are just learning to speak English or who require special education services.
At the board meeting, protestors pushed back. A handful of community members, including current and former teachers, set four-minute timers on their phones and allowed ringtones to blare. When board president Audrey Momanaee called the protest "inappropriate," the audience members argued that it's also not appropriate to mandate that teachers pause instruction every four minutes for assessments.
Alison Chapin was kicked out after she stood up and announced she wanted to offer the board "corrective feedback" — a reference to the evaluators who stop by classrooms and suggest changes.
Chapin, a former elementary school educator, resigned in July because she didn't want to teach under the new rules.
"It’s absolutely ridiculous," she said. "It won't work for anyone."
After the meeting, Miles said the four-minute strategy is guidance, not a strict requirement. Even though the technique is explicitly outlined in the spot observation form, he said administrators should give teachers some flexibility.
"We discourage any administrators to come in and look at a clock and say, you know, ‘You haven’t done a four-minute," he said.