July 14 is the final day for Houston ISD teachers to resign without facing a potential one-year suspension of their teaching certification.
Educators in the state's largest public school system have tough choices to make. More than a third of the district — 85 campuses — face sweeping reforms under state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles' New Education System (NES).
The changes include more instruction time, cameras in classrooms to assist with discipline, stringent educator evaluations based largely on standardized test scores, and a revamped staffing model that treats teachers as "surgeons" in what Miles calls "the hospital model."
"What do we expect the doctor to do? We expect them to do the surgery really well," Miles said, speaking Thursday evening at Marshall Middle on Houston's Northside. "What do we expect teachers to do? We expect them to be great instructors."
28 schools — consisting primarily of Wheatley, Kashmere and North Forest high schools, as well as the elementary and middle schools that feed into them — were forced to participate in the system, and all campus staffers had to reapply for their jobs. This week, 57 other campuses opted in. Staff at the additional schools didn't have to reapply.
One administrator at a school that chose to participate called the decision "extremely difficult."
"The class sizes are going to be extremely small," said the campus administrator, who requested anonymity. "It's a lot of money. I didn’t fully realize that by opting into NES, you get so much more money."
The smaller class sizes were a primary reason the administrator opted into the program.
The administrator was also drawn to the streamlined administrative system. Houston ISD has been "decentralized" for many years, with principals acting as captains of their own ships. At NES schools, principals won't have to worry as much about budgeting and other bureaucratic tasks.
"We’re gonna centralize it, and it makes sense," the administrator said. "The way they’re structuring it, there’s so many things they’re taking off of our principals' plate to where you have to focus on instruction."
But they have mixed feelings about the premade lesson plans.
Many teachers create lessons with two things in mind: individualization and internalization. Basically, they tailor lessons to serve the unique needs of students in their class, and the process of crafting lessons helps teachers themselves understand the material so they can more effectively teach it.
"They're teaching themselves the content to understand it, so they’re taking a deeper dive," the administrator explained. "My concern or my wondering is, what does the internalization process look like for the teacher? Because walking in the door and a lesson plan is already created for you, where does the deep thinking come from to make sure it is still reflective of you, of your personality?"
One teacher at an NES school, who requested anonymity, called the premade lesson plans "disrespectful."
"We're professionals, and making lessons are part of our job," they said. "This is hurting us and our students, not helping. These people don't know our kids like we do."
The reforms have prompted many teachers to seek other assignments in the district, adding turmoil to schools already undergoing changes with a little over a month until the year starts.
This week, principals from Sharpstown, Yates and Worthing High Schools were reassigned. None of them responded to requests for comment. The reassignment directly overrides a January decision by the elected school board to keep Yates principal Tiffany Guillory in place at Yates, after the previous administration's attempt to remove her sparked community protests.
Miles' declined to comment on individual cases.
"I don’t want to talk about any one principal," he told reporters at a press conference after the family engagement event at Marshall. "But what I tell you is this: One of the things we have to do is make sure we have the most effective principals."
An educator at Sharpstown described former principal Dan De León as well-liked and said teachers there feel discouraged.
"Everybody’s worried," said the teacher, who requested anonymity. "Some people are leaving. Some people are thinking about leaving."
The principals of Yates and Worthing had voluntarily opted into the NES program shortly before being reassigned. Sharpstown did not opt in, but the school is likely to be reformed as Miles expands the NES system to include 150 schools in the coming years.
The Sharpstown teacher is skeptical of the changes — especially when it comes to discipline measures. The NES schools will have cameras in classrooms, and disruptive students will be pulled into a "team center," where they can watch class from a distance.
"I’m afraid when we have people from the state swooping in, it’s going to change the climate," they said. "Because school isn’t just about learning ‘A-B-C, 1-2-3.' It’s everything. These kids spend five days a week, almost 10 months out of the year at school. So, it is an environment that we want to be rich and cultural — not just sitting at a computer learning."
The NES reforms aren't cheap. The price tag for the first 28 schools was $20 million, which was balanced by cutting more than 500 positions from the Houston ISD Central Office in recent days. The NES program is now three times larger, and Miles said he expects to present updated cost estimates to the state-appointed Board of Managers in August.
He also said Houston ISD is overdue for a bond package. The last voter-approved, $1.89 billion bond was passed in 2012.
"Every district of this size should be passing a bond every five, six years," Miles said. "We have not only 273 schools, we got all these other facilities to support kids. So yeah, we need a bond passed in HISD."
Miles said he would advocate for a large bond package on the November 2024 ballot to fund building renovations and expanded programs for students.