On Friday, teachers at the combined campus of Cage Elementary and Chrysalis Middle schools in Houston's east end were called to a mandatory after-school meeting.
Both schools face sweeping reforms under the New Education System (NES) implemented by state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles.
In the meeting, Central Division superintendent Luz Martinez told teachers they had failed to implement the reforms with full fidelity and should expect new "support" staffers in their classrooms "all the time."
"I understand that since we started this school year, there has been some turmoil," Martinez told them. "I understand that it may not have been what you would have expected. But it is what it is, and we are NES-aligned. That is not changing. We are not going back. We are not compromising. We will be NES-aligned."
"NES-aligned" means that the principal chose to participate in the reform program this year. There are 57 NES-aligned schools this year, in addition to the 28 schools that were forced to adopt the changes. Some of the campuses, like Cage and Chrysalis, were swept up by the reforms even though the Texas Education Agency awarded them an A-rating in the state accountability system.
The NES model includes tightly scripted lessons, student-engagement strategies every four minutes and timed quizzes at the end of each class. Staffers were told to affirm their commitment to the reforms or to request a transfer by the end of the weekend. Two teachers who asked questions during the meeting were told they will be fired for alleged "insubordination."
The meeting came as the state-appointed leader of Houston ISD emphasized the message that teaching in a "high-performance culture" is "a choice." The subtext: the reforms will proceed, and staffers who don't like it should leave.
Parents protest — ‘We don't want this anymore'
Monday morning, about thirty community members protested outside Cage and Chrysalis.
Before heading to class, seventh-grader Jayden Peña and her brother, Jacob, said school this year is "boring."
"It feels like they're reading from scripts whenever they're teaching us, and it's hard for them because they can't even teach the way they want to teach," Jayden said.
"All we’ve been doing is just writing on paper — paperwork and whiteboards," Jacob said, adding that it's hard to focus because his class has more than 30 students in it and administrators continually walk through the rooms.
"Almost every day we have some people just watching, and then they’ll leave after a little bit," Jayden said.
Their mom, Mayra Lemus, said she doesn't feel heard by the new state-appointed leadership.
"If we have to protest every day, let’s protest every day," Lemus said. "We don’t want this anymore."
Houston ISD hasn't commented on the Cage and Chrysalis situation. But a week before that meeting, division superintendent Luz Martinez sat for interviews with reporters.
At the time, she said most teachers in the reformed schools were handling the changes well.
"No matter what you do, you're always gonna have people who go with it and people who don't," she said, adding that administrators were working to give "passion and purpose" to the "naysayers or the nonbelievers."
In the eyes of the administration, these changes are critical to close the achievement gap between affluent and working-class communities.
"Particularly with our Black and brown students," Martinez said. "All students should have the ability to receive the highest quality education possible, and it is our moral imperative as educators to ensure that they get it."
Turnover is expected to continue because of the reforms. It's not the first time that's happened in Houston ISD
Staff turnover isn't just a side effect of the reforms. It's foundational.
When Miles got into town, he announced that at 28 schools, every educator would have to reapply for their jobs. Those schools include Kashmere, Wheatley and North Forest high schools, as well as their feeder patterns.
According to staff rosters we obtained, about one in every three staffers did not return to Wheatley. More than two out of every five didn't come back to Kashmere, and nearly half left North Forest. That's actually an improvement for Wheatley, which has seen significant turnover over the years due to continual turnaround efforts, but it's a slight increase for North Forest and more than a doubling in the turnover rate for Kashmere.
It's not the first time Houston has seen forced turnover as a strategy in a new superintendent's reform program. 14 years ago, Terry Grier arrived in Houston.
"People don’t like to hear this, but this whole idea around culture is so much more important," Grier told Houston Public Media in a recent interview.
As part of his Apollo 20 reform program, the administration replaced all the principals and shuffled about 40% of the teaching staff in twenty schools that were struggling to meet state standards.
By 2013, the state education commissioner had praised the program — and he chose Houston ISD to absorb the struggling North Forest school district in northeast Houston. None of the North Forest teachers were allowed to remain at their campuses — if rehired, they had to transfer. Ultimately, only 74 of about 500 North Forest ISD teachers were rehired.
"Even the good teachers had got great results, if they stayed in those schools they were so tied to the way we used to do things," Grier said. "Transformation — that's what we were doing, and what Mike’s trying to do in those schools. It's transformation. It’s not trying to tweak a little of this or tweak a little that. You’re trying to change how that entire school operates."
Grier said it worked — the achievement gap narrowed in math and reading for certain grade levels, although not every school in the program actually met state standards.
Critically, the reforms included "double doses" of whatever subject students were behind in — basically an extra remedial class — as well as tutoring sessions in certain grade levels. That's similar to the New Education System model for differentiated instruction, which splits students into groups at the end of each class depending on how they do on a quiz. If they do poorly, they immediately receive extra instruction.
In 2016 as Grier was leaving the district, Hany Khalil, who worked at Lee High School (now known as Wisdom High), questioned whether the turnover was necessary.
"We learned — of course, no surprise — that tutoring helps," Khalil said. "But we’ve known that for a long time. We didn’t have to fire half the teachers, get rid of administrators, increase the turnover at all these schools to figure out that tutoring works."
Houston ISD ramps up ‘high-performance culture' messaging
State-appointed superintendent Mike Miles is now implementing an even more sweeping reform plan — and his administration is also forcing out teachers who don't want to participate in what he calls "high-quality instruction."
Steve Amstutz was a longtime Houston ISD principal and now consults with the nonprofit Institute for Research and Reform in Education. He's skeptical of the current reform program and argues the high expectations for teachers should also apply to the administration.
"He’s talking about high-quality instructors, but that’s not the only thing he’s putting in play, right," Amstutz said. "So, almost all of that curriculum and those lessons are now being written centrally. So, that’s the next piece — a high-quality teacher who has high-quality materials."
And the quality of the materials remains an open question.
Maria Benzon, a math teacher who worked at Sugar Grove Academy, spoke during public comment at a recent board meeting.
"There are errors in the math curriculum and updates are not timely or communicated clearly. In other classes, unit assessments are missing," Benzon said. "Our learners deserve high-quality instruction. We at Sugar Grove are doing the best we can, Mr. Miles. We need you to do better."
Benzon is no longer in the classroom. The administration pulled her from Sugar Grove on Friday.
In a video posted to X (formerly known as Twitter) on Tuesday, Miles asserted that "high-performance culture starts with a choice."
"In a school organization that's a high-performance culture, teachers choose to be in that culture — or not," he said. "It's kind of like the NES schools. There are a lot of teaching jobs out there — not just in HISD, but elsewhere — and if you really don't like the NES schools, that's okay. It's understandable, it's not for everybody. So, choose."
The video was one in a week-long series focused on "high-performance culture."
"What's not okay is to have your own personal culture that goes against the broader culture, and then you undermine it because you haven't made the right choice for you," he continued. "We're gonna have a lot of choices in the next year or two."