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On its 50th anniversary, the Houston teachers’ union is growing — and fighting back against Mike Miles’ reforms

The Houston Federation of Teachers celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. But after the Texas Education Agency replaced district leadership, and the new superintendent unveiled a sweeping reform program, what would usually be a year of celebration has turned into months of protests. 

Houston Federation of Teachers office
Dominic Anthony Walsh/Houston Public Media
The office for the Houston Federation of Teachers, the union for HISD teachers.

Andy Dewey has been with the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT) for more than four of its five decades. From the labor stronghold of Buffalo, New York, he's a lifelong unionist.

"To be a unionist means that you are using your individual voice to add to however many others are right to make improvements over your — not just wages, hours and working conditions — but over your profession as well," Dewey said. "It's about the integrity of the profession."

In Texas, teachers' unions can't collectively bargain for a contract or go on strike. They can "consult" with district leadership about district policymaking, but in August, the state-appointed leaders of Houston ISD removed HFT as the primary voice for the district's teachers — even as the union grew by 10 percent in the wake of the takeover to more than 6,000 members, representing over half the district's teachers. But the loss of consultation and the state's antagonistic policies towards teachers' unions haven't stopped HFT from fighting back.

Since 1973, the union has pushed back on policies they see as unfair through formal grievances and, sometimes, court challenges.

"This was just the way we had to progress, to slowly — I don’t want to say chip away at the authority of the school district; the school district's administration has authority — but to try to include the employees in some of the decisions that they made," Dewey said.

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The struggle against top-down district leadership continues, this time over some of the reforms implemented by state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles. HFT has filed a steady stream of grievances against various new policies, like strict new bathroom rules for students that teachers are expected to enforce, as well as an open-door rule for classrooms, which was found to clash with safety regulations in certain schools. But HFT's biggest win so far came just after the start of class, when a legal challenge undercut a key pillar of Miles' reform plan — for now.

HFT holds off ‘pay-for-performance' system

HFT president Jackie Anderson
Dominic Anthony Walsh/Houston Public Media
HFT president Jackie Anderson and HFT secretary-treasurer Andy Dewey at the HTF office.

Miles wants to base teacher salaries on student test scores and performance evaluations, rather than years of experience. The union is highly critical of the way he evaluates teacher performance.

"It's being used to critique and document teachers to fire them," Dewey argued. "He doesn’t want effective teachers. He wants compliant teachers."

The original plan called for a forced distribution, with two out of every five teachers ranked as "less than proficient." 3% would be deemed "unsatisfactory" and fired.

"What we have in education today is a situation where almost 97% of all teachers in America are proficient," Miles said. "We know that’s probably not accurate."

In a July interview, when Houston Public Media first published details of the new pay-for-performance plan, Miles said he wants to elevate the most important things — like student test scores and whether teachers adhere to his instructional model.

"Any organization, including a school or district that wants to maximize its effectiveness, has to align its compensation plan with what it values," Miles argued. "And so we value high achievement, we value strong instructional practice ... We value several key things, and people should be compensated for that — for the value that they bring."

The new evaluation system is on hold, for now, after the union won a temporary restraining order and the district backtracked. In court, HFT argued that Miles didn't consult with teachers before unveiling the system — which, according to records we obtained, Miles designed before he even arrived in Houston. The district still plans to implement a new evaluation system by the 2025-26 school year — but Central Office now promises to seek "rigorous" input from community members and teachers.

The disagreement over how teachers are evaluated highlights a key difference in perspectives. Miles thinks years of experience, education and certification aren't as important as the ability to deliver what he calls "high-quality instruction" — and he thinks too many teachers are currently evaluated as "effective."

"Why would you doubt that you have effective teachers?" asked union president Jackie Anderson. "When they have gone to school, when they have become certified educators, when they master their craft ... Why is that doubtful in an education arena?"

Unions push back on standardized testing as a driver of policy-making

For his part, Miles points to test scores — showing two out of every five students aren't meeting grade-level standards, as well as a steady achievement gap between Black and Latino students and their white peers — as evidence that instruction has been ineffective.

"Our proficiency is low, the gap hasn’t changed in 25 years," Miles said at a recent press conference about state accountability scores. "And that’s why we’re spending the time on the quality of instruction ... We know effective teachers are the most important variable."

For Dewey, standardized tests are more a reflection of social inequality than ineffective teachers.

"Every educator knows (standardized testing) doesn’t mean a thing about how well educated the child is," Dewey said. "It’s not a test taken in one hour of one school year. Education happens over the course of the child’s life, from the time they’re in pre-K through the time they graduate."

But the state-appointed board of managers have set ambitious test score gains as their top goals. The targets are unprecedented in the long run — a 15 percent increase in the number of third graders meeting grade-level standards, as well as cutting the achievement gap almost in half, over the next five years — and they see a clear path forward.

"Student outcomes don’t change until adult behaviors change," board consultant Ashley Paz told the state-appointed managers in a November meeting. "The board has a responsibility to set targets that are going to challenge the district to change adult behaviors."

For Anderson, the way this approach talks about "adult behaviors" and "student outcomes" doesn't make sense. The approach calls for more accountability for teachers, who she worries will feel unsupported and unvalued.

"The teacher's working condition is the student’s learning condition," she said. "I’ve said to Mr. Miles when we’ve had conversations that teachers have to be healthy — emotionally, physically, mentally. And if that doesn’t happen, you’re not going to get good student outcomes."

This linking of students and teachers is foundational messaging for the modern labor movement in public ed.

"One of the things that teachers' unions have done really effectively in the last decade is position themselves as bargaining for the common good, and as bargaining for the best interests of young people," said Jack Schneider, an education professor at UMass Amherst.

That "common good" includes union advocacy for stronger social welfare policies that would help students outside the classroom, like healthcare and housing, in response to the reform-minded focus on student test scores and teacher accountability.

"The primary determinant of students’ standardized test scores is what happens outside of the classroom," Schneider said. "Now, if you are willing to put up those blinders and say, ‘We’re going to ignore everything that happens outside of schools,' then sure, maybe it makes sense to take over schools with low standardized test score performance. But that really is going to involve a level of denial of reality that I think is pretty shocking to people who have been paying attention for the last couple of decades, including teachers."

HFT leaders have mixed feelings about the membership growth. They expect the reform program to drive away a lot of HISD's 11,000 teachers, including many of the union’s 6,000 members.

"What Miles gave us in the fall with angry members and scared members, he’s going to take away from us with members leaving the district," Dewey said. "That's what we're afraid of, but we'll survive as a union."