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Houston ISD parents, students weigh expansion of New Education System with mixed feelings despite ‘encouraging’ test gains

24 Houston ISD schools have the option to apply for the New Education System, the sweeping reform program created by state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles. By August, NES could expand to, at most, 125 schools — almost half the district. 

HISD Mike Miles
Dominic Anthony Walsh/Houston Public Media
Houston ISD superintendent Mike Miles speaks during a community engagement event.

At Love Elementary in the Heights area of Houston's Northside, parents filled the cafeteria on Thursday, Jan. 25 to hear administrators pitch the New Education System (NES). Love is among 24 Houston ISD campuses that would have performed poorly on the Texas Education Agency's revamped accountability system and now have the option to apply for the NES reform program — but most folks at Love weren't very interested in the pitch.

"It was very clear that 99.9% of the parents wanted to keep this school the way that it is," said Pablo Lambea, parent of a Love Elementary first grader, arguing that "NES is eliminating basically any human element from the classroom and only teaching towards the test results."

Several parents invited Houston Public Media to a second NES information meeting on Feb. 1, but the district denied access. A Houston ISD spokesperson wrote that "these are meetings for the school community and are not open to the press." The first meeting at Love Elementary was recorded and can be viewed at this link.

How will the schools be chosen?

No more than 14 of the 24 NES-eligible schools will be allowed to join the program, according to state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles. An additional 26 campuses that would have performed even worse on the state accountability system will be forced to enter the reform model. By August, NES could expand to, at most, 125 schools — almost half the district.

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Houston ISD calculated how campuses would have performed on the TEA's accountability system because the A-F ratings are currently held up in court. More than 100 other school districts sued the TEA over the stringent revamp — which would have bumped the number of Houston ISD schools that fell short of state standards from less than 10 in 2021-22 to more than 110 last year — and a state judge blocked the release of the ratings for now.

"While it’s held up in court, we have the raw data," Miles explained. "We had the methodology, so it seemed a good way to determine the effectiveness of our schools. We don’t have to just use the accountability ratings. I think if you’ve been looking closely at the achievement data in the district, it has been declining for several years, so this just punctuates the academic decline."

Love Elementary's rating, previously an A, would have plummeted to a D according to the district analysis.

"I just worry that implementing this (NES) model will discourage people from staying here or coming here," said parent Jessica Yanez. "I would be nervous that teachers would leave, and I think it would just kind of tear apart this fabric that we have. I think that’s a piece that can’t be measured with data, just kind of the general, you know, good feeling that we have at the school and the happiness factor that kids have coming here."

In a video of the Feb. 1 meeting, Pablo Lambea asked Central Division Superintendent Luz Martinez, "If we have a majority of the parents not wanting to join NES, and that’s what our principal submits, can we get a commitment that you will honor that and we will not be made NES?"

Martinez said campus principals were expected to meet, share information with parents and teachers, listen to "their feelings, their fears, their anxieties," and make a decision that reflects the "sentiments of the communities."

"Our intent is not to force NES on this community," she concluded.

Campus principals at the 24 NES-eligible schools have until Feb. 7 to gather community feedback through a survey and submit their decision to the district. Houston ISD administrators plan to select up to 14 schools by Feb. 9.

Current NES students continue to express mixed feelings

Two student roundtables last week featured very different perspectives from current NES students.

At the first roundtable, moderated by state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles, students praised the increased discipline and more controlled learning environment, as well as the district-mandated model of classroom instruction.

"It’s not just old school where, you know, we used to just raise our hands and the teacher picks on us," said Madison Woods from Lawson Middle School. "It’s more interactive, where we get to move around and conversate with our peers to comprehend more of the lesson that she has taught."

At the second discussion in the Third Ward, led by students, Sterling High School student Maria Mendez said the tightly controlled approach to discipline and the increased workload are taking a toll.

"Our students are struggling mentally, but none of you see it," Mendez said.

Other NES students have expressed similar conflicting perspectives over the past few months — from optimism about the reforms to frustration with increased teacher turnover and the non-stop pace of instruction.

Test results show faster growth in NES schools, but concerns linger about the highly centralized approach

After listening to the student-led roundtable in the Third Ward, newly sworn-in school board trustee Plácido Gómez said the state-appointed leaders should spend more time listening to students.

"I reject any notion that the only way to get through to students, especially students from low-income backgrounds, is to be controlling all the time," Gómez said.

He also questioned the reduction in teacher autonomy, with all NES educators — as well as many teachers at non-NES campuses — expected to use the district's centrally-created curriculum.

"One of my greatest concerns is that some of the reforms, I think, have the potential to raise the floor of instruction but also lower the ceiling when it comes to personal flair and creativity in the classroom," he said. "That’s one of my fears."

"That raising the floor piece is really, really critical because it allows students to access curriculum on grade level," said Gómez's predecessor, former trustee Judith Cruz, who is also an HISD parent and Texas Assistant Director for The Education Trust.

Houston ISD recently released an analysis of results from the NWEA MAP exam, which was administered at the beginning and middle of the school year.

Though the entire district continued to lag behind the rest of the country, students in the NES program showed more growth than students at non-NES schools in math and reading.

"That was encouraging to see those gains," Cruz said. "It was still freezing temperatures when kids showed up at school (for mid-year testing in January), and so I think folks were worried that it was a testing day. And even despite that fact, kids, particularly in NES schools, showed gains."

Pointing to the fact that only about 1 out of every 5 third graders at NES schools previously met grade-level expectations on reading exams, Cruz said she has "a hard time believing we were raising the ceiling at these campuses."

"I do believe that the ceiling and the floor can both be raised in the NES model, and I wish that I could confidently say that the ceiling is raised and continues to be raised in all of our non-NES campuses," Cruz said. "I think it’s more complex than that."