TEA head Mike Morath visits Houston ISD campuses as “New Education System” reforms expand

The Texas Commissioner of Education stopped by the state’s largest school district on Tuesday, nearly a year after he announced the takeover of Houston ISD. He toured Kashmere High School, one of the first campuses to enter the reform program. 

TEA Mike Morath
Dominic Anthony Walsh/Houston Public Media
TEA Commissioner Mike Morath meeting with media after touring HISD campuses on Tuesday, February 6, 2024.

For the first time since he announced the state takeover of the Houston Independent School District nearly a year ago, Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath visited campuses during instruction on Tuesday.

"I, of course, have visited Houston schools many times over the years, and what you can see is really a night-and-day difference in terms of the degree to which students are engaged in rigorous academic discussions," Morath said during a press conference after his visit. "It was really a holistic educational experience with joy and love and all of the zest for life that you want to see in schools."

Morath praised the "New Education System (NES)" reform program — a major part of the state-appointed administration's effort to improve student test scores. In a marked shift from HISD's previously decentralized approach, the current 85 NES campuses must use a district-approved model of instruction and centrally created curriculum. The NES program is intended to be the driving force towards ambitious, test-based goals set by his appointees, who hope to cut the gap in test scores between Black and Latino students and their white peers almost in half over the next five years.

"We can celebrate high levels of achievement in a whole host of areas, but fundamentally, one of the core duties of school is to make sure that we have an educated citizenry," he said, pointing to the importance of non-tested areas like extracurriculars and character growth. "And so we need to make sure that we do see reading, writing and math achievement in addition to growth in these other achievements."

The reforms have contributed to increased teacher turnover, mixed feelings from students facing the changes, and, in some communities, backlash from parents who aren't excited about the prospect of their schools becoming NES next year.

The centralized curriculum and staffing models remain a point of contention, with many community members speaking out against the removal of librarians and the absence of full-length books from reading classes, which Superintendent Mike Miles has said feature shorter reading passages rather than longform literature. Miles argued the curriculum represents "the best way" to teach reading and that students can read full books outside of school.

"I was in a classroom today, and the kids had full novels," Morath asserted. "So I don’t know that it’s universally true that readings are short passages. When you think about curricular design, you want to have a diversity of types of reading material that kids are exposed to."

A Houston ISD spokesperson did not immediately clarify whether students were reading passages from those novels or if the entire texts were actually part of the NES classes. Miles later clarified that NES reading curriculum doesn’t include full books until high school, when students are assigned longer texts as homework.

26 campuses, including Westbury and Sharpstown high schools, will be forced to join the reform program next year. An additional 24 schools have the option to apply to become NES by Wednesday, and the district is expected to accept up to 14 of those applications on Friday.

Prior to his appointment as education commissioner by Governor Greg Abbott, Morath served as an elected school board trustee in Dallas ISD during the same time Mike Miles was superintendent there. In Dallas, a similar but more narrow reform program implemented by Miles — "Accelerating Campus Excellence" — remains in place today.

In order for Houstonians to regain democratic control of their public school system, Houston ISD must prevent schools from constantly falling short of state standards, improve compliance in a long-troubled special education department and, at the school board level, adopt a governance approach approved by the TEA.

"My role is to name the Board of Managers and to evaluate their work," Morath explained. "Under the statute, we look at it formally after two years to see whether or not the goals — the exit criteria — have been met, how much progress has been made. Our goal is to revert to elected trustee control as quickly as possible, but we want to make sure that the reasons that necessitated the intervention in the first place have been fundamentally addressed."

This story has been updated with additional information about the Houston ISD reading curriculum.