TEA wants to move the A-F goalposts for districts. In Houston ISD, we see the results.

Yesterday, the Texas Education Agency  announced its takeover of HISD, ousting a democratically elected board and installing a selected board of managers, including charter CEO Mike Miles (more on that below). Despite great academic progress made in the last year, and an overall acceptable rating in 2023, TEA chose to take over the district due to several years of “academically unacceptable performance.”

Savvy legislators understand that what happened in Houston can happen in their school districts. This week, Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin), along with a bipartisan group of 55 legislators, sent a letter to Mike Morath asking him to delay the implementation of revised accountability standards.

The letter is signed by a large bipartisan contingent of state representatives, including urban and rural districts, who see through Gov. Greg Abbott’s narrative of “failing schools,” one he is using to push for vouchers, ESAs, or whatever term is palatable this week.

Commissioner Mike Morath has been at work on a refresh of the A-F accountability system for the last several months, raising the bar for each level of the rating system. Throughout the process, stakeholders have been wondering why, given the learning disruptions of the pandemic and the STAAR redesign this year, TEA would choose to move the goalposts now.

While state law does require a periodic consideration of accountability standards, the commissioner has no mandate as to when these reviews should occur. That this refresh is happening simultaneously with the push from the governor’s office for so-called school choice is not by accident, but by design.

Historically, when there has been a large structural shift in the statewide assessment (remember when we went from TAKS to STAAR?), there is a noticeable drop in test scores across-the-board. It typically takes a few academic years for students to adjust to new test questions and having to take the test entirely online. In the meantime, performance may appear to decline. 

The A-F system’s overreliance on test scores means that campus performance ratings will likely drop even if student performance remains the same. Because the commissioner is using this year to change the passing scores, performance will appear to shift downward even more dramatically. With a harder test, and higher cut scores, campuses and districts may drop one or more “grade levels” this year and fall into or remain in that academically unacceptable area that could trigger TEA interference.

‘Under Cover of Darkness, the Occupation of Houston ISD Begins’

Houston Community Voices for Public Education, along with the Houston Federation of Teachers and other community groups, plan to protest outside the first formal meeting of Houston ISD’s new board of managers on Thursday, June 8. More information here.

It is impossible to ignore the context in which this sudden move of the goalposts is occurring. At the same time that TEA will be categorizing more schools as “failures,” it has just formally begun its takeover of Houston ISD, a B-rated district by TEA’s own standards. 

Early Thursday morning, TEA announced its hand-picked superintendent for the district. Mike Miles, a former Dallas ISD superintendent and current charter school CEO, has been selected to replace Superintendent Millard House II, who was popular with both district employees and parents for the sweeping improvements he ushered into Houston ISD. 

Miles had a turbulent tenure in Dallas ISD, where he implemented the Teacher Excellence Initiative, a pay-for-performance scheme that served as the inspiration for the inequitable Teacher Incentive Allotment. He left few friends there among educators.

“It became chaotic (under Miles), a lot of uncertainty and instability, in my opinion, for the employees on the campuses serving the kids,” said Rena Honea, president of Alliance/AFT in Dallas ISD, in an interview Thursday.

On Thursday morning, with police surrounding the Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center, TEA also installed the nine-member board of managers that replaced Houston ISD’s democratically elected school board. 

In a statement, the Houston Federation of Teachers reiterated the disturbing lack of transparency TEA has displayed throughout this process. Miles’ name had been floated as TEA’s selected superintendent as early as March 15, but Education Commissioner Mike Morath vigorously denied that an appointment had been made. 

Likewise, several of the members of the new board of managers seemed preordained; in one example, TEA appointed a manager, Janette Garza Lindner, who was rejected by voters in the 2021 school board election. 

As a reminder, TEA has set no timeline to end its takeover of the district, the eighth-largest in the United States. Though in an interview with the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board, Miles himself anticipated he would be in place “five to six years.” 

As the Houston Chronicle reports today, the takeover of Houston ISD, the largest ever attempted by TEA, is the latest in a pattern: “In the last 10 years or so, the Legislature has used the TEA as a vehicle to push specific policies and practices, and making the agency more powerful in the process.”  

That fact begs a question: What do we have to show for all that investment?