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April 22nd, 2016:

Friday random ten: In the city, part 7

Spanning the globe, week after week…

1. (Is Anybody Going to) San Antone – Doug Sahm And Band
2. Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – They Might be Giants/Lager Rhythms
3. I’ve Been To Memphis – Lyle Lovett
4. I’ve Got A Gal In Kalamazoo – Glenn Miller
5. Jerusalem – Eddie From Ohio
6. Jimmy’s Gone To Flanders – Jim Malcolm
7. Jock in London/I Don’t Wanna Go To Bed – The Mollys
8. Kansas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey! – The Beatles
9. The Last Day of Pompeii – Trout Fishing In America
10. The Leaving Of Liverpool – Flying Fish Sailors

Memphis has made a stronger showing in these lists than I’d have anticipated. I really should go back and do a full tally at the end to see if my prediction about New York holds true or not.

Lawsuits filed over teacher evaluations

This ought to be interesting.

A statewide teachers group filed a lawsuit Wednesday in an attempt to block the state from implementing a controversial system that for the first time ties assessments of educators to student performance on standardized tests.

In a lawsuit filed against Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath in Travis County District Court, the Texas State Teachers Association alleges that the new teacher evaluation system — the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System, or T-TESS — violates state law by requiring school districts to base 20 percent of each teacher’s evaluation on “student growth measures” that include standardized test scores.

Those student growth measures may include “value added measures,” or VAM, which are “typically based on a complicated formula that compares actual student test scores to the scores predicted by a mathematical target based on the standardized test scores of similar student populations,” the association explained in a statement.

“TSTA contends that state law … clearly requires a teacher appraisal system adopted by the commissioner to be based on ‘observable, job-related behavior,’” the statement said. “But a VAM model is not ‘observable’ and is not even available to teachers and others who wish to understand the basis for their evaluations.”

“Teachers are not robots, and their performance should be evaluated by an easily understood, transparent system that helps them perfect their job performance,” association President Noel Candelaria said. “Educators’ compensation and jobs are potentially on the line here, and their work must be evaluated fairly – and legally.”

The new teacher evaluation system, which the state has been piloting for over a year, is set to take effect July 1. Participating school districts will use it to make pay, employment and other consequential decisions. It replaces a nearly 20-year-old state-recommended teacher evaluation method known as Professional Development and Appraisal System, or PDAS.

The evaluation system is called T-TESS, and I wrote about it here. The Chron notes that the TSTA wasn’t the only entity to sue over this.

The other suit, brought by the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, claims the state education commissioner does not have authority to set specific evaluation criteria.

[…]

The lawsuits add to a growing list of teachers suing states over similar student test-based systems. Locally, the Houston Federation of Teachers union sued the Houston Independent School District in 2014 over its evaluation method. That case is set for jury trial in September.

HISD was one of the first large school districts in the country in 2011 to link teachers’ job ratings to their students’ test scores. Traditionally, school principals graded teachers based solely on observing them in the classroom.

The Houston school district, however, has struggled to find ways to rate all teachers in the student performance category. State exams, for example, are not offered in certain grade levels or for elective courses. Last year, 43 percent of HISD’s teachers got student performance ratings.

Even so, Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said the state should not move to a similar test-based evaluation system.

“It’s affected kids in that it has detrimentally impacted the way that instruction is delivered,” Capo said. “That’s all anyone does anymore is teach to the test, period.”

See here and here for more on that HISD lawsuit. Note that the evaluation system is being pushed by one of the never-ending supply of well-funded “education reform” groups, and the law firm representing HISD in the suit also represents that group. That still strikes me as a conflict of interest. There may be value in using this kind of metric as part of a teacher’s evaluation, if everyone is in agreement about what is being measured and what the milestones are, but as the Statesman notes, we do not have consensus on this.

Morath, who was previously a Dallas school district trustee, has advocated for the use of value-added models, which supporters say increase teacher accountability and effectiveness.

The American Statistical Association, however, has cautioned school systems against relying on the models, saying teachers’ performance accounts for only a small part of the variability in how students progress.

“Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality,” the group said in a 2014 statement.

Seems like a pretty big caveat to me. I can’t say I’d want my job evaluations based on something like this, either. A statement from the TSTA is here, and Trail Blazers and the Rivard Report has more.

An outside view on Uber in Houston

The Statesman looks at how Austin’s fight with Uber and Lyft over fingerprint requirements compares with other cities in Texas, including Houston.

Uber

Officials in Houston said they decided early on that their city, despite having almost 2,500 licensed taxis, could benefit from the emerging ride-hailing industry. So they approached Uber and Lyft a few years ago and began to try to work out a framework for operations there.

That stringent framework, including a requirement for fingerprinting, drug testing, physicals and vehicle inspections, passed the Houston City Council in August 2014, just two months after Uber and Lyft had more or less barged into Austin and set off a furor by operating in defiance of city law. At first, Houston officials say, Uber officials had nothing but praise for the new law and worked with Houston to set up procedures and a facility for licensing of ride-hailing drivers.

Lyft, however, left town. That company operates in only one place that requires fingerprinting: New York City.

The Houston law took effect in November 2014, and the city’s permitting center in downtown Houston, along with a temporary off-site location to handle an initial rush of drivers, began operations, said Lara Cottingham, Houston’s assistant director of administrative and regulatory affairs.

Drivers can get a 30-day provisional permit without fingerprinting, Cottingham said, although they do need to undergo the physical, drug test and a check for active criminal warrants. Then, within that month, the drivers would have to be fingerprinted and pass the background check to get a two-year ride-hailing license.

Getting a provisional license at the agency’s Houston office, can take as little as 20 minutes, Cottingham said. The process of being fingerprinted and getting background results from the FBI, which can be done during those 30 days after the applicant is already driving, can take three to five days, she said.

Uber spokeswoman Jenn Mullin contends that jumping through those hoops can take several weeks and that it has been a noticeable deterrent to becoming a driver for the company. That, in turn, has increased waiting times for rides well beyond the average 3-minute wait that Uber customers see in Austin, she said.

But testing this assertion is difficult. Mullin declined to provide driver or wait time figures in Houston. And the company has resisted, through the courts, any attempts by the press and public to find out how many drivers have Houston-issued ride-hailing permits.

When Uber lobbyist Adam Blinick testified in December before the Austin City Council, [Austin City Council Member Ann] Kitchen asked him why the company was resisting fingerprinting in Austin but operated with it in Houston.

“Houston has been a very difficult city for us to operate in,” Blinick said. “It requires a lot of resources. It does not scale to a good quality of service.”

So, Kitchen asked, would Uber be leaving Houston anytime soon?

“I’m not in a position to answer that tonight,” Blinick said.

That’s a question I’ve been pondering too, as you know. I feel like if Uber and Lyft win this election in August, the issue will come up again in Houston whether Mayor Turner and Council want it to or not. The article also looks at the experiences in San Antonio and Midland, where Uber backed out after an agreement had been hammered out, so go read the whole thing.

Your increasingly regular Sid Miller update

What a piece of work this guy is.

For years, a sticker affixed to more than 170,000 gas pumps in Texas featured a straightforward headline — “Fuel Feedback?” — alongside a toll-free number, email address and instructions for consumers with questions.

But in his latest effort to remake the embattled Agriculture Department, Commissioner Sid Miller opted to give the often overlooked stickers a makeover. Under the new design released last week, Miller’s name is in a larger font and is now featured prominently across the top. And near the bottom, he’s added a new disclaimer likely to rub some lawmakers the wrong way.

“All motor fuel taxes are set by the U.S. Congress and Texas State Legislature, NOT by the Texas Department of Agriculture or Texas Agriculture Commissioner,” the new sticker reads.

[…]

When asked why the commissioner’s name is larger on the new sticker, [deputy Commissioner Jason] Fearneyhough said, “The individuals involved in the design are not currently in the office.”

The new language on the sticker is unlikely to help Miller’s already strained relationships at the Legislature, where he clashed with lawmakers last session after asking for a major increase in state revenue for his department.

So what’s the big deal? Ross Ramsey explains:

Miller, who has been in the job since January 2015, unveiled revised stickers this month in response to a legislative change — but revised them in ways lawmakers didn’t require or foresee.

He made his name more prominent, increasing the font size and moving it to the top of the sticker — you never know how many voters might remember it just enough to nudge them next time he’s on the ballot.

State officials are notorious for that kind of stuff, putting their names and faces on everything where it might fit.

[…]

It’s the other stuff on the sticker that elevates Miller’s latest stunt — the notice that the high gasoline taxes detailed on the stamp are not his fault. He’s a good guy, right? He wants the taxpayers to know it.

“All motor fuel taxes are set by the U.S. Congress and Texas State Legislature, NOT by the Texas Department of Agriculture or Texas Agriculture Commissioner,” it reads.

The tax information itself is required by a new law passed last year. The disclaimer was not. And Miller, a former legislator himself, certainly knows that even as he covers his tail with that disclaimer, he’s tweaking the noses of his former colleagues in the Texas House.

So basically, a guy who might need some friends down the line, depending on what the Texas Rangers do with him, went out of his way to alienate (or at least annoy) the people who by virtue of being former colleagues ought to be in his corner. It takes an advanced aptitude for self-aggrandizement to do that, and in the world of politics, that’s saying something. I’ve said several times that I can imagine a convicted-but-appealing Ken Paxton on the 2018 general election ballot. I have a much harder time seeing Sid Miller survive a primary if he gets nailed on either or both of those complaints against him. I just don’t think his act will wear as well. But hey, I could be wrong, and Lord knows I’ll be rooting for him to make it that far. You keep doing you, Sid.

The dry run for the Super Bowl

It went pretty well.

In less than a year, the Super Bowl is expected to draw almost twice as many as the 70,000 out-of-towners who flocked here for the Final Four. More than 1 million are expected to come downtown and to NRG Park from the Houston region, presenting even greater logistical and security challenges than those posed by the Final Four.

For Super Bowl planners, the NCAA Tournament was a test to see if, after 13 years, Houston is ready for the return of America’s most popular sporting event.

“We were helping them; they’re going to help us big time, make sure that we’re ready for our event,” said Ric Campo, chairman of the Super Bowl Host Committee, of Final Four planners. “There’s a lot of great lessons to be learned. You always can learn from on the ground in terms of what works and what doesn’t.”

Organizers said the Final Four affirmed Houston’s ability to host high-profile sporting events, with dozens of city and county agencies working together to manage traffic and crowds. Approximately 75,000 people attended the semifinals and the championship games, organizers said. About 165,000 attended the maxed-out Discovery Green concert. Organizers said the value in having a free concert outweighed the possibility of having to turn people away.

More than 55,000 went to a Final Four Fan Fast – featuring games and sports – at George R. Brown Convention Center.

“The surprise would be that for the most part, things went as we had planned,” said Doug Hall, president and CEO of the Final Four local organizing committee. “You never take that for granted in the event business.”

[…]

The Final Four also highlighted how the Super Bowl will be different. Instead of four days of activities, the Super Bowl likely will span 10 days, mostly focused on downtown, Campo said, including an expo in George R. Brown Convention Center with player and football events and Houston history and culture in the streets.

Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president for events, said the NFL will release a more detailed schedule of events in the summer.

Campo said there will be 50 percent more street space available. While some 3,500 volunteers worked the Final Four, Super Bowl organizers are hoping to recruit up to 10,000 volunteers. So far they are about halfway to that total, but Campo said the window to sign up is closing.

“You need to get involved before it’s too late,” he said.

I doubt that Houston will have any difficulty being ready for the Super Bowl. We’ve done it before, and several other major sporting events as well. The light rail system, which was brand new and had multiple issues with cars not knowing how to stay out of its way back in 2004, is mature and running mostly smoothly. Downtown is a lot more visitor-friendly than it was in 2004. Basically, as long as the weather cooperates, all should go well.