Superintendent Mike Miles has swept into Houston in recent weeks with confident claims that his strategies to overhaul the largest school system in Texas can quickly spur positive results at long-struggling schools.
That’s mostly because his agenda mirrors tried-and-tested reforms he introduced roughly a decade ago as superintendent in Dallas ISD, including a new principal and teacher evaluation system linked to compensation and targeted efforts to quickly boost academics at low-performing schools by luring talented teachers with big bonuses.
While the controversial reforms sparked some academic gains in Dallas, they offer insight into the possibilities and limitations of the new state-appointed superintendent’s plans designed to spark immediate change this summer and in the coming school year. While some experts expect them to yield results, others fear they are expensive, complicated and divisive.
Miles intends to reshape nearly 30 schools under a plan called the New Education System, which mostly targets three historically under-performing high schools in northeast Houston – Kashmere, Wheatley and North Forest – as well as the elementary and middle schools feeding into them.
Teachers and administrators at those schools are required to re-apply for their jobs, and those hired to work in the schools will get higher-than-average starting salaries and up to $10,000 bonuses. Teachers will get a standardized pre-planned curriculum and more time to focus on instruction as assistants help them make copies and grade papers.
The New Education System harkens back to a model that Miles introduced in Dallas ISD called Accelerating Campus Excellence, or ACE, through which the district incentivized educators to teach at low-performing schools with bonuses, added instructional time into the day and enhanced professional development. Much of the workforce at those schools was replaced in the first year through a re-hiring process similar to the one underway in Houston.
The teacher turnover rate increased from 17.8 percent to 21.6 percent under Miles tenure in Dallas, according to state data. It hovered around 19 percent for a few years after his departure before returning in the 2021-2022 school year to 17.8 percent, roughly the state average. Meanwhile, data shows that the HISD teacher turnover rate that year was 22.4 percent, the highest it has been in at least a decade.
Despite big disruption and a jump in teacher turnover, researchers who studied the impact of the ACE program found that it resulted in “immediate and sustained increases in student achievement,” according to a working paper published in March in the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Across the Dallas district, the portion of low-income students and English language learners meeting standards on the STAAR test surged 18 percent and 19 percent, respectively, from 2012 to 2019, according to an analysis of state data conducted by The Commit Partnership, an organization that worked with Miles in Dallas. Much of the increase happened in the later years after Miles departed from the district, though his policies to some degree remained in place. The academic gains significantly exceeded those seen at HISD and at the state level, according to the data.
Most recently, Dallas and Houston ISDs earned nearly identical scores on the Texas accountability rating system, although Houston did better on the “closing-the-gaps” metric.
Several years after the ACE program was implemented, Dallas ISD removed the incentive stipends for educators at most ACE schools as achievement surged, according to the study. Schools that had seen dramatic improvements watched test scores plummet again as high-quality educators took other jobs, triggering widespread concern about the long-term sustainability of the expensive program.
At the same time, the backsliding provides more evidence of the program’s effectiveness when implemented as intended, said Eric Hanushek, a researcher at the Stanford University Hoover Institute who co-authored the study. While ACE has not been widely replicated due to resistance inside traditional school systems, Hanushek said he thinks HISD could experience academic gains similar to those measured in Dallas.
“My prediction is that Houston is on the verge of making substantial improvements in schools,” he said.
See here for some background; Houston Landing talked about the successes of ACE without going into the longer-term issues. Obviously, it would be great if we get a huge bump in student outcomes as a result of this. It would be great for the students and it ought to mean as quick a return of the district to us as possible. But there are big questions that need to be addressed along the way.
1. Is this sustainable? As noted in this story and before, this is an expensive approach. As someone who believes we should be spending more on public education I’m fine with that conceptually, but we still have to have the funds to do it. We have this year’s budget in place, and Miles did some obvious things to make room for the start of his plan. It’s when you get past that and things ramp up that are far from clear. We need to know what the longer-term plan is, and we need to know it ASAP. I mean, Miles is supposed to be a short-term superintendent. He’s there to solve a short-term problem, but we have to live with it beyond his tenure. We need to know that he’s not just a CEO looking to goose the next quarterly results.
2. Along those same lines, better communication about the big picture is needed. The Chron had a story last week about the first 29 campuses in Mile’s NES plan, and the inclusion of some already-high-performing schools led them to wonder if Miles is taking his eye off the ball. This seems like an entirely avoidable situation to me. Perhaps the forthcoming family events will help clarify, but if so why did we have to wait? Be clear up front.
3. Finally, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture here. Ultimately, HISD and everyone involved with it is people. The numbers will determine when HISD gets released back to the people, but in the short term and definitely in the long term, everything that is being done needs to have some level of acceptance from the people to really have a chance to succeed. Plus, you know, everything that is being done here will have a direct effect on thousands of people and their lives and their careers and their families. Let’s please not forget that.