An HISD threefer

How much is discretion worth to a school principal?

To Jessica Campos, Pugh Elementary School used to feel like a family.

The 350-student school that her 10-year-old daughter attends had a tight-knit community with near-constant communication between staff and families, Campos said. One teacher, who had a knack for turning lessons into sing-along songs, even became a family friend.

But that feeling quickly evaporated when new Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles named the Denver Harbor school as one of 28 campuses targeted for immediate overhaul. Miles, appointed as the district’s superintendent in June, replaced Pugh’s principal, required all teachers to reapply for their jobs and ordered several changes to campus operations.

“We know what we had was good,” Campos said. “(Central office staff) are not in our school. They’re not experiencing what our children are experiencing. They’re not in the classroom watching how our teachers are interacting and how they’re delivering the curriculum to our kids.”

For two-plus decades, HISD has embraced an organizational model commonly known as “decentralization,” a system that gave principals at schools like Pugh lots of authority over spending, staffing and operations at their campus. The model rested on the idea that principals — not central office administrators — best understood what their students needed in a district as diverse as HISD.

But that approach is changing at dozens of campuses under Miles, who Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath chose to lead HISD as part of state sanctions against the district.


Forest Brook Middle School Principal Alicia Lewis said she often had to make “very tough decisions” about resources at her campus on the district’s northeast side. Now, she’s only responsible for spending $100 per student on instruction-related costs.

Giving up some power is a welcome give-and-take for Lewis considering what she says she’s receiving in return: new projectors, new whiteboards, computers for every student and reduced class sizes.

“When you’re making budgeting decisions on your own, there are times where you have to say, ‘I want this, but I can’t have this,’” Lewis said. “Now we’re saying, ‘We’re in heaven,’ where we are getting some of the things that we could not get before.”

But for Campos, any future benefits to Pugh families remain hypothetical, while the downsides are clear to her. She said campus-level decision-making was key to forging a school culture that fit her community, which is mostly made up of Spanish-speaking families.

The previous principal regularly hosted coffee chats with parents where Spanish was the default language, Campos said. Bilingual teachers helped her daughter, who has dyslexia, make more than a grade level’s worth of progress in reading last year, she said.

Now, she’s concerned about the new principal’s lack of Spanish fluency and worries the district may not rehire many of the teachers who she feels have served her daughter well.

HISD leaders instituted a decentralized model in the 1990s, arguing that the approach would raise student achievement and bring more equity to the district.

The cornerstone of the plan involved allocating millions of dollars to campuses — with schools serving higher-need students getting more funds — and generally allowing principals to spend the money as they saw fit after consulting with teachers and families.

In theory, a school system structure that gives principals final say over staffing, class schedules and other decisions can be equitable, researchers say. The model allows campuses to cater to students’ specific needs and gives extra funding for higher-needs children, such as those with disabilities or who are learning English.

In reality, though, outcomes have been inconsistent across the state’s largest district. And, as far as researchers can tell, the model has not translated into benefits for Houston’s students.

“If we look at trends before and after decentralization came into effect in the way they enacted it here in HISD, we did not see increases in student pass rates or test scores,” said Erin Baumgartner, director of Rice University’s Houston Education Research Consortium, or HERC. The organization conducted extensive research into HISD’s decentralization effort in the late 2010s.

I’ve noted this tradeoff for principals before, and one can certainly make a case for them giving up some local control for financial and other benefits. Indeed, the research shows that the decentralized model did not deliver on its promises, so that’s another argument for trying it a different way. This doesn’t mean that the opposite, top-down approach will be better – surely it could be, if the plan and the structure are sound – but it may also be that in the grand scheme of things both approaches are roughly the same from an outcomes perspective, and the real key to doing better lies elsewhere.

We’ll get some evidence on that soon enough. I’m highlighting this in part because it again speaks to my concerns about how sustainable the Miles Plan is. Nothing succeeds like success, and if test scores shoot up that will go a long way. But in the end, when we have our district back, people are going to have to want to continue this. If they don’t like the school experience under this scheme, or still feel scarred from how we got there, then they may want to go back to what they had before even if the outcomes weren’t as great. The community has to buy into the plan, and it’s on Mike Miles and the Board of Managers to sell it. Results only go so far. Trust matters, and they have to build it.

Which is why stories like this are troubling.

Since the Texas Education Agency appointed Miles to lead the school district, he has faced community protests by citizens opposed to the state agency’s takeover. But he has maintained that schools are embracing his changes.

But interviews, email correspondence, and audio recordings of campus meetings that the Texas Observer obtained contradict Miles’ public relations message that there is widespread teacher support for his program. Teachers, parents, and community members from nine of the 57 schools we spoke to said they had no opportunity to weigh in; teachers were threatened with losing their jobs if their campus did not join the program.

“Our hours will change. Our schedules will change. Our curriculum will change. But we have no input in it,” said Michelle Collins, a teacher at DeZavala Elementary School. “Neither do parents.”

According to the state education law, a Shared Decision Making Committee (SDMC) composed of parents, community representatives, teachers, other campus personnel, and a business representative is required to be “involved in decisions in the areas of planning, budgeting, curriculum, staffing patterns, staff development, and school organization.”

While Miles has publicly asked principals to obtain school input, SDMC committee members from five schools in the program confirmed with the Observer that they never met to discuss the issue. SDMC members and teachers from other schools reported that even when they did meet, they did not have a vote in the decision. One teacher said their staff voted not to opt in, but then later saw their school’s name included in the list of 57 schools in the news.

See here, here, and here for the background, and read on for their evidence. This may have been more of a communication failure than anything else, but it’s still a problem. Again, at some point the people will get the opportunity to vote on all this. They will remember their experiences, good and bad.

Finally, let’s bring it back to the nuts and bolts of what Miles has in mind.

At least one-third of Houston ISD campuses will use a new curriculum based on the “science of reading” when school resumes in August, following a national trend that has seen more districts embrace phonics-based instructional methods that teach students how to break down and understand words.

HISD will distribute a reading curriculum, acquired and modified by the Texas Education Agency to align with state education standards, by the New York-based company Amplify to the 85 schools in or aligned with Superintendent Mike Miles’ New Education System. The curriculum was already piloted in six HISD schools last school year, and former Superintendent Millard House II already planned on expanding it to 64 more.

After district materials initially suggested that only NES or NES-aligned schools would receive the curriculum from the district, Miles said that HISD will make the curriculum available to any school that requests it.

Amplify says its Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum, the basis for the Texas-specific version used at over 100 districts across the state, is “grounded in the science of reading.”

While there is no universal definition for that broad expression, according to Jorge Gonzalez, a psychology professor at the University of Houston’s College of Education, the phrase “represents five decades of research on reading, reading development and best practices for reading instruction” that has led to a better understanding of the way children best learn to read.

The science of reading, however, is different than its instruction, Gonzalez said, which “is where the controversy begins because how the science of reading translates into the science of instruction is still being developed in many ways.”

I learned to read via phonics and I’m biased in its favor. If HISD is moving towards the current best practices for reading education, that’s all to the good. Again, the outcomes will tell us if we’re doing this right or not. It’s a bit more complicated than that and you should read the rest, but given the strong need to improve reading capability in HISD, I’m encouraged by this.

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