“District of innovation”

We’ll see what this means.

Houston ISD’s state-appointed school board unanimously voted Thursday to begin the process of becoming a “District of Innovation,” a move that could ultimately allow the district to extend the school year for students and teachers.

The designation, which most Texas districts have sought, would give HISD the option to skirt dozens of state laws related to school operations. HISD officials haven’t officially specified which exemptions they might seek, but new Superintendent Mike Miles and board member Angela Lemond Flowers said adding more days to the school year is a top priority in starting the process.

“I very strongly believe that we need to take everything in our toolkit possible because we have big gains that we need to achieve,” Flowers said. “Our hands are bound right now to days, and so this opens up that flexibility.”

Barring an unexpected reversal, a board-appointed committee will draft a plan in the coming weeks that outlines the recommended exemptions. The plan must receive approval from HISD’s District Advisory Committee, which is largely composed of community members and HISD employees chosen by the board and the superintendent. Finally, two-thirds of HISD’s appointed board must support the plan.

Miles, who was installed along with the nine-member board to lead HISD in June, said he thought HISD students need 180 to 185 days in class each school year, up from the current schedule of 172 days. The tweaks to the academic calendar likely would mean adding more work days for teachers, most of whom currently clock 187 days.

“If we were to change the length of the school year, yes, the number of workdays would change also,” Miles said.

The potential for extending the teacher work year has drawn early complaints from some educators opposed to shortening their summer break. Rebecca Williams, a teacher at Navarro Middle School on the district’s east side, said she and many of her co-workers are worried about the possible changes.

“A lot of my colleagues are halfway out the door now,” Williams said. “When the District of Innovation comes, they will be totally out the door.”

Texas requires schools to start classes on the fourth Monday in August, but the vast majority of districts start earlier due to their District of Innovation status. About 965 out of roughly 1,200 districts have received District of Innovation status, including Dallas, Austin and San Antonio independent school districts, according to the state.

By starting the school year earlier, HISD could add more instructional days in August and avoid going deeper into June.

The District of Innovation system allows for sidestepping many laws related to academic calendars, educator certification, class sizes and teacher benefits. Other laws, however, cannot be shoved aside, including those addressing curriculum, special education, the school board’s power and the state’s academic accountability system.

HISD officials are expected to clear the path for approval of a District of Innovation plan, largely by reconstituting the District Advisory Committee. The committee shot down an attempt by HISD’s prior leadership in 2021 to pursue the designation, in part so the district could start the school year earlier.

See here for a preview story on this. I’m not opposed to this (*), on the grounds that I think more instruction time would be beneficial to students and because so many other districts, including other large urban districts, have the same designation. Thursday’s What Next podcast talked about this in the context of trying to catch up students for the COVID-induced learning loss. The evidence favors the idea, though we won’t really know until we try. As a strategy for improving outcomes, it is certainly reasonable.

I have two concerns. One is that asking the teachers to do more work necessitates paying them commensurately. According to Friday’s CityCast Houston episode, that would be the case, to the tune of about $3K for the teachers. Whether that’s enough and whatever other conditions may need to apply is a matter for HISD and the teachers to discuss and hopefully agree to. A unilateral decree from on high is not acceptable.

The other concern is the stacking of the District Advisory Committee to allow this to happen. There’s little enough oversight on Mike Miles as it is. If the DAC is not convinced that this is a good idea, we should at least ask why before we bulldoze them. Maybe they have their heads in the sand, I don’t know. But they have a voice for a reason, and we should hear them out. I do not like the idea of essentially bypassing them as an obstacle. I guess we can all add that to our list of grievances for the TEA.

Anyway. Whatever does happen, I hope HISD does a much better job than it’s been doing at explaining themselves to the community, and giving people a chance to provide feedback in a meaningful way. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. The Chron and the Press have more.

(*) Full Disclosure: My youngest is now a junior in high school, so the ensuing shorter summer that we would get from this will affect me personally for at most one school year. That puts me firmly in the “Easy For You To Say” bucket. I acknowledge this.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention, the Board of Managers also voted to keep the existing teacher evaluation system (T-TESS) in place for the rest of the year. The HFT dropped their lawsuit related to this as a result.

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2 Responses to “District of innovation”

  1. Karl Ittmann says:

    So a longer school year but also allows for an end run around teacher benefits, class size and teacher certification none of which are good. Also allows Miles to continue his sloppy style of management where changes are announced but paperwork and due process are not followed up on.

  2. Pingback: More on the HISD District of Innovation pursuit | Off the Kuff

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