School & District Management

Houston’s Sweeping School Changes: Will They Be a Case Study—Or Cautionary Tale?

By Evie Blad — September 01, 2023 12 min read
HISD parent Misi Schlueter participates in a rally hosted by The Greater Houston Justice Coalition and other community groups against the state takeover of HISD on March 31, 2023, at Cesar Chavez High School in Houston.
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Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that Texas replaced the district’s leadership but does not control its day-to-day decisions.

As Houston students and educators start their first school year following a state takeover of the district, some wonder if the dramatic changes appointed Superintendent Mike Miles is making will inspire similar transformations elsewhere.

Miles’ plans for the Houston school district—focused on a targeted group of “New Education System” schools—read like a playlist of often-debated education reform ideas, many tried incrementally over the past decade, but rarely in concert or all at once.

Requiring teachers and principals to reapply for their jobs. Teacher merit pay. Rigorous evaluations. Higher pay for core subject teachers. Uniform, district-supplied lesson plans. Converting school libraries to “team centers” for disruptive students.

Such changes in just about every facet of a targeted group of high-poverty, diverse schools have been met with pushback from parents, teachers, and local education advocates, some of whom had questioned Texas officials’ justification for taking control of the state’s largest district in March.

“Any one of those [changes] would strike me as, ‘Wow, that is a very ambitious effort,’” said Josh Bleiberg, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied state takeovers of school districts. “To do all of it at once is a level above ambitious.”

The results could influence the greater debate about school improvement. If the changes work, could the district become a case study? If they fail, could it become a cautionary tale?

It’s all happening as momentum builds in other places for muscular intervention—especially as red-state governors, lawmakers, and education officials criticize the operations of their states’ largest districts. Oklahoma’s outspoken State Superintendent Ryan Walters said he weighed the work in Houston as he considered downgrading the Tulsa district’s accreditation status.

Education Week spoke to several education researchers about key parts of the Houston plan, the research behind them, their likelihood for success, and whether they stand to influence larger policy debates. The media organization also reviewed Miles’ own plans and presentations to the district. A district spokesperson declined EdWeek’s request to interview Miles.

Here’s a look at five key prongs of the approach—and what we know about how similar efforts have worked.

1. State takeovers of school districts have a spotty record

The Texas Education Agency moved to replace Houston’s school board and superintendent in March, after years of legal battles about its authority to do so.

Despite improvements among some of its lowest-performing campuses, state officials argued that they had legal justification to take control of the 274-school district because of persistently poor performance at a single campus, Wheatley High School. Education Commissioner Mike Morath also cited concerns about the district’s record of successfully identifying and serving students with disabilities, a concern statewide.

In his “Destination: 2035" plan for the district, first obtained by Houston Public Media, Miles suggests success in Houston could “break the myth that it takes years to turn around failing schools” and “create proof points for whole-scale systemic reform.”

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Mike Miles speaks during his presentation at the budget workshop of the school board meeting on June 15, 2023, at Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center, in Houston.

But there’s reason to be skeptical of any state takeover plan because research shows limited success for such efforts, Bleiberg said.

In a 2022 study, he and co-author Beth Schueler, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Virginia, found little evidence to suggest takeovers have boosted academic achievement.

Using a national set of student achievement data, the authors tracked progress at all districts taken over by their states between 2011 and 2016. When compared to similarly achieving districts that were not subject to state takeover, the takeover districts did not see consistently positive effect on math and English/language arts achievement over a multi-year period, the authors found.

Researchers saw little commonality among districts that saw success after state intervention. Takeovers seem to be most effective when they are targeted at a specific, measurable problem, like fixing documented financial mismanagement in a school system, Bleiberg said.

The more extensive a plan is, the more potential for weaknesses in implementation, he said.

No matter your position on school improvement strategies, he said, “you can always blame [failure] on implementation and never have it be the fault of your favored policy.”

2. Community resistance factors into takeovers’ success

Clashes with employees and the community can also limit the effectiveness of turnaround efforts, Bleiberg and Schueler found.

Among the more successful takeovers researchers have identified is the Lawrence, Mass., district, which saw less community resistance than many other takeovers when the state placed it in receivership in 2011. The district saw promising gains in math and reading after the state expanded learning time, raised academic standards, replaced a portion of teachers and principals, and increased autonomy for schools, researchers found.

Houston’s transition has been met with conflict from community members who have criticized the removal of local control and accused a newly appointed school board of lacking transparency. On Aug. 31, a judge temporarily blocked the district’s new teacher-evaluation system while he considers a lawsuit from the Houston Federation of Teachers, which argued that teachers weren’t sufficiently consulted in its design, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Parents critical of the agenda have also confronted Miles directly in community meetings.

“I’ve been waiting patiently for this, and I want you to look at my face and remember me because I’m your new best friend,” parent Lauren Ashley Simmons told Miles at an August meeting covered by Houston Public Media, before emotionally criticizing his agenda.

It’s also hard to ignore the racial dynamics in Houston, and in many large-district takeovers, Bleiberg said. He and Schueler analyzed decades of takeovers dating back to the 1980s, when the strategy first became popular. For majority-Black districts, racial makeup was more of a predictor of state takeover than academic performance, the authors found.

About 62 percent of HISD students are Latino, 22 percent are Black, and 10 percent are white, according to the latest district data. The community has a lower median household income and a greater percentage of students living in poverty than the state as a whole, the data show.

3. Changes to teacher evaluations, compensation must be coherent, experts say

Miles initially identified a targeted list of 28 schools, which largely feed into three high schools, for New Education System interventions. Fifty-seven additional campuses volunteered for a less extensive version of the model, and Miles has said leaders will add more schools to NES in future years.

Some of the earliest announced changes focused on teachers and principals in the initial set of NES schools.

“We’re going to do whole-scale systemic reform,” Miles told Houston Public Media in June. “We’re going to really provide them a level of support that they hadn’t received before and turn around the schools, and really raise the quality of instruction.”

Among those workforce-focused changes:

  • Teachers and principals at NES schools had to reapply for their jobs. The district has not released data on how many were rehired.
  • Teachers will earn more, but the highest pay will be awarded to those in core subject areas. While a sixth-grade English language arts teacher will earn an average base salary of $91,000, teachers of electives, like music, will have an average base salary of $70,000.
  • Teachers at NES and NES-aligned campuses will also receive a $10,000 annual stipend and a $2,000 for professional development in the summer.
  • The district plans to use a redesigned teacher-evaluation system built around student test scores and principal observations. No more than 20 percent of teachers can achieve the highest level, which will qualify them for additional incentive pay.

While some researchers and educators suggested Miles’ plans for the district are too expansive, others say his efforts targeted at the workforce are more methodical than piecemeal efforts to improve teaching.

“I can understand the sentiment that this is all kind of ambitious,” said Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, or CALDER, at the American Institutes for Research, who has studied educator workforce issues."But I think if you don’t do a bunch of things that are aligned and coherent, you kind of miss key ingredients in a recipe that make for successful reform.”

For example, rewarding teachers with merit pay may not lead to improved teaching quality if the underlying evaluation system isn’t redesigned to be more rigorous, he said.

Similarly, higher salaries for teachers should be paired with increased selectivity and efforts to place the most highly skilled educators in the classrooms with the most need for improvement, Goldhaber said.

“If all you do is increase base pay, then you are increasing teacher retention, but it might not be the teachers you want to keep,” he said.

A new pay plan in the Dallas schools, where Miles previously served as superintendent went into effect as he the district in 2015. It, too, tied teacher pay to evaluations, rather than years of experience. A March 2023 working paper by CALDER researchers found that, after an initial period of very high teacher turnover, the Dallas pay and evaluation system contributed to increases in students’ math and reading scores.

More generally, rresearch on teacher merit-pay efforts has shown mixed results, and some researchers have questioned its effectiveness in motivating individual educators to improve. And teachers’ associations, like Houston’s, have complained that reworked evaluations drive an excessive focus on test scores and unhealthy competition.

So, what will be make-or-break for Houston’s teacher workforce reforms?

Implementation matters, Goldhaber said, as does ensuring that teacher professional development is adequate to help teachers thrive under the new system. And dramatic changes in compensation can be costly and hard to sustain. Miles’s Dallas successor, then-Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, identified long-term financial feasibility as a key concern in a 2017 interview with the Texas Tribune.

4. Discipline changes, remote learning plans met with concern about priorities

Among the changes in Houston schools that have attracted the most national attention—and criticism— are plans to rework student discipline by eliminating librarian positions in the New Education System schools and converting libraries into “team centers.”

Teachers will send disruptive students to those redesigned spaces to learn remotely through a live Zoom broadcast of their classroom, rather than disciplining them in class. It’s part of Miles’ vision to take tasks like discipline and paperwork off of teachers’ plates. Students can also work quietly in the former libraries during extended before- and after-school hours.

The plan inflamed community activists, who brought books to school board meetings to protest the removal of librarians at a time when Houston teachers are focused on improving reading instruction.

Because NES schools are largely in low-income neighborhoods, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner accused the district of creating “an apartheid situation.”

As with all student discipline, there is reason to be concerned that Black students, boys, and students with disabilities will be sent to support centers at disproportionately higher rates than their peers, said Richard Welsh, an associate professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, who has studied trends in school discipline during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a June 2022 study Welsh found that Black students and students with disabilities faced disproportionate rates of exclusionary discipline, like being shut out of virtual classrooms, during remote learning. Education researchers have long questioned whether the harms posed by suspensions and expulsions outweigh any potential benefits of removing students from classrooms.

Districts in places like Clayton County, Ga., and Toppenish, Wash., are now eyeing virtual instruction as a middle ground—some sending students home to learn remotely and others relocating them to quiet spaces within the school.

The success of plans like Houston’s will hinge on whether they are applied fairly and whether they can help students change their behavior in the long term, Welsh said.

“I am in favor of transforming the in-school suspension experience from students simply sitting in a room to a thoughtful program and space for academic and behavior remediation,” he said. “Incorporating virtual learning ... is part of the transformation, but if students are thrown on a computer without support, they may end up not effectively learning or reflecting and finding ways to change their misbehavior.”

5. Centralizing curriculum and instruction

Teachers in NES schools will no longer design their own lesson plans, instead using centralized plans created by the district. The aim is to ensure plans are aligned with high-quality curriculum and to save educators time, Miles has said.

Both states and school districts have started to exert more control over curriculum, especially in reading, as they adopt programs explicitly meant to build students’ background knowledge and content, which are integral to comprehension. The Houston plans appear to go beyond the adoption of curriculum resources, also including presentation slides, discussion topics, and quizzes developed in the central office.

The effort tackles a major concern in public schools, where teachers often cobble together lessons and materials on their own with very little guidance, said David Steiner, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

“The problem is that over 90 percent of America’s public school teachers act like DJs, regularly pulling materials from the internet themselves,” he said. “There’s no school of education that I know of in the United States that offers courses in how to do this DJing well, even if it were a good idea.”

Evidence suggests strengthening classroom materials can lead to improved student outcomes. In a 2016 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for example, researchers found that giving middle school math teachers access to inquiry-based lesson plans and online support significantly improved student achievement—and benefited weaker teachers the most.

But teachers may resist if the provided lesson plans don’t properly differentiate and address the needs of students who are far behind grade-level expectations, Steiner said, or if they don’t receive professional development on how to use the new resources.

And, if the lesson plans are too prescriptive, teachers may feel a lack of autonomy or may struggle to address the specific needs of their classes. They might feel less like DJs and more like ventriloquist dummies, Steiner said.

“The devil is in the details here,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2023 edition of Education Week as Houston’s Sweeping School Changes: Will They Be a Case Study—Or Cautionary Tale?

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