Texas Hangs Sword of Damocles Over Houston Schools

3 Feb

When the Houston Independent School District (HISD) Board refused to privatize four schools, state takeover of the district became likely. States taking over school districts have an awful track record. Takeovers in Philadelphia, Newark, Detroit and Tennessee have been long running disasters for students, parents, schools and communities. So the idea that Texas will likely seize HISD – a district the Texas Education Agency (TEA) assigned a grade of B on its new A – F grading system – is bizarre.

HISD is the largest school district in the state of Texas and the 7th largest in the United States. The nine HISD Board members are an impressive group whose children attend district schools. Seven of them are products of HISD. They all are college graduates and most earned advanced degrees. Seven of them have both teaching and administrative experience in public schools. Anne Jung was a high school science teacher who earned a master’s in physics at Harvard. Jolanda Jones is a Rhodes Scholar and an NCAA heptathlon champion with a Juris Doctorate from the University of Houston. Wanda Adams was a scholarship winning athlete who attended Kashmere High School which is one of the four schools TEA might shutter. She is an Emmy winning college graduate who has been named to multiple top 50 lists in Houston area plus has served two terms on the Houston city council.

Richard Carranza became HISD superintendent in August of 2016. In March of 2018, he resigned to take a similar position in New York City Schools. With the HISD board’s impressive resumes and the fact that their last top hire was considered the best administrator in America to lead the nation’s largest school district, it was startling to read Governor Greg Abbott’s January 3rd tweet,

“What a joke. HISD leadership is a disaster. Their self-centered ineptitude has failed the children they are supposed to educate. If ever there was a school board that needs to be taken over and reformed it’s HISD. Their students & parents deserve change.”

A counter observation based on biographies is that every elected board member in HISD is more qualified to be an education leader than Mike Morath, the guy Abbott appointed Texas Commissioner of Education. They all are more educated with advanced degrees in clinical psychology, physics, law, education leadership etceteras compared to Morath’s bachelors degree in business. The board members have decades of experience working in public schools compared to Morath’s six months as an untrained long term sub teaching a computer science; a class outside of his field of study.

Morath tried to privatize the Dallas Independent School District while a board Trustee. It appears that Abbott might have a similar agenda for the entire state and that is why he selected this unqualified person to lead the state’s schools.

Terrible Education Policy Driven by Benighted Legislation

Takeover Authors

In 2015 Governor Abbott signed HB 1842 into law. It mandates “intervention in and sanction of a public school that has received an academically unsuccessful performance rating for at least two consecutive school years ….”

The law mandates that if a district does not implement an approved plan to turn the school around “the commissioner shall [may] order:

  • appointment of a board of managers to govern the district as provided by Section 39.112(b) [repurposing of the campus under this section];
  • alternative management of the campus under this section; or
  • closure of the campus.”

The bill allows districts to present a turnaround plan in which the district could be designated an “innovation district.” If after five consecutive years of bad tests scores at any district campus an “innovation district” would lose its designation and be subject to the above sanctions.

HB 1842 passed by large margins; 26-5 in the senate and 125-18 in the house. It is doubtful that many of the legislators fully understood that they were putting their constituent’s democratic rights in jeopardy when they voted for this bill.

In 2017, Senate Bill 1882 incentivized privatizing schools in minority neighborhoods. Sarah Becker an HISD parent and school psychologist explains,

“In the spring of 2017, just months before the sanctions of HB1842 were slated to go into effect; the legislature passed Texas Senate Bill 1882, which gave school boards another option for these so-called failing schools. SB1882 encouraged school districts to hand over control of these neighborhood schools to charter operators (referred to as “partnerships”) the year before schools would get ratings for the fifth year. In exchange, the school and its board would get a reprieve from Representative Dutton’s death penalty for two years and, as a bonus, would receive extra funding for every student enrolled in one of these charter-controlled schools.

“With one law the death penalty (1842) and the other law the price of clemency (1882), these two laws now work together to coerce local school boards to be the hand of privatizing their own neighborhood schools. One by one, schools are turned over to private, appointed organizations by local politicians that want to save their fledgling political careers, and in turn, these “partnerships” provide cover for conservative leaders that would have a hard time explaining to Texans how their state undermined local control of schools with state-mandated takeovers and closures.”

This combination of laws is based on the faulty premise that school quality can be measured by standardized testing. The famed education scholar Linda Hammond-Darling mentioned last week in an Ohio presentation,

“There’s about a 0.9 correlation between the level of poverty and test scores. So, if the only thing you measure is the absolute test score, then you’re always going to have the high poverty communities at the bottom and then they can be taken over.” (Emphasis added)

A correlation of 1 means it is a certainty and – 1 means it cannot happen. A correlation of 0.5 means there is a mild positive relationship. The 0.9 correlation with family wealth is the only correlation above 0.5 for any of the researched variables such as schools, teachers, sex or race.

In 1998, Noel Wilson wrote a major peer reviewed scholarly paper, “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error”. Wilson’s paper basically says that the level of error associated with standardized testing is so high it makes these tests unreliable as evaluative tools.

A year later, James Popham of the UCLA graduate school of education also wrote a peer reviewed paper on testing. In his Education Leadership article based on the paper he concluded,

“Educators should definitely be held accountable. The teaching of a nation’s children is too important to be left unmonitored. But to evaluate educational quality by using the wrong assessment instruments is a subversion of good sense. Although educators need to produce valid evidence regarding their effectiveness, standardized achievement tests are the wrong tools for the task.” (Emphasis added)

The science has not changed. Standardized test results will not evaluate a school’s quality but will identify poverty. The new approach in Texas guarantees that parents in minority mostly poor communities will have their democratic rights and public schools taken away. It may not be a racist intent but it certainly brings about a racist outcome. If this were not true at least one school in a majority white affluent neighborhood would be identified as “failing”.

TexasIR4_Correlated_w_RacePoverty2

HISD Parent Advocate Demographic Map of Houston Schools

Failure Demgraphics

Demographic Data from HISD

Houston’s Long Relationship with Destroy Public Education Ideology

Teach For America (TFA) or as my friend Ciedie Aech calls them the “teach-for-a-minute girls” came to Houston in 1991. A TFA teacher is a temporary employee with a bachelor’s degree and five-weeks of summer training from TFA. A new career teacher has a bachelor’s degree, a year of student teaching in conjunction with a year of teacher education classes. The TFA temp will normally leave after 2 years if not before. It would not be unusual for a career teacher to still be at a school 30-years later.

The new career teacher will likely not be confident or competent their first year. Most new teachers find an informal mentor on staff that guides them. The TFA temp normally does not have a clue about how unprepared they are. Because career teachers were so denigrated during their training, TFA teachers are reluctant to ask the advice of a veteran.

To label TFA teachers highly qualified or even qualified is to dissemble.

TFA is another of the destroy-public-education (DPE) organizations that only exists because of billionaire dollars. In her book Chronicle of Echoes, Mercedes Schneider documented that in 1995 TFA was $1.2 million in debt despite receiving a $2 million dollar federal grant.  Founder Wendy Kopp was able to scrape by with four $10 million gifts from the Broad foundation, the Dell foundation, Dan and Doris Fisher (Gap founders), and The Rainwater Charitable Funds. In 2011, the Walton Family gave TFA $49.5 million and since then money from billionaires has continuously poured in; even Houston’s own John Arnold has sent them more than $7 million.

In 1994, two teachers from TFA Houston with no training and three years teaching experience, Michael Feinberg and Dave Levin, founded KIPP charter school in Houston and New York. Schneider noted in Chronicle, “By 2000 Feinberg and Levin were receiving funding from Donald and Doris Fisher.” The Fisher’s co-founded the KIPP foundation where they were joined on the board by Carrie Walton Penner (Walmart heir), Mark Nunnely (Bain Capital) and Reed Hasting (Netflix) among others.

Chris Barbic another Houston TFA teacher with limited experience followed in Feinberg and Levin’s footsteps to founded YES Prep the next year. This charter was seen as miraculous. Gary Rubinstein was a fellow TFA teacher and personal friend of Barbic’s in Houston. He often shoots down miracle claims by charter schools. Gary wrote of Yes Prep,

“In 2010, YES was awarded a million dollars by Oprah Winfrey, in part because of their incredible record of getting 100% of their 12th graders to be accepted into college.  This was before people knew to ask, ‘But what percent of your 9th graders remained in the school to become 12th graders?’”

KIPP which uses a 19th century “no excuses” pedagogy has 25 schools in Houston and YES Prep has grown to 18 schools. Rubinstein concluded the article cited above with:

“So is YES Prep failing its Black students and then abandoning them when it serves YES for them to do so?  I can’t be certain, but the data makes me pretty confident that the answer is YES.”

YES Prep and KIPP are two more DPE organizations that only exist because a group of billionaires dedicated to privatizing public education gave them millions of dollars. It is not because they are superior schools but because they are not public.

The fraudulent “Texas miracle” that led to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act and the federal takeover of public education came from Houston. Roderick Paige was the HISD Superintendent that rode that “miracle” all the way to the office of United States Secretary of Education.

Paige’s strategy was to give bonuses to school leaders that hit bench marks and fire those that didn’t. Drop out rates plunged and test scores soared. Later in was learned that the “Texas miracle” like all school miracle claims was a fraud. They cooked the books on dropout data and principals raised 10th grade testing scores by holding low scoring 9th graders back and then promoting them to 11th grade the next time they were due to test.

It is close to a consensus conclusion that NCLB was a colossal and damaging failure. Its strategy of test and punish became test and privatize. Alfie Kohn published a 2004 article, “Test Today, Privatize Tomorrow; Using Accountability to ‘Reform’ Public Schools to Death.” In a 2008 addendum, he wrote of the suspicion that schools were purposely setup for failure:

“We now have corroboration that these fears were entirely justified. Susan Neuman, an assistant secretary of education during the roll-out of NCLB, admitted that others in Bush’s Department of Education ‘saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda – a way to expose the failure of public education and ‘“blow it up a bit’’’ (Claudia Wallis, ‘No Child Left Behind: Doomed to Fail?’, Time, June 8, 2008).”

Some Observations

With the HB 1842 and SB 1882, the Texas legislature has created an education code that eerily mirrors NCLB. It has reinstituted the test and punish theory using the same faulty methodology for evaluating schools – standardized testing. Is this the result of ignorance or something far more sinister?

Local Houston billionaire and former Enron trader John Arnold has joined forces with San Francisco billionaire Reed Hastings to privatize America’s schools. They have each pledged $100,000,000 to their new City Fund dedicated to selling the portfolio model of school governance. TEA Commissioner Mike Morath recently started the System of Great Schools which is a strategy roadmap and toolkit for implementing the portfolio model for school governance, a model that posits disruption and school privatization as good for Texas.

Fewer and fewer schools in a portfolio district are controlled by a vote of the community. I believe in democracy and local control. How do Texas politicians justify undermining democracy and local control? What a strange group of conservatives.

4 Responses to “Texas Hangs Sword of Damocles Over Houston Schools”

  1. melchi34 February 3, 2019 at 2:43 pm #

    The steps being used to take over HISD are not unique. The billionaires Arnold and Hastings subscribe to a type of thinking which does not recognize, even minimally, the needs of the students in the district. There will not be much difference in student performance as long as there are no changes in other factors which affect education. Los Angeles has made clear one of the things which things determine performance: smaller class size.
    There are other elements which affect performance and these investors happily ignore them. One of those things is reading. Again in the Los Angeles teachers strike it became apparent that there was a lack of libraries and librarians. Lack of libraries and librarians is correlated with poor reading achievement and academic performance.
    If the goal is to destroy public education then it seems they are headed in that direction. These politicians are the ones who sell out their electorate, and it would seem they do not read anything about education for they continue to repeat the same things that have been tried before while leaving every other thing in place at the school yet pretending to expect improvement. There are Democratic politicians among the people who authored the bills so they have bought into the destruction of the pub ed. Truly sad.

  2. drext727 February 4, 2019 at 12:58 pm #

    Reblogged this on David R. Taylor-Thoughts on Education.

  3. ciedie aech February 5, 2019 at 5:28 pm #

    “Standardized test results will not evaluate a school’s quality but will identify poverty. The new approach in Texas guarantees that parents in minority mostly poor communities will have their democratic rights and public schools taken away.” And all under the guise of convincing the nation that no one already working in those schools cares about the kids, that no one with any educator quality is willing to work inside those schools unless those who DO care aggressively intervene. How my blood pressure rises when I think about how very little anyone cared about my own, and my peers, ability, experience or dedication — all of us methodically pushed out the door as the TFA kids swarmed in.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Virulent Destroy Public Education Movement Rampaging in Texas | tultican - March 3, 2019

    […] Texas Hangs Sword of Damocles Over Houston Schools: Describes how the state’s new legal powers are being used to force Houston to privatize schools in minority zip codes. […]

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