Heaven, Hell, or Houston ISD

Nick Covington
Chris McNutt
September 19, 2023
The takeover of Houston ISD sits at the intersection of so many issues impacting American education today: democratic backsliding and the rise of authoritarianism; the so-called “parents’ rights movement”; testing and accountability measures; poverty, racism, and charter schools. We would be wise to understand what’s happening in Houston as a canary in the coal mine.
Photo of bookshelves shoved up against the wall to make room for desks in a library turned into a disciplinary center. Link

Houston Independent School District, the largest school district in Texas, is at the center of a controversial state takeover by the Texas Education Agency. After working its way through the legal system for several years, last winter the Texas Supreme Court greenlit the replacement of district superintendent and the locally elected board of trustees by the head of the TEA, appointed directly by the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott. And last month, school was back in session under the newly appointed superintendent, Mike Miles - former US State Department ambassador, charter school CEO, and scandal-ridden Dallas ISD superintendent - amid dozens of pedagogical and policy changes that left teachers, parents, and students confused, frustrated, and afraid.

In an effort to return “back to basics” and reinforce content knowledge to bolster test scores, the district has fundamentally transformed how educators can operate their classrooms in many schools across the district. Despite receiving an acceptable “B” score on the Texas School Report Card, New superintendent Miles stated in a recent district meeting, “We have a proficiency problem, we in HISD have not been able to close [the reading] gap for over 20 years.”

Among the most troubling changes is a strict “multiple-response strategy” where teachers must adhere to a four-minute timer to pause instruction and assess students for understanding - an intervention with seemingly no pedagogical justification. These strategies are paired with heavily scripted activities that are centered on drill and kill: repeat information over and over to memorize content. There has also been an increase in invasive admin walkthroughs to check for compliance with the scripted methods, which teachers and students have described as a distraction from learning. Teachers are required to keep a webcam on in their classroom at all times and their door must remain open. Defending these changes, Miles stated:

"Every classroom has a webcam and a Zoom link, and it’s on 24/7, if a kid is disruptive, we pull that student out of class. We put them in what we call a team center, and they’re being monitored by a learning coach, and they Zoom right back into the class they get pulled from."

Libraries in many schools have been transformed into disciplinary spaces where students are housed for infractions and receive instruction over Zoom. As a result, classrooms are recorded and broadcast at all times. The Houston Education Association and Houston Community Voices for Public Ed have done incredible work documenting dissenting voices. These policies mirror those found in “no excuses” charter schools that police, monitor, and dehumanize students to raise test scores at any cost.

A veteran Houston ISD teacher, who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of administrative backlash, reached out to back up these claims, describing the impact these reforms have  had on teachers and students:

…I left to teach at a Title 1 Houston ISD campus, so I'm getting the luxury to watch this mess unfold, and I assure you, there's definitely 'something rotten in Denmark" with what's happening to us.

My school is not NES nor NES-aligned, but Miles has carved his path in such a way that we're being evaluated multiple times a day, being forced to follow this horrible curriculum in a lesson cycle that as far as my research has found--has no pedagogical roots. It's literally drill and kill. Apparently this is a trend or something. Miles is something else and when you Google him or any of the administrations around him calling the shots, you'll not see any pedigree of education, but multi-millionaire board members whose backgrounds are in gentrification projects and such.

I'm exhausted by the end of the day. Texas teachers are evaluated all the same, using the T-Tess system--well except us now. Their move to push through that District of Innovation leads me to believe they simply want to weed anyone who was part of the old system out. It absolutely feels like he's pushing to make us all quit. We were notified that although we're given 10 sick days for the year, if we've taken 4 days leave by November or so, we will be terminated. We had an impromptu faculty meeting and had to sign that we'd gotten notification of this. Plus that we'll be evaluated different.

Before the takeover, HISD was told to shape up or that's the end of the line. We scored a "B" as a district in the last ratings and still are being taken over. The Abbot/Morath/Miles steamroller is moving right along.

Being a District of Innovation will be the coup de gras for us, really. He wants to add weeks to the school year, he's already firing any teachers who simply ask questions, and he's even gaming the system in many ways to ensure that he'll have "results." Special Education? Accommodations? Support structures for at-risk students? All gutted. It's hard to believe this stuff is legal.

I'm stressed and miserable. It's hard to believe some of the insane stories about his demands--but I assure you they are true. Teaching with doors open, such a security risk. Stuff like no snack time in elementary if it's not tied to a Texas standard. I at least teach...But we all were forced to watch an hour or so musical he put on that would rival anything out of North Korea.

At this pace and the way things are going, I just can't sustain it. I can't stand seeing such a grift ruin education as it's doing. We definitely had issues as a district but this can't be the best solution. I'll try to make it this year, but I'm beginning to apply elsewhere. My students were often successful at the state test, but it's a crazy world when I teach…and am afraid to ask to take a class day to show my students the library and have them check out books. It's nuts.

Of course please don't use my name or anything that might come back to bite me... As Miles promised in his introduction to us that "he'd find out whose spreading dissent and act" and by most accounts that's exactly what's been occurring.

Parents and community members have flooded school board meetings with accounts from teachers who are similarly afraid to speak out, for fear of losing their jobs, as teachers who question the changes have been labeled “insubordinate” and had their jobs threatened. Parents have also spoken publicly about how the changes have affected their own children, as one mother recounted to the board before having her mic cut-off:

“For the last week, I’ve had a kid that cries every morning and every evening. Crying not to go to school, and beginning not to go in the morning. She says school’s boring, she’s not learning, and she’d rather be homeschooled at this point…She’s miserable. Her confidence is plummeting, and she’s starting to lose her joy for learning.”

At a board meeting on September 14th, a 12-year-old HISD student delivered prepared remarks about the disruptive timers, distracting admin walkthroughs, and palpable teacher stress. The board cut her mic, too:

“Due to the new open door policy, I and many other students have a hard time concentrating due to the many distractions in the hallways. Isn’t it your first priority to have kids in HISD like me learn? Students should be in a place they want to go to inst- (mic is cut off)”

The morning after that heated board meeting, I spoke with Karina Quesada-Leon, a Houston ISD parent, activist, and former teacher who  spoke on the devastating impact of these changes on the majority Hispanic/Latino district, the impact of the takeover of teachers, families, and students, and how they are experiencing the so-called “New Educational System” of Superintendent Mike Miles. Quesada-Leon and other families are banding together to push back against these dehumanizing reforms.

Listen to the full podcast with Karina Quesada-Leon.

The takeover of Houston ISD sits at the intersection of so many issues impacting American education today: democratic backsliding and the rise of authoritarianism; the so-called “parents’ rights movement”; testing and accountability measures; poverty, racism, and charter schools. We would be wise to understand what’s happening in Houston as a canary in the coal mine. Reactionary governors around the country will be watching closely, taking notes, and planning their own takeovers of heavily unionized, majority non-white urban school districts they find politically troublesome.

As we wrote in our review of Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider’s book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door:

“The neo-conservative project of the last 40 years has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: to break public institutions and undermine public faith in them to demonstrate how broken they are and how glad we should be to part with them.

While it’s the role of the public to debate and disagree on the means and ends of education, public schools, including public charters, are made better by mass democratic participation in shaping them to meet the needs of the communities, families, and students they serve. That process is not served by the abdication of state and local - and increasingly federal - governments in their failure to meet those needs and subsequently handing the reins, as well as the purse, over to market forces and tycoons to cash in. How do sincere people take an honest account of the real need for educational change while recognizing that the narrow, unpopular ideological program of the would-be unmakers is also antithetical to the project of democracy?”

And as Quesada-Leon remarked in our discussion, “All of these laws were [passed with] bipartisan support. It’s a Republican and Democrat thing.” Houston ISD is a case study in how “back to basics” school reform harms young people, families, and educators – reminding us that we must remain steadfast and organize and advocate for human-centered policies that affirm identities and care in our schools. These opportunistic, reductive systems dehumanize teachers and students alike. But we must also understand how these changes are part of a broader mission to deprofessionalize educators, weaken teacher’s unions, and reduce education to inputs/outputs; simplifying classrooms into boring, often outright hostile, spaces for all involved. In the early 2010s, a previous HISD superintendent implemented a $60 million program intended to “radically transform twenty of the district’s worst-performing schools” in ways that look much like Mike Miles’s “New Education System” today. The result was an expensive and dehumanizing disaster. Student enrollment at Apollo schools declined dramatically as students transferred out of the “high-stress environment,” and one teacher reported a colleague who fantasized about “deliberately crashing her car so she’d have an excuse not to come to school.” 

We are right to resist these antidemocratic and dehumanizing systems, and as Jennifer and Jack remind us, "The best way to drive off a wolf is to band together and fight back.” The "New Education System" of Mike Miles is not aligned with what we know contributes to a humane education and a thriving learning environment. Stress, anxiety, and dehumanization are inevitable when the humanity of adults and students in schools is not honored and respected. At Human Restoration Project, we believe education is rooted in purpose-finding and community relevance; social justice is the cornerstone to educational success; dehumanizing practices do not belong in school; and learners are respectful toward each other's innate human worth. Let us commit to ensuring a thriving public education for all, and let's restore humanity to education, together!

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Nick Covington
Nick taught social studies for 10 years in Iowa and has worked as a labor organizer. He is currently the Creative Director at the Human Restoration Project.
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Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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