How Houston ISD Policymaking Really Works… A story of trustee indifference & an academic chief putting PR first, students second.

Problem.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work…

We each elect our respective school board trustees based on who we think share our values on education. Those trustees come together as a board of education to set the direction for the district in the form of three major outputs:

  • Policy — directing outcomes the trustees expect from the schools (curriculum, discipline, nutrition athletics, etc);
  • Budget — funding the programs needed to execute those policies;
  • Superintendent — hired and managed to execute those policies and monies and report progress back to the board.

The superintendent hires a staff and faculty to carryout these programs and creates “administrative regulation” which is the manner in which she or he puts district policies and programs into action.

And round and round the cycle goes—trustees recognizing needs from constituents, leveraging the skills and passions we elected them for, and setting the course for the district and monitoring its progress.

Unfortunately, it usually works like this…

The board meets each month to react. They react to controversies. They react to personnel issues. They react to scandal. They react to budget shortfalls. They react to campus overcrowding, and they react to new state or federal laws. In their effort to react quickly, they look to the professionals to tell them what to do. They have the superintendent and his or her staff, consultants and external lawyers. All of these resources flow through the administration and each month that administration brings policy drafts and budget/expenditure requests to the board. This leaves the board to ask a handful of questions at a couple of meetings a month before they dutifully approve for the policies recommended by the administration.

Where’s the vision? Where’s the leadership we elected them for?

Example.

Let’s put this in the context of a real life example that leads up to a policy the board will vote on tonight.

Last year, during the spring administration of the STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness), many Houston parents joined a national movement to opt their children out of being tested. These parents based their decisions on a myriad of concerns including:

Over 70 students in Houston joined the hundreds of thousands around the country, said “No more!” and opted out of the STAAR. This raised awareness both locally and nationally. Just this summer, policies were changed in HISD to give campuses more autonomy on benchmark or practice tests, and in Austin and Washington, political leaders are taking a serious look at the snowball of testing created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

However, something else happened last year. Houston ISD administrators were caught off guard by parent participation in the movement and fumbled its response. Several rounds of misinformation and campus-level intimidation ensued, and then, embarrassed by the missteps, the administration and trustees were forced to “educate” their constituents with corrected information and made promises of fixing misunderstandings next year.

As usual, trustees were not proactive in addressing parental concerns and waited for the administration to determine if new policy was necessary. To our dismay, but not our surprise, administration brought forward a policy that was neither student-centered or respectful of parental rights.

Frankly, calling what they did bring forward a “policy” is somewhat of a stretch. The mere seven-sentence insert, titled Opt-Out Implications, to HISD’s larger Testing Programs policy is a handful of directives usually relegated to those “administrative regulations” that I mentioned before.

Here is the language that was presented to the board upon first reading in September and some immediate questions that come to mind…

20151112

Though this seven-sentence policy doesn’t actually change anything tangible for parents or students who choose to opt out, it does give the administration a tool to bully parents who are considering opting out and presents a singular opinion that all campuses must put forward with respect to opting out regardless of wide ranging support the opt out movement has among teachers and principals.

Public Relations First.

After the policy’s first reading and an outcry from parents and teachers, Dr. Andrew Houlihan, Houston ISD’s Chief Academic Offer, offered to meet with concerned parents to get their input. We thought he met with us in good faith. We even drafted reasonable requests for a broader, more proactive policy that clearly outlines expectations for student welfare when a parent exercises their opt-out rights.

Here are our letters to Dr. Houlihan before and after our meeting as well as his response.

Unfortunately, good faith is the last thing we appear to have been given.

While we awaited his consideration and response, training for campus test administrators was already underway. The below draft opt-out form and the text of the yet-to-be-approved board policy are already being included in this training.

assessment refusal form

Even if presented to faculty and staff as “draft,” the fact that we weren’t afforded the same visibility into these drafts during our meeting to provide input as well as the false commitment made in that meeting that our concerns would be taken into consideration when creating said drafts and training illustrate that our questions and concerns were meaningless—except as a token for public/board relations.

Real Policy.

So, if trustees found themselves concerned, wanted to lead on this issue and were interested in addressing parental concerns, what would a good opt out policy look like?

First—it would protect students and their learning environment. In opting out, parents are communicating a point to district administrators and state and national leaders. We can all agree that the children shouldn’t be put in the middle of disagreements among adults. If parents could be assured that their kids wouldn’t be coerced into taking tests if they show up on test days, parents would prefer to have them in school and getting alternative instruction for the day. And educators would prefer not to have kids absent and lose state attendance dollars.

Trustees should make it policy that alternative educational programing be made available to students who are present but not being assessed due to parent choice.

Second—it would protect students and their parents from bullying and intimidation by campus administrators. One of the unfortunate consequences of the high-stakes and tunnel vision on these scores is that occasionally the metrics trump the child. Last year, there were dozens of accounts of assistant principals and principals making disciplinary threats to students and parents that chose to be absent on test day.

Trustees should make it policy that no negative consequences will come to students or parents as a result of opting out, but additionally, based on past negative experiences, it should be policy that there be a dedicated place in the central administration for parents to raise urgent questions and concerns if they are feeling pressured or have experiences contradictory to this policy on test days.

Third—it would protect teachers and principals. In light of the focus HISD puts on these scores, the district should underscore with its faculty that respecting parental rights to opt out will not have a negative impact on them.

Trustees should make it policy that no performance criteria used for compensation or contract renewal decisions will include metrics that reference opt out participation or include zeros from opt out scorecards submitted to the TEA.

Challenge.

After watching the board for the past year, I have yet to see any policy that was trustee driven—and I don’t mean the text, I mean the ideas (maybe the recent authorization to hire an independent auditor for the bond program qualifies; it was certainly not the superintendent’s idea). Furthermore, 9 out of 10 times the board votes in favor of the administration’s proposals with little to no amendment.

This opt out policy is a small thing. Whether trustees agree or disagree with parents about the usefulness of STAAR, surely we all agree that parents should expect that they and their children will be treated with respect at all times.

So I ask:

Will the board take up these reasonable parent concerns? Will it direct the administration with new policy and expectations?

Or will this be another policy in a long line of policies that the administration directs the board to approve?

We shall see tonight.

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