Should a teacher stay or should a teacher go? Help HISD decide how to answer this question.

Getting little attention this week but certainly one of the most important decisions up for a vote by the Houston ISD School Board is the matter of how to evaluate every teacher in the district. Very few parents know much about this system. At best, a preceptive parent will know the significant stress their teachers have about STAAR scores, but I’ll explain why all of us should care about the details.

This Thursday, after just recently voting to cut funding to classrooms by millions, the HISD School Board will vote to renew a contract worth close to $700,000 for a 3rd party to evaluate teachers (Agenda Page 76). A contract to a company who is the only bidder. A contract in which bids weren’t even taken — pretty bold for a district that has been rife with procurement scandals.


All in the name of accountability.

Prior to 2011 in HISD, teachers were evaluated in a traditional manner — through occasional observations by their principals. In 2011, in an effort to improve upon the system and doing so at a time when Terry Grier’s HISD was looking to be more “data-driven,” the district decided to adopt a completely new evaluation system. The new system would utilize STAAR scores as 50% of a teacher’s evaluation (later changed to 30%) for all teachers in STAAR grades and subjects (majority). The rest of the evaluation came from a complex rubric with inputs from principals or other administrators. However, since 50% of principal evaluations are based STAAR scores and the annual superintendent bonuses were determined by metrics 100% derived from STAAR scores, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand what mattered most. STAAR.

And it gets worse.

Houston ISD doesn’t merely track scores and rank its teachers. To counter concerns about the fairness of judging different teachers with different kids by a single standard, HISD outsources the process to data analytics giant SAS. While being cash-strapped and cutting millions from classroom budgets, HISD has paid millions of dollars for a proprietary formula from SAS — a secret formula — parts of which have been determined invalid by statistical experts.

Underlying it all though is the flawed STAAR assessment itself. There are ALL kinds of reasons why a child might perform poorly on this single assessment given on a single day of the year. Those reasons include anxiety, depression, domestic issues, not eating breakfast, presence of a disability, language barriers, among others, and many of which are correlated to poverty.  Research has been conducted that demonstrates that these tests are correlated with socioeconomic status and are NOT sensitive to instruction. Let that sink in. The tests are NOT sensitive to instruction

Now, I ask you:

Is poverty the teacher’s fault? No. Poverty isn’t the teacher’s fault.

Can we hold teachers accountable based on a measure that doesn’t measure a teacher’s effectiveness? No. We cannot.

The results of this policy are disastrous. Teachers say they teach the same way every year yet one year they get high ratings on their evaluation and the next year they’re placed on a growth plan. Additionally, because this model is ineffective, our very best teachers don’t put up with being evaluated by it and leave. And the good teachers that do stay are incented to move out of schools with high concentrations of poverty.

Each year, rather than finding and rewarding great teachers for doing hard work and staying in the district, HISD pays large recruiting bonuses to bring teachers to tough schools or pays Teach for America significant finders fees to fill its roster with novice teachers direct from being students themselves.

Another terrible side effect is that your child feels the stress.

Some teachers, under extraordinary pressure, end up conveying to their students that their job depends on student STAAR performance. An easy thing to communicate when teachers are already telling their students being promoted at the end of the year is determined by passing STAAR as well. Teachers and students in the same high stakes boat. A boat they get into starting in 3rd grade.

Over the years since this change in HISD, we’ve arrived a place where the majority of teachers in HISD have less than 5 years experience and STAAR scores directly determine a teacher’s livelihood. When opt-out parents say they’re protesting “high stakes” assessments, this is at the top of the list. Because why should a questionable assessment given on a single day of the year determine the outcome of whether a teacher stays or whether a teacher goes?

So this is where you come in. Our school board has a weak stomach. They don’t like to be the center of controversy. They like their pictures in the paper handing out awards and being admired by their communities. They do not like being blamed for unhappy teachers or unhappy parents. And they certainly don’t like the appearance they are wasting “hard earned tax dollars.”

We must speak up.

Call or email the board, but calling is a lot harder to ignore.

Dial HISD Board Services at 713.556.6121 and leave a message for all trustees to “Vote No on EVAAS Contract Extension.”

If we ring the phone off of the hook for two days straight ahead of this board meeting, we might just win this one back. We are likely 4 votes for, 4 votes against with 1 undecided. A large amount of calls and emails might just push us over the top and reverse this 5 year disaster of teacher management and culture.

Teachers forced to time student bathroom breaks during STAAR


In response to this post, many have responded that the rationale behind the required test time tracking is from the new law passed last session by the Texas Legislature, HB 743, which does a number of things to limit the amount of standardized testing our children receive. Here is an excerpt of that new law and an explanation of why the criticism still stands.

(a-12) An assessment instrument adopted or developed under Subsection (a) must be designed so that:

(1) if administered to students in grades three through five, 85 percent of students will be able to complete the assessment instrument within 120 minutes; and

(2) if administered to students in grades six through eight, 85 percent of students will be able to complete the assessment instrument within 180 minutes.

It doesn’t take a legal scholar to determine the intent of this law. The TEA knows that the testing window for these exams is far longer than the law allows, and whether a student has completed the assessment or not, the student is required to sit at his/her desk for the entire administration.

Furthermore, the TEA’s assertion that it needs this new data to determine how much to shorten the tests is not only circumventing the intention of the law, it is also dishonest. The TEA collected this data via sampling of tens of thousands of test takers last year and knows exactly how long students are spending on these assessments. See the graphic below made available by a public information request by Scott Placek.


Collecting additional behavioral data of the test taker without explanation or consent (much less legal authority to do so) is unethical and makes the case for opting out that much stronger.

Another aspect of HB 743 that TEA is choosing to ignore…

(a-11) Before an assessment instrument adopted or developed under Subsection (a) may be administered under that subsection, the assessment instrument must, on the basis of empirical evidence, be determined to be valid and reliable by an entity that is independent of the agency and of any other entity that developed the assessment instrument.

I think our state’s education agency not following the law while spending hundreds of millions of dollars on standardized testing is a reasonable thing about which to “gripe” (as some critics have described). As do tens of thousands of other parents around the state and hundreds of thousands around the country that are opting out. If you do, join the movement and OPT OUT NOW.

>>> Original Post >>>

While Ben and I have been advocating against the use of high stakes testing in Houston ISD for the last year or so, we have spoken with many parents who truly do not grasp how big this monster has become.

A common question we hear is: “We took tests when we were kids—what’s the big deal?”

For answers to that question, see here, here and here.

bathroombreak3However, the Texas Education Agency created yet another example of testing mania this year by establishing new requirements for “Additional Student Data Collection” for administrators of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR). You can download STAAR administration procedures for Grades 3-5 here, for Grades 6-8 here, and for high school here.


For parents who are unaware, this manual is given to all teachers and other school personnel who are administering the STAAR test to your children. Parents should read it-it is a glimpse into the enormous pressure under which are educators are placed as it details all the various ways an educator can put their teaching certificate in jeopardy related to the STAAR test. Oh, and the one for administering the test to 3rd-5th graders? It’s 108 pages. 108 pages to explain to teachers how to administer this test!bathroombreak2
If you are a parent, I think you would be especially interested to know Appendix D of this year’s 3rd-5th grade manual (page 12 of manual for grades 6-8) explains to educators new requirements this year: recording a student’s Total Testing Time and Total Break Time.
The first requirement, making a record of how long it takes the student to complete the test doesn’t get me too fired up. I DO think these tests are WAY longer than is developmentally appropriate, and longer than some tests adults take for professional licensure, so maybe (?) this data collection can go to support this. Although I don’t really believe TEA needs to know these things on an individual student level.

bathroombreak1Anyway, it’s the second requirement that makes me very upset as a parent. The second requirement mandates that teachers keep track of all breaks a student takes and then records the total amount of break time your child took during the test. This means that every time your child goes to the bathroom, or takes a movement break, or in some schools puts their head down on a desk, the teacher is watching and tracking. Initially, this may sound innocuous, but think about the intrusiveness of this data collection–the state of Texas now demands to know when your daughter goes to the bathroom during the STAAR test?!?

As a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology I give all kinds of assessments to children, and I would never be allowed to collect that level of data on a student without parental consent. This is highly sensitive data. TEA has not offered the public any explanation of its use. Will it be used to identify cheating (seems impossible given the method they are using) or to extrapolate who might have test anxiety? The truth is, we don’t know. We don’t know why TEA would collect this kind of data on OUR children. In my opinion, this is a HUGE govermental overreach into our children’s privacy and being done so without explanation or consent.

So, when people ask me what’s the big deal with the test? How is it different than what we took when we were kids? This is the difference. No one was tracking how much time you were spending in the bathroom or with your head down on the desk. Your teachers weren’t threatened with losing their teaching certificate if they spoke about the content of the test. Hell, they weren’t threatened with losing their jobs if your test scores were low. All of those things are differences and examples of the nightmare this testing mania has become.

We have to ask ourselves why has this happened? It has happened because we have put SO much emphasis on the test. It is the SINGLE measure whereby we judge students, teachers, principals, schools and school districts. No wonder we are doing crazy things like timing bathroom breaks. By putting this kind of pressure on one day of the school year, we have lost sight of true education.

If you find it it as appalling as I do that the Texas Education Agency wants to track when your child takes each bathroom break during a week of testing, there is an easy solution. Withdraw your consent. Withdraw your consent from timed bathroom breaks. From teachers monitoring lunch table conversation for cheating. From corporations monitoring your child’s twitter account for discussion of the test. From students, teachers and principals being punished for low test scores that have little to do with what takes place in the classroom. OPT OUT of the system. There’s strength in numbers. Let’s use it.


A Vote for Suspending First Graders is a Vote to Keep HISD’s School-to-Prison Pipeline 

At last month’s board meeting, as a part of a group of parents from Community Voices for Public Education, I attended the Houston ISD School Board meeting in order to advocate for parents who are planning to opt their children out of the state-mandated STAAR test. You can read more about that movement and its progress in the Texas Observer.

While I felt strongly about that issue, there is something else that captured my attention at that meeting—the debate that the trustees held regarding banning the use of suspensions for our youngest children ages 4 through about 7 years old.

It was fascinating and infuriating to watch for many reasons. You can read the actual policy proposal on Page 154 #3 of November’s board agenda and the type of broad based support it has here, here and here, but the summary is that the policy would ban suspensions in Grades 2 and below, and for students in Grades 3, 4 and 5, it makes suspension the discipline of last resort.

This policy is sound for many reason including:

  • There is no research to support the idea that student behavior improves with exclusionary discipline practices. In fact, research shows that student behavior problems are more likely to be exacerbated and decrease the student’s chances for success in school later. 
  • Research shows that suspensions damage the teacher-student bond and bonds with other adults in the school setting. Children need to develop these bonds in order to be successful in school.
  • Suspensions are not developmentally appropriate for 4-7 year olds as they have not yet developed the cognitive skills necessary to understand the punishment.
  • Doing away with suspensions has been done in other districts and schools across the country and has been successful. 
  • Suspensions are applied disproportionately to students of color and students with disabilities. According to the Office of Civil Rights, African-American students were nearly three times as likely to be suspended and 3.5 times as likely to be expelled than their white peers. Students with disabilities are suspended and expelled at a rate roughly twice that of their non-disabled peers. HISD’s own data reflects these disturbing gaps in the application of policy.

As an LSSP, I have seen firsthand the effects suspension has on children, and they are severe. 

President Skillern-Jones said it well during public debate that suspension for our youngest was an ineffective solution to root problems. She explained accurately that once kids are suspended, they go home to no educational activity or enrichment (often to the environment that is the source of the problem in the first place), and they then come back to campus with a negative view of school PLUS are behind academically when they return. These negative views and further academic gaps then snowball with the original issue.

Fundamentally, suspensions accelerate a student towards failure. 

Suspension does terrible things for the student-teacher relationship and the student-administrator relationship. It sends the message to the child that the school cannot handle their bad behavior, which is a terrible message to send. Skillern-Jones also brought up the fact that in these youngest students cognitive skills are not sufficiently developed to a point that suspensions are understood as a punishment such that it is remembered and impacts their future behavior.

Furthermore, these negative effects add to HISD’s discriminatory environment as suspensions are experienced disproportionately by children of color and by males. Board President Rhonda Skillern-Jones offered many facts during last month’s discussion including that in Texas 13% of the elementary school students are black, but account for 42% of Pre-K through 2nd Grade suspensions.

HISDSuspensionsChronGraphicsource: HISD student suspensions in five graphics by Ericka Mellon

Banning suspensions for such young students is a sound policy and would put a serious dent at the beginning of HISD’s school-to-prison pipeline. As the largest district in Texas, Houston ISD could be a leader for the state.

Unfortunately, as you can guess, the Board of Trustees disappointed its stakeholders and experts yet again and failed to pass the policy as recommended by administrators.

What happened was a brilliant political move by Trustee Harvin Moore, from the River Oaks area. After relaying a story of how his 4-year-old son benefitted from an afternoon suspension from an elite, private preschool and had to spend the afternoon with his mother, he offered an amendment that gutted the policy by changing it to read that suspensions could be used as a last resort.

Does Mr. Moore think that the thousands of young children suspended in HISD are really comparable to his son being sent home for throwing rocks at a private preschool? Does he really think that administrators are using suspensions today as something other than a last resort? What principal says, “Well, I’ll try suspending this kid, but if his behavior continues, then I’ll be forced to do something else.”

Mr. Moore is clearly out of touch.

Alas, his amendment was accepted and the policy passed first reading as amended with only two trustees voting against it—effectively leaving suspension policy as is.

I was particularly disappointed in my Trustee from District I, Anna Eastman. She is educated as a social worker, and as such, should have known that keeping our youngest children in school and finding solutions to root causes of behavior problems was sound public policy. If there is anything that gives me hope, it was the passion that President Rhonda Skillern-Jones has displayed for change on this issue. She truly advocated for the best for all students and was the only one willing to speak out on their behalf. I can’t wait to see more of her advocacy in action.

I hope the trustees will reconsider the original form of the policy when it comes back for second reading this Thursday. They should realize that suspension of 4, 5 and 6-year-olds is not a tool in the discipline toolbox. It is an ineffective, discriminatory practice that creates much bigger problems and must be eliminated now. There are societal consequences of using suspension for discipline, which include setting children on a negative path and exacerbating inequality.

A vote for suspensions of our youngest is a vote to keep HISD’s school-to-prison pipeline alive and well.

Allow me to briefly introduce my wife, Sarah Becker, the author of this post. She is a licensed specialist in school psychology, has worked in public schools for 10 years and is mother to our three kids. She feels just as strongly as I do about the inadequacies of Houston ISD’s Board of Trustees and chose to write this piece to draw attention to an important education and social justice issue coming before them again this week.