Politics Over Kids

Politics Over Kids

The Houston ISD school board recently passed a measure to spend more meeting time discussing student outcomes. This policy measure – which has taken months to pass – is an obvious step in the right direction, but the fact that three trustees opposed it reveals how far our district still has to go. It is no secret that several trustees will oppose any policy measure that comes from the state, simply because it comes from the state. There are a range of issues that allow people of good will to disagree, but a laser-focus on kids should not be one of them in making policy for a school district. While a focus (in terms of time spent) on student outcome goals is a mandate from the state-appointed conservator, it is also a basic tenant of good governance. This should be a no-brainer for those leading the school district, but we have gotten to a place where political posturing is more important than talking about whether or not kids are learning in our schools.

Some will say they don’t like the connection between student outcomes and the STAAR, a standardized test that has taken up too much time and space in Texas classrooms, but it should be noted that the school board has the authority – according to state guidelines – to use other metrics for defining “student outcomes,” as long as those metrics are measurable and offer real information about what our children know and are able to do. It seems that some members of this board aren’t interested in finding out whether or not we’re meeting the academic needs of the children in this district.

Another recent policy measure that sadly demonstrated some trustees’ willingness to put politics before children was the vote to end the contract with Teach for America (TFA) as a district vendor. Since 1991, Teach for America has recruited potential teachers to apply to Houston ISD schools through HISD’s alternative certification program. Principals pay the organization out of their own school budgets for recruitment and ongoing professional development, as they would for any other teacher – both traditionally and alternatively certified. The controversy surrounding Teach for America specifically is the result of entrenched political ideology and has very little to do with HISD schools and students.

This decision only results in a smaller applicant pool and fewer options for principals. The district has hundreds of vacancies to fill in the next 10 weeks and sits in a state where over 50% of public school teachers enter the profession through alternative certification. Teach for America Houston has a long track record of recruiting and placing teachers in critical needs positions (Bilingual/ESL, STEM fields, etc.). To claim that the system is somehow improved by ending this option for principals – the people in the district who are most keenly aware of the needs of their schools and communities – is illogical at best. We face major problems in recruiting, developing, and properly compensating educators, and history has shown us that many of the aforementioned vacancies will remain unfilled and/or filled by teachers (likely alternatively certified) working outside their area of content expertise. Ending this long-term partnership does not help the district’s budget; it does not help school leaders, and it does not help kids.

The Time is NOW

The Time is NOW

If you’re reading this, you are probably more active in the politics of education than most Houstonians. You probably already know that this is a school board election year, and you may have plans to participate in some way, even if only as a voter. Sadly, most members of our community do not have similar plans. In fact, average voting rates – among eligible voters – in Houston school board elections regularly fall below 10%. We want to change that.

Houston GPS recognizes that our system can only improve with the inclusion of more voices, and we cannot wait until November to start talking about elections. Our work to equip and inform voters must start now. Find out how you can help here.

Every Voice Counts

Every Voice Counts

At Houston GPS, we continually advocate for better school board governance and for sound, transparent policies that will lead to student success. We take our role as advocates very seriously, and we continually strive to engage as much of the broader Houston community in the process as possible. The sad reality is that most citizens of this city don’t know much about the work of the school board and the decisions they make on a regular basis. In our work to help parents, educators, and all concerned Houstonians navigate this system, we hope to both educate and empower them. Because school district governance is often shrouded in mystery, many of the decisions made by the school board are influenced by just a handful of people. It is not at all uncommon for small groups of people with targeted interests – both political and financial – to have an outsized voice in the deliberative process, and many will claim to speak on behalf of “the community,” rather than actually providing more opportunities for community members to speak for themselves.

Part of our #EquityHISD campaign has been to elevate the voices of parents and community members who have not been heard in the important discussions about the direction of the largest school district in Texas. Access to district information and even to public school board meetings continues to be a problem for too many parents and families around the city. Translation and interpretation services are limited; live streams and video recordings of board meetings are not close-captioned (in any language); meetings are long and cumbersome, and public speaking rules favor those who are already familiar with the system. As the board considers questions about equity, it is our hope that they consider these access issues as well and works to include more voices from across the district.

Hear from one Kashmere parent here. To have your voice heard, consider joining us at the next meeting of the HISD Board of Education on March 21, 2019 at 5 pm.

A Look Back at Fall 2018

A Look Back at Fall 2018

The HISD Board of Education spent 15% of their time discussing student outcomes in the fall of 2018.

Assigning individual accountability grades to Houston ISD school board trustees for the fall of 2018 was difficult. As board meetings became more divisive and less productive, it was hard to distinguish trustee actions from the overall performance of the board. What has become clear is that too many of the current trustees view their position as a political stepping stone or a platform to air all of their political grievances. This was evidenced repeatedly in the inordinate amount of time spent on agenda items like city land board appointments and trustees’ feelings about the Lone Star Governance system. This board has been so caught up in personal conflicts and political ideology that it has quite literally shut down options for students and eschewed progress.


If the school board is going to move forward, we hope all of its members will make good on the promises they made to the public last October, after the attempted midnight-swap of interim superintendents. We hope trustees will renew a commitment to focus on student outcomes by both acknowledging that they haven’t been as focused as they need to be and pursuing inclusive, transparent policy solutions. This will require time, hard work, and an end to using the same political talking-points to shut down conversations. Specifically, we suggest the following:


1.) Maintain boardroom decorum, even among community speakers. This isn’t about respectability; it’s about actually getting things done. Several raucous meetings during 2018 resulted in both trustees and community members being shouted down by protesters. This is unacceptable and frequently resulted in extremely long meetings with virtually no policy solutions. We hope that the board can find a way to ensure that business can be conducted and community members can be heard without violence or arrests.


2.) Obtain authentic community input. So many of the voices that are heard at board meetings and in the media come from people who are far removed from the biggest issues facing the district. Not a single parent from the four sanctions-triggering schools was heard at the December board meeting. Not one. As the board begins a community “listening tour” for the superintendent search, we hope trustees will prioritize hearing from current parents and students, especially those in areas that have been traditionally underserved and the district’s 21 Improvement Required campuses.


3.) Work toward solutions. As the HISD policy team and many others work to bring more funding to the district this legislative session, we need school board trustees to seek out better ways to recruit and retain excellent teachers and principals, better ways to meet the needs of children, and better ways to improve student outcomes. Rather than proudly announcing what they won’t do, trustees should pursue policies that provide communities with more opportunities for success. Rather than playing the blame-game, trustees need to take accountability for the things that are in their control. No amount of money can replace good governance.

Moving forward, despite setbacks

Moving forward, despite setbacks

December 10, 2018

The Houston GPS team remains focused on educating the public about what school boards do and holding school board members accountable for upholding the principles of good governance and ultimately, improving student outcomes. We realize that since our work began in 2017, we have made some steps forward in our mission but also faced several setbacks in the Houston Independent School District.

We incredibly proud of our push to bring a comprehensive, external performance audit to the district, and the Legislative Budget Board’s review – the first in nearly 25 years – is already underway.  While we celebrate this step toward greater transparency and better use of district funds, we must acknowledge that this year has also brought some of the worst examples of how focus, collaboration, and governance can completely fall apart.

In the midst of a potential state takeover, abrupt personnel changes, and continued teacher shortages in the schools that need the most support, several HISD board meetings ended in secret backroom deals, public airing of grievances, and even a few unnecessary arrests. And while we appreciate the board’s October apology, we would prefer a body that operates within its own policy guidelines, that seeks long-term solutions instead of short-term power plays, and that focuses on student outcomes rather than adult issues.

As we move into a new calendar year, the Houston GPS team will continue attending school board meetings. We will keep offering our evaluation of each trustee and the entire board and hosting public forums on major issues in public education. Most importantly, we will continue insisting that the Houston ISD school board govern this district in a way that will move all students forward. In 2019, we will push farther, dig deeper, and demand more. Our kids deserve nothing less.

Instead of a blog post this month, we encourage you to read this op-ed by Matt Barnes concerning the governance of HISD’s Board of Education. The following article is from the Houston Chronicle, available on its website.

Houston ISD’s misdiagnosis and the cure [Opinion]

There is nothing worse than misdiagnosing a disease. A stomach pain gets treated with an antacid and pain reliever when ulcer surgery is actually required. The patient wastes precious resources and time, making treatment more difficult.

I fear the Houston Independent School District’s board of trustees has misdiagnosed its core problems.

In recent years, the HISD board has argued over what problem to fix. Some believe the problem is aging schools, or too few neighborhood schools, or too few magnets, or too many magnets, or schools named after Confederate soldiers or maybe it’s the ethnicity of the superintendent. The list is long, but this disagreement over the problem leads to the same behavior: otherwise sane board members abandoning reason and decorum in order to battle for their preferred solution to their preferred problem. Meanwhile, another cohort of students enter the world of work grossly unprepared.

Having sat on six educational boards from Early Start/Head Start through university and having consulted with several districts over the years, I see a different set of root problems that should be obvious to all.

The first, and most egregious problem, is the common enemy that should unite the board and the larger Houston community. This problem is that our district is producing far too many students who are chronically and predictably unprepared to compete in the global economy.

Look at any measure of academic performance and there is no other conclusion that can be reached. Until the board becomes laser focused on student outcomes, it will continue prescribing antacid tablets and arguing amongst themselves about which brand is best. Every meeting, every conversation, every act should be with this singular purpose in mind. Without it, another generation of students will be lost.

The second core problem is related to the first, and it is no surprise. It is governance. No institution can function without good governance. Not a business, not a family and not a school district. Governance sets a clear vision, with meaningful and measurable goals, and then places achievement of these goals on the leader’s desk. For any district, good governance means closely monitoring the progress while keeping board trustees’ hands out of operational duties. I have heard of board members bargaining with superintendents about personnel decisions, pressing for funding of specific programs and, yes, advocating for certain contractors. Terrible.

This is what happens when governance breaks down and, make no mistake, its corrosive effects reach the entire district. From the superintendent who has to spend her time managing nine different board members with nine different agendas, to the principal who fears board members’ meddling, to the teacher who gets discouraged because board members’ behavior is not aligned to her daily struggle to educate kids, to the parent who is distracted from the real and persistent academic gaps facing her child, to students who feel like pawns in some larger war, poor governance destroys organizations from the top down.

Effective governance is the least sexy part of running a district but, as witnessed over the last several months, its absence is the surest way to destroy an institution.

Let me add one more root problem. And this time, I’ll place myself (and possibly you) under the bus. As critical as I am about the current board, at least its members are in the fight. For whatever reason, they stepped forward to lead. I thank them for this. But it’s time for a change.

Many of us have had lots of board experience. We know how to move an organization toward a goal that matters. We know how to hold a CEO accountable and how to monitor and plan for financial matters. And we also care about education and the future of Houston’s youth. So the last problem is the lack of competent citizens running for the HISD school board.

Believe me, I know all of the reasons why no one would want to run. But, if last week taught us anything, it showed how important capable, rational and outcome-focused leadership is to the district’s effectiveness.

So, those of you who understand good governance. Those of you uninterested in using the school board to position yourself for a statewide office. Those of you uninterested in shepherding contracts or jobs to your friends. Those of you who are as angry as I am about young people growing up unprepared for adult life. Get ready. The cure to HISD’s governance problem starts with us running (and voting) in 2019.

Don’t Forget to Vote!

Don’t Forget to Vote!

October 8, 2018

While our focus at Houston GPS continues to be local school board issues, we cannot forget that so many of the policies enacted at the state and national level impact our schools and our kids. Tuesday, October 9, is the last day to register to vote in the 2018 elections. The November ballot will include national, state, and county races.

One of the major issues that Texans continue to face is the funding of public schools in our state. How do our legislators approach school funding and what steps are being taken to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality public education? How committed are our elected officials to promoting equity throughout the system? How do policies and regulations across industries affect public education? These are the questions we should consider as we head to the polls this year.

Now is the time for citizens to make sure that their voices are heard. If you’re already registered, make sure your family, friends, and neighbors are registered as well. Establish a plan for voting and take someone with you to the polls! Election day is Tuesday, November 6, and early voting runs from October 22 through November 2, 2018.

For more information about voting dates and locations, visit the Harris County Clerk website.

Lessons in Leadership From Our Friends to the North

Lessons in Leadership From Our Friends to the North

September 10, 2018

This post is particularly difficult to write because it requires acknowledging the hard work and innovation that has spurred significant school system improvement in… Dallas. The second largest school district in Texas, Dallas ISD, has just reported that current student enrollment has passed projections for the year – marking a reversal in the trend of declining student numbers.

This downward trend has not been unique to Dallas, however. Houston ISD has seen the same problem in recent years, and nothing illustrates the detrimental effects of low enrollment more than the financial situation created by the state’s recapture school finance laws. The broken school finance system does indeed squeeze resources out of large, urban districts, and that squeeze is only made worse as fewer students stay in the district.

Rather than focusing exclusively on the notorious difficulties in changing things at the state level, district leaders in Dallas have set clear budgeting priorities and supported a number of initiatives focused on improving student outcomes. The results from the TEA this summer indicate substantial academic growth, and Dallas parents are now voting with their feet.

Find out more here.

Budget Priorities

Budget Priorities

August 6, 2018

It is true that we have a money problem, but adding more money to a budget with no vision-aligned priorities or clear understanding of whether or not programs are working will put us in the same position year after year. We have a vision problem.

As we begin a new school year, it’s important to remind ourselves of the primary duties of a school board. According to the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB), they are:

  • Create and communicate a vision and goals for the district.
  • Adopt policies that inform district actions.
  • Hire a superintendent to serve as the chief executive officer and evaluate the superintendent’s success.
  • Approve an annual budget consistent with the district vision.

Although most citizens recognize budget approval as a primary function of the school board, we don’t often take notice of how well school board members are crafting a budget that is consistent with a cohesive vision for our students. Are we spending money – the right amounts of money –  on things that will actually move the needle forward?

One of the reasons why Houston GPS pushed so hard for approval of a comprehensive performance audit of the budget last year was because the audit would provide an examination of both how our tax money is spent and how well our tax money is spent. This type of deep-dive is the best way to assess both the board’s ability to manage the budget and to prioritize expenditures according to a cohesive vision. It is true that we have a money problem, but adding more money to a budget with no vision-aligned priorities or clear understanding of whether or not programs are working will put us in the same position year after year. We have a vision problem.

Nothing illustrates our district’s struggle with establishing vision-aligned priorities more than the current teacher pay scale and HISD’s inability to keep up with surrounding districts. The past two budgeting cycles have provided perfect examples of inefficiency and a lack of clear budgeting priorities. The Houston Independent School District believes that “equity is the lens through which all policy decisions are made,” but what does that mean when the board allocates funds? Do we believe that talented teachers are essential to closing gaps? What efforts are we making to find, develop, and retain the very best educators for our classrooms? These questions must be answered before budgets are approved.

Two months ago, board members rejected a budget because it included an $18 million deficit and then reconvened a week later to pass the very same budget. Now that the public has learned that the passed budget included salary freezes for teachers, some board members are calling for an increased deficit. Those of us who have watched these events unfold must ask ourselves, “What is the priority for HISD?” Reasonable people can make a case for prioritizing balanced budgets or teacher raises or any number of other expenditures. But a reasonable public should expect that clear, vision-aligned priorities are set and that the board communicates those priorities much earlier in the process.

Student Success

Student Success

June 11, 2018

At Houston GPS, we take student success very seriously. We believe that it must be the ultimate goal and driving force of any functional school board. And while this is a hard point to disagree with, many well-intentioned folks may disagree on exactly what student success looks like.  Most of us agree that it must be something more than a single standardized test score, but what factors should we consider when we attempt to measure student success?

Any educational institution can only claim that it is effective if it is a major contributing factor in producing productive, knowledgeable, well-prepared global citizens. In the K-12 school system, this means that students should be prepared for post-secondary opportunities such as college, specialized trade certification, or the military upon graduating from high school. Not only do these post-secondary opportunities have a major impact on job/career prospects for our kids, they are also closely related to broader issues such as likelihood of voting, home ownership, and civic engagement.

An effective public school system, one that is focused on equipping students with what they need to be successful later in life, must consider – and improve – its performance on these longer-term metrics. Where are our students six years after high school graduation? How many of them have gone on to complete a 2 or 4-year college degree or vocational certification? What K-12 educational factors are closely related to longer-term success? These are the types of important questions that move the needle forward on student outcomes.

While it would be great if these were the accountability measures that were considered by the state, we still have the ability to focus on these questions at the school district level. In fact, the state has taken many steps to lower standards over the last few years by decreasing high school graduation requirements and end-of-course passing scores.  If we are truly focused on the longer-term success of students, we should ensure that they master much more than these tests. We should reach a point when students are so well prepared for their next step that standardized tests are minor, isolated events during the school year, during which students demonstrate that they can easily meet the basic requirements of the state.

The amount of emphasis we are forced to put on these exams is troubling. Even more troubling is the difficulty that some students – often in our most vulnerable populations – have in reaching what really should be the floor of our expectations.  And while we have to recognize that educating traditionally underserved populations presents many difficulties, we absolutely cannot afford to lower standards for some students because we haven’t figured out how to meet their needs.  We must challenge, push, and change the system until it adequately prepares all students for future success.