Extending a mile, a procession of protestors in red marched in front of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) administrative building last Friday to demand an end to the state takeover of Houston schools. Hoisting signs that read “HISD: Houston Invaded School District,” “Mike Miles—Killing Education One Apple at a Time,” and “Even Prisons Have Libraries,” 600 parents, teachers, and students gathered at the protest organized by the Houston Federation of Teachers to challenge the administration and policies of state-appointed district Superintendent Mike Miles.
After the Texas Education Agency seized control of the district, Miles started the school year promising more pay and support for teachers and a more rigorous, standardized curriculum for students, particularly at the 85 campuses that are part of the New Education System (NES) program, curricular reforms Miles transplanted from his Third Futures charter school network
But teachers and parents describe experiencing chaos since the start of the school year. Teachers have complained that the district’s curriculum does not follow the state standards and is riddled with errors and inappropriate content. Critics also note that special education services have been cut or legally required services have not been implemented under Miles’ rigid standardized curriculum. And when teachers and administrators ask questions, they face retaliation. The district has removed at least nine principals and more teachers from their campuses, reassigning them to other campuses, putting them on administrative leave, or recommending them for termination. Many more teachers and other employees have left the district in frustration. Students at HISD’s Debakey High School for Health Professions were left teaching themselves AP Physics for seven weeks in the absence of a teacher.
“We do not want our children subjected to substandard learning. We are professional educators. We demand to be respected,” Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson said at the protest. “Miles has made a lot of promises and those promises have been broken. He has created a broken education system. We want him out of here. Now.”
It was only three weeks into Teresa Carr’s second year at Project Chrysalis Middle School when she was put on administrative leave and received a recommendation for termination in mid-September.
The district’s division superintendent, Luz Martinez, had been berating the teachers during a meeting at the school for letting their students use the restroom at the beginning of class. Carr asked when students were expected to use the restroom since they only had three minutes to get from one class to the next. When Carr pointed out that there had already been many schedule changes within the few weeks since school started, Martinez called Carr “unprofessional” and screamed at her to leave the room.
“She was yelling at me over and over to leave. And then the next day I got an email with a letter in it telling me that I was being recommended for termination for insubordination and unprofessionalism,” Carr said. After a co-worker questioned Carr’s removal, she, too, was put on administrative leave and recommended for termination.
Since then, parents have been picketing in front of the school once a week to demand the teachers be reinstated. Martinez told Houston Public Media that the teachers were not implementing the NES program with fidelity. “No matter what you do, you’re always gonna have people who go with it and people who don’t,” she said, calling them “disbelievers” and “naysayers.”
But when asked if teachers should just comply, Carr said, “There is no keeping our head down because we do all this for our students. They can’t stand up and fight like we can. It’s terrifying. But we have to be that voice and that strength for them.”
Veteran teacher Raye, who asked the Texas Observer to use a nickname for fear of further retaliation by district administrators, was removed and reassigned to another campus after she asked for corrections of the district’s curricular materials.
Instructional slides were filled with grammatical errors. An answer key to a quiz on writing stated that an essay began with the body paragraph, followed by the conclusion, and ended with the introduction. But Raye had to get an administrator’s permission to change or delete slides.
“When I tried to change the slides, they said that I was ruining the integrity of the NES program,” said Raye.
Miles had promised NES teachers a teacher apprentice to help make copies, to grade student work, and to conduct small group instruction so that classroom teachers could solely focus on instruction. Raye said that had never happened.
When she returned to her classroom to retrieve her things, students started calling out to their teacher to return. Thereafter, Raye was admonished by administrators again, this time for “disrupting the flow of instruction” for the uncertified teacher apprentice left to take over her class.
“We’re teachers for the children. And when you stifle us, and we have no autonomy, we can’t really do our jobs. I feel like I have handcuffs on just trying to do my job,” Raye said.
Teachers said that under the NES program, everything is timed. They have 45 minutes to read from the scripted slides. Then students have 10 minutes to take a quiz on the material they just learned. Often, the lessons cover skills that do not follow the state curriculum standards known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills and are above students’ grade levels. Teachers are not allowed to take time to review foundational skills to make sure students understand the lesson. If students pass the quiz, they are then given a packet of worksheets with more advanced material and shuffled off to a “learning center” where an uncertified “learning coach” is expected to guide dozens of students at different grade levels and subjects.
Both teachers and parents say Miles’ NES program is setting students up to fail, especially emergent English language learners and students with disabilities. They say they are not getting extra support, services, or accommodations for these students as required under federal and state laws.
“Our teachers are being held hostage by a curriculum that is failing our students,” said parent Jessica Campos at the protest. “This curriculum doesn’t allow my child with dyslexia to learn. It doesn’t allow her teacher to give her extra time,” Campos’ daughter used to get As and Bs at Pugh Elementary School, but this year, she has been failing tests, saying she is not given enough time to learn the material.
Based on a survey conducted by the Houston Federation of Teacher and completed by 1,115 teachers, 84 percent responded that they opposed teaching from a scripted lesson plan and more indicated that experienced teachers need more autonomy to adapt a curriculum to the students’ needs. Most respondents, 86 percent, disagreed with Miles’ evaluation system, which ties their pay to student test scores.
Despite the efforts of the district to silence teachers, teachers at the protest called the action a “practice picket” and say it’s only the beginning of other actions to come. Teachers have been wearing “Red for Ed” every Wednesday at school to demonstrate their solidarity with other teachers.
“Teachers are the real guardians of education. Our loyalty is to students and not the district. We have a moral obligation to students to do what is best for them, even if it means reassignment or termination. We will not wait to sound the alarm. The stakes are too high,” middle school teacher Traci Laston said.