Divisive or Not, HISD Board Approves New Way to Target Failing Teachers

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This is the tale of two teachers. Each of them inherit fifth-graders who test out at the start of the school year, on average, at third grade, fifth month. The kids are from the same neighborhood. They have identical demographics: roughly the same number come from single-parent homes, live in poverty, don't have a book anywhere in their homes.

At the end of that year, Teacher A's students test out at the 5th-grade level. Teacher B's students, not only don't make it to 5th grade, but they regress. The same scenario is carried out for two, three four years.

In the parable of Teacher A and Teacher B, now finally being addressed head-on in the Houston Independent School District, HISD Superintendent Terry Grier wants to bounce Teacher B -- that is, of course, if growth plans, interventions and counseling don't work, he and trustees stressed repeatedly at the HISD school board meeting Thursday night.

"We have to be courageous enough to address this," Grier told the room.

The board agreed with him and voted 8-0 (missing was Carol Mims Galloway who has been sick and lasted only through the start of the board meeting) to approve a measure that will allow the district to get rid of teachers whose students fail to show progress on mastering standardized tests.

It was not a universally applauded decision; the mood in the room definitely tilted to the opposed side. The district already collects standardized test score data to reward teachers whose students do well on the tests. It will use that same data to target the bad ones.

Elena Saner-Greer, a science lab teacher at DeZavala Middle School, spoke against adding the test scores to a list of 33 (now 34) reasons a teacher can be dismissed.

Saner-Greer said the teacher bonus program had plunged the district into "utter discord."

"We've changed from 'It takes a village,' to 'Every man for himself,' " she said.

A key component of the teacher-bonus assessment system is to show test score improvement year over year, she said. That puts teachers of Gifted and Talented students in a tough spot, she said: "How do they improve on perfect scores?"

"We have kids at my school scoring post high school in the third grade. So how do they show improvement in the fourth and fifth grades?" she said after the vote.

Saner-Greer also said schools are faced with the dilemma of when to transition bi-lingual kids into the English standardized tests. Whenever it's done, she said, "You're going to take a hit." The first year you can do it is third grade, one of the all-important years in which students supposedly must pass the state's standardized Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) to be promoted. If you wait till the fourth grade, they face the dreaded writing test, calling on the highest level of language skills. Wait till the fifth grade and there's the science test, which is heavy on vocabulary.

"We take the hit in the fourth grade," she said. "Some schools just push it off to middle school."

HFT government liaison Zeph Capo called tying student test scores to a teacher's assessment, "simplistic" and "a snap-shot approach." He also said it would do nothing but foster more problems and wouldn't help students at all.

"Stop failing your kids with these divisive maneuvers," he told the board.

Board member Paula Harris, who has a fourth-grader at an HISD school, says the teachers at her child's school are good but she's gone in other schools in the district where "every parent there knows 'pick this fourth-grade teacher, not that one.' "

She said she's talked to principals at several schools, asking if judging teachers by their students' test scores "would cause a problem for you?" All said it would be helpful, Harris said.

Harris stressed that this assessment doesn't mean all the students have to pass the TAKS test, just that a class shows progress over when they started the school year.

Houston of Federation of Teachers union leader Gayle Fallon who began her address to the board with a "nothing's personal" adviso, once again said that Grier had misinterpreted Tuesday's remarks by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten when he says Weingarten supported judging teachers by their students' test scores.

"She felt her words were twisted," Fallon said of Weingarten's reaction.

Fallon told the board that no one understands the district's "value-added" assessment system of its teachers and that HISD itself is at fault for not putting more effort into helping students who are failing. Kids who are failing badly need more remedial help than to just be put in summer school, she said. They need to be pulled out of their regular classes and put in an intensive program during the school year, she said.

Reacting to Fallon's complaint that no one understands how the teacher assessment system works, Grier said that earlier in the year HISD sent eight of its math teachers to review the assessment program with the people who devised it.

Grier also pledged to work with any teacher groups to help the district devise a better system of support for its struggling teachers.

Trustee Harvin Moore, who in a touch of extreme candor referenced the district's dropout rate -- "might be 40 percent" -- said despite earlier comments, there was nothing "politically expedient" about the board's vote and that improving performance in the classroom is something the board has been wrestling with for years.

"There is a persistent link between poverty and children [classroom performance] which doesn't mean there's nothing we can do about it." He held up a number of dotted charts (with the aid of trustee Lawrence Marshall) which he said showed there's no correlation between a teacher's level of experience and how students perform, no correlation between whether a teacher has a master's degree and how well students do.

The most important thing, Moore said, is how well teachers are able to teach their students and teacher effectiveness is the most important ingredient in whether a student will succeed throughout his academic career.

New trustee Anna Eastman, reacting to some teachers' comments, said, "It greatly saddens me when I hear people say we can't teach kids because we can't control what goes on outside of school.

"When we say we can't do this we're saying to these kids that education isn't for them."

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