Building a Case For an HISD Culture With No Excuses

Inside the first floor hallways of Hattie Mae White where even more changes are underway.
Inside the first floor hallways of Hattie Mae White where even more changes are underway. Photo by Margaret Downing

Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles told a group of central office directors and executive directors Wednesday afternoon that missions are to be achieved without excuses and these administrators should prod the HISD employees reporting to them to move away from an attitude of "learned helplessness."

Examples he used included a situation where an organization runs out of something, say a particular supply item, and puts in a requisition for it only to be told it will be two or three days or weeks till that order can be filled. In a high performance culture which Miles says he wants HISD to achieve, that administrator should be able to pivot and figure out how to get what his or her school needs sooner.

And if that sounds a little militaristic, know that the former member of the elite Army Rangers gave several examples — self-deprecating and all  — telling of his military experience that taught him that leaders should bring their assignments to successful conclusions for the benefit of everyone in an organization.

"Don't let pieces of paper and processes stop you from doing a job. Especially when there's an obvious solution. Figure it out," he told the group. " So the piece of paper controls you? The process befuddles you?

"Accountability is a real thing. We will remove staff members who do not live up to our outlined expectations," he warned. At the same time, he said, "Accountability without support just leads to a culture of fear."

He also continued to make his case for a school year that moves from the present 172 instructional days to 180 and eventually 185. Many other states have set a minimum of 180 days of instructional time and Miles thinks this is especially important for a district like HISD where many schools and students have fallen significantly behind.

Pointing to the yearly calendar process that HISD and most other school districts go through, Miles asked the rhetorical question: "Is this a kids first calendar or an adults first calendar? I think it's an adults first calendar."

To date, however, not many HISD teachers have embraced the notion of more teaching days or the accompanying additional days of teacher training that Miles feels is warranted. Parents have not been wild about the idea either.

In a brief media press conference after his meeting with executives, Miles was asked about Cage Elementary and Chrysalis Middle School which were the site of a demonstration Monday. Parents were protesting both schools being designated New Education System Aligned as well as what the district had done in response to two teachers questioning Central District Superintendent Luz Martinez on Friday about the NESA program.

The  teachers were reprimanded and issued termination letters on Saturday after they questioned Martinez on Friday about NESA. Martinez citied one of the teachers, Teresa Carr, as being insubordinate and unprofessional, accusations Carr denies.

The NES and NESA programs are designed to effect academic turnarounds in schools whose students have not been doing  well on standardized tests. Chysalis became a NESA school this year even though its 8th graders had a 99 percent passing rate for Algebra 1 on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test and all its other test scores were deemed "far above the state average" in a  Great! Schools Report.

Asked why Chrysalis was in need of an overhaul given these scores, Miles explained that the former principal of Chrysalis and Cage Elementary — they share a campus — signed both schools up to be NESA and in the fourth week of school, that can't be undone.

And he said that NESA approach with differentiated instruction designed to meet each child at the level they are at  "is not going to hurt [Chrysalis students] and it probably is going to help their math scores."

Several teachers have complained at board meetings and in interviews that the slides they are issued by central office often have errors in them that have to be redone by the teachers.

Miles said at the press conference that they will be hiring teachers who only work half days now to vet the slides in their subject areas before they go out to the teachers.

"We are adding some 32 teachers to the curriculum department to try to help catch things," he said.

Miles also talked about "the concept of essentialness," meaning educators are just as important to society as say hospital workers. Just as hospitals don't close down, schools should keep running which means teachers should be there without taking what he considers excessive days off, he said.  He recently issued a new policy, requiring employees to ask their supervisors for days off instead of filing out a form online and requiring a doctor's note if they take more than three consecutive sick days — down from a previous seven.

"If you have high absences how essential are you?" he asked the group — another definitely rhetorical question. 
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing