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Thompson: How Houston's Test and Punish Policies Fail

As the normative test, sort, and punish approach to reform continues to fail, I often recall Houston's Apollo 20 experiment, designed to bring "No Excuses" charter school methods to neighborhood schools. Its output-driven, reward and punish policies failed.  It was incredibly expensive, costing $52 million and it didn't increase reading scores. Intensive math tutoring produced test score gains in that subject. The only real success was due to the old-fashioned, win-win, input-driven method of hiring more counselors.

The Texas Observer's Patrick Michels, in Politico's Houston's Learning Curve, surveys the failures and successes of Superintendent Terry Grier and Houston schools, and he reveals a pattern that is even more bifurcated than I'd anticipated.  Michels finds no evidence that Grier's test-driven accountability has benefitted students, but he describes the great success of constructive programs that build on kids' strengths and provide them more opportunities.

Michels describes Grier as "a data-driven risk-taker who’s part task-master, part cheerleader [who] said he’s not about to give up, even after six long years at HISD’s helm." Under Grier, 900 teachers have been exited using an evaluation system that holds teachers accountable for test score growth. Moreover, his value-added pay for performance plan has cost Houston $136 million in bonuses in the last three years.

If Grier is correct and test score growth is valid for holding individuals accountable, then surely he also should be fired. NAEP reading scores have barely increased since 2002, and remain below the average of major urban areas.  In the all-important metric of 8th grade reading, Houston has been flat since 2007, even as other major urban districts increased those scores. Plus, Education Week's Stephen Sawchuk reports that Grier now seeks to cut "the $14 million bonus-pay program to just $2 million, a far cry away from the $40 million a year it once gave out."

With the help of local philanthropies, however, Houston has introduced a wide range of humane, holistic, and effective programs. Michels starts with Las Americas Newcomer School, which is "on paper a failing school." It offers group therapy and social workers who help immigrants "navigate bureaucratic barriers—like proof of residency or vaccination records." He then describes outstanding early education programs that are ready to be scaled up, such as  the Gabriela Mistral Center for Early Childhood, and Project Grad which has provided counseling and helped more than 7,600 students go to college.

Michels' analysis is very consistent was Bruce Katz's and Jennifer Bradley's The Metropolitan Revolution, which described Houston's Neighborhood Centers. This $675 million nonprofit is one reason why "'If you're poor, you want to be poor in Houston, because there is a ladder there.'" Children who attended the Neighborhood Centers' Head Start program produce higher test scores - as high as 94% proficient in 3rd grade reading.    

Michels also reports that Houston Education Research Consortium, which partners with Rice University and is funded with a startup grant from the John and Laura Arnold Foundation, "gives researchers direct access to district data to study which programs work best, and why, and what to do about it." Its director, Ruth Lopez Turley, led the team that reviewed Apollo 20. It agreed with the program's chief advocate, Roland Fryer, that the math tutoring showed results but doubted that the score increases were sustainable."

Turley seeks to reach "students whose families must move often mid-year, who can’t always make it to school, or don’t have a stable place to sleep at night—all the factors that interrupt education in poor urban schools."

Also, Michels cites Peter Beard, of the Greater Houston Partnership, who praises Houston's work on STEM education and technical training, but who says, “At the end of the day, you need to show up on time, you need to have the right mindset for work and you probably need to read, write and understand science." In other words, test scores might be important, but it is the immeasurable social and emotional factors that really matter.

Finally, I was struck by the promise of Houston programs that did not just remediate but built on students' strengths. And, that raises a key question for Houston and for reformers. What if we shifted the focus from the weaknesses of students and teachers to a commitment to building on the positive? Grier's test and punish policies have already failed and been downsized. Of course, I would like to hear an open acknowledgement that test-driven reform was a dead end. But, mostly likely, systems will just let data-driven accountability quietly shrivel and die. Then, we can commit to the types of  Win Win policies that have a real chance of helping poor children of color. - JT(@drjohnthompson) 


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Education is the backbone of a nation.This article is very helpful for increasing education. So thank you very much to the author.

Always looking for a way to be more effective and to be a better teacher. It seems it does not matter what large city school district you are in, everyone is struggling. When is the cavalry coming? We are losing principals and teachers out here at an alarming rate. Everyday there are rumors of teacher walk-outs. I hear news on the radio, t.v., sirius XM radio about the high number of dropouts and still no calvary. It seems that throwing more money at the problem might solve some of the problems but it did not seem to solve the problems in the criminal justice system either. Just built more jails and prisons and less learning facilities. Appreciate the article. It is yet another eye opener.

I want to set the record straight. I am a former teacher at Las Americas Middle School. These students do not want to be helped. They took over the entire school. It was plagued with discipline problems, fights, teachers being injured by the students, teachers quitting. The students were extremely disrespectful. Great teachers, but learning could not take place due to constant discipline issues. The principal had no consequences for the students. Teachers were blamed for the misbehavior. Every staff member left by the end of the school year. These kids need to be mainstreamed into regular middle schools. We received no resources, so HISD, if you gave funding and money to Las Americas , it wasn't spent on the students. An internal audit will reveal that. Moreno only has sympathy for the students and their journey to the U.S. and does not hold these students accountable for their horrendous behavior. Trying to light a teachers' classroom on fire, violent fights, causing bodily injury to a teacher, the list goes on and on. Everything swept under the rug. No suspensions, students return to class laughing. Grier, save HISD some money and close Las Americas. Put that money into real schools for deserving kids. It is an absolute travesty keeping charter schools like Las Americas open. What you do see and read about the school is all propaganda. Only 1 student passed the STAAR. One. It's not a language gap, Moreno. Empathizing with a students' situation is one thing, but allowing students to harm other students and staff and show an absolute disrespect for their teachers!! Inexcusable. A new facility won't help. Getting teachers resources , hmmm there's a start.

Dear Members of the HISD Board,
As you vote upon the fate of Las Americas and the other charter schools, while I cannot comment on the other charter schools, I am asking that an investigation is done on Las Americas, the effectiveness of the program in place and an audit. I am speaking on behalf of the faculty (all who have left Las Americas, which in itself speaks volumes). Las Americas is not conducive to a safe learning environment. I, myself, witnessed bullying, girls violently pulling each other's hair in the middle of instruction time. Total and utter disrespect to the teachers..not just one teacher (me) , but ALL of the teachers. A program is successful by its results. I can honestly say, my students who were with me for the ENTIRE school year has shown little to absolutely no growth. Nada. Their English proficiency has not improved nor has their academic ability in other areas. Students spoke Spanish all day everyday. This is why I think it is vital that these newcomers assimilate with students at a regular middle/high school with students who speak English. You are doing a disservice to these students throwing them all together. At Las Americas, I would say 90 percent spoke Spanish. The main point I want to drive home to you is that one more day that Las Americas remains open is one more day of wasted tax payers money and most of all, HISD money. This is not just the 2nd year Las Americas has been low performing. Last year (2013-14) as well as the year prior to that (2012-2013). Now, it is in its THIRD year of being rated as a low performing school. These kids do not have the drive , many expressed to me that they had no interest in learning English. Students with no motivation to learn, teachers with no resources or training to help these students. A formula for failure.

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