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.

Focus on Kids

Focus on Kids

May 7, 2018

At a time when Houston, one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, should be exploring the best way to provide a world class education to all kids, most elected officials and community leaders insist on engaging in political grandstanding and ideological battles. With state-imposed sanctions looming at the end of this academic year, our community has finally been forced to deal with the fact that the largest school district in Texas is only serving some of its students well. Sadly, others attend schools where the vast majority of the student population has not been prepared to meet some of the most basic academic standards. Amidst all the discussion about potential changes in Houston ISD, it seems like one pivotal question is missing: What are we doing for the children?

The story of our current Improvement Required (IR) schools is not new. Indeed, several of them have had that state-appointed status for more than 5 years. And each new attempt at reform reveals the same truth: the system is not meeting the academic needs of kids with the fewest resources. And far too often, long-term solutions and true innovation are traded for political expedience and big contracts. As we talk about “partnerships,” and “local control,” it seems we lose sight of this question: “What does it take to actually provide students with the best education possible?”

The last – and only – attempt the HISD board made to forge a partnership for the 10 schools at greatest risk of closure ended with public protests and three unnecessary arrests. While it is tempting to focus on the disrespect shown to the public at that meeting, we cannot forget that there is still no plan to improve educational outcomes for our children. Now, with the fate of those schools – or the autonomy of our elected board – in the balance, we as a community should start making demands of both our local and state officials to pay attention to what is actually best for kids.

At this point, the public should be skeptical of the treatment of public schools by government officials at every level. But as we look for outlets for our frustration and decide on next steps, we must demand that our elected officials put kids first. In the absence of strong leadership, we must lead by example and focus every conversation and every action on pursuing real solutions for students.

Three Weeks Until Election Day

Three Weeks Until Election Day

October 16, 2017

The 2017 Houston ISD School Board election is now only 3 weeks away. We have exactly 21 days to ensure that our board is made up of collaborative, focused adults who will manage the district’s resources prudently while still ensuring that students are set up for success. Given our current budget deficit and the threat of a district takeover by the State, our participation in this election is more important than ever. We, at Houston GPS, are fully devoted to increasing public understanding of the specific responsibilities of school board members and continuing to hold board members accountable once they’re in office.

We must make sure that our schools are consistently providing children with the best education possible. For too long, we’ve let hyper-divisive issues create empty alliances that only serve to perpetuate gridlock. If we are going to forge a system in which teachers are not tethered to state tests and are able to operate as the knowledgeable professionals they are and in which parents have a robust set of excellent public school options in their own communities, then we need adults who will talk to each other, research together, recognize that their preconceived notions may be flawed, and bring many ideas to the table in search of solutions for our children and our city.

The time to act is now. In addition to voting, you can get involved by donating to qualified candidates, volunteering for campaigns, and attending monthly school board meetings.

Early voting begins October 23rd! Our children need you now more than ever. If you are a registered voter in Harris County, go to www.harrisvotes.com to find your sample ballot, and click here to see our non-partisan candidate descriptions and to find out who we’ve decided to endorse in this election.

Every Election is Important

Every Election is Important

September 9, 2017

Every election is important, but when it comes to this year’s election, your voice and vote will be more important than ever. In addition to caring about our children’s education and how our tax dollars are being spent in the largest school district in Texas, this year, we should also be concerned about how Houston ISD will recover from Harvey. Considering the extensive damage sustained by several schools, we must recognize that next school board will play a major role in rebuilding our district. Now is not the time to shy away from the political process.

This November, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) will have six trustee seats on the ballot. Three of the six races that are up for a vote will not have a returning trustee seeking re-election. This means there are new faces, new backgrounds, and new information to be learned about the individuals seeking office. However, with all of these seats open, only a few lucky voters will get to decide who will serve on the board and direct the focus of HISD. Why only a few? Because traditionally, nine percent of eligible voters participate in school board elections. That’s it. Yet with a district of over 215,000 students and a budget of nearly $2 billion dollars, paying attention to this election and these races will be important for every voter within HISD’s boundaries. The stakes are high, and your voice is powerful. Now is the time to get engaged and learn what district you reside in, who represents you, and the candidates who are running.

The HISD school board has nine trustees, and members serve staggered four-year terms. This year, District I, District V, District VI, District VII, and District IX are scheduled for regular election. The unexpected passing of District III Trustee Manny Rodriguez earlier this summer left a vacancy on the board, which will be filled by a special election.

In the hustle and bustle of today’s world, it is hard to remember or keep up with yet another elected position. For a list of the individuals currently running in each district, please visit our website.

It is important to gain the valuable information you need to know to make an informed decision this coming November. The students and families of HISD need your attention to be focused on these races to make the school district the best it can be. Our children and our city deserve nothing less.

Houstonians for Great Public Schools Needs You

Houstonians for Great Public Schools Needs You

August 8, 2017

Do you believe in quality education for your child? For all children? Do you think school boards play a major role in providing opportunities for student success? Do you want a voice in helping to elect quality leaders who can work to ensure school districts focus on student achievement? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, then Houstonians for Great Public Schools needs you.

Be a member of our organization and help us elect candidates who will be great district leaders. This November, Houstonians will have the opportunity to elect a school board trustee in six different districts in the Houston Independent School District (HISD). Yep, you read that right. Six out of nine districts are up for election in just a few short months. That’s not a lot of time to do candidate research, but Houstonians for Great Public Schools has that covered for you. We made it easy for the average voter to find out who is running, why they are running, and if they will be a quality leader for student success in HISD.

On August 24, 2017, we are holding a candidate forum to meet the many different people who are asking for the privilege to be a trustee in the largest school district in Texas. So, come to our forum to learn more about these candidates. Become a member of our organization, and help us make a decision on who we should endorse in each race.

We need school districts to prepare all children for future success, but in order to do that, we need to elect effective leaders to serve on the board. Your voice is needed to make this possible. Join us in making sure our school boards stay focused on student achievement. Become a HoustonGPS member today. Click here to donate.