Community members sit in packed room during HISD school board meeting.
Community members sit in packed room during HISD school board meeting. Credit: Laura Onyeneho

In a unanimous decision, the Houston ISD Board of Managers has given the green light to Superintendent Mike Miles’ ambitious plans to designate HISD as a “District of Innovation.”

This move allows the district to bypass certain educational regulations, providing increased flexibility in areas such as educator certification academic calendars, class sizes, and teacher benefits for the rest of the school year.

The “District of Innovation” status is an approach that grants school leaders the power to bypass specific laws, giving them more control over critical aspects of education. However, it’s important to note that certain crucial laws, such as those governing curriculum, special education, school board authority, and the Texas academic accountability system, remain unaffected.

One notable perk of the “District of Innovation” status is the option to begin the school year in mid-August, a choice many districts across Texas have embraced. Of approximately 1,200 school districts statewide, 965 have already obtained this designation, including major districts like Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. If HISD proceeds with this plan, it will become the largest school district in Texas to adopt this.

HISD initially pursued this status in 2020 but faced a setback when the District Advisory Committee, composed of 31 members responsible for voting on the proposal, rejected it nearly a year into the process.

Miles emphasized the need for this move to extend the academic calendar, which currently provides students with 172 instructional days per year—well below his ideal target of 180 to 185 days. Most HISD teachers work 187 days during the school year, with 15 days dedicated to prepping for classes and mid-year training.

“The District of Innovation allows the district to do certain things,” Miles explained. “For example, the school year. By law, the school year must commence on the fourth Monday in August. That’s quite late in the academic year, while many other districts start earlier. However, early starts are only possible if you have the ‘District of Innovation’ status.”

In addition to approving the “District of Innovation” status, the school board is slated to vote on adopting a version of the Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System as the appraisal system for teachers this year. This decision comes after the Houston Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit alleging that Miles and the board violated Texas Education Code requirements during the development of teacher evaluations, claiming the system was created unlawfully.

Education Code requirements during the development of teacher evaluations, claiming the system was created unlawfully.

Jackie Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, expressed disappointment, saying, “We spent over two years working on T-TESS with the district, developing and being a part of that implementation. When we left in May, we expected to come back and be evaluated early on T-TESS. We found out in late June or early July that it’s not the case, and we take exception to that.”

T-TESS focuses on providing educators with continuous, timely and formative feedback to enhance their teaching practices, as outlined by the Texas Education Agency.

Miles stressed that the district faces issues concerning efficiency and achievement gaps that necessitate comprehensive reform, emphasizing the need for multiple changes to occur simultaneously to bring about significant improvements.

“There is a lot of trial and error at this point, and it really isn’t fair to evaluate teachers in such a way where many aren’t clear about what is expected of them,” said Jeremy Eugene, Cy-Fair ISD educator. “Many people don’t realize how long it takes to create your lessons before you even get into the classroom as a teacher. The board says they understand, but they clearly don’t.”

Rebecca Williams is a teacher at Navarro Middle School. She says Miles’ plans for formal classroom observations have been disruptive and distracting for her students.

“I’m a social studies teacher, and students don’t get enough of that subject because everything is geared toward reading, math and science for STAAR testing. The kids don’t get enough background knowledge for the teaching strategy the district is implementing,” she said. “This system is very ineffective, and it doesn’t help to navigate all this while having administrators floating in my class watching me.”

The school board is scheduled to convene again next Thursday, where they will conduct a public hearing on developing a “District of Innovation” plan in preparation for their monthly meeting.

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...