By ERICKA MELLON | HOUSTON CHRONICLE
Feb. 12, 2010
At a contentious meeting pitting parents against teachers, the Houston school board gave final approval on Thursday to a policy allowing the firing of instructors whose students fall short on standardized tests.
Dozens of parents spoke in favor of the decision, while more than 750 teachers packed the school district's headquarters to protest the policy, considered among the most aggressive efforts in the nation to improve teacher quality.
Starting next year, the Houston Independent School District will include a measure of student progress, called value-added, in teachers' job evaluations. Those teachers whose students fall far below expectations for multiple years could be at risk of losing their jobs.
HISD Superintendent Terry Grier and the school board, which passed the policy on a 7-0 vote, have promised to provide training and mentoring to struggling teachers and to use termination as a last resort. Trustees Carol Mims Galloway and Manuel Rodriguez Jr. were absent.
District data show that more than 400 teachers — about 3 percent of the teaching corps — could be at risk if they don't improve. The policy affects only teachers of core academic subjects in grades three through eight.
Teachers have complained that the value-added system, a complex statistical measure of their effectiveness, is unfair and unreliable.
“I agree our system has room to grow,” HISD Trustee Anna Eastman told the crowd, which spilled into the hall where televisions broadcast the meeting. “Our data has room to grow, but our kids deserve to have an effective teacher in every single classroom.”
Policy called ‘unjust'
The district has used this same statistical measure of student progress for the last three years to determine which teachers receive performance bonuses. The district's two largest employee groups, the Houston Federation of Teachers and the Congress of Houston Teachers, oppose using the data for rewards or punishment.
A middle school special education teacher, Tuesdey Neal, called the new evaluation and dismissal policy “unjust.”
“We deal with children in poverty. We deal with lack of parental support. We do the best with what we can,” Neal said, before a district police officer approached because she exceeded the one-minute time limit for each speaker. “I do not want to suffer and lose my job because I love what I do.”
Grier has said the district plans to target those teachers with the lowest marks and to make principals defend putting them on permanent contracts.
Parents and business leaders who addressed the board at the meeting uniformly supported the policy.
“I'm here to applaud you for taking a stand for our children,” mother Beth Brown said.
Bill Perkins, a prominent venture capitalist, compared teaching to other professions with high stakes.
“We have bad pilots. We know the results can be disastrous,” he said. “We don't have that many bad teachers, but we need to get rid of them.”
Teachers in the hallways, many of them union members, reacted with boos.
HISD's new policy has drawn national attention – good and bad. A growing number of states have begun tying student test scores to teachers' evaluations to meet the mandates of President Barack Obama's $4.3 billion Race to the Top grant contest. But few districts have been as clear that teachers who repeatedly fall short should be dismissed.
Ellen Winn, director of the Education Equality Project, a national advocacy group that includes educators, policymakers and politicians, praised HISD's move.
“Think of the doors that will be open to these students with better teachers and better chances at a good education,” she said.
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said HISD's plan is too narrowly focused.
“Houston is a perfect example of what not to do,” said Weingarten, who recently gave a well-publicized speech supporting the use of student data in teachers' evaluations. “The plan has all the wrong components, and it's one of the reasons why teachers and parents are opposed to standardized testing.”