Thursday, December 28, 2023

Today is my birthday and I am raising money for Academia Cuauhtli (Eagle Academy)


Today is my birthday and I am doing something special to celebrate it. I am raising money for Academia Cuauhtli ("Cuauhtli" means "eagle" in Nahuatl). 

Located in Austin, Texas, we are a partnership-based school serving mostly elementary school children attending 6 schools in the Austin Independent School District (AISD). We are partnered with AISD and the City of Austin's Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (ESB-MACC).

Our school is located in the heart of downtown Austin off of Town Lake at the ESB-MACC. One of the unique features of this school is danza Mexica, or traditional Aztec dance that is incorporated in both regular and summer programming. Danza invokes the ancestral and sacred spirit that guides all of our work.

Academia Cuauhtli Summer Camp students on their graduation day. Summer, 2023.

Now in our 10th year, we seek your support for our growing organization which consists of several components including a Summer school coding camp (Aztech Kidz Code), a learning collaborative (La Colaborativa Cuauhtli), and our community-based organization, Nuestro Grupo that meets regularly to plan the activities of our growing organization that gives us the honor and privilege of touching so many students' and families' lives in Austin, Texas.

We're planning a major anniversary celebration in March, 2024, and your contribution will help us to make it a success. 

No amount is too small.

Thanks to Dr. María Del Carmen Unda for organizing this! A special thanks, as well, to Texas State University Professor Dr. Chris Milk who oversees the writing of the fall curriculum and who is a regular presence on Saturdays. Abundant thanks, to our director, Katya Guzman, our maestras and maestros, and to our many volunteers without which this work would be impossible. 

This is a labor of love. 💗

During the fall, we made crafts together. It always so much fun for me to learn with them!

Sunday, December 24, 2023

A Christmas Eve Reflection: Educational Ice Cream and Making the World Anew

I want to thank John Tanner for his blog, "Educational Ice Cream," as it got me to reflect on where we are as a state and nation after two decades of so-called "educational accountability." I, too, have been a constant critic throughout this entire time period. 

I read him as tongue-in-cheek on trading out the toxic phrase, "educational accountability" with "ice cream" since the former is so toxic and freighted. If we trade out this phrase, this might at least get us to smile and have a constructive conversation on the matter.

It merits mention that I got my Ph.D. in Sociology from Stanford University where one cuts one's teeth on scholarship that considers how stratification occurs in modern society. One can hardly understand this without looking at the role of policies surrounding the implementation of standardized tests, a focus that, at least for myself as a younger scholar, also entailed an in-depth examination of the history of standardized testing and test development that exposes for me—alongside reputable national educational organizations, as Tanner himself mentions—the inherent unfairness and lack of validity of high-stakes testing.

Underscore "high stakes" in the phrase high-stakes testing. This is not at all to say that there isn't a role for standardized testing, but rather that they should be administered responsibly and never in a high-stakes manner that can profoundly impact teachers,' and most particularly, students' lives and well-being. As folks at the Intercultural Development Research Associates in San Antonio have been saying for well over 20 years, as well, we don't need "census testing," but rather "sample testing." We could even simply default to the National Assessment for Educational Progress as a new direction in policy. The "NAEP" is already considered "The Nation's Report Card."

So why the excess? One doesn't need a blood transfusion to know the health of the human body. Rather, a simple blood test does the job. 

Twenty-plus years of this system makes it abundantly clear that the intention actually is to be a punishing racist and classist system that discredits schools and public education and in so doing, paves the way to charters and privatization while yielding eye-popping profits to the high-stakes-testing-industrial complex? 

It's so telling that across five Texas legislative sessions this year of 2023, none of Gov. Greg Abbott's "voucher bills" required any high-stakes testing or accountability. None. Zero. Nada. What's good for the goose (public education) is clearly not good for the gander (private schools). Such hypocrisy. At least it's all out in plain sight.

When I first got to UT in 1999 and operated a "listserv" for about 6 years that focused on high-stakes testing and privatization, I then switched to blogging in 2004 with this very idea of launching a critique and like Tanner, shifting the discourse surrounding Texas-style accountability. After all, it had just gotten rolled out to the nation in the form of federal policy in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act in 2002 which later became the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015. We have had some success, but more must be done, beginning with eliminating high-stakes testing and accountability altogether, as Tanner suggests.

The late Rice University professor, Dr. Linda McNeil, MALDEF attorney Al Kauffman, Dr. Gary Orfield, Dr. Mindy Kornhaber, and myself, research in hand, lobbied the U.S. Congress in 2001, letting them know that the proposed NCLB policy augurs an era of great harm, particularly considering that opportunities to learn the curriculum were woefully uneven within districts, within states, and across states. 
Linda and I even published a widely-read piece on the matter long before the "jury was in," so to speak, on just how harmful high-stakes testing and accountability systems are (McNeil & Valenzuela, 2001). 

While in Washington, D.C., I remember hanging out in the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone's office as he was one of the few truly powerful voices at the time pushing back on NCLB. Based on data we had gathered (McNeil & Valenzuela, 2001; Valenzuela, 2004), we testified at a press conference in the Rayburn Building on how the proposed federal policy would deepen inequalities by structuring out enrichment opportunities, particularly for low-income, marginalized youth that if anything, needed more, not less, enrichment.

I remember it being a very hostile audience comprised largely of civil rights organizations that simply couldn't hear the evidence we had provided. They attacked and demeaned us scholars engaging in "Texas bashing" and for being spoilers to what they were heralding as their glorious achievement. I kid you not. I was glad that we got out of there in one piece. This experience of getting attacked by a mob of so-called progressives was shocking to me and has never once repeated in my entire professional career.

After this majorly unsettling experience, we met with all of the members of the congressional Texas delegation to warn them about the harms of this system but to no avail. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee's fateful words still ring in my ears today: "You're too late. Unless there are dead bodies on the tracks, the train has left the station." 

I could only think of the children and youth in my research at the time and the oppressive mental testing to which they were already subjected. Linda and I were deflated. Not even ice cream could have lifted our spirits.

On January 8, 2002, the brilliant Congressman Paul Wellstone died in a fiery airplane crash and by October 25, 2002, NCLB became law. As Linda said, "Now everybody's become Texas." 

Dr. Linda McNeil passed away on April 1, 2021. Boy, do we miss you, Linda.

Linda and I saw this top-down, remote-control, reform then and see it now today as not just a neoliberal (or market-based ideal) of student, school, and district "success," but also as a mechanism of control that works to preempt marginalized groups and the lower- and middle classes to conceptualize, or "think," their way to freedom. 

It is through this same lens that I see other attacks on education in the form of voucher bills, so-called anti-Critical Race Theory legislation, and the current attack on DEI. These all double as harmful policy and weapons of mass distraction by structuring out critical thought, creativity, and imagination.

To consider this further, change cannot be left in the hands of the "reformers," many of whom are found within our K-12 and higher education institutions, as well as in our legislatures or nonprofit sectors, because they are either controlled by, or are themselves, elites that adhere jealously to our high-stakes systems of testing and accountability. Still today, some organizations that claim to be about civil rights support this vastly inequitable and punishing system. We must address the power structure that sustains this regime.

Again, as Linda would say, "If this were just a test, that would be innocuous. But rather, it's a 'system of testing' that makes it so harmful."

Drawing on Scott (1987) and Rossatto (2019) whose writings come to mind this morning, real change must come from the very people whose lives are profoundly impacted by this system. The first step is to decouple "high-stakes" from testing and then to consider alternatives like portfolios, performance-based assessments, and system-wide approaches as currently exist within the New York Performance Standards Consortium (NYPSC) schools. Accordingly, read a 2015 blog post "
This Is What a Student-Designed School Looks Like." There are alternatives. However, we need a more just government together with the political will to consider these.

We must also fully fund public education since policymakers still haven't fully addressed how students' opportunity to learn the curriculum is what test results reflect, namely, a lack of opportunity for poor schools and lower-income, Black and Brown youth. As far as civil rights are concerned, groups and organizations must know from here on out that we will never test our way to equity. If this were so, it would have happened by now.

Finally, the ice cream that puts a smile on my face is of the kind that departs from the premise that only a "transformative," as opposed to "reformist" consciousness can guide us out of this conceptual quagmire. Reformist ice cream won't do the job. Transformative ice cream will, as w
e've had enough "reform." We now need to shift from tinkering at the margins and make the world anew.

Sí se puede! Yes we can!

-Angela Valenzuela


Rossatto, C. A. (2019). Manifesto for New Social Movements Equity, Access, and Empowerment. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Scott, J. C. (1987). Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Yale University Press.

Valenzuela, A. (2004). Leaving Children Behind: How 'Texas-style' Accountability Fails Latino Youth. State University of New York Press.

McNeil, L. M. & Valenzuela, A. (2001). The harmful impact of the TAAS system of testing in Texas: Beneath the accountability rhetoric. In Orfield, G., & Kornhaber, M. L. (Eds). Raising standards or raising barriers?: Inequality and high-stakes testing in public education.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Educational Ice Cream

by John Tanner, An Educational Contrarian Blog
The challenge in talking about educational accountability is twofold. First is that no one in their right mind would suggest that they are unwilling to be accountable for the work they do, especially when that work is as important as the education of a child.

But second, the way accountability has been done in education is so embarrassingly dumb that it isn’t an accountability worth being accountable to or for. That leaves educators in the untenable position of saying that they are happy to be accountable, just not in the way that states and Federal government want them to be accountable. Which leaves educators vulnerable to accusations of wanting to cherry pick among systems for the one that puts them in the best possible light. Or of not wanting to be accountable at all.

Let’s be clear about how dumb the current system is. It is something done punitively and authoritatively. It is done to schools by those outside schools, most of whom lack any expertise regarding educational processes. Its negative judgments are concentrated on the poorest communities. It is based largely on standardized test scores, which few understand, especially the policy makers making the rules. It creates judgments that differ a great deal from what the educators in a building know to be true. It comes with sufficiently negative judgments that it interferes with and often corrupts what educators know to be best practice. It is stressful and forever the 600 lb. gorilla in every school. It uses complex compliance-based formulas to assign labels. Almost no one would classify what passes for educational accountability as a system that promotes anything resembling excellence.

In short, what passes for educational accountability follows a formula that has been roundly rejected by virtually every other profession for the simple fact that if understanding an organization and its efforts is the goal, this won’t get you there.

The challenge in talking about fixing educational accountability is also twofold. First, the paradigm of test—judge—punish is so powerful that improving accountability almost always occurs under the assumption that standardized testing is a fete accompli, something as commensurate with accountability as the terms bunny and hare are to each other. 99% of the effort that goes into trying to fix state and federal accountability programs and policies is about trying to lessen the negative impact of a demonstrably bad (dumb) system. Or find a better way to test. Or tweak the formulas to hurt a little less, which of course will be met with accusations of (ironically) dumbing down the system.

And second, it has proven almost impossible to imagine something other than our compliance-driven test-based accountabilities. Whatever the reason, there has never been a concerted and sustained effort to ask and research what accountability could have and should have looked like, and then ask how we might move towards it. I interact with people all the time about a future state of educational accountability, and it never ceases to amaze me how challenging it is to see beyond narrow educational metrics and thinking that compliance with them somehow signals effectiveness.

All that weight anchored to a single phrase, educational accountability, means that the instant the phrase is invoked so too is the negativity and the sense that getting out from underneath it will be near impossible. That weight makes it challenging even to imagine what something else might look like. Or that there could even be a something else.

When I say educational accountability I’m talking about the most transformational of all the leadership disciplines, more capable of supporting a great work environment, creating trust between an organization and its stakeholders, and helping to shape strong organizations well into the future than any of them. Do it well and the big issues that seemed unsolvable in the past can become solvable going forward. No other leadership discipline can make that claim.

I’m talking about the way great organizations of all stripes account for what they do such that it leads and guides them as effectively as possible into an uncertain future.

Does that sound like what currently passes for educational accountability?

Real accountability looks nothing like what currently passes for educational accountability. It doesn’t need or require standardized test scores. It doesn’t require census metrics. It is not data-led. It is high stakes, but its goals are not punitive. It is based upon the hopes and dreams parents have for their children, or in slightly different terms, on the benefits parents expect for having entrusted their children’s lives and educations to a school. It tells the truth. It focuses on the future. It is easy to understand by every single stakeholder.

However, when I invoke the phrase, educational accountability, and start to point to the research that outlines a better way to do it, what people are understandably conditioned to hear is that I’m yet one more person with a slick strategy to help a school avoid sanctions, or I’m offering a different test or data point, or I’m claiming some policy tweak will help make a lousy system a little less lousy. Because up to this point that is all anyone has offered. And none of those, to be frank, is worth a moment of anybody’s time. If that were what I was really offering, you should ignore me.

I know this is how people view the phrase educational accountability because of the thousands of people I’ve asked what they believed what was about to happen when they first walked into one of my courses or seminars. Their answers are almost the same: they expected to hear yet one more way to deal with the current accountability mess, and that given the choice they would rather be anywhere else. Again, if I were in their shoes, I would feel the exact same way.

My goal going forward is to help people see at the outset something very different indeed. I’m better at it than I was, but I’m not there yet.

When I talk about making educational accountability right, what I am signaling is the need for something entirely different than the corruption currently claiming that name. I am arguing for accountability that is good for schools, students, parents, and communities, which is a far cry from what we have. I’m accusing the current system being so bad and poorly conceived that it cannot be salvaged, but also—and this is a bright spot—of being so narrow and short-sighted that you can run a great accountability alongside and eclipse it, meaning we don’t need a policy change in order to make a huge dent in the problem—although make no mistake—a policy change is absolutely the goal.

And I’m stating, as loudly as I can, that if the public understood the technical details of what a standardized test score is designed to do and as a result, could see what it cannot also do, they would reject it as an accountability tool outright, as a terrible and stupid mistake. It needs to become clear that trying to use standardized testing as an accountability tool is akin to trying to pound a square peg into a round hole with a mackerel. I hope that image stays with you because it really is that dumb.

When I talk about making educational accountability right, it is not through a set of acronyms or quippy phrases that were created to sell books or consulting hours. Rather, accountability is an almost universal function in organizations, and when done well, follows a handful of underlying frameworks, each of them replete with common sense. Doing accountability right requires learning those commonsense frameworks, a shift in mindset regarding what accountability is and is not, and a few hours a month. Accountability is not supposed to be your job, or the 600 lb. gorilla. Rather, it is how to account for your work and effectiveness, including how you intend to be effective going forward. That is, as I said, high stakes to be sure, just as it should be with any and all work that is meaningful and worthwhile.

For someone who now researches and studies accountability and has discovered its wondrous possibilities for improving the health of organizations, meeting the needs of stakeholders, shaping the organization for the future, and making it a great place to work, the fact that I have to start with the word, accountability, automatically puts me at a disadvantage by bringing with it its mountains of baggage. A disadvantage I must spend weeks and sometimes months trying to overcome.

The alternative is to find a different word, but that puts me at risk of being accused of not caring about accountability. Of being an apologist for under or poor performance, or of not caring about kids. That would put me outside the conversation and prevent my mission of solving this accountability mess once and for all.

So, I’m not going to dismiss the term, but rather, embrace it. But I need every educator to meet me halfway, so that we can start with a shared set of assumptions at the outset. And here’s a strategy to do that. Every time I say the phrase educational accountability the first few times we talk, or you read something I wrote, please read it as educational ice cream. Ice cream makes people happy. It's delicious. We’re happier to have than to not. We can look forward to the next flavor of the month. We leave our experiences with ice cream feeling better than before we had it. Any negative feelings we have about the calories are almost always offset by how good it is.

Educational ice cream creates the right denotative flair for that old and weighted term accountability, which can serve as an emotional placeholder until I can show you how truly transformational real accountability can be.

And I like saying that I’m something of an expert when it comes to educational ice cream. My bet is that our conversations will start off at a more advanced stage, and on a more positive note, which gets us much closer at the outset from discovering that a better accountability really is out there.

Monday, December 18, 2023

What If Black People Had a 'Green Book' for Finding the Schools Our Kids Deserve? by Carrie Sampson, Ph.D.


My Arizona colleague, Dr. Carrie Sampson wrote this cogent piece that not only informs the reader of this historical Green Book published in 1966 and 1967 that allowed Black people to travel safely. You can learn about this from a Smithsonian website titled, "How the Green Book Helped African-American Tourists Navigate a Segregated Nation." There is also a 2020 PBS documentary of this history titled, Driving While Black: Race, Space, and Mobility, streaming for free on PBS.

Hence, Dr. Sampson's phrase, "Green Book-worthy" that she applies to what should be safe schools for Black—and I would add, Brown, children. Such schools are deeply committed to educational excellence for Black and Brown children and youth. And they are deeply committed to "anti-racist practices that affirm the inherent worth of Black children." Expressed differently, parents shouldn't have to pick between high-performing schools and culturally-affirming, diverse and inclusive anti-racist education. What conservatives really need to understand is this isn't about indoctrination or political correctness, this is about safety and truly caring for children.

Here is where "reformers" who think that some combination of charter schools, high-stakes testing—together with the punitive notion that ever more stringent accountability measures will save the day—have it woefully wrong.

How many charter schools are anti-racist, decolonial, and for true inclusion of the historically "othered" children? And does this inclusion apply to special education children and others that might "bring their numbers down?" How many of them are linguistically and pedagogically aligned and appropriate for emergent bilingual children? How many of them are even cognizant of the Indigenous children and languages in their midst and embarked on linguistic and cultural preservation?

I'm not saying that public schools do this enough either. What I am saying is that charter reforms, with a few exceptions, are not reform at all. At best, they re-cast the same colonial, subtractive logics of cultural and linguistic assimilation and Europeanization, particularly through white-washed curricula and mind-numbing tests and curricula that teach toward those tests. N.B. English is a European language. It is not native to "Turtle Island," America's and Central America's original name emanates from the Algonquians and the Iroquois. Moreover, pre-contact America was a model of linguistic diversity (Jaimes, 1992).

I am in full agreement that we need a Green Book, as well as that schools to be Green-Book worthy. I would Though threatening to the status quo, what a wonderful discussion such considerations could entail.

-Angela Valenzuela


Jaimes, M. A. (Ed.). (1992). The state of Native America: Genocide, colonization, and resistance. South End Press.

Townsend, J. (2016). How the Green Book Helped African-American Tourists Navigate a Segregated Nation. Smithsonian Magazine.

What If Black People Had a 'Green Book' for Finding the Schools Our Kids Deserve?

August 2, 2019

Black families should not be forced to choose between schools that challenge them academically and schools that nurture and love them for who they are. Yet, this is the choice so many Black families make every day because very few learning spaces are truly committed to meeting the needs of Black children. 

It is painful to think about the conditions that lead to the creation of The Negro Motorist Green Book. With Blacks regularly facing exclusion, humiliation, and violence on buses and trains, the growth of automobile transport was a welcome liberation. But for Black people, it turned out that "getting your kicks on Route 66" meant getting kicked around and getting kicked out. The Green Book helped “The Negro” traveling by car navigate this issue by sharing safe places "that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trip more enjoyable."

The right to travel is considered a fundamental right. But so is the right to a free and appropriate public education. What if Black families had a guide to tell them which schools would provide them the learning they deserve without getting kicked around and getting kicked out? Until we can send Black children to any school knowing they will learn and thrive, we need an Education Green Book. We know schools that literally beat us down, criminalize our children as early as preschool and have academically failed our kids for decades. Let’s put those aside and ask a more pressing question: where can Black children learn without facing soul-crushing racism?

This is Personal

We were so excited when we found a gem of a school for our young children in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. Arrowhead Montesorri had almost everything a parent could ask for. Beautiful learning spaces. Personalized learning that had our daughter reading at 4 years old. A completely ridiculous outdoor learning environment filled with all sorts of animals and opportunities for project-based learning. 

Like many suburban schools, there was very little diversity. This was not surprising in a city where Blacks make up only 7% of the population. It was surprising, however, for children in this supposedly progressive learning environment to tell our children “I didn’t invite you to my party because we aren’t allowed to have brown people over,” or “that’s why nobody likes brown people” with no accountability or real consequences. 

The supposedly colorblind leadership at Arrowhead Montessori did not have the skills to address this. But sadly, they also lacked the will to address this, ignoring our offer to set up their staff with free training on anti-racist practices after the first incident occurred. To ensure our children will be protected from further unacceptable racist acts, we were forced to pull our children out.  

Education 'Green Book’ Schools

With all of the degrees we have between us, we are utterly clueless when it comes to figuring out how we are supposed to discern the answer to what should be a simple question: where can our children learn and be truly loved at the same time? The truth is, we are in an amazing position of privilege when it comes to answering this question.

Arizona is a 100% open-enrollment state, meaning that we can send our children to any district school we want as long as there is space. Arizona also has the highest number of public charter schools per capita. And we are privileged to have the means to practice the oldest form of school choice by just picking up and moving wherever we want. So, in theory, we have hundreds of options of where to send our children. But there are far fewer options once we consider the two main criteria that ought to make a school Education Green Book-worthy:

  • A demonstrated commitment to successfully educating Black children
  • A demonstrated commitment to anti-racist practices that affirm the inherent worth of Black children.

To be clear, schools that have mostly Black student populations and mostly Black school and teacher leadership would not automatically be included in an Education Green Book. And schools with mostly White student populations and mostly White school and teacher leadership would not automatically be excluded. 

Whether a school is in a traditional district, a public charter school or a private school would not be decisive either. The deciding questions should be whether this school is truly a place where educators believe in the unlimited learning potential of Black children and whether this school is truly a place with policies and practices that affirm their dignity and inherent self-worth.

As the 1948 printing of the Green Book stated in its introduction, "There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States." We are not there yet; definitely not in education. So, until we can send Black children to any school knowing they will learn and thrive, we need an #EducationGreenBook. Who’s in?

Carrie Sampson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Division of Educational Leadership and Innovation at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Arizona State University. Her research focuses on educational leadership, policy and equity from three interrelated perspectives—democracy, community advocacy and politics.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Welcome to Houston’s No-Longer-Independent School District

This is a manufactured crisis. I get some parents' dissatisfaction with some public schools, but the takeover route is not at all advisable as you can read for yourself in this Texas Monthly post on the matter. Moreover, the research literature, in general, does not provide any solid evidence of consistent success when schools or districts are taken over (e.g., Morel, 2018).

Such decisions amount to "scorched earth" approaches with the communities getting objectified, treated like objects, that corporations like Third Futures Schools paternalistically think is best for the district's school children.

With appointed boards—as recently occurred in the Houston Independent School District, this taking over of previously-elected ones, a major outcome is a decrease of local control and an increase in corporate control that disempowers, rather than empowers our children and communities.

Higher test scores neither bring—nor will ever bring—comfort. They imply a sacrificing of teachers, books, culturally relevant curriculum, atop a hyper test focus and scripted curricula. This "reform" for HISD is punitive and lacks imagination and vision.

Oh yes, and all of this while lining the pockets of the education management charter companies like Third Future Schools, that voraciously seek to possess and control all formerly public schools. For more context and detail on this assertion, also read this in tandem with my earlier post, Support for Houston ISD’s Spanish speakers has dwindled under state-appointed leader, parents say.

HISD used to have one of the best bilingual and dual language education programs in the nation. An about-face on the matter is devastating.

This should both sadden and outrage all of us who like John Dewey, understood our nation's classrooms as laboratories for democracy. I do agree, as well, that this is an act of racial violence. It further reeks of colonial and capitalistic logics of violence and accumulation by dispossession.

-Angela Valenzuela


Morel, D. (2018). Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy. Oxford University Press.

Welcome to Houston’s No-Longer-Independent School District 

The Texas Education Agency just took over the state’s largest school system. Parents and teachers are furious. But some city leaders insist that, after decades of poor performance by HISD, disruption is necessary.  

Mike Miles, the state-appointed superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, might be the most hated person in Harris County. At last week’s school board meeting—the first since Miles was officially hired—residents crowded HISD headquarters, in northwest Houston, to oppose the state’s takeover of the school district. One speaker compared Miles, who is the son of a Black father and a Japanese mother, to a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Another described the state’s recent seizure of HISD, which serves a student population that is 62 percent Hispanic and 22 percent Black—as an “act of racial violence.” Larry McKinzie, an educator and former State Board of Education candidate, appeared to make a physical threat against Miles: “Realize this: you’re safe at forty-four-hundred West Eighteenth”—the location of the board meeting—“but you’ll have to go back [home].” Not one of the 33 attendees who gave public comments had anything good to say about their new superintendent.  

It was hard to gauge Miles’s reaction to the criticism, because he spent the entire public-comment period in a back room, watching the meeting on TV. Arrayed around his empty chair on the dais were the nine members of the new HISD board of managers, recently appointed by Texas Education Agency (TEA) commissioner Mike Morath to replace Houston’s elected school board. The first public meeting, on June 8, had been disrupted by angry hecklers. In an apparent effort to keep order, the board allowed only 35 members of the public into last week’s meeting room, which can accommodate more than 300. The remaining 100 or so attendees were relegated to an overflow room. Several attempted to force their way into the main room, only to be turned back by armed police officers. One teacher who had registered to speak at the meeting was arrested for criminal trespassing and spent the night in jail. 

“This is supposed to be a public meeting, and the public is not in here,” said state representative Jolanda Jones, a former HISD trustee who was among the few allowed into the main hall. “You’re not going to get the support of the community, including myself and others, until you meaningfully include the public.” From Mayor Sylvester Turner on down, nearly every Houston official opposes the HISD takeover. “This process has been flawed and anti-democratic from the very beginning,” Turner said in a statement earlier this month. “There has been minimal community engagement and very little transparency.” 

The state has previously ousted elected school boards in seven districts, including in El Paso ISD in 2012 after a cheating scandal and in Beaumont ISD in 2014 due to financial mismanagement. But it has never assumed control of a district as sprawling and complex as Houston’s, the largest in the state and the eighth-largest in the country. HISD serves nearly 200,000 students spread across 274 schools, has a budget of $2.3 billion, and employs more than 10,000 teachers. In 2015 Harold Dutton, an iconoclastic Democratic state representative who represents northeast Houston and is a longtime critic of HISD, amended an education bill to allow the TEA to take over any school district with a campus that fails to meet state accountability standards for five consecutive years. In 2019, after HISD’s Wheatley High School triggered that provision, the TEA announced that it would appoint a board of managers to temporarily oversee HISD, citing Wheatley’s poor performance and allegations of board misconduct. “This intervention is needed to prevent imminent and substantial harm to the welfare of the district’s students or to the public interest,” Morath said at the time. 

Houston leaders overwhelmingly opposed the takeover, citing HISD’s overall B rating from the state and strong financial position. In 2019 the district sued the state, delaying the takeover for four years. The legal battle ended in January, when the Texas Supreme Court—whose nine members are all Republicans—sided with the TEA. 

On June 1, the TEA formally seized control of HISD. Governor Greg Abbott, who appointed Morath (as well as five state Supreme Court justices), called the decision “unfortunate” but necessary. “There has been a longtime failure by HISD, and the victims of that failure are the students,” Abbott declared. HISD superintendent Millard House II, who had been on the job for two years, was replaced by Miles, a former Dallas ISD superintendent and the founder of Third Future Schools, a network of public charter schools. The elected trustees were replaced by a board of managers picked by the TEA. While racially diverse, the board members mostly live in affluent areas of Houston west of downtown, far from the schools in northeast Houston targeted by Miles’s reforms. 

Those reforms will be sweeping and immediate. For his first year, Miles will target the feeder systems of three chronically underperforming high schools: Kashmere, North Forest, and Wheatley. A total of 29 elementary, middle, and high schools—all serving low-income, predominantly minority student populations—will be reorganized according to Miles’s “New Education System,” a package of reforms he implemented at Dallas ISD and his Third Future schools. In coming years, Miles plans to expand this system to more campuses. (Miles’s tenure in Dallas was polarizing. Supporters claim he made extraordinary improvements, while critics say he alienated the community and that academic gains proved short-lived.)

In recent interviews with local media, Miles has described the key components of the New Education System: higher teacher pay ($85,000 starting salaries, compared to around $61,500 for the coming school year), bonuses for the best teachers, a curriculum focused on reading and math, and a strict disciplinary regime enforced by cameras in every classroom. Unruly students will be removed from class and placed in a separate room, where they can follow along by video. Miles has said that librarians will likely be eliminated—because, in his view, their job consists only of “checking out books,” as he told the Houston Chronicle editorial board. Magnet programs may be scaled back, although schools will retain extracurricular activities, including sports. Miles did not respond to an interview request for this story. 

To implement these reforms, the superintendent is requiring every teacher in the 29 schools to reapply for their job. (Employees who aren’t rehired can move elsewhere in HISD.) That hasn’t gone over well with teachers or parents, many of whom have protested the looming reorganization. At last week’s board meeting, parents pleaded with Miles not to fire their children’s favorite teachers. “We want to keep every single teacher and staff member at our school, along with the classes and programs that they teach,” said Melissa Yarborough, whose children attend Pugh Elementary, one of the 29 schools being overhauled. “We are not just data on your spreadsheets. We’re a community that you’re tearing apart.” 

Karina Quesada, a mother and former teacher, challenged board members to put their own children in a New Education System school. “If it’s good enough for other people’s kids, it’s good enough for your kids,” she said. Sarah Rivlin, who teaches at Northside High School, urged the board to keep librarians. “A librarian put the right books in my hands and turned me into a reader, setting me up for success,” she said. “That’s what you want for your own children, isn’t it?” 

Miles does have defenders in Houston. Cary Wright is the CEO of Good Reason Houston, a  nonprofit group supported by some prominent Houston business leaders that partners with HISD schools to improve student outcomes. Citing low scores on the state-required STAAR tests at some HISD campuses, the organization has lobbied for sweeping reforms. “We’ve been very impressed by the urgency that [Miles] has demonstrated so far,” Wright said. “He seems to be taking an approach that’s based on the idea of equity, the idea of finding the strongest educators in the entire district and moving them to the campuses that have the greatest number of students with unmet needs."

Anna Eastman, who served as an HISD trustee from 2010 to 2018, praised Miles’s proposals to replace librarians with more teachers and use cameras to help identify misbehaving students. “I did think it was pretty cool that if a kid has to leave the classroom for a disciplinary reason that they’ll get to continue watching what’s happening instructionally on Zoom,” she told me. “Because when you remove a kid from the classroom, they lose out on learning time.” 

To Wright and Eastman, the New Education System represents a much-needed disruption of the status quo. Less than half of current HISD second and third graders are reading at grade level, and just one of out five HISD graduates will go on to complete a two- or four-year college degree. For some veteran HISD educators, though, Miles’s plan is all too familiar. From 2010 to 2013, former superintendent Terry Grier spent more than $60 million to radically transform twenty of the district’s worst-performing schools. The program, known as Apollo 20, included performance-based teacher pay, extra testing, and intense discipline. Test scores temporarily improved at the targeted schools, but many students transferred to different campuses, reportedly because of the high-stress environment. 

The effect on teacher morale was devastating. Shilpa Sarang, who taught English and English as a second language at an Apollo 20 high school in southwest Houston, wept as she recalled the “dehumanization” she experienced from administrators. “I would get written up for everything, like if I had left a highlighter on the floor,” she said. One of her colleagues confessed to fantasizing about deliberately crashing her car so she’d have an excuse not to come to school. The New Education System  “is exactly the same program that happened under Apollo Twenty,” said Ruth Kravetz, a retired HISD teacher and cofounder of Community Voices for Public Education, which opposes the state takeover. “That led to plummeting enrollment at the Apollo schools, no reading gains, and no sustained math gains.” Among the 29 schools included on Miles’s list are several that previously went through Apollo 20. 

Erin Baumgartner, director of the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, said that Miles’s reforms will have to take into consideration the harsh reality of life for many students. Nearly 80 percent of HISD students are eligible to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program; 37 percent are English-language learners. “We expect education to fix everything,” Baumgartner said. “Some kids, unfortunately, show up at school hungry, or haven’t had a place to sleep, or clean clothes. We expect schools to manage all of that. But supporting students takes a whole community effort."

Following the heated public comments at last week’s board meeting, Miles finally emerged from his back room, wearing a checked sports jacket and a broad grin. He introduced his top staff, then presided over a two-hour budget workshop conducted around a set of massive conference tables that occupied half the room. The protesters slowly drifted away; by the time the meeting adjourned, virtually the only people left in the building were reporters and police officers. At a brief, late-night press conference, a reporter asked Miles why he didn’t show up for the public comments. “It’s the board’s meeting, and the focus should be on the board, and questions to the board,” he replied, explaining that he had already met with three thousand HISD teachers, parents, and employees in his first few weeks on the job. “I am answering lots of questions,” he said. “I will face any music.” 

Corrections, June 28, 2023: A previous version of this article reported that the state had ousted school boards in fifteen other districts. It has done so in seven others. The article also reported that every employee of a school in Houston ISD will have to reapply for their job, including janitors. Only academic staff will have to.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Calling on ancient Maya wisdom to heal a traumatized and injured planet, Compliments of the late Maria E. Martin

Please go to this link to view a beautiful compilation and tribute to the late Maria Martin, a dear friend and colleague of mine whom I would have loved to have gotten to know better. 

Maria, thank you for living such an incredibly courageous and prolific life as a journalist and for paving the way for others, especially women of color coming from behind. 

You made a way out of no way for the larger and bigger purpose of bringing subaltern voices and perspectives to light. Your journalistic giftedness and social justice ethic, are a gift to the world. 

From this page dedicated to many of your recent work, I came across The Spiritual Edge podcast that I'll be checking out and that I'm sure you'd be happy that I shared. It's awesome to see you featured in a story in today's New York Times titled, Maria Emilia Martin, Creator of Public Radio’s ‘Latino USA,’ Dies at 72 by Penelope Green.

The best way that I can honor you, Maria, is by featuring one of your many stories that I think also happens to be uniquely made for this moment for our deeply troubled world. It's titled, Calling on ancient Maya wisdom to heal Guatemalan widows

I encourage everybody to link and then listen to it. 

It's a salve for the soul. 

Gracias! We are beyond indebted to your life and legacy. I did some healing myself today. 

Maria E. Martin ¡Presente!

-Angela Valenzuela

Guatemalan widows

Rosalina Tuyuc offers the wisdom of her ancestors to

a country scarred by war

by Maria Martin

Rosalina Tuyuc offers the wisdom of her ancestors to a country scarred by war