One month into HISD’s school year, significant curriculum and instructional changes have crept into campuses that were supposed to be exempt from Mike Miles’ overhaul.

Houston ISD English teacher Karen Calhoun enjoyed short-lived relief this summer when her principal at Askew Elementary School opted not to join the dozens of campuses getting overhauled by the district’s new superintendent, Mike Miles.

Despite the decision, Calhoun has watched in recent weeks as her beloved school seemed to morph into a version of the turnaround initiative, known as the “New Education System,” that she hoped to avoid. 

Less than a week before classes began, Askew’s principal told reading and math teachers they had to use the same curriculums as NES schools, Calhoun said. The principal also directed all staff to check that students understood the lesson every four minutes or so using “multiple response strategies” — the same techniques that teachers at NES schools are required to use, Calhoun said. 

The orders deflated the spirits of many teachers at Askew, a B-rated campus on Houston’s west side, she said. 

“The bulk of our teachers have taught 10-plus years. So that means that everybody in that room pretty much knows what they’re doing,” Calhoun said. “You can do multiple strategies in a lesson, but it’s authentic, it’s not mandated. It’s not like, ‘Every three minutes you have to do something. Every four minutes you have to do something.’”

One month into HISD’s school year, significant curriculum and instructional changes have crept into campuses that were supposed to be exempt from Miles’ overhaul, teachers and families at 15 non-NES schools told the Houston Landing in recent weeks. The new practices appear to contradict comments made earlier this summer by Miles, who said he planned to largely leave most schools to operate as they were while he transformed 85 other campuses under the NES umbrella.

In interviews, the educators and parents said many of the changes they’re seeing include elements initially advertised as only for NES schools. Thirteen of their 15 schools scored A or B ratings under the state’s academic accountability system in 2022.

For teachers, the new requirements include removing classroom decor, writing daily lesson objectives on whiteboards at the front of the classroom and repeatedly incorporating the every-four-minute learning checks into their lessons.

In addition, principals leading nearly two-thirds of non-NES schools are choosing to use new reading and math curriculums, Amplify and Eureka, that are mandated in the overhauled campuses, HISD officials confirmed Thursday. Educators at those schools must use the teaching practices recommended by the curriculum providers, such as a daily quiz, called a Demonstration of Learning.

“It sure does feel like NES,” said Melissa Yarborough, an English teacher at the non-NES Navarro Middle School, who now has to use the new curriculum after her principal chose to adopt it this year. “If you don’t get to that Demonstration of Learning by the time you’re supposed to get to it, then that administrator is going to be telling you your pacing is wrong.”

After his June appointment by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, Miles toured HISD describing what he called a “split screen” approach. Miles declared that 28 schools chosen by HISD’s administration would undergo an immediate overhaul. Weeks later, another 57 voluntarily joined the initiative.

Meanwhile, the rest of HISD’s roughly 190 schools would see minimal changes, such as principals observing classrooms more often, Miles said.

Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles speaks with the Houston Landing before his appointment as the district's leader on June 1. Miles said at the time that most campuses would see minimal changes this school year.
Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles speaks with the Houston Landing before his appointment as the district’s leader on June 1. Miles said at the time that most campuses would see minimal changes this school year. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

“We’re not going to upset the applecart in all of the schools,” Miles told the Landing in an interview published June 1. “There’s a number of schools that are already doing a good job, so we need to leave those schools to do what they’ve always done. They’re getting good results. … With regard to curriculum or engagement strategies, that’s probably going to be the same for schools that are doing well.”

HISD spokesperson Jose Irizarry said principals at non-NES schools — and not Miles’ central administration — have chosen the new approaches to curriculum, instructional policies and classroom decor, among other practices. 

However, Irizarry acknowledged that teacher evaluation processes have changed district-wide, and that non-NES schools using Amplify and Eureka are required to adjust their lesson delivery. 

“Those campuses are expected to support teachers to implement those materials and lessons with fidelity,” Irizarry said in a written statement.

Miles argues the new curriculums are the most effective state-approved teaching materials, and repeated student learning checks are a characteristic of skilled, engaging instruction.

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    The unexpected changes

    However, parents and teachers at non-NES schools interviewed by the Landing — most of whom requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation — said they were caught off guard and felt confused and underwhelmed by the changes.

    Sim Kern, whose daughter attends a non-NES school that adopted the new materials, said their first-grader is now bored in class. Creative assignments given by kindergarten teachers last year, such as a project to design a holiday, are not available in first grade, Kern said.

    “There was a lot of that last year, projects that got kids really excited,” Kern said. “Now, everything is just worksheets.”

    At schools where the curriculum hasn’t changed, several teachers said they feel pressured to change their teaching style to conform with NES-style tactics due to repeated classroom observations from central office administrators. School and district leaders completed roughly 68,000 informal observations during the first week and a half of the school year, Miles told the HISD board during a Sept. 7 meeting.

    One teacher at a non-NES high school, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said administrators observed her more than 10 times in the first two weeks of school. She noted that teachers were told during district-wide training before the start of the school year to employ the every-four-minute response strategy.

    “I’ve been setting four-minute timers so that if somebody walks into my classroom and stays more than four minutes, they’re seeing me do what we’ve been told we’ve been expected to do,” the teacher said.

    Several teachers, meanwhile, said principals have directed them to format their classroom whiteboards to follow a similar template employed at NES schools. The teachers said they were told to write a “learning objective” on the board, beginning with the phrase “Students will be able to…”. They also were instructed to write what students should expect in their “Demonstration of Learning” quiz.

    One teacher at a B-rated, non-NES high school said her students “don’t have a clue” what the posted messages mean.

    “They never look at them, they never read them,” said the teacher, who requested anonymity. “They take up space on my board that I could use for other things. They’re there to prove that I’m doing my job, and I’m a veteran teacher with almost two decades of experience.”

    The whiteboard directives led to indecision at one non-NES campus, Shadowbriar Elementary School on the district’s west side.

    In an Aug. 28 message sent to staff and reviewed by the Houston Landing, a Shadowbriar administrator told teachers that “the proper configuration of school boards is essential.” The administrator, Dominique Clarkson, gave teachers an example of a Demonstration of Learning and reminded them to write out a learning objective following a variation of “Students will be able to…”.

    However, Shadowbriar leaders backtracked three weeks later on the order, saying they would defend teachers if central office administrators took issue with the posted messages, according to a campus educator who requested anonymity. The incident offered a window into the push-and-pull that some campuses are feeling between maintaining their unique school culture and staying in the good graces of HISD’s new leadership, the teacher said.

    Ultimately, campus leaders are worried their schools could be forced to join the NES program in the coming years if educators do not follow Miles’ preferred practices, several interviewed teachers said. 

    Irizarry, the HISD spokesperson, said those notions are incorrect. Decisions about which schools might join the NES initiative next year will be made based on academic factors, such as how many students score at grade level of state tests, he said.

    To Yarborough, the Navarro English teacher, the changes this year trace back to the top of HISD’s organizational ladder.

    “It’s like Mike Miles is just infused into everything,” she said.

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    Asher Lehrer-Small is a K-12 education reporter for the Houston Landing. He previously spent three years covering schools for The 74 where he was recognized by the Education Writers Association as one...