What can other school district takeovers teach us about Houston?

The state has seized control from several other districts, with mixed results.

By Michael MarksMarch 16, 2023 2:10 pm,

The Texas Education Agency announced on Wednesday that it planned to take over the state’s largest public school district, Houston ISD. The takeover is predicated on years of substandard academic performance at one of the district’s high schools, and what TEA officials deem to be “mismanagement” by the local school board.

Anna Bauman, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, looked into outcomes from other district takeovers by state education agencies. She shared her reporting with Texas Standard. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How much of a precedent is there for the TEA taking this kind of action? How common is it?

Anna Bauman: There’s definitely a precedent for this. Texas has taken over 15 districts in the past with the reasons ranging from, you know, financial issues, poor academic ratings… Several of those districts have since closed and a few of them are still remaining under state control. But there’s really not much precedent for the state to take over a district of this size, which is the largest in the state with 187,000 students.

I know you’ve been talking with researchers who have studied the results of these state interventions. What do they say?

So there was a pretty good comprehensive study released in 2021 by researchers at Brown University. They were looking at all state takeovers across the country that happened between 2011 and 2016. What they found in a nutshell, was that on average, these takeovers really have no academic benefits for students. There’s a couple examples across the country. Some have performed actually pretty well. Others have done not so well. But on average, it’s really not showing much improvement.

Well, you said some have improved. Let’s take a best case scenario. What sort of results are we talking about or could one hope for?

So a lot of people will point to New Orleans as an example of this. The state of Louisiana came in following Hurricane Katrina and took some pretty drastic measure in the school district – basically firing all teachers, eventually converting nearly every public school into a charter school. It eliminated attendance zones – so in theory, families could go to any school in the city. This was a major overhaul. And there’s a group called Education Research Alliance for New Orleans that has done a lot digging into what happened and how that played out. And what they have found is that every marker of, you know, student achievement essentially jumped pretty considerably. So they saw better test scores, more kids going to college, better graduation rates in that district.

However, at the same time, there are also some consequences from that. The teacher workforce changed pretty dramatically. There were fewer Black teachers, fewer qualified, experienced teachers who had ties to the area in the district following those reforms.

Of course, we’re not talking about changes in Houston anywhere close to what New Orleans did in its overhaul. I’m curious, is academic performance in Houston really that much worse than in other cities in Texas?

No, it’s not. And you bring up a good point. So what happened in New Orleans, you know, probably is not going to happen in Houston. They’re very different situations. Texas has made no indication that they would do anything as drastic as what happened there, as well. We know that from these takeovers, they mostly do better in districts that are starting from a much lower point. Houston ISD received a B rating from the state last year on its accountability system. So there are other districts that have fared worse.

And we should point out that that’s a marked improvement from when the TEA began this process, of course. And so things have been improving, is the point. How can HISD return to local control? What has to happen? 

So there are three main criteria that were outlined by the TEA. The first is to make sure that no campus receives a D or F grade for multiple years. And again, that’s based on the state’s accountability system, mostly based on STAAR results. The other criteria is that the district’s special education program must be in compliance with federal and state requirements. In addition to that, the school board should be highly focused on student outcomes. So that’s the last criteria – the school board, which there are different ways to measure that.

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