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TNTP Re-imagine Teaching

One to Watch: Houston

April 30, 2013 | by Dan Weisberg

It seems like I can’t go anywhere these days without hearing, “Dan, I loved The Widget Effect and The Irreplaceables, but which districts are doing a great job of using all these ideas in real life?”

Okay, so maybe I’m not actually getting stopped on the street. But three years into the wave of reforms inspired by Race to the Top, a lot of people really do want to know whether these new policies are helping more kids get great teachers.

My job at TNTP takes me to a lot of districts that are doing this work—many of them places that don’t usually pop up in conversations about education reform. I’ve seen the successes and challenges firsthand.

One city where I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years is Houston, Texas. The Houston Independent School District (HISD) is very quietly attempting one of the boldest sets of reforms in the country, through its Effective Teachers Initiative. This plan, adopted by HISD’s board in 2009, basically made hiring, developing and retaining great teachers the district’s top priority. We’ve been helping HISD with its implementation since the initiative began.

So, more than three years in, how have things been going? I’d say pretty well, on balance. A few of the notable successes:

  • A better teacher evaluation system. HISD built a rigorous, multiple-measures evaluation system based on feedback from teachers and principals across the district. The new system is already giving teachers more feedback about their instruction than they’ve ever received before. One stat that captures the magnitude of this shift: Under HISD’s old evaluation system, 97 percent of teachers were told they were perfect—that there was nothing they could do to improve (and we know, from The Irreplaceables, that great teachers want constructive feedback). Today, more than two-thirds of teachers have a specific area for improvement identified on their evaluation.                                                                                                                                                                                            
  • A fresh approach to professional development. Teachers in HISD now meet regularly with their principals to discuss their performance and create a professional development plan based on their needs and interests. Teachers also have the opportunity to work with a Teacher Development Specialist, a master teacher whose only job is to offer advice and support. This is all a far cry from the one-size-fits-all approach to PD that you’ll find in most districts.                                                                                 
  • A commitment to keeping Irreplaceables. Thanks to the new evaluation system, principals in HISD can identify their irreplaceable teachers and work hard to retain them. This effort is paying off: Last year, HISD kept 92 percent of its teachers who were rated “highly effective,” and the district is on track to meet its goal of keeping 95 percent this year. Beyond just relying on principals to convince great teachers to stay, the district is also piloting new leadership opportunities in 23 schools that give great teachers a clear path for career advancement even if they stay in the classroom.

Of course, HISD has encountered its share of challenges, too. For example, some principals and teachers were frustrated this year with data system glitches that prevented them from submitting the results of observations and other parts of the evaluation process quickly and easily. This is a real problem, because the last thing anyone wants to do is add to the administrative burden on teachers and principals who are already extremely busy. HISD also has to provide school leaders with the training and support they need to implement the new evaluation system effectively, no easy task in a district with almost 300 schools.

On the whole, though, I think HISD’s work to bolster great teaching is an important model for other school districts. Their teacher evaluation system is one of the best in the country (DCPS IMPACT and Newark Excels are others), but more importantly, HISD superintendent Terry Grier really gets that evaluations are just one piece of the puzzle.

Even the best evaluation system in the world can’t magically give more kids great teachers. Districts that are serious about putting a great teacher in every classroom need to use the information they get from evaluations to make smart decisions about teacher recruitment, professional development, compensation and retention. HISD is one of the few districts even attempting work on this scale, and the early results are encouraging.

Dan Weisberg

CEO