Houston School District Reforms: Same Old Story?

It’s a familiar story in American education: A state assumes the operation of a failing school district with much ado and controversy, but nothing of substance ever changes in terms of academic improvement. In a move that actually began in October 2019 amid allegations of misconduct by the Houston Independent School District (HISD) Board and the failure of the HISD’s Wheatley High School to meet state standards, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) assumed control of the district last March.

The announcement of the so-called “takeover” came with the issuance of a final 300-page report documenting allegations of the board’s misconduct for, among other things, failure to publicly deliberate in a quorum or post meeting notices before making key decisions affecting the district as required by Texas law. Despite a series of legal setbacks, the Texas Supreme Court in January 2023 cleared the way for the TEA to replace the Houston ISD’s superintendent with a new “board of managers.”

In June, the TEA selected former Dallas ISD Superintendent Mike Miles as the new superintendent of the state’s largest district. The appointment of Miles stirred a hornet’s nest that was already buzzing. He was no stranger to upheaval in Dallas, where his “New Education System” (NES) experienced “both successes and controversies.” In Houston, 57 schools have thus far voluntarily opted into the program, after just 28 schools were initially selected.

Fe Bencosme weighs in

When the Houston situation came to the attention of Phyllis Schlafly Eagles researcher Gwen Kelley, Education Reporter wanted to find out more about it and the controversial new superintendent hired to institute the reform. HISD school board candidate and former educator, Fe Lisa “Fe” Bencosme, graciously agreed to share her thoughts with us.

Bencosme is knowledgeable, well-spoken, and admittedly conservative. First of all, she says, “the term ‘takeover’ is a misnomer; it should in this case be called an ‘intervention.’ We’re talking about a bloated system that was in grave need of an overhaul.”

While Bencosme admits she has no particular inside knowledge about the district’s current intrigues, her sense is that “special interests are losing their power, and will kick and scream to prevent that from happening." The clear implication is that those who want to keep the status quo will try do so whether or not the future of thousands of children hangs in the balance. This includes local inner-city Democrat politicians, the mainstream news media, liberal activist groups and, while Bencosme didn’t name it, the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT), a chapter of the national American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Activists push back

The union filed a number of grievances against the HISD and Superintendent Miles, despite the 57 principals who asked to be included in the NES group of schools. HFT President Jackie Anderson told that these principals “did not follow the TEA’s education code.” She further claimed Texas education law requires principals to meet with their schools’ “Decision Making Committee, which includes teachers, parents, and community members,” before making such sweeping reforms. In some cases, she charged, there was no such meeting.

The union is also upset on behalf of teachers whom Anderson alleges were caught off guard and do not welcome the changes, yet are “stuck” in their schools. At the very least, the union asserts, impacted teachers should have the opportunity “to leave the 57 NES-aligned schools without penalty.” Some parent activists are unhappy with the NES changes as well. A grassroots advocacy group called Community Voices for Public Education started a “block walking campaign” over the summer to create awareness of “the swath of changes being made to the school system in Houston.” A spokeswoman for the group told NBC News: “The reason we started knocking on doors and doing our block walking campaign is because we realized that a lot of people, especially people whose kids were no longer in the education system, did not realize what was going on.”

This group’s chief complaints are precisely those that other parents believe may be a good thing, including the elimination of “nearly two dozen special education contracting jobs,” changing Spanish-language schools to English-language with supplementation in Spanish, although Bencosme reports that a majority of the residents in the HISD’s third district speak Spanish exclusively, and yet that area was left untouched — giving the impression that backdoor deals are somehow being struck.

Then there is the elimination of librarians at under-performing schools with the conversion of libraries into study halls and/or virtual classrooms where students with behavioral issues can attend class via Zoom on TV screens. Some reason that, with so many pornographic and otherwise inappropriate books on school library shelves, fewer libraries might mean fewer children accessing objectionable materials.

But as Fe Bencosme points out, school libraries have been on the way out for some time. She says new schools are being built without libraries altogether, and many of those with existing libraries “have scarcely seen a soul, since kids look up everything on their Mac Books and computers.... Don’t get me started,” she adds, “data collection is another story altogether with the reliance on computers. I don’t think we realize the extent of the data being collected on students.”

Benscosme observes that the repurposing of the libraries is being used by enemies of the reform effort to alarm and frighten people who may not realize kids are accessing everything electronically, including library books. “I understand that librarians don’t want to lose their jobs,” she says. “But some school libraries have been sitting empty for years, leaving many librarians who genuinely care about kids essentially idle and ultimately out of a job.”

The use of libraries as virtual classrooms for students who routinely disrupt their regular classes could very well prove to be a helpful innovation. Yet union and parent activists insist they “won’t work.” Dubbed “Zoom Rooms,” these also involve the extensive use of cameras, which superintendent Miles said “would be recording classrooms 24/7 at the 29 schools he has earmarked as ‘high-priority high-needs’ campuses.”

So far, Miles is soldiering on with feathers decidedly unruffled. He calls the parents’ concerns and frustrations “understandable,” noting: “Whenever there’s change, sometimes people gravitate to their worst fears instead of their best hopes. And my job and my team’s job is to move them from here towards this [new reform].”

Bencosme says Miles “is the perfect person for doing the heavy lifting in a project of this scale because of his military background. But his higher education degrees are not in education,” she muses, “so he may be relying on others to advise him.” However, his work experience does include the charter school business; after his stint as superintendent of the Dallas ISD, Miles founded a charter school network called Third Future Schools, which serves children in Texas, Louisiana, and Colorado.

About Miles and NES

In July, Miles told ABC13 News in Houston that NES “is the way forward.” The son of a Japanese mother and an African-American father, Miles said in an interview with KPRC TV 2 that, although he grew up poor and with a noticeable speech impediment as a child, his elementary school teachers gave him confidence that he could make good grades and eventually excel. He overcame the speech impediment and went on to make good their predictions.

Miles graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and also earned degrees from the University of California Berkeley and Columbia University. He served as a “Company Commander” in the. U.S. Army’s “elite Ranger Battalion” and later served as “a Diplomat to Poland and Russia at the end of the Cold War, finishing his state department work as the Special Assistant to the Ambassador to Russia.”

Bencosme notes that at least a couple of Miles’ reforms reflect his military background. One example is the use of a “timer” in class, which she reports “has kids in an uproar.” The purpose of the timed lesson segments is to keep students on track and moving from one concept to another, with the goal of achieving more positive outcomes. “But seriously,” she observes, “four-minute increments? It’s not good. Students would be better served starting out with at least ten minutes in order to get used to being more focused, and then gradually reducing the time.” It’s one innovation she sees as being subject to change when the elected school board is reinstated after the elections in November. quoted the superintendent as saying: “Imagine if schools not only taught reading, math, and science, but also required different ‘experiences’ that students would have to complete in order to move from the early grades to the middle grades and then to the higher grades. And what if those experiences could be completed outside of school and with experts who are not teachers....”

But some observers question whether the proposed changes will actually result in improved academic outcomes. “The first reform should be the implementation of a true phonics reading program,” says Eagles researcher Gwen Kelley. “Instead, what you usually get are educators selling a complicated system that could take years before evaluators, including state lawmakers, parents, and education experts can assess whether or not the reform is working.”

Bencosme says Miles has vowed to “teach the science of reading,” although she admits she’s not sure he knows what the “science” of reading actually is. Her hope is that he will not only advocate teaching students to sound out words using a good phonics program, but that the instruction will also emphasize reading comprehension. “I’m glad we are going back to phonics,” she says, “but hope that we make sure kids understand what they are reading. Historically, the data show — and I hate to use that word — but the common understanding is that a child who reads proficiently by third grade is much more likely to succeed academically. Reading enables everything else.” (Education Reporter is compelled to note here that Phyllis Schlafly firmly believed children should learn to read by the end of first grade, but Bencosme is correct that the prevailing wisdom calls for proficiency by the end of third grade.)

More on NES

One of the mainstays of NES is a reduction in the district’s workforce. ABC13 estimated that “as many as 200 jobs” could be eliminated from the HISD’s administrative office in order to raise teacher salaries. Such cuts could be music to the ears of parents’ rights advocates, as it’s often administrative personnel who facilitate non-academic programs and activities that many parents find objectionable.

But a reduction in the number of teachers is also on Miles’ reform list. According to the Houston Chronicle (, “under NES, some teachers will be made to reapply for their positions, with increased compensation ranging from $81,000 to $86,000 salary bases as well as a potential $10,000 stipend.” Positions including principals, assistant principals, special education personnel, and others, could also be eligible for the stipend, although the number of special education teachers is expected to decrease under NES.

The Chronicle further reported that the new superintendent plans to “institute his reform [at] 150 HISD schools by 2025,” calling the effort “wholesale systematic reform.” In addition to staff cuts and increased teacher compensation, the support staff that remain will be required to work with teachers in the classroom. Miles’ plan calls for a curriculum overhaul and a new teaching model.

Bencosme says the move “to have support staff prepare lesson plans, then turn them over to teachers and expect teachers to implement them in their classrooms” is at best concerning. As a teacher herself, she concedes that lesson planning is time-consuming but believes it is important to the role. “I enjoyed lesson planning,” she says, “even though it took a lot of my time, because I learned in the process. It edifies the teacher and builds knowledge.”

But she also believes that at least part of the reason for having a select group of support staff create the lesson plans is to keep “woke” curricula out of the classroom. If the lesson plans are preset, teachers are more likely to stick to the curriculum as it’s presented to them for use by the district.

Despite Miles’ confidence, the jury is out as to whether he will be able to overcome opposing forces and actually change things for the better in the HISD under his program. For her part, Bencosme is cautiously optimistic. Parents who oppose the new superintendent’s reforms outright, those who believe that, as with other education fads, they are certain to fail, and those who are simply hoping for any improvement whatsoever, will have to wait and see.

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