Oct 09, 2012


By Terry Grier, Houston Independent School District Superintendent 
Published by the American Press, Sunday, October 7, 2012

For years, as it made great progress in many other areas, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) dedicated minimal energy to observing our teachers; we provided them too little feedback to help them improve; and, worst of all, we allowed our end-of year ratings to become so inflated that 97 percent of teachers received the highest marks. This did a great disservice to our teachers and students.

What followed was years of watching our best teachers walk right out the door and into another school district or another profession. Frustrated by a system that refused to distinguish them for going above and beyond and that was unable to provide helpful professional development, they sought to work in places that would honor them, compensate them, and treat them as part of a team.

Our kids suffered for it. At the most fundamental level, not having a system of feedback, evaluation and development that differentiated one teacher’s performance from the next - comfortable as the system became for many of us adults - was unfair to the children whose best teachers were leaving our system.

Under the leadership of a courageous, determined HISD Board of Trustees, all that is changing. In 2010, our board put a new policy in place to make evidence of student progress one of the measures to be considered in deciding whether to renew teacher contracts, and has made clear that they want this information to be part of a robust appraisal and development system for teachers as well.

As a result, our district, the nation’s seventh largest, instituted new standards for classroom practice - developed right here in Houston by HISD educators. During the summer of 2011 we trained 800 observers and 11,000 teachers on this new evaluation model and created the Teacher Development Specialist position to help teachers in areas where the system showed they need improvement.

Within one year we had hired 130 such specialists. And by 2011, every HSID teacher had at least five opportunities annually to meet with their classroom observer. In fact, HISD observers conducted more than 57,000 observations last school year alone. This year we also started to measure each teacher’s effectiveness through looking at student assessments. Our "value-added formula" looks not at how well every student did on the test (that would create an unfair advantage for those who simply teach high-performing students), but looking instead at how much progress each student made and comparing it to how much progress we might expect them to make given their prior achievement levels.

When combined, the value-added data and the observation will provide our district a much better picture of a teacher’s effectiveness than the past system ever could have. As a result, we are able to provide extra support to those who are struggling. And we are able to offer career advancement opportunities to our many "irreplaceable" teachers. We’re also now exploring how we can better compensate those teachers who prove most effective so that we do everything possible to keep them in Houston’s schools helping our kids.

My fellow superintendents in Louisiana, just down the road on I-10, are to be commended for taking on the challenge of using the new Compass system to keep their best teachers in Louisiana and its parishes. It’s not easy. But if they and the principals in their districts use the Compass observation tool and test score data to discern which teachers need help, which teachers do not, and which might be able to take on more responsibility for greater compensation, they will have done something great for their communities. In fact, by January 1, every district in Louisiana will have adjusted their salary scales to rewind an individual teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. This is a great opportunity to honor and keep your state’s best educators.  

In fact, it’s so great for you in Louisiana that we Texans should be a little nervous. For if you’re successful at treating teachers like 21st century professionals, we will have to continue to raise our games to avoid losing our best to the Bayou State. One way or the other, there is nothing more important to the quality of a child’s education than the quality of the classroom teacher. Compass provides your state and its schools a great opportunity to change the lives of children. From an admiring neighbor, I urge you to take it.