top of page
  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Houston's revamped schools: 'ruthless efficiency,' lots of engagement

After a state takeover of Houston schools, Superintendent Mike Miles has launched a very ambitious set of reforms for the city's lowest-performing schools, reports Evie Blad on Education Week.

New Education System (NES) teachers and principals had to reapply for their jobs. If they do well on rigorous evaluations, they'll earn merit pay. Core-subject teachers will be paid more. The district is supplying lesson plans, presentation slides, discussion topics, and quizzes, and telling teachers how to teach.

The most controversial change is using school libraries as "team centers" for disruptive students, who'll watch their classes through a live Zoom broadcast. Miles laid off librarians, but aides will check out books before and after school.

In a tour of four NES schools led by Miles, Houston Landing reporters saw "ruthless classroom efficiency with near-constant student engagement." The new plans require teachers to alternate brief instruction with student responses, report Miranda Dunlap and Asher Lehrer-Small.

For example, a sixth-grade math teacher told students to find pairs of numbers that multiply to 30. A timer on the slide gave them 60 seconds.

When the timer sounded, the teacher told his students it was time for a “whiparound” share. It was only the second day of school, but the students knew to stand up, volunteer their answer when called on and sit back down when a peer provided the same answer they prepared. Together, the class offered answers to the question: six and five multiply to 30, so do three and 10, two and 15.

Other response options are having students write answers on a dry-erase board or talk with a partner, then share answers with the class, Dunlap and Lehrer-Small write.

The teaching strategy keeps students engaged in the lessons, Miles said. They get many chances to answer questions in class, which means they'll need less homework.

Few students were sent to the "team centers" in the first week of school, administrators said. Instead, students were using the library spaces for study and reading before the first bell.

At each school, math and English students who've mastered the day's lesson go to a large classroom to work independently for the last third of class time. Students who needed the teacher's help remain in class.

"Classes were hushed as teachers instructed, save for the sound of markers squeaking on whiteboards," Dunlap and Lehrer-Small write. "No students lingered in the hallways outside of passing time."

But when students were told to recite answers out loud or "turn and talk" with a partner, they were enthusiastic.

“Whenever we ‘pair and share,’ it’s way more lively and they’re way more engaged,” Miles said. “When kids get to do the work, it’s always better.”

The superintendent's "near-constant stream of quibbles" may drive principals and teachers crazy. "He told one principal that teachers should have students fist bump before partner conversations," the reporters write. "He noted that his curriculum team should revisit whether one classroom’s written learning objective was too long."

But freeing teachers from writing lesson plans, disciplining disruptors and -- for part of class time -- teaching students at widely different performance levels could be very popular.

If Houston's NES schools do well, other districts may try to do the same, writes Blad in Ed Week.

"Districts in places like Clayton County, Ga., and Toppenish, Wash., are now eyeing virtual instruction as a middle ground — some sending students home to learn remotely and others relocating them to quiet spaces within the school," she writes.

"Both states and school districts have started to exert more control over curriculum, especially in reading," though few have gone as far as Houston, she adds.

“Over 90 percent of America’s public school teachers act like DJs, regularly pulling materials from the internet themselves,” said David Steiner, the executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. Quality is erratic. When teachers get high-quality classroom materials, and training in how to use it, students tend to learn more.

279 views5 comments


Sep 08, 2023

"ruthless classroom efficiency with near-constant student engagement."

“ruthless.. efficiency”

sounds like the Spanish Inquisition.

Hoepfully Mr Miles will be more successful than he has been in previous jobs, but more than likely, the educational reformer will be gone in 5 years.

Whatever happened to Kevin Huffman, Andrew Tata, Chris Barber, Michelle Rhee, John Deasy, William Hite, Paul Vallas, et. al ?

A lonely nation turned their eyes to them.


Sep 08, 2023

Of course, not one member of the state GOP leadership, or state reps and senator who are GOP would ever send their children to a school that is run in the same manner. One of the problems with education policy is the hypocrisy and lack of leadership of politicians.


Sep 08, 2023

Sounds like EDI (explicit direct instruction). The strategy has always worked, it just fell out of favor due to the search for new innovative strategies which keep attempting (and failing) to replace good, old-fashioned, hard work!


Sep 08, 2023

Universal high quality curriculum compensates for teachers who are weak at pedagogy and the content.


Sep 07, 2023

I'm rooting for Miles and Houston's students.


bottom of page