Gallegos, HISD Spar on Data-Based Firings

State Sen. Mario Gallegos, Jr., D-Houston,  gestures at the Senate Committee on Education on July 20, 2010.
State Sen. Mario Gallegos, Jr., D-Houston, gestures at the Senate Committee on Education on July 20, 2010.

In the latest clash between the Houston Independent School District and those who question its use of "value-added data" to grade and even fire teachers, state Sen. Mario Gallegos Jr., D-Houston, grilled an HISD representative at today's Senate Education Committee hearing over what he decried as a transparency issue for the district.

Houston ISD has used the data — which purports to gauge how much each student improves under a particular teacher — to hand out bonuses to educators since 2007. In February, the city's Board of Education adopted a policy saying the data could be used in terminations as well, along with other factors. Both the rewards and punishments have come under criticism, especially from from the district's teachers union, the Houston Federation of Teachers. Adding to the controversy, the formula remains secret. Its developer, educational statistician William Sanders, and the district have shielded the system from public records laws by arguing that it is proprietary information, the release of which would harm Sander's business by empowering competitors.

Today, Gallegos took up the point with Ann Best, the district's chief human resources officer, who — along with academics, state officials and nonprofit representatives — had come to testify about teacher evaluations. "Let's make it real here," he told Best. Running data about teachers' effect on students through a "black box," he said, is unfair, leaving teachers in the dark as they try to meet the district's expectations.

Best deflected Gallegos' questions, saying she was not an expert on value-added data. She told The Tribune that the system, which evaluates third- through eighth-grade teachers in core subjects, is just one of three dozen factors used to evaluate teacher performance. "I don't think it's a black box," Best said, adding that "lots" of teachers go through professional development seminars that help them improve based on the data from the value-added system. And because this year was the district's fourth using Sanders' system, she said, teachers have trend data to learn from.

Houston teachers turned out in force in February to oppose the district's adoption of value-added data as the basis for firing under-performing instructors. It came as part of a larger fight over using students' test scores to award bonuses to teachers, and after President Obama broached the subject of merit pay for teachers nationally. In Houston, local politics played a key role: candidates backed by the union lost two HISD board races in the most recent election, giving a majority to members who often oppose the union and supported merit pay.

For now, Gallegos remains unsatisfied about the lack of details Houston teachers have to counter unfavorable evaluations. Under the current system, it's "here's your evaluation, vámanos," he said. "I don't like it at all."

With nearly 13,000 teachers and 202,000 students, HISD is the state's largest school district.

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