Press Release

This op-ed originally appeared in The Houston Chronicle on December 31, 2023.

I’m wrapping up my term as a Houston ISD trustee, one elected before the pandemic, before the state took over the school district, and before Mike Miles became superintendent. To say the least, it’s been an eventful four years.

But it’s the students – not the politics – that keep me up at night. Educating students in large urban systems is complex, and while no system is perfect, the purpose and obligation must be to prepare students to achieve and reach their potential.

Opportunity and achievement disparities between racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups emerge before students even enter the classroom. The pandemic only made this worse, erasing two decades of progress in closing these gaps.

To erase those gaps, HISD superintendents have brought their own visions of what will succeed. We’ve seen numerous reforms with lofty names, from Apollo to Achieve 180 to RISE.

This year, it’s New Education System (NES). NES hyper-focuses on the quality of teaching and learning. As a parent and former teacher, I know the difference this makes, especially in the early years.

The overarching goal of NES is to elevate student achievement, particularly in foundational subjects like math and reading. It is shocking that, when tested in September of 2023, only 18% of third graders at NES or NES-aligned campuses were able to read on grade level. What parent doesn’t want their kid to learn how to read? What community should be willing to accept these results? One thing is clear: We can’t keep doing what we have been doing for years and expect the students in our city to graduate prepared to succeed and live out their dreams.

During a recent visit to two NES elementary campuses, I was pleased to witness classrooms where students at various proficiency levels were actively participating in their learning. While media narratives and conversations with some teachers on NES and non-NES campuses conveyed diverse perspectives, the scenes in these two schools were different from what I had imagined. It wasn’t doom and gloom, but quite the opposite. Students were highly engaged with the teacher, with their peers and with the material they were learning.

Coaching sessions between the superintendent and the principal seamlessly occurred in the hallways. As we moved in and out of classrooms, the process felt unobtrusive, facilitated by open doors and students accustomed to visitors. The teachers were engaged, well-versed in their lesson plans, maintained an unwavering pace, and consistently gauged understanding to ensure students were learning. In this educational scenario, envision the teacher (or the principal) as the team captain in a playoff game. Coaching and strategizing happened in real time. The teacher didn’t wait until the high-stakes game concluded to provide guidance.

It was fast-paced for both teachers and students, but there were at least two adults in every one of those classrooms. Teachers left no room for downtime, and I commend them for choosing to teach in our NES campuses.

While the curriculum and teaching day are highly structured, various supports are in place to ensure their success. The idea of using a timer may seem stressful, but this practice is not new, and its constant presence in NES classrooms served to maintain pace and focus. Every lesson concluded with an assessment, pinpointing any gaps in learning.

Students who mastered the lesson moved to a dedicated “teams center” down the hall, where they worked individually at a more rigorous level while the other students remained in the classroom for more practice and reteaching. There were classroom libraries and books in the libraries, and students participated in enrichment classes, taught by community members in areas such as art, photography or gardening. Despite the accelerated pace, the students had designated time for recess and electives.

You don’t have to love all of the recent changes in HISD, but it’s hard to deny the intentional focus on quality teaching and learning, especially for our most underserved students. Our students who previously experienced limited opportunities are now actively participating in impactful, high-intensity learning. Isn’t this what they deserve?

If a school is already achieving outstanding results, I don’t believe this system is necessary. Its purpose is to accelerate learning in areas where there has been a lag.

As I wrap up my time on the HISD board, I will continue to keep the students at the top of my mind. I ask you to do the same. The board of managers recently set bold goals for students’ early reading and math performance. Monitor the progress towards these goals every month, let the results speak for themselves, and continue to hold our leaders accountable. Our students cannot afford to wait or waste time. We should want a system that aims to level the playing field, granting them the opportunity to access a quality education and realize their full potential.

Judith Cruz is the former president and a current trustee of the Houston Independent School District Board of Trustees. An HISD parent and former educator, she is Texas assistant director for the Houston Region for The Education Trust, a national advocacy organization.