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More than 400 teachers in the Houston school district have performed so poorly that their students have lost ground, according to HISD, and those educators’ jobs could be on the line if they don’t improve.

HISD Superintendent Terry Grier is asking the school board to give final approval today to a policy that would allow the district to fire teachers whose students don’t make enough progress on standardized tests.

Opposed to the move, the Houston Federation of Teachers is trying to rally 1,000 educators to protest at the board meeting, though union president Gayle Fallon acknowledges the policy likely will pass. Trustees voted 8-0, with one absent, to give their initial approval last month.

With teachers on edge, Grier and board members have emphasized that the Houston Independent School District will provide training and mentoring to those who are struggling and will not oust them based solely on a year of bad test scores.

“We have an obligation to provide assistance to teachers who are not meeting the needs of their students,” Grier said, adding that staff training will focus on strategies for improving instruction.

But, Grier said, “teachers who cannot or will not meet district standards could lose their positions with the district.”

Data provided by HISD show that, over the last three years, 421 teachers have gotten far lower-than-expected progress from their students on standardized tests. That represents about 12 percent of the teachers the policy could affect and 3 percent of all teachers in the district.

“Don’t forget that we have approximately 13,000 teachers in HISD,” Grier said. “The vast majority are doing a good job.”

Some of the teachers may have poor scores in one subject but rate highly in another. In those cases, Grier has suggested that principals could switch teaching assignments instead of turning to termination.

Grier said he is particularly focused on the 100 or so less experienced teachers who are on probationary contracts and have a track record of severely poor performance. Principals, he said, will have to defend decisions to put those teachers on more permanent contracts next year.

The district only tracks the individual performance of teachers in grades three through 8 in the subjects of math, science, social studies and language arts. These 3,500 or so teachers would be the ones affected by HISD’s plan to include so-called value-added scores in formal job evaluations and as a potential reason for dismissal.

Standardized test data is not available for teachers of lower grades or elective classes. High school teachers get rated on the performance of their entire department, such as math or science.

Principals confused

The district’s two largest employee groups, the HFT and the Congress of Houston Teachers, have questioned the accuracy and fairness of the value-added data since the district began using it a few years ago to decide who gets performance bonuses.

Put simply, the value-added analysis by North Carolina statistician Bill Sanders looks at a student’s test score history to project his or her scores the next year. Teachers are rated on whether their students met, exceeded or fell short of expectations.

Sanders has repeatedly defended his method, which he pioneered in Tennessee in the 1990s.

Fallon, the HFT president, said she plans to ask the school board at least to clarify the policy to say teachers will get training and will not be dismissed based on a year of low value-added scores. The policy as is says simply that teachers can be fired for “insufficient student academic growth as reflected by value added scores.”

“We have Grier shooting his mouth off saying, ‘We’re going to do assistance. We’re never going to fire a teacher based on a single test score,’ ” Fallon said. “What he says won’t mean a thing once the policy is adopted.”

Ray Reiner, the executive director of the Houston Association of School Administrators, said principals — those charged with evaluating teachers and recommending them for termination — are confused about the policy changes. Grier’s administration sent out conflicting memos on the topic last week.

“Principals — their job is to carry out the policies of the school district, and those policies need to be clear,” Reiner said.