Embattled Dallas Supt. Mike Miles' Real Dallas Legacy

Embattled Dallas Supt. Mike Miles' Real Dallas Legacy
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Mike Miles, superintendent of Dallas Independent School District, speaks about new developments in the Ebola case during a news conference at the Dallas County Commissioners Courtroom, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014 in Dallas. (AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Jim Tuttle)  

RCEd Commentary

In June, Dallas joined the list of cities to lose a superintendent from the school reform movement. Over the last year alone, Los Angeles, Newark, and Dallas have seen reformers fall out of favor.

In Dallas' case at least, lessons can be salvaged from the loss of Mike Miles, the superintendent who abruptly left after the school year ended.

For starters, superintendents, especially reform-minded ones, must hire the right people for their inner circles. If you bet your job on academic reforms, you can't let sideshows weigh you down.

Miles departed Dallas hounded by criticism about his revolving door of executives. He faced headlines about a high-priced communications chief, a chief of staff who left to face a criminal charge from a previous post, and a human relations director who belittled some employees. And those were just some of his inner circle issues.

But, if you stop there, you would miss the big part of the Mike Miles story, which began three summers ago with Dallas trustees hailing him as the district’s leader.

Miles' intense focus on academic achievement is why education leaders should pay attention to his tenure. A Broad Superintendent’s Academy graduate, Miles was Dallas’ most serious driver of research-driven academic strategies since the education reform movement took root in cities like Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles.

Miles sometimes pursued them with only a few trustees in his corner. Still, the West Point graduate did not flinch. He made three especially important changes:

Miles emphasized school leadership. He put a premium on effective principals, reflecting research that shows the influence of strong leaders.

The former Foreign Service Officer persuaded trustees to pass a principal evaluation plan  that more accurately reflects a principal’s leadership skills. The reviews include school data, although test results don’t comprise most of the evaluation.

Miles especially wanted principals and their assistants to observe teachers in their classrooms. In fact, the new evaluation required regular classroom observations.

Miles emphasized observations by regularly visiting schools unannounced and asking principals to show him their classrooms. The times I trailed him he never entered schools Mike Wallace-style, blasting into an unsuspecting teacher's room. Instead, he quietly observed a class in action, then stepped into the hall to confer with the principal about the instruction each saw.

His emphasis on leadership included requiring principals in a feeder pattern to regularly discuss their schools’ data. Principals would exchange ideas about improving classroom instruction and dealing with particular needs. I was struck by the honesty of the discussion when I watched one group discuss their schools.

True, the academy he created to train future principals has not yet produced the talent and results he envisioned. Still, Miles kept insisting on stronger leadership, even until his surprising end.

His last major controversy with some trustees came in early June.  He fired three principals whom the board had narrowly voted to retain. He took a beating but resisted pressure, including from upper-middle class parents who protested one principal’s firing. They liked her, but, among other issues, the performance of her largely Latino and disadvantaged campus showed students were not progressing at the rate of comparable schools.

In the end, he didn't budge on holding principals accountable.

Miles never stopped focusing on classroom instruction. One of his first moves was requiring teachers to write their daily lesson’s objective on the board for all students to see. Similarly, teachers had to describe how students would demonstrate they had learned those lessons.

Grumbling arose, but these requirements focused instruction. Miles was concerned about Dallas’ quality of teaching, and this was one way to keep instruction on the standards Texas wants students to meet.

He also led trustees in creating a new performance pay plan for teachers. Classroom data is included, but so are surveys of students, which research shows indicate a teacher’s effectiveness. Depending upon their evaluation, a teacher eventually could earn up to $90,000 a year.

Miles consistently raised expectations and expected Dallas campuses to focus on results. The results were not as great as he had hoped for after three years, but Miles never lowered expectations.

He created an elaborate data wall to keep track of student achievement. He set up a plan to concentrate on perennially low-performing campuses. And he monitored the progress of principals.

Miles emphasized in a Bush Institute interview the need to measure success. Students must show they are learning what the state wants them to know, he said.

He meant all students. Miles took on the most low-performing, poverty-stricken schools by assigning top educators, specialists and resources to them. The strategy remains a work in progress with no overnight wonders, but he created a structure to deal with students beset by poverty.

Of course, most superintendents say they want to raise expectations. Miles did more than mouth it. He staked his tenure on policies that he thought – and research shows – can elevate student achievement.

The real headline from Mike Mikes' drama-filled three years is he took actions to change the culture within Dallas schools. That’s the story worth remembering as the new school year approaches.

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