Houston ISD's new superintendent wants to use same polarizing approach he applied in Dallas schools

ByBrian Lopez, The Texas Tribune
Wednesday, June 21, 2023
HISD Superintendent Mike Miles booed at first board meeting
Mike Miles has wasted no time in restructuring HISD. His proposals on teacher pay and evaluation resemble measures he implemented in Dallas, where no significant academic gains were made.

HOUSTON, Texas -- Mike Miles, the new state-appointed superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, started his tenure in a manner eerily similar to how he ended his embattled time in charge of Dallas Independent School District: with everyone asking where he was.

The video above is from a previous report.

During the first Houston ISD school board meeting led by the board of managers that the Texas Education Agency appointed as part of the state's recent takeover of the district, many community members were upset they didn't see Miles until he came in the very end. Eight years ago, after a tumultuous three years as superintendent of the Dallas ISD, Miles didn't show up to his last board meeting.

SEE RELATED STORY: New HISD Superintendent Mike Miles met with icy reception at first board meeting for district

Already, the manner in which Miles has begun his new position in Houston is drawing comparisons with his short-lived stint in Dallas. Within a week of being appointed to lead Houston ISD, the largest school district in Texas, Miles announced an overhaul of certain campuses and a new program that will pay teachers more to work with students struggling academically, steps that resemble his approach during his last superintendent gig.

But while his management methods laid the foundation for some future success in Dallas ISD, they also left behind various scandals, caused veteran educators to leave the district and ultimately didn't result in significant academic gains.

The TEA announced earlier this month it would place Miles at the helm of the state's largest school district after years of poor academic outcomes at a single campus in the district, Phillis Wheatley High School; allegations of misconduct against school board members; and the ongoing presence of a conservator who's been overseeing the district for years. Despite community opposition, the agency says those problems required it to take over the school board and replace the elected members with temporary, hand-picked board members.

SEE ALSO: Teacher compensation to be raised to $96K at 29 Houston ISD schools, new superintendent says

Miles' job is to get the district back on track in accordance with TEA standards. Already, the former Dallas ISD superintendent has announced sweeping changes to 29 schools that historically serve some of Houston ISD's lowest-performing students. Wheatley is among this crop of schools.

These schools will be placed under Miles' so-called "New Education System," which he describes as an "innovative staffing model that puts the focus on classroom instruction and improved student outcomes."

At the schools that will be included in the program, all teachers and other employees will need to reapply for their jobs. For those teachers hired in these campuses, the average salary pay could reach $95,000 a year once incentives based on test results and stipends are thrown in. Such paychecks would represent a 61% increase in pay from the average teacher salary in Texas.

Under the program, Miles will also relocate librarians from those schools to other campuses, saying that his staffing priorities will be on those employees who will help students read, write and do math, according to the Houston Press.

Miles plans to cut 200 jobs from the district's administrative offices to pay for these higher salaries.

"We will be aligning our resources - especially our most effective teachers and principals - to better serve students in underserved communities," Miles said in a statement. "For students who need to catch up and in schools that have failed for years, we will be offering more instructional time."

Miles did not respond to an interview request. He intends to host several community meetings to explain his plan.

Miles' vision and his plan to get there align with the emphasis that TEA Commissioner Mike Morath and some lawmakers have put on grading school districts largely based on scores from State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness tests. Morath himself served as a Dallas school board member when Miles was in charge of Dallas ISD and was one of the few board members with whom Miles had a good relationship.

Miles' plan for Houston ISD is similar to a program he started in Dallas before he resigned with two years left on his contract. That program, which launched after Miles resigned, gave teachers huge pay bonuses if they boosted standardized test scores in some of the campuses with the biggest needs. Some low-rated campuses saw improvements as part of the program, but scores fell again once funding dried up and teachers left because they weren't getting paid the same.

Other school districts across the state implemented the program after its early success in Dallas.

Miles also was the driving force behind revamping the school district's teacher evaluation system, which was used to calculate teacher pay based on a mix of test results, student feedback and performance rather than experience. Miles plans to implement a similar teacher evaluation system in Houston.

Dallas still uses this evaluation system but questions over equity have arisen as most of these high-qualified teachers were not going to the schools that needed them the most.

Similarly, lawmakers passed the Teacher Incentive Allotment program in 2019, which rewards teachers with salaries of up to six figures based on their students' performance. About 13,000 teachers, or about 4% of the state's educators, are currently part of the program.

In Dallas, the program received support from the majority of the board, including Morath, and from then-Mayor Mike Rawlings. But many teachers warned that they would leave the district if they received pay raises only based on tests taken once a year. Miles called his system the most rigorous in the U.S. at the time.

David DeMatthews, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin who has followed Miles' career, said that while he believes testing is important, he hopes Miles doesn't solely focus on getting standardized test scores up as it could lead to another exodus of teachers at a time when Texas schools are struggling to find and retain teachers.

In Texas, students' STAAR test results are used to score schools on how well they are educating children. Critics of the test say it is not a great indicator of how well a child knows a subject and that its high-stakes nature adds undue pressure to both test-takers and teachers.

"It's not an effective management tool to say that test scores are going to be the driver of reforms," DeMatthews said. "Test scores don't predict all that much about what happens to students in the future."

Scandal after scandal in Dallas

Miles arrived in Dallas in 2012 after a successful stint with a small school district in Colorado. He spent six years with the Harrison School District and led its schools to academic success, applying a similar teacher evaluation program as the one he used in Dallas and is now trying to implement in Houston.

He spent only three years at Dallas, leaving after he failed to negotiate changes in his contract, according to The Dallas Morning News. He wanted to forbid school board members from searching for a new superintendent while he finished out his last year and wanted access to a retention bonus.

The Morning News described his time at the district as "turbulent," saying it brought "disruption" and "controversy."

His tenure was overshadowed by his administration picks and the scandals they brought along. He hired employees from Colorado and paid them six-figure salaries, more than twice what they were making before.

Jerome Oberlton, Miles' chief of staff, resigned after facing a federal indictment and later pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks in a prior job in Atlanta Public Schools. Miles' head of human resources, Carmen Darville, resigned after instant messages between her and another executive became public, which poked fun at race, religion and age and discussed ways to get rid of employees.

Darville worked at Houston ISD before going to Dallas to work under Miles and is now the chief operating officer at YES Prep Public Schools, a charter school operating in Houston.

Also, an investigation found that Tonya Sadler Grayson, an executive director in Dallas ISD's human resources department, lied about her criminal history, bullied a co-worker and falsified a report that was given to trustees. She was hired during Miles' tenure.

Miles himself also violated district policy, according to the Morning News.

In 2012, Dallas officials found that Miles and other managers broke human resources rules by hiring people before those positions were publicly posted and before those candidates had undergone criminal background checks.

He also didn't have a great relationship with many school board members. The Morning News at the time revealed that Miles secretly helped write a resignation letter for a district employee that gave him praise but disparaged other members, creating friction between Miles and the board.

And one time, Miles had Dallas police remove Bernadette Nutall, then a school board member, from a middle school she was visiting. Nutall had gone to see what was going on at the school after Miles replaced the principal, two assistant principals and 10 teachers. Nutall's removal from the school prompted a district investigation.

Under Miles' leadership, Dallas ISD consistently met the standards set by the state's accountability system but failed to show any significant gains in standardized test scores. In some subject areas, test scores decreased and never really came close to reaching state averages. The number of schools that were in good standing with the state also dropped, while the number of failing schools increased.

The turnover rate for teachers increased from 12% to 22% during Miles' first two school years at Dallas.

"Miles' approach created a ton of controversy in Dallas ISD and it did lead to an increased rate of teacher turnover relative to the rest of the state," DeMatthews said. "Hopefully, he learned his lesson in Dallas."

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