A couple of thoughts as the HISD school year starts

The Chron editorial board has them, and so do I.

So, in the spirit of the first day, we are setting out three of our own classroom expectations and concerns. We’ll skip the niceties too.

Miles needs to control the chaos.
Miles has been unapologetic about his fast pace, and in some ways, we want a quick pace too. But Miles’ speed has at times led to chaos. After big cuts to the central office, newly hired NES teachers struggled to figure out what exactly their salaries were. (One teacher even had to come to a community meeting with Miles to get answers. Her calls to HISD’s central office failed. And some teachers are reportedly still struggling to get a straight answer.) There have been abrupt principal firings and reassignments, including at two campuses just days before school started. We’ve talked with teachers leaving the district and those just hired they all express uncertainty about where things are headed. Teacher turnover was a hallmark of Miles’ time at Dallas. Will this unevenness and chaos be a feature here as well? Over the summer, a certain amount of behind-the-scenes chaos was expected and even tolerable. But it won’t be if it affects students.

When it comes to teachers, Miles put money where his mouth is. Now, as he likes to point out, the outcomes matter.
Hiring and rewarding quality teachers is key to both the NES model and the pay-for-performance plan that Miles implemented in Dallas and will be importing here. He dramatically cut central office staff to pay for this investment. But he still needs to prove that the quality of HISD teaching will rise. First, at NES and NESA campuses, Miles must show that his required curriculum enables instead of limits great teaching and that there is still a place for creativity and exploration. And second, he must demonstrate that his fire-sale approach to hiring will ultimately help kids, not hurt them. Miles and the board approved plans to seek a number of waivers from the state, including one that would allow them to hire uncertified teachers for certain roles. And even though the Texas Education Agency told us as of Friday they hadn’t received that request, the district said it has hired dozens of uncertified teachers and principals. Last year, the district started school with hundreds of teacher vacancies. This year: zero, according to Miles. That’s impressive. Now we want him to show that the aggressive hiring pace hasn’t compromised teacher quality for quantity.

Miles’ rigid structures shouldn’t hamper special education.
This is one of the areas the state says needs to be improved before it returns local control to HISD. But the early steps haven’t been encouraging. We’ve wondered how students with existing plans to accommodate their disabilities will fit into the rigid-seeming structures of NES, and we’ve worried when Miles told us he plans to review and rewrite some of those plans. Following staff cuts and rearrangements, we also worry about students who need to be evaluated or reassessed. How long will it take to get to those now?

All good points, and I don’t have any notes on them. I will add my own:

1. Miles is still terrible at communication (*), which in turn means that he has utterly failed to build trust with HISD parents, teachers, and students. I recognize that he came in with limited time before the start of the school year, and he very reasonably wanted to get started on the main task of improving student performance. But try to think of any large established community in which big changes have been suddenly implemented by an outsider who was imposed on the community in question and began making those changes without any prior discussion or opportunity to give feedback, and ask yourself if that’s a recipe for long-term success. Imagine it at your job, in your neighborhood, your fantasy football league or book club, your alumni organization or favorite charity. Even if everyone recognized there were problems that needed to be tackled and accepted that changes needed to be made and that what was being done made sense, how well would those changes be received under these circumstances? The problem isn’t that HISD is hidebound and full of special interests. It’s that human beings are resistant to big changes and need time to acclimate to them and a sense that they are part of the solution. Mike Miles is making this a lot harder than it needs to be, on himself as well as on the rest of us.

2. Because of that, I continue to believe that Miles’ changes, no matter how successful, may not be sustainable. He’s going to be a villain that future Trustees will run against, even if outcomes do improve. Being successful at raising student performance will help him and will quiet some critics, to be sure. Accomplishing that would be a major step forward, and he would deserve credit, but do remember that the Brits booted Winston Churchill after the war. It won’t take much for people to get tired of the “my way or the highway” act, and if scores start to improve that gives a lot of leverage for those who will want to at least tweak, if not dismantle, his harsher methods. On that note, something I hadn’t noticed when I first wrote about it is that the big improvements in Dallas ISD’s reading scores and much of the improvement in their math scores came after Miles departed DISD. His successor continued his policies, but either he was a less divisive figure or maybe there had just been enough time for people to acclimate. How much patience do you think people here are going to have if it takes two or three years to see real improvement?

3. And that again brings me back to the issue of trust. I’ve pointed out some issues with how Miles has done things without any clear explanation of why they might be beneficial, even in the face of evidence that suggests they might not be – I forgot to include the librarian sackings in that – and where he has seemingly played fast and loose with data. I also didn’t include the special education stuff in that accounting; the Chron touched on it, and right now it’s safe to say that Miles has no articulated plans for special ed even though it’s part of his mandate. This is all total own-goal stuff, and it is going to come back to bite him.

I will acknowledge at this point that I could be completely wrong on all of the major points. I do expect that we will see some improvements, quite possibly right out of the gate. Parents and students may be delighted with the results and with the methods used to obtain them. Teachers may find the new classroom experience to be a big improvement; the possibility that the high-performing teachers Miles is relying on might decide his baloney isn’t worth it even for the better pay because a good working environment counts for a lot is another risk I didn’t mention above. The results may be more than enough to sweep aside previous concerns about student life, the working environment, and everything else. I’ll be happy to admit my errors if it all goes well. I really do want this to succeed. I wouldn’t be harping on all of this stuff if I didn’t think everything I’ve noted here was at least a potential and needless impediment to that desired success. I see a path we could have taken that wouldn’t have involved so much tumult and unrest. But here we are. I hope that at this time next year we’ll all feel better about it. The Associated Press and Reform Austin have more.

(*) The latest example in my “Mike Miles is terrible at communications” file comes from Monday’s CityCast Houston episode, in which KHOU reporter Mia Gradney says she has been reaching out to area Superintendents to ask them questions about the concerns for the school year that parents have raised in their survey. The one Super who did not respond to her questions was, of course, Mike Miles. I got nothing to add to that.

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