Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Changes afoot under “intensely mission-driven” new DISD superintendent
Among other innovations, teachers now work under a pay-for-performance system.
DALLAS This school year, DISD teacher Katherine Brattain has a new routine. She begins each of her Spanish classes at Adamson High School with a question to keep her students on their toes. The classroom door is open at all times. It’s not a rare sight for an assistant principal to walk into her classroom and just observe. None of this is because Brattain has done anything wrong. It’s just DISD’s new policy.
Students will now begin every class with a demonstration of their knowledge. Absences will no longer be tolerated. All schools will be given attention, instead of just a select few. There’s a new sheriff in DISD, and his name is Mike Miles.
“Teachers are teaching more so far this year, and we’re very strict. If kids don’t get their homework done on time, we’re going to send a phone call home,” said Brattain, who teaches more than 300 students a day at Adamson High School in South Dallas.
Since assuming the job of superintendent in July, Mr. Miles has already begun implementing policies to increase the quality of education in the district. Miles’ most stressed tenet so far has been to re-evaluate teachers’ habits to ensure that students are being taught at the highest possible level.
“We have to believe that we can make a difference and educate each and every kid,” said Mike Miles in a recent interview. “It sounds fluffy, but at the end of the day, if the schools don’t believe, if the teachers and principles don’t believe that all kids can learn, we’re not going to get anything done."
Miles believes that the best way to improve the education quality is through a combination of innovations.
These innovations helped improve the Colorado Springs district that Miles previously served as superintendent of. However, that district was much smaller.
DISD is one of the largest school districts in the nation, with almost 160,000 students and a $1.6 billion annual budget.
One innovation that DISD is using to make certain that students are receiving good education from their teachers is a pay-for-performance system.
“We’re going to tie teacher evaluation to student achievement results,” said Miles. “And then we’re going to pay the teachers depending on those results.”
Miles claims that DISD’s pay-for-performance plan will be among the most rigorous in the nation. This has led to teachers upping their game around Dallas schools.
“Teachers are standing up a little straighter, no one is slouching off, because they know that the superintendent is around,” said Brattain.
And Miles has been around. He has visited more than 50 campuses since the first day of school, and takes time to converse with students wherever he goes.
Adamson High School just reopened in Oak Cliff, a well-known, low-income area within Dallas. Miles attended the opening of school in August.
“I met with the superintendent when he came for the opening of our school,” said Oxanna Contreras, a sophomore at Adamson High School. “He asked me how my classes were going and what I thought could improve at the school.”
Another innovative idea that Miles has brought to the district is defining a difference between career-ready and college-ready.
“Sometimes people say the two are synonymous, but I think the jury is out on that,” Miles says. “I want to profile people who are willing to give young people careers and find out from them exactly what career-ready means.”
Once he determines exactly what makes a student career-ready, Miles wants to tweak overall curriculums to guarantee that all students are graduating career-ready, as well as college-ready.
A final innovative idea that the new superintendent is implementing is decreasing the "span of control" in the DISD organization.
In previous years, up to 35 DISD principals would be evaluated, monitored, and coached by a single executive director. In the three months since his arrival, Miles has hired additional executive directors so that each only supervises between eight to 12 principals.
Miles personally led the entire principal training institute this summer.
“I don’t know that superintendent in the history of DISD has ever done that before,” said DISD board member Mike Morath. “In fact, I’m not sure any superintendent of a large school system has ever done that, anywhere.”
Miles’ emphasis on a smaller span of control and the tendency to lean towards a hierarchal system of teachers and principals might stem from Miles’ military background.
He references teachers as his "squad leaders" and principals as his "company commanders."
“In the military, everyone has to have some degree of leadership, from the privates to the generals,” said Morath. “And I think that’s representative in our school system.”
Miles graduated from West Point in 1978, and he spent several years as an army officer before joining the U.S. State Department in 1989.
“Those two backgrounds have guided my leadership style, influenced how I think and operate,” said Miles. “They’ve helped me think systemically and with a broad perspective.”
After retiring from his job at the State Department, Miles moved on to teaching, and eventually served as the superintendent in Harrison School District in Colorado Springs, Colo. for six years.
Miles moved to Dallas with his wife, Karen. Miles also has three children, ranging from 10 to 20 in age.
Miles has faced numerous challenges since coming to Dallas from Colorado, but one, in particular, has been difficult to cope with.
“Many of the issues are the same, but the scale is different. It’s a much bigger district,” said Miles.
Miles old school district, Harrison, in Colorado Springs, had a 2011 enrollment of 11,203 students across 29 schools. DISD has 157,521 students currently enrolled across 227 schools.
“You have to think of DISD as a company that has nearly 20,000 employees,” said Morath. “And Mike is like the CEO of that company.”
Miles' reception in Dallas has been mostly positive, but some students are taking a wait-and-see attitude with the new superintendent.
“I’m a fan of the school and all the academic improvements,” said Jorge Jaimes, a junior at Adamson High school. “But he cancelled a field trip that a few of my friends were going on because it wasn’t educational. They aren’t too happy about it.”
Miles has made it clear that his focus is on the educational side of things, and that he has every intention of preparing a budget that reflects that.
“He is one, intensely mission-driven dude,” said Morath.
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