Houston ISD, We Have a Problem

But new superintendent Mike Miles is offering up Texas-sized solutions

Exterior of Houston Independent School District building

If you believe the media, it seems a dark lord has come to cut down the educational Eden that is the Houston Independent School District. He’s closing libraries to open detention centers. He’s “dismantling” public education in Texas. He’s a McCarthy-like demagogue bent on jailing educators. Protest signs outside the district headquarters compare his policies to prison and occupied territories. Next will come fire and brimstone.

Such hyperventilation is entirely unwarranted, first because the district was already sorely troubled. In 2019, when the Texas Education Agency (TEA) initiated a state takeover, Houston ISD had twenty-one failing schools, and its board members faced several misconduct allegations. Last Spring, the TEA succeeded in its efforts and appointed a crusading new superintendent, Mike Miles, to head the flailing district.

But this story begins earlier, roughly two decades ago. Once upon a time, Houston ISD was, in fact, a shining star of the education reform movement, with many deeming it the “Texas Miracle.” But a changing of the school-board guard over the last decade coincided with a slow descent into mediocrity. Miles’s appointment is less of a nefarious attempt by conservatives to wrest control of public schools from good, well-meaning liberals—as the New York Times frames it—and more an emergency measure to resuscitate a once-enterprising district and try to do right by its 190,000 pupils.

Miles’s story also begins decades ago. Before his tenure in Houston, he helmed Colorado’s Harrison School District, where he gained notoriety for pioneering work in merit-based pay schemes. In Texas, he then led the Dallas public schools—the Texas Tribune characterized it as a “successful stint”—where he implemented the ACE initiative that financially rewarded the most effective teachers who chose to teach in the lowest-performing schools. An academic review of the policy found that the improvements it fostered were “dramatic, bringing average achievement in the previously lowest performing schools close to the district average.” Since then, he has been the CEO of Third Future Schools, a charter network that specializes in school turnarounds.

He’s no tyrant but a seasoned education reformer with a powerful track record. The education reform movement has something of a love-affair with enterprising personalities—Eva Moskowitz and Michelle Rhee, for example—no-nonsense types who come in and push through significant policy reforms by sheer force of will without heed to unions weeping or media gnashing of teeth.

Some have been more successful than others. In all cases, however, their well-publicized actions have influenced districts and schools across the country, providing both models to emulate or failures to avoid. So far, Miles’s short tenure in Houston bodes well.

This includes dealing forcefully with a student misbehavior epidemic. In Houston as elsewhere across America, it’s reached near-crisis levels after returning to full-time, in-school operations. Some surveys suggest that student violence has doubled across the country, both among students and towards teachers. While optically questionable, Miles’s decision to repurpose some school libraries into discipline centers shows that he is one of the few district leaders in the country willing to take the behavior crisis seriously. Nor is he abolishing these libraries—students can still check out books—but repurposing them when necessary to account for increased rates of detentions and in-school suspensions.

His other significant policy move so far has been a promise to pare back administrative staffing. According to Miles, Houston’s central office staff has increased over the last decade even as student enrollment has declined. Cutting over 2,000 such positions, he suggests, will allow the district to offer more competitive pay-for-performance system to the district’s best teachers. In Dallas, his similar ACE initiative concurrently supported teachers with better training in reading and math instruction, extended days, and increased parent engagement.

Finally, Miles is leaning on community members to provide supplementary classes like Spin, yoga, piano, and photography. Very evil indeed.

Since 2008, the Texas Education Agency has taken over seven districts, seen improvement in six of these, and returned control to five. It’s possible, of course, that Miles will lead the giant Houston district into an educational wilderness. But it’s far more likely that he’ll implement a mix of reforms and oversee moderate improvements in the district. In neither case is he implementing, in the words of the former board president, a “partisan agenda” intent on “weakening Texas Public Schools.”

Daniel Buck is a teacher, senior visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute, and author of the book What Is Wrong with Our Schools?

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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