View From the Other Side: I’m Not Anti-Reform, I’m Anti-Miles

It’s pretty well established that I don’t think superintendent Mike Miles has gotten a fair shake. I’ve said repeatedly: I have no idea if he’s a good superintendent yet, but I know the damage of running him out for trumped up reasons before we have a chance to evaluate his reforms would have terrible consequences for the district.

That said, I’ve been in an email exchange this afternoon with a Miles critic who says he/she is not anti-reform, simply anti-Miles. This was in response to my posts on TEI. This person says, “Under any other regime, I might trust a classroom evaluation system.” He/she says TEI will fail because … well, I’ll just let you read the emails. I present them because even though I disagree on some points — and I think other allegations are of the “I think this therefore” variety — this is clearly a person who is passionate about public education succeeding in Dallas.

(This person can’t be identified, which is why I was hesitant to post, but I think his/her emails present good talking points as we move forward.)

I’ve combined some of the emails into one portion, then I’ll summarize my response, then post his/her reply.

My main concern about the pay-for-performance plan is that 50 percent of it is based on classroom evaluations. After hearing from teachers all year on the almost unending and niggling classroom observations they’ve had the last two years, that’s not encouraging.

For all the talk of not wanting to impose a “one-size-fits-all” approach on schools, Mike Miles’ method of teaching is most definitely one-size-fits-all. The DOLs and LOs that teachers must do work for some classes and some subjects, but certainly not all of them. In writing, for instance, if the students have spent the class time on a writing assignment, that assignment would be a demonstration of their learning, not some task they complete in the last 10 minutes of class.

If you speak to students, they will tell you that the non-stop parade of observations and the criteria by which they’re judged haven’t been helpful and have, in many cases, impeded classroom instruction.

If the evaluations are evaluating how well the teachers abide by Miles’ “one-size-fits-all” dictates, they aren’t evaluating what matters: how well their students are learning.

Under any other regime, I might trust a classroom evaluation system. But Miles has never treated DISD teachers with even a modicum of respect. From his first day on the job, he has been dismissive of their concerns and disrespectful. And when you ask him — as I have — how he expects to implement such sweeping reforms when the people who are charged with implementing them are deeply unhappy and demoralized, he simply asserts that they aren’t unhappy and demoralized. To back that up, he cites non-anonymous, mandatory teacher surveys — surveys the teachers completed as their bosses sat in the room. (Fortunately, the most recent surveys were done differently, and they showed a much different picture.)

I’ve been a DISD parent for a long time, and I have never ever seen teachers this disheartened and disrespected. One of my daughters’ favorite teachers — a woman who was so excited about teacher that it was nothing short of inspiring — is moving out of state the week after school ends. We’re losing one of the best we had. And her husband, who was also an excellent teacher, is going with her. So that’s two. Gone.

I have lost count of the amazing teachers we have lost in the last 2 years, all because they just can’t take it anymore. The second-guessing, the micromanagement, the threats from principals — you name it. I have 6 more years in this district (since my youngest is finishing up 6th grade), and I worry that my daughters won’t have any good teachers left. The ones who haven’t left already are looking for other employment.

I had also mentioned vendors. The testing companies are making oodles of money off of all the “accountability” that’s part and parcel of today’s education reform movement. And there are a host of other technology companies — iStation is the first to come to mind — that are having some lovely checks written to them as well. I’m not convinced that they’re doing anything to help our kids. Maybe they are. I’m just not won over yet. But I feel pretty good about saying that the testing companies are making out like bandits, and they don’t seem to bring anything to the table but stress and dubious measurements of a child’s worth.

So what’s the solution? I don’t pretend to have an answer. But I’m also not a professional educator. I’d like to hear from teachers, frankly. And they don’t seem to be a part of the conversation, partly because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they speak out and partly — I think mostly — because they are all so overwhelmed by paperwork, grading, testing and classroom management that they simply don’t have the energy to get involved in this massive debate.

Oh, and they’re almost always dismissed as self-interested whiners just looking to protect their jobs. Their high-stress, low-pay, low-prestige jobs.

The only dog I have in this hunt — besides my own children — is a true love of public education. I honestly think it’s the best thing we’ve ever done as a species, and it’s the key to everything good we have left in us. I’m not so worried about my daughters, frankly. They’re going to do fine. They have two college educated, highly involved parents who ride them every day to make good grades, read, eat right, exercise, etc. But some of the kids they go to school with can’t say the same. And they are literally our future.

We need good teachers. We need thoughtful debate. And those of us who oppose SOP and Mike Miles (not that they are one and the same, given Miles’ seeming agnosticism on the Home Rule question) shouldn’t be lumped into one big “status quo” group. Besides, speaking for myself and those I know on this side of the debate, we are far from status quo. We would love to see some thoughtful, meaningful change to improve public education. But not change that seems solely motivated by those looking to make money off of the reforms.

We deserve to be listened to. And when I say “we,” I mean those people with real information and data. I’m just a parent who reads the paper and has an opinion she doesn’t hesitate to share, early and often.

[I replied:]

These are all interesting points, made with passion and authority. However, I think what you’ve done is construct a narrative around your dislike of Miles. I think if you look dispassionately at what you’re saying, many of your complaints are of the “someone is making money off this” variety. Yes, where there is a need, private industry will supply for-profit solutions. But I just don’t think that’s enough to tar and feather these efforts.

I’m not saying Miles doesn’t have real faults — everyone knows he does. And for my money, he’s too much of a management-change agent rather than a truly innovative, dynamic change agent. In other words, he wants to tell instructors how and what to say, and when. That is one sort of reform, but I’m more interested in truly innovative reform on the level of what New Orleans and Hartford have done with their portfolio model. But again, that sort of change is ENTIRELY private. It sets goals, hires people to achieve them, if they don’t achieve it, everyone is fired and we find someone who can do better.

He was dismissive of far too many groups in the beginning, teachers included. I believe (because people I trust with whom he works believe) that he realized this and is working hard to overcome it.

[His/Her response:]

I don’t think I was predisposed to dislike Miles at all, frankly. When he came on board, I had a very open mind and wasn’t looking to dislike him one bit. Quite the opposite: I had a lot riding on his success (i.e. my daughters’ education). I couldn’t afford to root against him. But when my daughter came home from school and said she couldn’t hear what was going on in class because her teacher had to keep the door open all the time — per Miles’ unambiguous directive — I started to have my doubts. And the doubts continued.

And I don’t have a problem with capitalism at all. I’m its biggest defender, in fact. But I’m not sure it’s the best model for every institution, and I think public schools that have to take all comers (including special needs students of every kind) aren’t necessarily suited to for-profit ventures. They’re by design inefficient and offer very little return on investment, at least in the short-term.

And it seems like the jury is still very much out on whether the charter school approach is any better than traditional public schools. Some of them are certainly gangbusters (Northills comes to mind), but they are by nature quite self-selective. Nobody goes there who doesn’t want to do several hours of homework each night.

My cat could run a successful school if all he got were the motivated children of motivated parents. But that’s not what most urban school districts are made out of.

Listen, I know “my side” doesn’t always sound rational. I was at that meeting at the Preston Royal library, and I know how unhinged the anti-Miles/anti-SOPS people can get. But we’re feeling increasingly powerless these days when there’s a lot of money on the other side and seemingly none on ours.

And, be honest, wasn’t it creepy that the SOPS backers wouldn’t identify themselves? Did they really expect us to trust them and their motives when they wouldn’t tell us who they were? That fails to even meet the threshold for trustworthiness.

Some good points, although I didn’t say I love charter schools (some are great, some aren’t). I’ll be taking them up in the next few weeks as we get into this. For now, though, I appreciate the discussion and great feedback.