Mike Miles: We’re Going to Meet That Desire Parents Have for School Choice

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In advance of Superintendent Mike Miles’ speech at 4:30 pm today, wherein he will give a progress report on his Destination 2020 plan, we sat down to discuss what I find its most fascinating element: the idea of increased public school choice.

This is just one part of his plan. In fact, Miles says there are five broad elements to Destination 2020: investing in people (teachers and principals); improving classroom instruction; improving systems; engaging parents and community; and changing the culture and climate.

He notes that there are three specific areas in which DISD needs to show growth next year: early childhood, school choice, and social and emotional learning. We’ll focus on early childhood later this summer; and the social-emotional stuff we’ll weave throughout our discussions over the next year (how brain science applies to instruction, personalized learning, etc.). Today, I wanted to talk more in-depth with Miles about the school-choice aspect of his 2020 plan, because a) I find it fairly revolutionary in a public system, and b) I know almost nothing about it. Here is our Q&A:

What can we expect to hear today?

We’re going to talk about everything that we’ve accomplished in the past couple of years along this path to Destination 2020. And [discuss] what’s the way forward.

But you’ll be emphasizing pre-K and school choice in the coming year, right?

Yes, but that’s part and parcel with Destination 2020. But, yes, we are ramping up the investment in certain areas.

Explain the choice initiative to me.

It’s a fascinating area even in our profession as we think about school choice options and the rationale behind them. So let me give you the different parts of it. … People around the country are trying to find the educational structure that works best for their kids. That’s why across the country you’ve seen the growth of charter schools, home schools, online schools – different choices for different kids. It’s parents trying to find the best structure for their kids, if their local school doesn’t give it to them. So I think [choice] is just a product of our 21st century educational ecosystem. The second big thing is that technology has allowed us to have more differentiation in how we learn, and in the choices that we make. There are more and more strong online programs, so you can have blended learning, distance learning, you can have home-schooling. That’s another context for choice.

The third, which is more Dallas specific, is this notion of options for kids who can’t attend the magnet schools. It needs to be said: We have some of the best magnet schools in the nation. That’s a fact. That’s a good thing. We’re not going to mess with that. But those magnet schools have an entry requirement, usually an academic entry requirement. So are there choices we can provide all the kids who don’t attend the magnet schools? Can we provide parents and kids the best sort of education that fits them? We have a whole bunch of kids who aren’t failing but don’t meet the magnet entry requirements. Can we give those kids another choice? Can we give them a Booker T?

We’re looking to have 35 such choice schools [by 2020] – not charter schools or private schools; Dallas ISD public schools. One choice might be a Montessori school. Another choice might be an IB elementary or IB middle school. But another choice could be another all-male school like Barack Obama, or an all-girls school like Irma Rangel. It could be an arts school like Booker T. If we can provide these options to kids – which also means transporting them – I think we’ll find we meet the needs of students and families better. More access, more choice, to more kids.

How does a school become a choice school?

We’re starting slow. We started with a Gates grant, which allows us to look at schools that want a different instructional methodology for their students. Schools applied for this grant. We selected eight … that will put forth a program and work out the details of their plan in the coming year. … The program they present has to have buy-in from the community and staff. It still has to meet state standards, so it has to be rigorous. It has to be financially viable.

Keep in mind, there are other avenues [to become a choice school]. Mata Elementary for example started a Montessori program. Recently we were told that Spruce [High] is going to collaborate with Eastfield College for career tech ed early college program. So we are expanding choice in that way as well.

I’m a school that wants to change to a different instructional model but not one of the current eight selected. What do I do?

The next would be to apply to the office of transformation and innovation. We will bring on a chief [of that office] and that’s where the whole program will sit. The school would apply, and there are criteria the school would have to meet. … You’d have to be academically successful. Can’t be a failing school. Have to figure out how to transport kids, implement programs of study, train staff, all of the above. You’d also have to show that the community and staff support it.

The bottom line: Why can’t a public school district provide public school choice when it’s what parents want, because they’re looking for the best choice for their kids? We’re going to meet that desire parents have.

Do you think this plan will simply be embraced?

[There is much laughter around the table at the reporter’s stupid question.]

[Miles chuckles as he gives a facetious answer] Everything’s going to be fiiiiine! Everything else has been that way, so why not this!?

No, the onus is on us to say, look, here are the obstacles around choice or lack of choice. These are the steps to get there. We have to do a good job of helping people stay the course. Because a lot of times people want us to flip a switch. You pass TEI, they think everything will be cool. The teacher evals: We passed teacher evals. So why aren’t your schools better? It’s a step. There’s a reason it’s called Destination 2020, not 2014.

It’s about managing expectations and implementing reform correctly, right?

Yes, but let me give you another one. It’s also about climate and culture. We have to have a culture of higher expectations, accountability, and continuous improvement. I’ve been at this change and transformation thing awhile. Culture can’t be changed overnight. It will take a thousand purposeful steps that you can see and touch that will really change culture. Not one initiative. Not one adoption by the board of this program or that program. Not one set of achievement data. A thousand steps over time.

Regarding expectation, we have an expectation gap. With our kids and our teaching. We have to teach some staff and community members that our kids can achieve at high levels. If we don’t believe that, no initiative is going to work. The second expectation gap is with ourselves. I believe we can get to a point where we have a teaching force that can take any group of students and teach them at high levels. And that’s an expectation. Some communities and schools, and they don’t argue about the kids that come to them. They don’t use that as an excuse. It’s an expectation. “We’ve got kids, we’re going to teach them, and they’re going to college.” I think we can do the same thing in Dallas.

Stepping away from just the choice aspect … How dependent are all your various Destination 2020 reforms on each other to be successful?

That’s a great question. [Ed note: gold star!] The answer is: It’s systemic. The system has to work, not just part of the system. For example, how we recruit and train teachers. There’s a certain level you can do at the school site. But the problem is big enough that you have to have systemic reform in how you recruit teachers, period. For pre-K, if we don’t have a plan to grow the capacity of pre-school teaches and early childhood teachers, we’re not going to get kids reading by the time they leave 3rd grade. That’s a system problem. If the various schools don’t have internet bandwidth, then you won’t be successful at personalized learning or blended learning. That’s a system-wide issue.

Beyond the system changes, what changes are you looking for from administrators, principals, and teachers?

It’s fascinating to me where we’re going as profession. But it’s also painfully obvious to me that the capacity of our teachers and staff, going forward in a year 2020 environment, has to be higher than it is today. We have to grow at our own craft. I don’t mean 20 percent of us. I mean 95 percent of us. I understand 5 percent will turn over. But the rest of us have to change.