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Five questions for Mike Miles

Harrison Schools Superintendent Mike Miles was the surprise pick Monday as the lone finalist to run the Dallas Independent School District, the country’s 14th largest district.

It was a surprise because Miles’ name didn’t leak before the press conference and because it’s a big jump – Harrison, a district of 11,000 students, was Miles’ first superintendency when he began in 2006. Now he’s been selected to run a district of more than 150,000 students.

But Miles, 55, isn’t your traditional superintendent. The West Point graduate served as a U.S. Army ranger and special assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to Russia before returning to civilian life as a high school teacher 17 years ago. He moved from teacher to principal to district instructional chief of Fountain-Fort Carson District 8 before going to Harrison. Along the way, he became a popular Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate.

He’s known across Colorado for district initiatives including pay for performance and ending social promotion. Wednesday, as Dallas media trailed him on school visits, he talked with EdNews about his career path and the future of education reform.

“Sadly, in our profession, there is a lack of leadership and courage,” Miles said. “The reason why we haven’t changed a lot in America is that. And part of me doesn’t blame people for that. I mean you try to make a huge change and you’re going to get vilified by at least a small portion of the community, if not a large portion of the community. That’s why people don’t do this work.”

He said he looks to a famous Kennedy quote for inspiration.

“Don’t just look at things the way they are and ask why, look at things the way they could be and ask why not,” he said. “I don’t want to diss my colleagues but sometimes I hear, well, we can’t do that. And I want to say, why not, why can’t you?”

Q. You publicly declined interest in the Colorado education commissioner job when it came up. What drew you to Dallas?

A. I did my research on the Dallas position when I found out it was open and I looked closely at the board and what the board was doing over the last year.They were making some tough decisions to try to get their fund balance up, they were looking at teacher evaluation systems to try to make it more rigorous. They had started a process of de-layering or cutting back on some of the vast bureaucracy. So those are good signs.

And they also have a board president who has been trying to gain consensus. They don’t have 5-4 votes all the time, or 4-5 votes. They also made tough decisions to close some schools, which is probably the toughest decision a board member would make. That’s box no. 1 checked, you have a board interested in reform.

The second thing to look at was what actually is happening on the ground, not just in the papers or in the reports. I wanted to go somewhere where I could make a difference. And I think when I look at the Dallas system, there are several things I think I can bring to it that will make a difference.

And the third thing, for me anyway, was whether or not the board is looking for a leader and somebody who has vision and is looking for innovation. If a district just wants to tweak the system on the margins and just go along with the status quo, I’m not interested. And they wouldn’t be interested in me anyway.

Q. You’re known as one of the most reform-minded superintendents in Colorado. Is that a description you deliberately sought for yourself when you started in education 17 years ago?

A. No, not when I started. Laughs. I was just trying to get by my first day as a teacher of ninth-graders. I got back from Moscow, it was like ‘Whoa, do I know what I’m doing?’ So I’ve got to admit my first year I was really truly trying to be a good teacher. I was trying to be a great teacher. And I wasn’t my first year. So it was not until I started looking more broadly in administration that I thought I could add something to help move education forward.

Even in Fountain, I was helping them with a systems model, I was helping them with what we call midyear reviews, I was the only principal in Fountain to do instructional feedback, with walk-throughs, on a regular and consistent basis … that’s when I thought I could probably add value to our profession.

No question, as I had more years in education, I could see that we weren’t working effectively and part of the problem was a system problem and part of the problem was the people leading systems. So that motivated me to want to be a superintendent of schools.

Q. As you began making changes – whether it was teacher pay or ending social promotion – what were the biggest challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?

A. For me, I think the biggest challenge is what’s in people’s hearts and what they’re used to. Take pay for performance, for example. There are a lot of smart people out there they can figure out how to tie teacher evaluations to student achievement. We can figure out cut points, which tests are the most valid, we can design good tests, we can align the curriculum … That’s the easy part.

The hard part is the belief system. Right now what we’re used to in education is that 98 percent of all teachers will be proficient or higher. So once you start raising the accountability and differentiate that evaluation, well now that’s the hard part. People will not argue about cut points if they’re still proficient. They’re not going to fight you tooth and nail over this or that cut point if they’re proficient anyway … Once you say, well look, the achievement data says you’re not proficient at least 50 percent of your metric, that’s when the hard part starts.

Sadly, in our profession, there is a lack of leadership and courage. The reason why we haven’t changed a lot in America is that. And part of me doesn’t blame people for that. I mean you try to make a huge change and you’re going to get vilified by at least a small portion of the community, if not a large portion of the community, that’s why people don’t do this work.

Maybe I’m the stupid one because I’m going to do what’s right for kids anyway and try to persuade people that the right way to do it.

Q. You’ve faced a lot of adverse reaction to your reforms in Harrison. There’s even a Facebook page titled “Mike Miles, get him out.” It gets personal. How do you deal with the emotional and social parts of that?

A. I’ve been groomed for this. I’m a West Point graduate. Plebe year, you’re made to feel like you’re the lowest person on the face of the earth. I’ve been a middle school principal. You can’t beat me up more than that. I’ve had some really tough training, that’s the first thing.

The second thing is I just get something positive when you see good things happening for kids in the classroom. And I know that sounds corny and clichéd but you know what? That’s the deal with me. When I see the results going up, when I see the gaps changing, when I see good instruction and kids learning, I can take the criticism.

I don’t really take it personally. I think some people need to vent and they need to really show how they feel. And that’s OK. I don’t think we should make our decisions based on how five angry people feel or how two bloggers feel. But certainly it’s OK for people to be angry.

I think the last thing is, one thing that may not come out in the press and in the reporting is we actually have a lot of collaboration and teamwork. It’s not just me doing this. We did an anonymous survey of teachers, our second survey since August 2010, and what it showed is huge support for pay for performance. We had huge support when we started but the support has stayed the same or higher on each of the questions we asked. We have to have been doing something right for teachers to be that supportive of the most rigorous pay-for-performance plan in the nation.

It’s not just Mike Mile wants to do this so we’re going to do it – that’s not how it works in Harrison.

Q. What advice would you give to those working on improving education in Colorado – parents, teachers, principals, state lawmakers?

A. In Harrison, we do what (Robert) Kennedy said we should do – Don’t just look at things the way they are and ask why, look at things the way they could be and ask why not. I don’t want to diss my colleagues but sometimes I hear, well, we can’t do that and I want to say, why not, why can’t you? Is there some law, some other constraint? They say, we can’t do pay for performance because teachers won’t like it. Is that really true? Maybe you can do it in a way that teachers like it.

The advice would be the Kennedy quote. Think of things that could be and ask yourself, why not? And then figure out a way to do it, even with the constraints that we have. And they’re real constraints, I’m not trying to diminish it.

The other story in Harrison that hardly anybody ever tells is we did the incredible reforms at a time when our poverty rate went from 61 to 77 percent, and as high as 79 percent, an almost 20 percent increase in poverty. And we did it at a time when our budget was cut $12.5 million. For a medium-sized district in Colorado, that’s a lot of money. Nobody ever talks about that.

I think the real heroes, the teachers and principals who did this work, people really don’t know what they did. And maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be because the greatest heroes go unsung.

CSAP state test scores, % students proficient and advanced, during Miles’ tenure