All of this overshadowed the progress he was making. Among other things, he reorganized the district, grouping principals by feeder pattern instead of grade level and quadrant (a popular move), and upped the district’s reserves from an already record $188 million to $263 million. And though they maintained a delicate relationship, the board supported most of Miles’ initiatives. But even after a year in the city, he remained an outsider. Because of the way he introduced himself to Dallas, Miles was—and to some, still is—seen as an arrogant military vet who carried around Colorado Springs like a security blanket.
But after that disastrous first news conference, Miles mostly said the right things (or, better, nothing at all) and zeroed in on what he was brought here to do: improve the quality of instruction in the district. That’s when I began to see who he really is. He’s not a hard-charging Army Ranger itching for combat, still giving orders to a new set of troops. He’s not the man in the suit and tie at board meetings. He’s the guy in dad jeans sitting across from me in a booth at Denny’s. He’s a dork. Or, as Miles puts it, he’s “a cornball.”
He’s the kind of cornball who earnestly talks about having a “Mr. Holland’s Opus moment” when he mentions his struggles as a first-year teacher, when he was terrible at his job and knew it. The maudlin 1995 film, starring Richard Dreyfuss as a high school music teacher, is to true-blue educators what Rocky is to boxers and Scarface is to criminals. I’ve seen it more times than I care to count, because I was raised by a cornball. When Miles says those four words, I know that he is a teacher no matter his job title.
Miles is the kind of cornball who says things like this: “I’m a teacher at heart, I think. I like the kids. One of the reasons I spend so much time in schools—people say I maybe spend too much time in schools—is the kids. I’m really invested in their future. And I like it when they’re having a good time in school. And I liked it when I was a teacher, because I could actually make them more proficient and help them grow as people. I think that’s part of the job, too—helping kids grow as people, their character, their mindset.”
Put some music behind it, and he might as well be singing Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” at karaoke night. But that’s how a cornball thinks. Mr. Holland was a cornball. My father is a cornball. Teachers are cornballs. You have to be a cornball to work in education, because there is no room for cynicism. You have to say things like, “I’m really invested in the kids’ future”—on your day off, no less—and actually mean it. I like cornballs.
That’s one of the reasons why Deborah Hendrix, board president at Colorado Springs’ Harrison School District 2, got along with Miles. “He stayed focused on the students,” she says.
But you wouldn’t necessarily think of Miles as a teacher if you only know him from what you read in the Dallas Morning News, and you certainly wouldn’t think of him as a cornball. He isn’t Mr. Holland in their stories. He’s still the man who came into town and told them he wouldn’t be pushed around by the media. He’s the bean-counting administrator who forced the beloved Mr. Holland into retirement.
“I’m not sure i’ll ever get totally used to the amount of scrutiny and some of the negativity,” Miles says. “I mean, I think that’s part of any job—I mean, any job where you’re trying to change things, so I’m not saying that. But, I don’t know, does anybody ever get used to getting beat up?” He laughs.
The problem with the way Miles’ story has been told by the Dallas Morning News is that the paper covers the district as an investigative beat—not a terrible or indefensible decision based on the behavior of some of Miles’ predecessors and the various scandals and stubbed toes that occurred on their watch. And, like I said, Miles definitely has given them more than enough ammunition and even occasionally pointed the gun at his own foot.
But reporting on education in this way, and only this way, creates a negative feedback loop: the paper’s gotcha journalism causes Miles to be reticent and wary of its reporters’ intentions, and the reporters bristle at the reticence and get more critical. As they get more critical, they advertise themselves as open for business, as a clearinghouse for any and all dirt on Miles and the district, even if sometimes that dirt comes from entrenched South Dallas interests or other people with personal agendas or axes to grind.
Put another way: it’s one thing to say a glass is half empty. The bedrock of journalism is skepticism. But it’s another to say the glass is half empty after you’ve taken a few sips.
Look at how the paper reported results in January of an employee-morale survey conducted by the University of North Texas Survey Research Center. To answer the statement “Overall, the district is headed in the right direction,” the 10,000 employees who participated were given five choices: strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree. The results: 17.7 percent strongly agreed; 27.6 percent agreed; 28.5 percent were neutral; 13.9 percent disagreed; and 12.3 strongly disagreed. Added together, that’s 45.3 percent for, and 26.2 against.
As Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze, one of Miles’ strongest early critics, wrote after the study was released, “Nearly two-to-one positive in a time of major upheaval seems pretty sterling to me.” He also noted that, according to a study published last year, “teacher job satisfaction [is] nationally at a 25-year low,” and trending downward.
But the Morning News story, written by education reporters Matthew Haag and Tawnell Hobbs, put those numbers in a different context: “Experts on organizational climate have said that ideally about 90 percent of employees in a workplace should say they would recommend their workplace to others.” It used red-flag phrases such as “while many employees didn’t agree with the direction of the district.” The only quote from the school board came from trustee Lew Blackburn, who had voted to fire Miles just a few months prior: “Unless you get the people on your side, you cannot transform an organization. Too many people are not convinced it’s the right direction.”
You’d leave that story believing the majority of DISD’s employees didn’t believe in the district, and neither did the school board. But that’s not true. Morale is up overall, and the school board has largely backed Miles’ initiatives, even when the relationship between it and the superintendent has been fraught.