Jade does a double take when she looks up from the hostess stand at Denny’s and sees the familiar face that has walked through the door.
“Oh, hi,” she says to Mike Miles, cocking her head to the side, beaming, eyes bright. They love Miles here, but they treat him like a customer and not the Dallas ISD superintendent, which is probably why he keeps coming.
Miles and Jade chat for a moment, then she leads him to a booth near the front of the restaurant, just out of the chill of a cold and damp November morning. He has been a regular at this Denny’s off Central Expressway, near Henderson Avenue, since his wife and youngest son moved back to Colorado late last summer.
Anthony was dealing with a serious medical issue, and the family decided he needed to be near his doctor. They left just in time for Anthony to start the school year with his old friends. Miles tries to get up there to see them every three weeks or so. Next week, for Thanksgiving, he’ll get a rare chance to be with the entire family—his wife, Karen, Anthony, and his college-age kids, Nick and Madeleine. But while he’s in Dallas, Miles doesn’t have the time or inclination to cook much, so he comes here to Denny’s.
It’s a Saturday, so he is wearing a look from the JC Penney Weekend Dad collection: light brown leather jacket over a maroon-and-blue rugby-striped hoodie and jeans. He orders a late breakfast—two eggs scrambled, wheat toast, coffee—and asks a question I wasn’t expecting to answer this morning, especially not from Mike Miles. He wants to know if I’ve seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. He went on opening weekend.
“I told my wife not to tell our son that I went,” he says, laughing. His review: “It was packed, and it was good.”
When Miles says those four words, I know that he is a teacher no matter his job title.
When Miles says those four words, I know that he is a teacher no matter his job title.
“My wife says, ‘How can you go to an action movie and it be relaxing? These things are exploding, people are running from this or that,’ ” he says. “It just gets her on edge. For me, no, I relax.”
The waitress brings the coffee, and Miles grabs a fistful of sugar packets, so many that I think he is going to offer some to me. But they all go into the mug in front of him.
“As soon as I wake up—I mean, in the shower and everything—I start to think about work and what has to be done, and kind of think through some decisions,” he says. “But when I watch movies or play chess, it’s relaxing.”
Maybe more than anyone in Dallas, Miles needs a reliable method to tune out the world for 90 minutes. He’s in charge of approximately 20,000 employees, nearly 160,000 students, and a $1.5 billion budget, working with a school board that almost fired him last year, in a city that mostly only knows him from media more eager to point out mistakes than celebrate successes. And when he leaves all that behind at the end of a workday that regularly stretches from 6 in the morning until 7 or 8 at night, he goes home to an empty house.
If that wasn’t enough pressure, Mayor Mike Rawlings believes that nothing less than the future of the city depends on turning around the district. The 2010 Census showed that growth in Dallas was flat while every nearby suburb boomed. Why? African-American families left Dallas by the thousands for better schools.
“The results of Dallas schools have been below the floor,” Rawlings says. “In many areas, we’re in the 25th percentile. That’s not acceptable.”
So Miles needs to go to NorthPark to see Katniss Everdeen try to make it out of the Hunger Games alive again. And he can relax because he knows it’s not real. It’s just a story. He’s seen real. He’s lived it, surviving a plane crash when he was a 24-year-old Army Ranger.
It happened on September 21, 1981. Miles was stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington, near Tacoma, as part of the elite 2nd Ranger Battalion. That night, he was aboard a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, seated on a storage box with the battalion commander—a colonel—and the commander’s radio operator. The plane was loaded with a small OH-6 helicopter armed with 50-millimeter cannons, a jeep with a 50-caliber machine gun, and 50 soldiers lined up against the side of the plane.
They were on a rescue mission, or at least a facsimile of one, bound for the Nevada desert, so they could train in terrain similar to—you know what? I’m not going to tell you the rest of the story.
It’s tempting to focus on this moment in his life, to try to connect it, literally or metaphorically, to where he is now. That was my first inclination when Miles finished telling me the story over breakfast, the details gripping and cinematic. Seven Rangers died, including the colonel and his radio operator. But I’m not going to do it, because that story is as disconnected from his life now as one of his action movies is.
Miles has been in Dallas for almost two years. Whether he is succeeding or not depends on how you tell his story. And this isn’t a story about an Army Ranger who came to fix Dallas ISD. It’s about a teacher who did. That’s why I can’t help but start on Mike Miles’ side.
• • •
My parents are both teachers. my father later moved into administration and eventually became a superintendent in West, Texas, presiding over a small school district—one elementary, middle, and high school—for more than a decade. I remember the week the opponents of a bond issue that would fund a new high school campus took out a full-page ad in the local paper, which never carried full-page ads, calling my father a liar. I remember coming home from a family vacation in Florida to find our house covered in toilet paper, shaving cream, and eggs. Eggs are hard to clean up after a few days in the sun.
The closest I ever came to following in my parents’ footsteps: after high school, I worked as a janitor for two years at the elementary school in West. (Which is another possible reason I find myself on Miles’ side. He worked as a custodian at the Colorado Springs City Administration Building for six months.) But, still, I personally know much more about the life of a school superintendent—working under the withering gaze of a city that trusts you with its children and tax dollars, and only rarely, if ever, truly being off the clock—than the average person.
Because of my father, I want to believe in Mike Miles. And because I have a son in Dallas ISD, I need to.
But it was difficult to do that at first. Miles made it difficult. The pressure on him started before he had even officially taken office, and he brought every bit of it on himself. His first mistake was hiring Jennifer Sprague as the district’s communications director. The 31-year-old came with Miles from Harrison School District 2, where she held the same job. In Dallas, she was paid $185,000 per year—more than double what she’d been making in Colorado and $50,000 more than the Dallas gig had previously paid.
Sprague was one of several high-profile hires Miles made after being named superintendent, and they all came with a hefty price tag, ranging from $182,000 to $225,000. When it came time to discuss Sprague and the other new members of his cabinet, Miles made his second mistake. He called a news conference at the screw-you time of 7:30 on a Saturday morning, which only backed up the argument that he maybe shouldn’t have brought Sprague with him to handle communications before anyone even asked a question.
Then he made his third mistake. At that press conference, he said, “If Jennifer Sprague were an ugly, slightly older male with 20 years’ of experience, who had won all these national awards, would any of you in this room make a story out of it? The answer would be ‘no.’ ” If Sprague were worth her $185,000, she would have locked eyes with Miles at that moment and made a throat-slashing gesture to get him to shut up. But, no. “I’m going to make decisions that make sense,” he continued. “I’m not going to make decisions because the media will give me a hard time.”
He was practically daring them to keep doing so, and the Dallas media have never needed an engraved invitation to kick anyone in the knees, deserved or not. So ABC Channel 8, the Dallas Morning News, NBC Channel 5, the Dallas Observer, and, yes, D Magazine all ran stories with a similar thrust: who the hell does this guy think he is?
Sprague barely made it past Christmas, but communication remained a problem during Miles’ first year, and not just with the media. He slipped up in private, too. For instance, he told principals during a training session, “The best-trained principals in this country are in Colorado Springs. You’re not trained as well as they are, but you will be in one year.” Which—given that he planned to implement a new principal-evaluation system and, on top of that, hired 60 aspiring school leaders that were trained for a year before letting them compete for principal jobs in the district—was received like a verbal middle finger. And then he sparred with the board of trustees over Sprague’s severance package.
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.
For Miles, it’s not about winning or losing fights with the paper. It’s that there is always a fight to win or lose. As he picks at his breakfast, he walks through an example. He and his staff are aware of a rumor regarding the district’s executive directors all being required to reapply for their jobs—which, by the way, is not true. And he knows if it is reported—even as a rumor—it will cause panic.
From there, the dominos will all fall the way they often do: the story based on the rumor leads to a story based on the drama it is causing, which leads to a story based on reaction to the rumor and the drama, which leads to an official response from Miles and his staff, which leads to a story about the people who don’t buy the official response. If they are lucky, it ends there. But it doesn’t always. They ended up avoiding the cycle this time, but you can see this sequence following other non-news events in the Dallas Morning News archives and on its education blog.
“Okay, so we just generated, you know, five or six stories—and it seems like, okay, things must be in chaos, and leadership doesn’t know what they’re doing, and they’re going to fire all these people,” Miles says. “And it’s absolutely not true. I don’t even know where the rumor comes from. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to that.”
A more legitimate reason the district may seem like it is in chaos: the board of trustees’ investigation into allegations that Miles violated his contract and worked to publicly disparage the board via former operations chief Kevin Smelker’s resignation letter—especially how that soap opera played out in the media.
But Miles says he expects the board to approve his plan for a performance-based pay structure for teachers and a new evaluation system to go with it when he officially presents it at his May briefing. Just like they approved his new principal evaluation system last school year. While acknowledging problems in “tertiary areas,” Mayor Rawlings says the board has provided “air cover” to allow Miles to focus on getting his principals and teachers on track, which is how they’ll get the students on track, which is his job. It can be a messy process, but it’s working.
“He could have made nice and waited,” Rawlings says. “But we can’t wait around and do nothing.”
Okay, so the board and Miles are working together. But what about where it really counts? Has Miles’ time in Dallas resulted in a “lack of collaboration and communication” at the district’s campuses, as Linda Isaacks, executive director of the Dallas School Administrators Association, claimed in an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News in September?
Let’s go see.
• • •
It’s another cold morning, this one in early February. Miles was up at 3 and then again at 4:30, taking calls to determine if school would be canceled because of a recent snowfall. He got up for good at 5:15, his normal wake-up time during the week. Now, a little after 8, he walks out of his office ready to hit the road, wearing a black overcoat over his blue suit.
This morning, he has a few school visits planned. They are a surprise to everyone except Miles’ special assistant, Justin Coppedge, who knows the locations beforehand. “I have a running list of all the ones we haven’t visited yet,” Coppedge says, “and I look at the schedule and how much time we have and where we need to end up.” We get in the back seat of Coppedge’s Ford Expedition, and he tells Miles where we’re going first: Jill Stone Elementary in Vickery Meadow. Three fellows from the district’s Leadership Development Fellows Academy are tagging along.
Miles spent the weekend looking over numbers—the results of the school’s mid-year reviews and the UNT-administered climate surveys, and the students’ Assessments of Course Performance (ACP) exams. “That gives us a data point for this time of the year,” he says. “And, you know, overall, in all three areas, the district got better. Slow movement in the right direction.”
He knows the numbers. What he wants to see on these visits is how the schools got them, how teachers are instructing the students. But that’s not happening at Jill Stone today. The kids are taking interim assessment tests—something Miles did away with, but schools in the Conrad High School feeder pattern decided they needed. He stops by a few classes anyway, but keeps his visit short. We get back in the SUV and head to the next school: Dan D. Rogers Elementary.
Miles says the magic words into the intercom at the main entrance—“I’m here to see about instruction”—and is greeted by principal Lisa Lovato, assistant principal Angela Bell, and the school’s instructional coach, Fabian Vera. Last school year, the district gave principals the option to hire instructional coaches, but before this term started, Miles required all campuses to hire one. “Backstop is a good way to phrase it,” he says. It’s something Miles wishes he had when he was a teacher—someone on hand to help him improve, to turn to for support.
“The instructional coach has been one of the better-received initiatives,” he says. “Teachers have found out that, wow, these people are helpful. The principals have found out, wow, they really do what they’re talking about. It’s turned out to be a pretty good investment. And it shows that teachers and principals generally don’t mind if it’s an aid, if it’s a help, if it’s going to be positive.”
Lovato seems a bit nervous as she leads Miles around the school, breathlessly explaining how Rogers Elementary has used data-driven instruction to improve, a blur of acronyms and jargon.
“As long as it doesn’t disrupt what we already have, if we think it makes sense, it makes us better, we use it,” she says. She talks about spreadsheets and deep-dive analysis, performance predictions and congruency. Miles asks questions—making sure he understands, not critiquing.
Lovato takes Miles to a pair of fifth-grade classrooms, and he clearly enjoys being around the students, asking questions, looking over their work—teaching. He can’t help himself. When he leaves each class, he discusses with Lovato the positives before offering feedback on how the teachers could improve, making sure to return to the strengths again before moving on.
Coppedge tells Miles they don’t have time to stop at a third campus, so he extends his stay at Rogers, spending some time in the lower grade levels. Before exiting the building, Miles stops and writes a short note to each teacher he observed delivering strong instruction, thanking them for their time and offering a word of encouragement. Then it’s time to go. On the way out, Lovato stops Miles so she can introduce him to her daughter, who is also one of her students.
Back in the SUV, Miles says he expects Rogers to become a great school—in terms of achievement—in the next few years, because of the culture and climate Lovato has created. And that culture exists because Miles expects it of his principals. As Coppedge drives us down Central Expressway, back to 3700 Ross Avenue and the rest of a long day, he explains that his first two years have been all about laying the foundation—not just systems and processes, but expectations and beliefs.
“So while you’re doing all that, it’s not like you’re going to go up like this”—he motions his hand upward, a rocket launching from his knee—“because it can take a while. And, you know, there’s some disruption and there are some people who are resistant. But most people—with good coaching and good principals—are going to move forward and progress. And that’s exactly what you see.”
After Miles and Coppedge drop me off, I realize the morning was, in some ways, a bit of theater. Because I am along for the ride, with a photographer in tow, there is a better than good chance that I saw a “school visit” and not a normal school visit. But if it was a performance, the staff at the schools sure didn’t know. And more to the point, I think what Miles said in those first days is true, even if he is careful not to say it anymore. He is not going to make decisions based on media coverage. He doesn’t give a damn what I think. He only cares about the kids’ futures.
I believe that because he’s a cornball. And cornballs don’t change. Cue Whitney Houston.