A hard-charging education leader devoted to shaking up the status quo in struggling school districts appears poised to become the superintendent of Houston ISD.

Mike Miles, the former superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District and current CEO of a charter school network, has emerged in recent days as the likely incoming leader of HISD following comments by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner; U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston; and the president of HISD’s largest teachers union.

Portrait of a man wearing a red tie.
Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. (Sergio Flores for Houston Landing )

The decision ultimately will be made in the coming weeks by Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who is installing a new board and superintendent in HISD. The state intervention largely stems from chronically low performance at one HISD campus, Wheatley High School, which triggered a Texas law requiring action by Morath.

State education officials say no decision has been made about HISD’s superintendent, and no appointments will be announced before June 1. Texas Education Agency officials did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on speculation about Miles. Efforts to reach Miles were unsuccessful.

The potential appointment of Miles, however, makes too much sense to ignore: Morath served as a Dallas board member during Miles’ tenure; the two share a strikingly similar outlook on education policy; and Miles has spoken at length about the need for significant reforms in large, urban school district operations.

If Miles is Morath’s choice, the selection portends dramatic, swift changes in HISD.

The former Army Ranger, State Department diplomat and school district leader is known for aggressively upending bureaucracies and reshaping classrooms. His no-excuses approach to management and preferred policies — sidelining low-performing administrators, instituting accountability-related measures and reorienting teachers’ responsibilities, among others — have endeared him to those frustrated with underwhelming student achievement in urban school districts.

“Unfortunately, most district leaders are way too worried about their careers and future job prospects to really break the status quo; board members are way too worried about any noise from their constituents,” Miles wrote in a blog last month for Third Future Schools, a Colorado-based charter school operator where he serves as CEO.

“There is little vision and little appetite for true systemic reform, the effects of which might not be noticed for a couple of years.”

Yet Miles has left behind a trail of disgruntled community leaders, former employees and union champions at previous stops in Dallas and Harrison School District 2 in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he served as superintendent for six years. Miles’ opponents often bristle at his top-down leadership tactics, along with his distaste for more union-aligned approaches to education.

“The attitude, the atmosphere, in most of the worksites and campuses was one of fear and intimidation,” said Rena Honea, the longtime president of the Alliance-AFT teachers association in Dallas. “That’s how his rule was. Not a lot of collaborative input, which is what education should be: people working together.”

Protestors rallied at Houston ISD headquarters against the potential takeover of the district's school board.
Demonstrators rally in front of Houston ISD’s Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center in opposition to the Texas Education Agency’s plans to replace the district’s elected school board. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

Miles undoubtedly would encounter similar resistance in Houston, where voters and political leaders have generally opposed Morath’s move to replace HISD’s school board and superintendent.

The potential selection of Miles also would stand in sharp contrast to the elected board’s preference in recent years for superintendents who aimed to build consensus and moved slower on major overhauls to the district. Miles’ appointment would harken back to the era of former HISD superintendent Terry Grier, whose management style and education policy outlook mirror Miles’ approach. Grier resigned from HISD in 2015 after 6 ½ years at the helm.

Miles, however, ultimately would answer to a board handpicked by Morath — who can remove any appointed member for any reason.

“He’ll have everything he needs to do what he wants to get done,” said former Dallas trustee Lew Blackburn, whose 18-year tenure on the board overlapped with Miles’ reign. “The board members here, we asked a lot of questions, pushed back on a few things. In Houston, there might not be as much pushback from the board of managers.”

What is Miles’ background?

Miles, the son of a Black retired Army master sergeant and a Japanese mother, graduated from high school near Colorado Springs and the U.S. Military Academy in the 1970s, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette. He became an Army Ranger and survived a deadly plane crash during a training exercise.

Miles subsequently received degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He would go on to serve nearly five years in the U.S. State Department, with most of his time spent as a diplomat in Russia and Eastern Europe as the Cold War came to a close.

Miles left the federal government in 1995 to become a teacher, quickly rising into the administrative ranks as a principal and assistant superintendent over curriculum.

He unsuccessfully sought Colorado’s Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in 2004. According to the Pueblo Chieftain, his platform included opposition to the war in Iraq, criticism of federal education legislation known as No Child Left Behind and support for a single-payer health care system.

In 2006, Miles took over as superintendent of Harrison School District 2, which served about 10,000 students.

Miles jumped to Dallas in 2012, where trustees gave him a mandate to increase student achievement after years of mediocre performance in the district. Three years into the job, Miles resigned amid a contract dispute with board members.

Since then, Miles has led Third Future Schools, which operates seven campuses in Colorado and Texas. Four of those campuses are run through partnerships with Austin, Ector County and Midland independent school districts. Third Future is also taking over operations of three Beaumont Independent School District campuses in the fall.

What is Miles’ vision for public education?

Miles has generally embraced a reform-minded approach that values using data to drive decisions; rewarding highly rated educators; enticing top-performing teachers to work in high-need schools; and restructuring teachers’ and principals’ daily responsibilities to free up more time for classroom instruction.

In Dallas, Miles pushed through two major programs that later inspired statewide legislation.

The district instituted the Texas Excellence Initiative, a revamped educator evaluation system that increasingly tied pay to performance. Teachers were rated based on in-class observations by administrators, standardized test score growth and surveys completed by students. Some teachers and Dallas-area leaders embraced the approach, while others argued it did not accurately measure educator performance. (Miles also instituted a pay-for-performance system in Harrison School District 2.)

Dallas also assembled the Accelerating Campus Excellence, or ACE, model during Miles’ tenure. The program involved dedicating hundreds of thousands of dollars to low-rated campuses, with some money going toward stipends for highly rated teachers willing to work in those schools. ACE schools showed remarkable improvements in student test scores and disciplinary rates, but some campuses slipped when Dallas officials cut off the additional funding.

Miles has continued to promote many of the same policies at Third Future Schools.

What is Miles’ track record in Colorado and Texas?

Miles received widespread praise for academic gains in Harrison School District 2, which came off state probation and saw test scores rise during his tenure, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported. Still, some local residents and staffers chafed at Miles’ leadership. Brian Kates, the longtime director of a community center in Harrison, said Miles’ stubbornness “is his greatest strength and his worst liability.”

“He was a very big disruptor,” Kates said this week. “Some people really loved him. Most on the inside that I worked with felt like it was just stacked against them.”

In Dallas, Miles was dogged by stagnant academic results, skirmishes with some employees and trustees, and several uproars over personnel-related issues. At one point, Miles narrowly survived a vote to fire him after an investigation found he talked to witnesses probing a much-debated contract and helped an administrator author a resignation letter that bashed trustees.

However, Miles’ tenure set the stage for significant improvement in standardized test scores following his departure.

As Miles’ successor, Michael Hinojosa, continued many of the initiatives Miles championed, Dallas’ test scores improved at a rate outpacing many other large, urban Texas districts. Meanwhile, the district’s number of “improvement required” campuses — the worst rating under Texas’ school accountability system — fell from roughly 40 during Miles’ tenure to single-digits in the late 2010s.

In addition, the district’s pre-kindergarten enrollment continued to rise through one of Miles’ signature initiatives, increasing 36 percent between 2012 and 2017.

“I could understand why Morath would be thinking about a guy like Miles, because of the experience they’ve had transforming a large, urban school system,” said Miguel Solis, who served nearly a year in Miles’ Dallas administration before getting elected to the district’s school board alongside Morath. “The years that Miles was here, it took a lot and he was executing at a very fast pace to try to pull off foundational policy and programmatic changes.”

Headquarters building of a school district.
Houston ISD's Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center in northwest Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

What would Miles’ appointment mean for HISD?

At this point, it’s too early to say. Miles has not commented publicly on the HISD position, while state officials have maintained that decisions about district policy and operations will be made by appointed board members and the superintendent.

However, if Miles is selected and he employs his well-documented blueprint, the district’s staff and students can expect some rapid changes in the district.

First, significant administrative moves are on the way. HISD’s next superintendent will need to rebuild the district’s leadership team, after nearly all cabinet-level officials resigned or accepted jobs elsewhere in recent months. Miles also could oust principals and other administrators he deems low-performing — a move he employed early in his Dallas tenure.

Miles likely would support HISD’s ongoing overhaul of its teacher evaluation and pay-for-performance system, which was already on track to go into effect in the 2023-24 school year. Under the plan, highly rated teachers will receive incentive pay, with the amount of money increasing if they work in schools with many children from low-income families.

“If you really want equity, then the most important strategy you can use is to put your most effective teachers with your lowest-performing students,” Miles wrote in a March blog post.

Miles also could seek out partnerships with charter organizations, whose approach to school management often align with his outlook.

However, any such alliances would rankle large segments of the Houston community, which see charter networks as a threat to traditional public schools. It’s also unclear whether any of the region’s largest charter school operators would be interested, particularly given that HISD’s elected board might terminate any agreements once it regains power. Morath has said he sees no reason to expect the appointed board would remain in place for more than six years.

Whatever the plans, Miles likely would move quickly.

“Most districts with large numbers of students challenged by poverty or language barriers need to approach reform with a clear sense of urgency,” Miles wrote in a blog post last month. “And our leaders not only need to understand and believe that the situation is urgent, but must also convince the staff and community of that.”

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Jacob Carpenter is a team leader for the Houston Landing, helping to guide news coverage and oversee reporters. Jacob has reported for multiple newsrooms over the years, most recently as a freelance newsletter...

Clare Amari covers public safety for the Houston Landing. Clare previously worked as an investigative reporter for The Greenville News in South Carolina, where she reported on police use of force, gender-based...