This is a full transcript of the Houston Landing’s hour-long interview with Houston ISD’s new superintendent, Mike Miles, as he prepared to assume the district’s top job. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath officially appointed Miles as the district’s new superintendent Thursday, along with nine new board members taking the place of HISD’s elected trustees.
The former Dallas Independent School District superintendent outlined his tentative plans for making dramatic changes to the district, what parents and educators can expect from his administration, and how he’ll navigate the coming years. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: Why should Houstonians believe that you are the right person for this job?
A: Well, I have no illusions: This is a tough job. It’s gonna take a lot of skills and experience. So when you think about my past, my track record, it seems like a lot of my experience has brought me to this point. So number one, I’m a professional public servant. Army officer, served in the Army Rangers, U.S. diplomat, worked in Poland, Moscow. Educator after that, teacher, principal, assistant (superintendent), superintendent. So those experiences have brought me to this point. And what HISD needs, always, is a servant leader first, public servant. So that’s one big part.
Another part is that you need someone who has a track record of working in large, urban districts. So, I was the superintendent of Dallas ISD. And I think if you look at the record, I think you’ve already reported on it, the achievement results of Dallas work have been confirmed in numerous reports, the latest of which were National Bureau of Economic Research reports. And so I think I’m going to bring some of that experience to Houston. Houston is not Dallas, right? It’s a different context and different things have to be done here. But many of the large, urban strategies and practices are the same. So I think some of that will apply as well.
There’s one intangible. This is an intervention, and there has to be some changes. And with that comes some concern that the status quo will be shifted, and that concern will be real. And what we’re going to need, if we’re really going to transform HISD, is you’re going to need a person with the experience, as I talked about, but also leadership, vision and someone who can make the tough decisions that few others are prepared to make.
Q: How would you summarize your philosophy on education in a large, urban school district? What are some of the policies and some of the things that you feel like are most needed and most successful in a large, urban school district that you may look to apply here in Houston?
A: Thinking about any large, urban district, actually any school system that wants to move achievement for kids and also prepare them for the year 2035, then there are some foundational things we have to do and then for some innovative things that we need to do. Probably the biggest foundational thing is to make sure that the quality of instruction for every student is raised, that we have the highest quality instruction and we have effective teachers promoting that using high-quality instruction. You need principals who then support teachers, coach teachers, so we need principals who are also instructional leaders.
And then the whole system, from superintendent, to executive directors, to principals, to (assistant principals), all have to understand what high-quality instruction is and how to implement high-quality instruction throughout the entire district. So that’s job number one for the principals and teachers. Obviously, the rest of the system, especially central office, has to be geared to effectively support the schools. It can’t be bureaucratic. It has to be effective and in support for teachers and principals. So those are some of the foundational things that you need for HISD.
Q: How well-versed do you feel like you are in Houston ISD and what are your impressions so far?
A: So, I haven’t been on the ground yet. I haven’t been in schools. So it’s hard for me to be definitive in my answer and also my impression of what’s going on here. I think once I get into the schools, once I am able to talk to the people who’ve been here, then I can get a better feel for where we are in HISD. Obviously, I’ve looked at data, and there’s only so much you can glean from that. Again, you need to see teachers in action, need to see the kids in the classroom, talk to principals, and then I’ll have a better feel. With regard to documents and research and things like that, I feel pretty comfortable with my knowledge of where HISD stands.
Q: How long have you been researching HISD and doing that background work? Especially knowing this possibility has been hanging over Houston ISD for multiple years?
A: I became a serious candidate, a candidate for the superintendency here, sometime after the state Supreme Court decision (in January). And it’s only been the last couple of months, I’d say three months, that I’ve been getting even more serious as a candidate and as a person who could potentially take over HISD. So I always tried to do my homework. Before I went to Dallas, I actually visited the schools, physically went into the schools for the interviews, wrote an action plan. And so here, I wasn’t able to do that. But I was able to do a lot of research and thinking about what HISD needs. Obviously, I read many of the newspaper reports that were coming out about the intervention and the state of HISD.
Q: You’re known as somebody who pushes more aggressively for systemwide change than some of your peers. You recently wrote that “there is little vision and little appetite for true systemic reform, the effects of which might not be noticed for a couple of years.” How aggressively do you plan to pursue change in HISD? And how sweeping would you say those changes might be?
A: So, I would frame it this way. Yes, for most large urbans, the challenges are not incremental, piecemeal reforms. The challenges are systemic reform. And so yes, HISD also needs systemic reform. That means there’s some underlying principles upon which the system is built that will cause it to be either more effective or less effective. And so there are some things that we’re going to have to do systemically. HISD doesn’t need one more program. They don’t need one more consulting group to talk about this particular textbook. It needs some systemic changes.
So over time, we will be making systemic changes. Again, I need to be on the ground and kind of get more information and input before I can tell you when exactly we’re going to do systemic change. At the same time, there are other things that need to be changed right away that are foundational. They are systemic, also, but they’re part of every district system, so it won’t look any different. I already talked about the quality of instruction. So we’re going to start training principals right away. So on the 6th, 7th, 8th and 13th of June, I’ll be training principals with a couple other professional developers. But we’re going to start that training for high-quality instruction and effective principals right away.
Q: This is a B-rated district by the state. There are many who will say that this is not a district that is in great need of wholesale changes given its academic standing relative to other peer districts, given its financial standing. And you are an outsider here. You are not accountable necessarily to the voters of Houston in the same way that a more traditional superintendent is. So why is systemic change needed? And what would be your response to those who say this is not a district that is in need of systemic change?
A: First of all, it’s a large district. And so you can’t paint all the schools with one brush, that’s for sure. And there are certainly some schools that are doing great by kids. At the end of the day though — and again, with the caveat that I’ve not been in the schools and been on the ground — just looking at the data, it is the tale of two districts. There’s a district that is doing well academically for one group of kids, and then there’s a district that is doing poorly for most of the kids.
And our underserved kids in HISD are not getting the best education to prepare them for a different world and workplace. The proficiency rates are low for our students here, and the achievement gaps are high. If you look at the data in its entirety — (National Assessment of Educational Progress) data, for example, STAAR gap data, STAAR proficiency rate data, NWEA Map test data, (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) data — I think you’ll see that our students here are behind and many of them are not getting the education they need.
Q: Superintendents traditionally when they come in often go on a listening tour, gather a lot of feedback from the community before making big plans. Do you plan on doing anything like that? Or are you coming in with pretty specific blueprints for what you plan to do?
A: So again, with the footnote that I still need some time on the ground talking to people, really getting a feel for what’s going on. So with that footnote, yes, there are things that have to be done to move the needle in HISD. Most professional educators know, by looking at data and looking at the track record we have so far, what has to be done. And the question is, can we implement that? So there’ll be some things that we do right away, others that we’re going to take more time with.
At the end of the day, the adults have all the time in the world. Our kids have no time. This is not a traditional superintendent coming in where you do a listening tour for three or four months and then wait another six months to release a strategic plan. That always struck me as not the best way of going about business. I didn’t do that in Dallas. Kids don’t have a year for us to figure out what to do. You need a superintendent who knows what to do and how to improve schools.
Yes, there’s going to be some differences. There’s some fine-tuning based on HISD’s particular contexts and particular situation. But when it comes to quality of instruction, evaluating principals or evaluating schools, looking at the effectiveness of the organization as a whole, determining how well your central office functions, you don’t need a lot of time to do that if you’re an experienced professional educator.
Q: What are some of your most immediate plans for coming in, particularly into June and July?
A: First, I gotta find out where the office is. So I’ll do some of those logistical stuff. But with regard to key actions that you’re really referring to, I already mentioned one thing: We’re going to make sure that all of our principals have as much training as we can over the summer to make them as effective as possible for the coming school year. And there’s, you know, vacation time in there, the summer break, so we’ll have to do it on the front end and on the back end of summer. So that’s why we’re starting on the 6th. So high-quality instruction, focus on principals.
This first summer in June and July, we’re going to also look at central office effectiveness. There are some things we can’t really change over the summer because it’s too short a runway before the beginning of the year. Buses have to run, nutrition has to run. So we’re going to just keep that going. We’re having buses run right now, I think for summer school, nutrition services. So that won’t change. But we are going to restructure school leadership, chief academic office, the instructional departments, just so that we can have a more effective start to the 23-24 school year. And then we’re going to look at how we reprioritize some of our resources this summer so that our most underserved populations and our neediest schools receive greater supports at the start of the 23-24 school year.
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Q: Broadly speaking, how do you envision that the classroom might look different for students and teachers starting next school year?
A: So, you’re asking great questions, but I want to be careful not to generalize for the whole district, right? There’s 273 schools. So when you say, ‘Is a classroom going to look different,’ not for all 273 schools. It’s already June. We’re not going to upset the applecart in all of the schools. And there’s a number of schools that are already doing a good job. So we need to leave those schools to do what they’ve always done, right? They’re getting good results. Their classrooms will probably look the same as they did last year, with a couple exceptions. One is the principals will be observing more, again, because we’re going to make sure that all of our principals or instructional leaders will be observing more.
But with regard to curriculum or engagement strategies, that’s probably going to be the same for schools that are doing well. For a subset of schools that are not doing well, their classrooms are going to be looking way more engaging, the quality of instruction is going to be higher, kids are gonna get the curriculum they need and they’re going to get the supports they need as they move along. So, for some subset of classes, yeah, it’ll look different.
Q: In reading about you, talking to people who have worked with you, you’re a somewhat polarizing figure as a superintendent. There are some who really love your willingness to fight for what you believe in and kind of ignore some of the outside noise. There are some who would say that you’re kind of unresponsive to the community’s desires and needlessly stubborn. What is your response to those in Houston who are distrustful or worried about your leadership style and your education policies?
A: I really am sympathetic to people facing change. Regardless of the person coming in, there’s going to be a certain amount of distrust, there’s going to be a certain amount of anxiety, especially since there’s been a lack of information about what’s going to happen. You know, that just creates more fear. So there’s a level of fear and anxiety that is out there that’s understandable. And the job of any leader, including me in this case, is to try to bring people to their best hopes rather than perseverate on their worst fears. That’s job number one.
I understand, also, that there is going to be a certain amount of noise with any change of the status quo. And one of the things I’ve learned in Dallas was that in every bit of noise, usually there’s a kernel of truth, there’s a person’s truth that you have to attend to. At least listen to and understand, and then let the rest go. And so when I’m faced with that, just like here in Houston when I will be faced with that, my job is to try to understand what is that person’s truth, what is it that they fear and then try to move them off that to something that they can hope for. And really try to get the kernel of truth to what people are saying.
Q: To what extent do you feel like you need to get buy-in from families, from educators, to execute the plans that you may have? And how do you plan on going about doing that?
A: One of my core beliefs is that you have to work with the community to improve the schools. It’s their schools, after all. It’s the community schools. And so we have to work with them, we have to get input. I plan to have input in real-time. (I’m) trying to get this app where parents and staff members and senior students can weigh in, give input on various initiatives that we’re trying to do. We used this to great effect in Third Future Schools, my network.
But that’s just one signal of how we’re going to try to get input from parents. At the same time, having said that, on educational things we’re going to use research and we’re going to use science. So, for example, we’re going to have a science-of-reading curriculum. I’m not going to need a lot of outside research apart from the research that educators have already done on it. On things like that, on the quality of instruction, on how well principals should be evaluated, I’m going to use the team that we have, I’m going to get input from the principals. But that’s one thing where the parents and the community may not have as loud a voice.
Q: Why not take more time to engage with the community first before coming in with specific plans and practices and ideas?
A: It’s not like there’s not been any listening to what the community has to say. There’s already been good reporting from numerous people about what the community feels. I’ve listened in on many of the town hall meetings, so I’ve heard a lot of what has been said. Over the last year, there’s been quite a bit of news about what the community wants or doesn’t want, especially with the intervention.
At the same time, the mandate is clear. This is supposed to be a temporary effort, meaning at some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, the elected board will come back. And we have a specific charge to turn around the district and very specific categories, which you’ve reported on. So this is not a typical situation. And our kids don’t have time for us to use a year before we put a plan into action. So we can either use 23-24 school year as one of the years we have to try to turn around the system and make some systemic changes. Or, we can do it normally, wait a year before we put out a strategic plan and waste a year. Our kids don’t have that kind of time. And so while we will be getting input from parents and community members and stakeholders (and) principals all along the way, we’re also going to act on some things right away.
Q: In your three years as superintendent in Dallas, the district’s academic standing, at least judged by standardized test scores, it didn’t really improve. However, Dallas ISD’s test scores significantly improved in the years after your departure, a time when the district continued many of the initiatives that you had started. How are you thinking about the time horizon of getting results that are visible in HISD?
A: So, (Jacob), I have to say, it could be off-the-record or on-the-record, but you got that wrong in your last piece. The achievement data in Dallas started improving right away…
Q: …relative to state improvement and other districts.
A: Relative to its own past performance. It improved. Yes, you’re right. We didn’t catch up to Houston right in my first two years, but we caught it in my third year. (Education Research Group), I can give you the actual references, called it the Dallas Miracle. Achievement-wise, we had higher scores on ACT, more students taking the AP exams, etc., etc. There’s lots of information I can feed you. (The Commit Partnership) has also done work on that. So let the record reflect that achievement did go up. It continued to go up after I left, that’s true. And now is one of the highest-performing districts in Texas with regard to achievement and growth.
So what is my time horizon, to answer your question. We need to show within the first year that we’re moving in the right direction, that we can get achievement results. If you look at my schools and Third Future schools, we have spent the last six years working on a model that can turn around schools in a year. So I’m sure you’ve done your research on Sam Houston Elementary School, Ector College Prep in Odessa, those are schools that we took over and within a year turned them around. We broke the myth that it takes several years to turn around a school.
So, I’m hoping to have some significant gains for our priority-needs schools at the end of one year, and then grow that subset of schools and turn around the district significantly within three years. At some point, we can share metrics for all of that, but one metric that maybe people can gravitate to is we’re going to be better than Dallas at some point. When I took over Dallas, Houston was above Dallas, and now Dallas is above Houston. So we’re just gonna have to reverse that.
Q: In Dallas and elsewhere, you’ve been a strong proponent of educator accountability, a decently significant part of which is tied to student performance on various tests. Some would argue that this approach leads to better results for kids. Others say that it hurts the teaching profession and doesn’t actually produce holistically better outcomes for children. How would you describe the stock that you put in standardized tests? And how will that influence your plans for HISD?
A: So, I’m interested in helping kids read better, to be proficient in reading and in math and other outcomes that we said specifically. The best way to determine whether that’s been accomplished is through some sort of assessment. Does it have to be STAAR? No. It can be multiple ones. I just talked about NAEP, DIBLES, NWEA. If the collection of assessments point to a proficiency level, then that’s probably a good indication of whether the student is proficient or not in that subject. We can argue about any one particular assessment, but to say that we should not use assessment results to determine a child’s reading level, I don’t think that’s wise at all.
So I’m going to continue to look at some way to assess whether our kids are actually making the grade. And as better assessments come along, then we’ll think about that. But right now, we’re going to use NWEA, DIBLES, STAAR, and NAEP comes every two years.
Q: I want to touch on a few of the more hot-button kind of issues in HISD. School closures have been a persistent point of discussion in HISD. The Texas Legislative Budget Board in a 2019 review of HISD all but said the district should shutter dozens of campuses with low enrollment. HISD’s last two superintendents, Grenita Lathan and Millard House, both said that the district needs to look at campus closures, though neither acted on it in conjunction with the board. There are vehement opponents of campus closures in HISD, with some arguing that they disproportionately impact students from lower income and predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods. Do you believe HISD needs to close campuses? And if so, do you plan to act on that?
A: The district has lost 28,000 students or so in the last six years. At the same time, I don’t think there’s been a closure. The mission is to provide a good education for every single student and prepare them for the year 2035 world in the workplace. That’s the job, and that’s what parents want at the end of the day. So we have to make a case for whatever kid and whatever school needs to be closed, that we’re going to provide, still, a good education for their child, transport them if we need to transport them and give them even a better option. It’s no secret to educators that when you run a school of 137 kids, you know, grades K-5, that child is not getting the best experience.
So, we’re not going to close any schools this first year, because it’s June and there’s no time to prepare, or to make sense, or to transport, or do any of those things that we need to do responsibly if we’re going to close schools. Having said that, we’re going to bring to the board the schools that need to be closed. There’s already been a study, but we’re going to do even more homework on that. And we most likely will bring to the board for the following year schools that need to be close to provide a better education for the student and also to be more fiscally sound.
Q: At this point, do you have any sense, are we talking a few schools? Are you looking at dozens of schools?
A: I don’t know the answer. I mean, I know there’s actually been more than one study over the last several years about school closures. So I want to take a look at those first, get more input while I’m on the ground and then make a decision on how many.
Q: Charter schools are another frequent point of contention in HISD. Many community members see charter schools as a threat to the district’s funding. And they believe that they tend to siphon away higher-achieving students while leaving behind children with greater academic and behavioral needs for the district to address, which is often more costly. Do you plan to engage with charter school operators to potentially run some HISD schools through a contract, especially given your background and working for charter schools or working as a charter school operator?
A: Yes, I’ve been on both sides of this equation, right. I’ve been a superintendent of traditional public schools, also CEO of a charter network. And let me say this as a founding principal: It’s not the type of school that matters. It’s the type of system that matters. Meaning, there are good charter schools and there are ineffective charter schools. There are good traditional public schools, there are ineffective traditional public schools. There are good private schools and ineffective private schools. It’s not the type of school that matters. It’s a type of system that matters.
My first job, my first priority work area, is to make sure that all of our kids get a really good education and really good school. So I’m going to work on that, making sure our schools are improved systemically. And then we’ll see if we need any charter operators in the district.
Q: Have you been in contact with any charter school operators about potentially partnering with HISD to operate campuses?
Q: Do you envision making any of those contacts, especially within your first few months in HISD?
A: No. I’m going to be focused on what I just said. There are things that have to be done in HISD to improve the school district systemically, and that’ll be my focus this first year.
Q: You’ve touched on this a bit, but your first assignment in HISD is to raise student achievement in historically low-rated schools. You talked about a more engaging classroom. How might the student and educator experience look different in those campuses under your watch?
A: So for this, again, there’s a wide variety. This is similar to the question you asked me earlier. There’s a wide variety of schools and classrooms. And for many of the schools and classrooms and schools that are doing well, they won’t look any different probably this year. For the other schools, I think what you’re going to find is, yes, more engagement, but also stronger strategies for how to deliver high-quality instruction. You’re going to see a more effective teacher, one that is not just engaging, but is really good at delivering rigor, that keeps really good pace, that moves the class along, that differentiates the instruction, that understands the question behind the questions … so that the whole class can benefit from it. And all the things we know that make an effective teacher and high quality instruction. That’s what many kids will see this year versus last year.
Q: How will you do that?
A: That’s a big question. But let me give you just the small bullets. Number one, we have to ensure we have an effective teacher in every classroom. Different ways to do that. Part of it has to do with training. And I’m not saying, by the way, that there are no effective teachers. I’m talking about the ones where we have priority need, where we can identify a need to have high-quality instruction. I’ve already said many classrooms will look the same. And I need to add that many of those teachers are effective. And so I don’t want to paint the whole district with the same brush. At the same time, we also need to recruit teachers who are proficient and who can grow in their proficiency quickly. So, third thing is we need to ensure that the leader, the principal and the (assistant principals) are instructional leaders and know how to coach teachers to get stronger instruction.
Q: Do you envision additional resources being dedicated to these classrooms? And if so, how do you divert resources more to those classrooms without changing those schools that you’re saying you want to leave alone, for lack of a better term?
A: For the most part, the schools that are doing well will have about the same amount of resources that they always have. We need to, writ large, reprioritize some resources, but we can do that in several different ways to start. So we don’t need to take resources from our high-performing magnet schools, we don’t need to take resources from our high-performing schools.
What we need to do is think about the budget as a whole and think about reprioritizing resources so that our most underserved kids receive better resources. And then we need to redesign our system so that we provide better opportunities. Give you a specific example: Wheatley High School right now, for example, has only a couple career pathways for their (Career and Technical Education) program. Whereas many high schools across the state and in Houston, their CTE programs are more developed, they have more resources, and those students are getting 6, 7, 8 choices for their career tech ed programs, some more than that. That, to me, seems profoundly unequitable. I understand why it happens. It’s not somebody with ill intent. There’s only 750 students at Wheatley, so there’s only so many programs that financially you can fund.
So is there a way for us to reprioritize our resources so that there are more options for Wheatley, or for Wheatley students to be bussed, not too far, but to a building with way more career options, and allow them to have more choice? Is that possible? Is there a way to add more, a subsidy to Wheatley so that they have more career options. Those are the things we’ve got to look at. So while we don’t take away from School X over here, all of our kids get more resources, because of whatever particular context they’re in
Q: Are there certain places that you’ve identified as ripe for cutting so that you can afford what you’re talking about.
A: One, we have to be more effectively using the resources we have. And we have to make better financial decisions. So, for example, we can’t continue to use (federal stimulus) monies like we did on recurring expenses. That’s just creating a problem for two years or a year from now. Actually, it’s going to create a problem for this year. We have a central office that is bloated and bureaucratic, and we need to trim that. And so there’ll be some savings from central office. This is nothing new to HISD. The question is, how well do you implement that? And do you do it in a way that makes sense?
So there’s some savings there. And for short-term, while we are reorganizing some of the priority schools to give them more support, we can save on some other areas like consultancies. There’s way too many consultants in HISD. And we can use some of that money to put actually down on the ground in the school.
Q: One of your other main assignments is to improve the delivery of special education services in HISD, a well-documented problem for many years in the district. What can parents with students with disabilities expect from your administration?
A: So there’s already been some steps taken. And there needs to be a lot more. But basically, we’re going to do the following. We’ll have to start with a subset of schools. We’re going to look at how our (special education) teachers are teaching, and we’re going to support them with special education assistants who can do much of the paperwork, sit in on the (Admission, Review, and Dismissal) meetings. Those are the initial meetings that determine the (Individualized Education Program) and placement. We’re going to write better IEPs. And we’re going to improve substantially the quality of instruction that our special education kids are getting.
This is not just an HISD problem. This is a problem in the profession, where students with special needs are often getting a less-than-rigorous education curriculum. They are not being taught to read at the level that all kids should be able to read. They’re not given the proper instruction or supports to be able to be successful after high school. So we’re gonna have to revamp systemically how special education is delivered in HISD.
Q: Dallas ISD recently undertook an internal investigation that found “at least one out of every seven students referred for special education didn’t get the help they needed because the district failed to follow-up on leads,” to quote the Dallas Morning News. The investigation looked at students between 2017 and 2021. And your tenure did end in 2015. However, if you’re going to take credit for some of the things that happen after your tenure academically, you’re going to be subject to questions about other aspects of the district following your departure. What do you see as your role in those findings? And why should we or shouldn’t we blame you and your administration for those issues?
A: Well, you should. I’m responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen. And we didn’t do as good a job with special education services that we needed to. And it’s because of that I kind of understand what needs to be done here in HISD. So that’s the answer.
Q: What did you learn from that experience that you will apply here?
A: Again, one, special education teachers have way too much to do. And as a result of having way too much to do, the quality of instruction suffers. So we need here in Houston to add special education support teachers with many special education teachers, so that they have time to focus on the quality of instruction, do good lesson planning and really write IEPs and attend to IEPs and progress monitor IEPs in a more rigorous way. So that’s one thing.
We need to also work on special education instruction. A lot of principals just walked by special education teachers. They think that’s a (special education) department thing and they’re not accountable for it. So we’re going to change that. If you look at our principal evaluation system that we’re going to implement, 20 percent of the 100 points will be tied to special (education) compliance and special (education) achievement for the principal. Those are things I didn’t do in Dallas that would’ve had an effect. Besides just attending to compliance issues, of course, which we did. Here, we’re gonna go a step further, actually several steps further, with how we systemically changed special education.
Q: Principal turnover in Dallas during your tenure was reportedly abnormally high relative to prior years, I’ve not been able to verify that with my information. But that was pretty widely reported at the time, and it was often chalked up to your administration cleaning house. What are your plans for Houston ISD principals in terms of their job security? And do you foresee above-average turnover in the next year or two?
A: Cleaning house is not the right phrase. What is the right phrase or the right concept is that, what we’re going to do for both principals and teachers and, frankly, everybody, including me, is we’re going to look at the outcomes that we should be getting. What is our accountability and what are the metrics that describe good administration, good principalship, high-quality teacher. And the whole district’s evaluation concept is based on outcomes. Not who you know, not how hard you work. It’s what outcomes you’re getting for kids, because the focus is our students. And it’s student outcomes mostly that we’re talking about here. Everybody from me, to the (assistant principals) to the teachers, all of us are going to be looking at that.
So when I think about principals first, we’re going to be looking at a rigorous evaluation system. And we’re going to evaluate them based on their proficiency. And so I don’t want to prejudge what will happen at the end of one year’s time. But what principals can expect is that the focus will be on the quality of instruction. I’ve said that several times now. That’ll be the focus. The focus will be on how they coach and support teachers, how they provide the necessary supplies and materials that teachers need, how they supply the curriculum that the teachers need. That’s their job. And so they will be evaluated on that.
Q: Will that evaluation be this summer? Or do you envision that more as a next summer, as you’re evaluating who you want to keep in principal positions?
A: I don’t want to conflate two things. But just for my own benefit, we’re not moving out any principals this summer. They would not have been evaluated. So principals who are here are the principals who are here. The evaluation will take place during the course of the 23-24 school year.
Q: I think it comes from, I think there’s fear among principals that you’re going to come in and, over the summer, replace some who you don’t feel like are making the cut.
A: I will have no idea who’s making the cut because there’s no outcomes. So that fear should be allayed. At the same time, there’s going to be some anxiety because there’s a new evaluation system. I’ve done this a while. I did it in Harrison, I did it in Dallas. Every evaluation system that’s new, especially if it’s tied to some accountability or tied to compensation, that’s what raises the anxiety. And so I think people know that our kids need their outcomes raised, and it is our responsibility, including the principal, to do that, to raise the outcomes. And, you know, there’s some principals who will feel like they’re excited about the opportunity, and then there’s some that are going to be worried about the challenge.
Q: HISD is already moving toward the Teacher Incentive Allotment. They have plans that have been submitted, I believe, to go into effect next year. How do you envision HISD’s teacher evaluation and teacher incentive plan looking going into next year,
A: Teacher Incentive Allotment will be put on hold, because it’s based on an evaluation system that’s not rigorous and not tied to the quality of instruction. It all has to be aligned. So the teacher evaluation system will not start next year because you have to do principals first. Totally unfair to the teacher if a principal doesn’t know what they’re doing. So we’re going to train principals first. Teacher evaluation will come second.
Q: This is a shotgun marriage of sorts between you and the Board of Managers, all 10 of whom will ultimately answer to the education commissioner and not the voters directly. How do you view the board-superintendent relationship working in this case, given that it is a different dynamic than what we traditionally see?
A: Yeah, I’m accountable to the Board of Managers, the board managers are my boss, the ones who will sign a contract with me. And so my job is to keep them apprised, and also to work with him on vision, broad strategy and policy. I will do the operations. And they will do the policy. So, we will still have regular meetings. The Board of Managers will set their pace, but I think they’re going to do working sessions, and they’re going to do board meetings. I expect the executive committee will want to talk to me every once in a while, not in those meetings, but just having lunch or just talking about the work of the district. I expect that I’ll be making phone calls to every board member every month, at least, maybe more often. So in that way, it’ll be kind of like a regular relationship between a superintendent and a board.
Q: This typically isn’t how things are done, though, in terms of a superintendent. I mean, you kind of have the blueprints drawn up it sounds like, without a very public discussion with the board. How confident are you that the Board of Managers will be in agreement with your plans?
A: Thanks for asking. So, remember that footnote. Yes, blueprint, but I haven’t been on the ground yet. So there will be tweaking and revising and massaging based on the input that I get from principals, that I get from people who are already at central office, parents, etc. Having said that, yes, I have a general plan because I’ve been doing my homework for the last three months. And I will brief the board in public on that plan at the working session this month.
Q: You’re thinking that’s June 8?
A: June 8. And so they’ll get even more information as we go along, obviously. But the plan is operational. And so I’m hoping that they will be supportive of the plan, that they’ll see the merit of it, but those discussions will be forthcoming.
Q: Have you communicated either individually or as a group with members of the Board of Managers?
A: I met the Board of Managers for the first time Saturday.
Q: You had not talked with any of them before Saturday.
A: I met them for the first time. I hadn’t talked to them.
Q: Any of the nine?
A: Any of the nine. I had no knowledge of them. And TEA has been good about it. That’s their process. That has nothing to do with me. I mean, now it does, but not the process for selecting them. So, no, I found out who they were on Saturday.
Q: It’s been 11 years since HISD held a bond election, which is needed to renovate and rebuild aging schools. I think pretty much everyone would agree that HISD desperately needs a successful bond. Do you envision pursuing one being a priority of yours during your time here?
A: I don’t know about priority. But I have been thinking about it. This is an area where I need even more information. I know there’s been studies, because I’ve read about them over the last several years. Superintendents wanting to go out for a bond here in HISD. And it just hasn’t happened. So I need to find out more information about that and then determine when we do it. It does seem, just based on what I know a little bit, the facilities need it. At some point it will happen, but I need a lot more information before I can tell you when.
Q: When will we know who your administrative team is?
A: We’ll announce most of them, the cabinet — the administrative team will take a lot longer — but the cabinet on the 8th to the board.
Q: You already have a cabinet essentially in place?
A: I have some people. I don’t have the whole group. But I have some people who have agreed to come if I get here. So nobody’s in place. Nobody has a contract or anything. But I got some handshakes.
Q: Who will you rely on in Houston to understand the pulse, understand the community here?
A: So there are a lot of people who will give me advice and counsel over the next year, I’m sure. So I guess to answer the question, there’s not any one person I will have to help me. I’m going to meet with legislators, I’m going to meet with Mayor Turner if he’ll meet with me. I’m going to meet with principals, I’m going to meet with senior leaders who are already in the central office. And so I think piecing that all together. And also being out in schools, being out in the dropoff and pickup line and things like that, I’ll get a good feel for what’s going on.
Q: Probably goes without saying, but will you be fully in Houston, essentially living here as opposed to commuting between here and Colorado?
A: I’m living here now.
Q: Are you going to be continuing your work with Third Future Schools in that capacity?
A: No. I’m resigning (May 31).
Q: Do you envision a scenario in which Third Future Schools is brought into Houston ISD?
A: No. I suspect that would be a conflict of interest. So the answer’s no.
Q: I think you have such an interesting professional and educational background. And I was wondering how, or if at all, did that prep you for a career as an educator? Are there things that you’ve carried through from your time in the Army, as a diplomat? Are there things that you’ve tried to leave behind? How does that work?
A: Good question. So, couple of things. Both my military experience and my diplomatic experience taught me a lot about organizational effectiveness, how organizations function. And these are public organizations, right. They’re not private. So it’s even more applicable to education. And so maybe you get from some of my comments, I’m always thinking about the system and how the organizational parts fit together in a way that’s more effective. And I think I got a lot of that from my time in the Army and my time in the State Department.
To give you very specific examples, one of the things we’re going to do to make sure this amorphous central office is more effectively supporting schools, is we’re going to push supports to the areas. I’m calling them divisions, but the areas. And so, when we have more time, I can show you the charts and everything else. But that’s from my military experience. I’m sure you don’t need to report all this, but let me just describe what I’m talking about. In the Army, and every effective army in the world, by the way, does this, you have a group of soldiers, small group, a squad, and then you have four squads make up a platoon, four or five platoons make a company, and I was a company commander. Four or five companies make a battalion. But it’s that only at the battalion level that you get support unit, transportation supply, HR, military intelligence. That’s at the battalion level. And that way the battalion can go get deployed anywhere and be self-sufficient.
But the point here is that the support for any of those functions is much more effective for that company or platoon because it’s pushed closer and there’s more defined people who are doing it. At HISD, you’ve got a big room of 80 people in HR or curriculum. And when there’s a problem or a specific school needs support, who do you go to? I guess you make a phone call to central office, and somehow it gets routed to somebody who’s on this desk who’s absent.
Q: There are area superintendents, there are school support officers (in HISD). How will this be different, what you’re talking about?
A: Yes, there’s area superintendents and there’s school support officers, but there’s not the logistical support at the building or at what I call the unit level. School support officers, that’s going to change because, let me just describe it a little bit so it’s not too confusing. Right now in our profession, there are too many people coaching people out in the field, and nobody’s accountable. So there’s consultants, there’s instructional coaches, there’s school support officers. And really, whether scores go up or down doesn’t really matter. In fact, the principal could claim that I’m not really accountable, I got all these other people that are really coaching the teacher directly.
We are going to change that. The principal will be the instructional leader, I’ve said that several times. They will be the instructional leader, they will be the direct coaches of teachers. And hence, they will also be accountable for that school’s success or failure. We’re gonna push consultants aside. There’s a role for consultants. Don’t hear that we’re not gonna have any consultants. There’s a role for them, but not on the field. And so, school support officers, there’s to be evaluators of principals. But we’re gonna coach them at the district level, so that we don’t have to have an individual coach for every principal. Now, the evaluation and monitoring and supervision of principals will still happen.
Q: I forgot to ask, two last things. Why did you take this job?
A: I took this job because I’ve always served the underserved. This is an opportunity not only to serve a whole bunch of kids, but also to turn around an urban district and to be the first urban district to prepare kids properly for the year 2035 workplace and world by using a different education system model. So we have an opportunity to do that here. It’s what I kind of preach in my blogs, that we need a new education system. Third Future Schools is a new education system. It’s designed differently. We have a chance to do that for HISD. And while we’re doing that, at the same time we’re doing that, help thousands and thousands of kids get a better education. That’s why.
Q: Pre-K was an initiative of yours in Dallas. Where, if anywhere, is that in your plans and priorities at the moment?
A: It’s one of the 11 priority work areas. We have to expand pre-K here.
Q: What are the other 10?
A: You’ll read about them, and we’ve talked about most of them.