Jacob Carpenter, an editor at the Houston Landing who has covered the Houston Independent School District for years, interviewed the district’s controversial new superintendent at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin this weekend. The following is the full transcript of Carpenter’s interview with Mike Miles, who discussed his plans for HISD and how parents can hold him accountable. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:
Carpenter: With me today is Mike Miles, the state appointed superintendent of Houston ISD, which educates about 180,000 students — one of the 10 largest districts in the country.
Superintendent Miles is a former Army Ranger, diplomat, teacher, principal, school administrator. He spent three years, from 2012 until 2015, as the superintendent of Dallas ISD, the state’s second-largest district. Following that, he was the CEO of Third Future Schools, a charter school network that operated or ran several schools in Texas and Colorado.
In June, (Texas Education) Commissioner Mike Morath appointed him to be the superintendent of HISD in response to state sanctions against the district. He immediately and pretty dramatically began overhauling the operations and classroom instruction across large parts of the district.
He’s encountered a lot of resistance from some very vocal folks in the district, including those who generally oppose his teaching or his policies and methods. But he’s also been embraced by some folks who see him as a kind of a reformer that’s much needed in HISD to raise student achievement.
So, today we’re going to talk about what he’s been doing in Houston, the state of the quote unquote Education Reform Movement and what his work means for the rest of Texas. We’ll chat for about 45 minutes and then we’ll have about 10 to 15 minutes after that for folks to ask some questions.
So, Superintendent Miles, thank you for joining us.
Miles: Thanks for inviting me, good to be here.
Q: So, first, I just wanted to give you a couple minutes to explain, what are you doing in Houston ISD? What is your plan? How are you executing it?
A: So, the context is what’s going on in the country and what our future holds. The context is, the future of the workforce and the workplace. That’s the context. Because any district that’s not at least tied to some vision of the future can say that any path forward will do. And it’s usually the one you’re on.
So, when you think about what’s going on in the country in, in the workplace, the workforce
the growth of AI, the exponential growth of AI and how it’s already impacting the workplace, then you have a sense of what we have to do. And where we are. In Houston, and in all large urbans, the achievement gap has not closed for over two decades.
And also, now we have a skills gap. A year 2035 competencies gap. And so what we’re trying to do is make sure that our students enter the workforce and the workplace better prepared. We’re trying to close that gap. That nobody has been able to do in large urban districts.
And more important, the skills gap. This is the last generation of kids in America’s schools before the skills gap will be locked in. If you graduate without being able to read at grade level or do math at grade level or have at least some competencies, year 2035 competencies, then you will be relegated on the whole to low-skilled, low-income jobs.
So, what am I doing? I’m trying to transform HISD to prepare those students. And the resistance is the status-quo bias that every large district has. We have not been able to do it (in) large urbans because we tweak the system. We move it incrementally and that has not worked. We want to keep the same things going, even though everybody recognizes that you can’t keep doing the same things over and over again and expect a different outcome.
Well now, not only do we need a different outcome in the achievement gap, we need a different outcome in the skills gap, the year 2035 competencies gap. So, that’s what I’m doing.
Q: What does that look like in practice?
A: There’s only one way to transform a large, urban district. You can’t do it overnight. You can’t do it whole scale, the whole district. It’s like building a plane while you’re flying a plane. So, it’s understandable that people see some anxiety around transforming a district.
The way to do it is what researcher Ted Kolderie calls “split screen.” Where you take a subset of schools and transform that whole scale. That means not incrementally. That means taking the whole system for that subset and fundamentally changing those.
So, we started with 28 schools. Twenty-eight schools out of 273. Ten percent to turn around whole scale. Ninety percent would have some changes, but mostly be the same plane that we’re flying.
That got interrupted a little bit because we had another group of principals who wanted to be part of this whole-scale reform. So we added 57 because I didn’t want to stiff-arm the coalition of the willing.
So, now we have 85 schools. So, 30 percent, which I think is a little bit too high. And yet, I think it’s important to honor those who really want to transform. And so we have 85 schools that are undergoing whole scale, systemic reform.
What does that look like? It’s not really transformation unless you tackle the underlying principles of a system. And I know I’m taking a long time that you want me to go into that or just stop?
Q: Go ahead, just maybe for 30, 60 seconds
A: Thirty, 60 seconds to talk about the underlying principles. I’ll just give you one of the principles we’re doing. We’re changing how staffing works. How the staffing paradigm works. It’s not so much about retention and recruitment. Retaining teachers or recruiting 100 percent at the beginning of the school year, although that’s important. It’s really about making sure you have 100 percent, high-quality instruction every day for a kid no matter who delivers that instruction.
So, no offense to substitutes, but they’re not the most effective teachers in a school, when that sub has not been in the school. When they’re just coming in and they’re looking at lesson plans trying to teach kids. No offense, but it’s not a good practice to combine classes. Because you usually don’t get high-quality instruction when a teacher’s absent and you put two classes together. That’s really disruptive for the teacher.
No offense, but it’s not really appropriate for kids when you put those kids in an auditorium because you have three, four, five, six members out. So, how can you staff differently to where you never have a sub? And you never have a classroom that goes without high-quality instruction?
That staffing model is in existence right now in the 85 schools I’m talking about.
Q: Like you said, there have been all kinds of different things tried and nobody has moved the needle quite the way that you’re talking about wanting to do. So, why should we believe that what you’re doing is going to be successful when so many others have failed for so long to achieve the type of results that you’re saying that you want to get?
A: There’s a line from Gregory Hines in “Tap.” “I don’t do it like everybody else, remember?“
So, in Dallas, Dallas did not do whole-scale reform except in some pieces, like the pay-for-performance system in Dallas, which required us also to change how we provided instructional feedback, which required how we recruited teachers (to be) a little bit different. How we compensated teachers. How we trained principals. That’s whole scale. But it wasn’t whole-system scale, just the pay-for-performance plan. And that has worked to great effect. That is indisputable. And I know the naysayers want to say it hasn’t, but you just need to go look at the research. I refer you to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Two papers, conducted in March of this year. One on the pay-for-performance system, one on ACE, which is how you move high-performing teachers to lowest-performing schools. Both of those, by the way, are not only proven in the research to be effective and to have moved achievement in great ways, but also have been replicated by the state of Texas to great effect. So, it has been done. Part of this has been done.
Look at Third Future Schools’ system that’s using several of the new education system models. Look at what they did in Ector, Ector College Prep Middle School. Went from the lowest performing middle school to the top performing middle school in Ector County in two years.
Look at Sam Houston Elementary School. Had a 53 years ago, 53 on accountability rating during COVID. In one year, went to 68. The next year went to 89.
So yeah, some of these things have been tried before and they’re making huge gains. But this has never been tried at this scale. You’re right about that. But it’s based on really sound experience and sound system principles.
Q: You mentioned Dallas. Dallas gets a lot of attention for those two pieces, especially that you just talked about. You know, these are things that have been in place now for several years. I mean they’ve had, you know, coming up on a decade to show that they work. There was a stretch where Dallas showed some significant Improvement, but it’s really leveled off and at this moment, Houston and Dallas, they’re actually identical when it comes to reading scores, accountability scores. Houston’s graduation rate is better. So, why should we think that, you know, what has gone on in Dallas is so great and is going to translate to Houston and why, especially when we’re coming in, saying Houston needs all of this change, but it’s no better, no worse than what we see in Dallas right now?
A: So first …
Q: And they serve very similar demographics.
A: Yeah, a couple of things. Number one, Houston’s not Dallas. Dallas is not Houston. And the achievement — look at the achievement increase in Dallas. Started way below Houston, and now is just slightly above Houston. And look at the trajectory.
And I will say right now that Dallas is not doing whole-scale systemic reform. They’re doing a couple of the pieces that I started. Look at the success of moving high-performing teachers to the lowest-performing schools. That still is working in Dallas. We’ve not done that here. So, I think because we’re going to do whole-scale systemic reform. We’re starting with 85 schools. Pretty soon, we’re going to surpass Dallas. Maybe not this year because it takes time to transform a whole system, but relatively quickly, we will surpass Dallas because they’re not doing whole-scale systemic reform.
Q: So, are you saying that what you’re doing is just better, smarter than what other districts have done? Or are you saying that you’re going to do it at a scale that no other district has done?
A: So, I try not to use words like that. … Here’s how I would describe it. There is no larger urban districts — no large urban district — that is doing whole-scale systemic reform. None. And as a result, they will not close the achievement gap. And they will not close the skills gap. I’m not sure they recognize that this is the last generation of kids in school before the skills gap is locked in.
So, what I’m saying is, we are going to do whole-scale systemic reform. It’s not been tried in the country. And the portion that’s going to be stronger and more effective than any large, urban district, including Dallas.
Q: So, you’re a big proponent of accountability. How should we hold you accountable? What will a successful tenure look like under your leadership?
A: If we don’t start to see the needle move in two years, you should fire me. That’s accountability.
So, at the end of the day, though, I have a clear mission from the Texas Education Agency. We can’t have — there’s three buckets to that, and this is what TEA is going to hold me accountable for. One is, we can’t have any school with multiple years of D or F status. Now keep in mind, when the accountability results come out, we’re probably going to have 70 schools with D and F status. Maybe more. TEA will put that number out, the actual results out, probably in several weeks.
So, that’s job No. 1. That’s accountability point No. 1. We can’t have multiple years of D and F status. Now, when you have 70 or more schools and D and F status, that’s more than a couple years, guys. I’m trying to do this as fast as we can, but I’m not sure we can do it overnight. And we can’t.
Bucket No. 2: I will be held accountable by TEA if we don’t meet state and federal requirements in special education, which the district has not, over many years. But also as part of that bucket is, if we don’t improve our special education services and achievement.
And then bucket No. 3 is, we have to have a stronger governance system before we can turn the district back over to an elected board.
Q: I want to zoom in on a couple specific things to what’s going on at HISD right now. In the past week or so, you have really started articulating a message to teachers and employees of — and I’m putting this a little more bluntly than you probably have — get onboard or get out.
A: Yeah, that’s pretty blunt. Go ahead.
Q: You have said, you have a choice to work in this school district, and I think there are a lot of people who are reading into that: Get onboard or get out. How do you expect the next 12 months or so to play out with your teaching staff in particular, the 10,000 plus teachers that are carrying out your vision?
A: Yeah, 11,400 teachers. Look, one of the things we have to do, and I think most
people who have been in schools understand this, we have to build a culture of high performance. We can do anything we want — I mean, I can put out this program, this strategy — if you don’t have a culture of people who really are committed to effectiveness and accountability, not just for the superintendent, but at all levels, a culture where people feel that they are essential.
So, I’ll give you an example of what that means. Like in Colorado — and I love the state — but the school districts sometimes close when there’s an inch of snow on the ground. And it’s Colorado. It’s not like Houston with an inch of snow on the ground. It’s Colorado. And Starbucks is open. How essential — what mindset of essentialness do you put out when you close your school and Starbucks is open? So, we have to build a culture of essentialness.
We have to build a culture of accountability. We have to build a culture where people figure it out, not just say, well, you know, that’s somebody else’s problem or I told that person to do it and they didn’t do it. So, you know, too bad. That’s not the culture you want.
The culture you want is a high-performance culture. And a high-performance culture starts with choice.
Think of any elite organization or high-performing organization. Business. Army. Diplomacy. State Department. Whatever. They didn’t require people to be in that high-performance culture, people chose to be in that elite high-performing organization. So, eventually, it’s not a litmus test. It’s not a red pill, blue pill. But it is a mindset that we’re trying to get after. Which is, we’re going to work in a high-performance culture. These are some of the things that we’re going to do. For example, we’re going to tie compensation to effectiveness. So, people should really think about that. And it’s not a wrong or right answer. It’s not a red or blue pill. It’s just, you know, a choice. And if they don’t want to work in that kind of culture, they need to make the decision that’s right for them.
Q: Do you want them to make that decision this school year?
A: This is a long-term proposition to change a culture. Culture is not changed by any one action, any policy, any three policies. Culture is changed over time, 10,000 acts per school, supporting the values and beliefs and the way we do it here, which is the definition of culture that some people state. This is how we do it. This is how we do it here. So, that takes several years. So, it’s not this year. It’s the next five years where we’re trying to build this change in mentality.
Q: I want to talk about libraries. It’s the thing that you’re probably best known for among some folks in the state and the nation. I don’t want to re-litigate it. You know, we had Sylvester Turner, mayor of Houston, yesterday calling what you have done at libraries “evil.” You have rejected that and called it misinformation. Claims have been that libraries have been closed. Everything we’ve seen is that they have not been closed, but there have been changes. Librarians have been removed from many schools, some schools. I wanted to ask, do you regret anything about that in terms of the distraction or anything that it’s caused? Or do you stand by that 100 percent?
A: You know, grace to people who really don’t understand education or aren’t educators. Grace to people who have not been in our schools.
So, the concept of what we’re trying to do is about making sure kids can read at grade level. That we close the gap. That we teach science of reading. And that we bring additional resources to underserved schools. If you look at the program that I’m talking about, it’s called new education system schools, NES schools, and then there’s the 57 I was talking about that were additional, those are called NES aligned. Those 85 schools, when you look at them, most of them are not performing as well as the average in Houston, which is below the average in large urbans, which is below the average in Texas, which is below the average in the nation as far as achievement goes. Yeah, that’s a fact.
So, what we’re trying to do, and if you look at it closely — and we’re going to give data pretty soon about how many resources we’re putting into the schools to help kids read and do math and close the achievement gap — it’s overwhelmingly way more than what the other schools are getting. Now, we haven’t taken anything away from the other schools because we want our strong effective schools to keep being strong and effective. So, we don’t want to lower those resources and we haven’t. But when we cut central office staff, when we find other dollars, we’re pushing it to the underserved programs.
So that’s what we’re doing and if you were to go to schools today, and I’ve been in at least 15, I think 18 schools, in the last three and a half weeks. And I go and look at the team centers. You’re gonna find kids studying in there. You’re going to see the books still accessible and able to be checked out or just taken on the honor system. You know, that’s the headline you should write. You know, “Middle school kids steal books from libraries.” And in Houston ISD, they’re able to take the books and bring them back on the honor system. They’re getting a stronger education with regard to reading in these schools. And by the way, discipline is way down in the NES systems and in the NES, school discipline problems are way down. And we’ll present some data at the next board meeting.
Q: I want to zoom back out a little bit. You wrote, I think it was back in March, that there has been little appetite and little vision for true systemic reform across public schools all throughout the nation. Is it that there’s truly a lack of appetite and vision, or is it that we have democratically elected school boards, by extension communities, and they are saying we don’t want the type of vision that you are proposing? Because what you’re doing is being carried out through what could be charitably described as not a 100 percent, most democratic way, given that you are appointed and that the state has appointed a school board.
A: Yeah, so, let me challenge the notion a little bit about democracy. Because I am one of the persons who’s lived his life supporting democracy. I’m a professional public servant.
I was in the Army. And I was in the state department at the end of the Cold War. Serving the country to promote democracy, fighting against (communist), anti-Democratic forces abroad. And since that time, I’ve been a teacher. And a principal. And an administrator. Serving the underserved. So the process, which I didn’t have any control over, was done through your legislature, through people who used democratic processes to put in place the intervention. And in any case, I didn’t have anything to do with that.
But when the call came to help serve and turn around a huge urban district, I answered that call once again to serve underserved kids, knowing that I would be criticized and all the other things you hear about. So, that’s point number one to talk about.
Yes, it is tough being a superintendent. Yes, it’s hard to do the things we’re trying to do if you have a community or other status-quo bias in the system.
But remember, you know, a lot of the things I’m doing or several of the things I’m doing, I did when I was in Dallas with an elected board. And I challenged my colleagues all the time to do some of those things that are tough.
For example, you want equity, superintendents out there? You want real equity? Then why haven’t you put your highest performing teachers with your lowest performing kids?
Don’t tell me you have an equity coordinator and that makes it equitable. Put your highest performing teachers with your lowest performing kids. That also means you have to identify your highest performing teachers. Ninety-seven percent of teachers being proficient or higher is not an identification of your highest performing teachers.
Q: So, why haven’t they done that?
A: (Speaking to the crowd): Are you guys hot?
People in the crowd: Yes (chuckling).
A: Why haven’t they done that? I don’t know. I think — well, I know a little bit. I think several things around that. Number one, status-quo bias is really tough. People are invested in the current system. People are invested. And not just teachers and not just administrators, not just board members. People who sell curriculums are invested in this system. People who are vendors are invested. Some political figures are invested.
They’re invested in the current system. And they would rather that system not change.
So, that’s part of the reason why it’s so hard.
The second part is, and you can read about this in Ed Week and other places, superintendents get beat up a lot even for little things. And if they want a career, the easiest thing to do is kind of keep your head down, go along, give a little bit, don’t do anything real transformational, and then get your next superintendency.
Now, that’s not everybody. I’m generalizing. Read about it, though. But in some cases, that’s what I observe.
Q: Is there anybody in traditional public schools that have a democratically elected local school board who you look to and you say, “They are doing things right?”
A: So, I’m of the reform era and there are people that come to mind that really did good work. But almost all of them were undermined. I’m thinking of John Deasy in Los Angeles. I’m talking about Cami Anderson in Newark. I’m talking about Dwight Jones in Clark County. I’m talking about Chris Barbic in Tennessee. I’m talking about Hanna Skandera in New Mexico. Those are all people — hopefully, you know their names or what they did in the past for education in this country — and they were all reformers and did what I think they should have done, and they were all criticized pretty (mercilessly) and they continued to do the work in other ways. They all left their superintendency fairly early. I think three, three or four years. And they were doing great work.
Q: But so what happened to the education reform movement over the last, especially five years? You know, it feels as though we’ve kind of split into a more progressive side that has tended to be more aligned with teachers unions. We have a more conservative side that tends to be focusing more on school choice and kind of cultural issues. And that middle area of sorts that I think is kind of what was more described as the reformer movement, it feels like it’s lost a lot of momentum and a lot of power. What went wrong?
A: I don’t know what went wrong, but I can tell you this. Look, this is the last generation of kids in school before the skills gap is locked in. I wish it weren’t so. But I believe that is the case.
Our first-graders, they will graduate in 2035. It’s not something 10 years from now that we’re dealing with. We’re behind already. And we, the profession, not you guys but the profession of educators, we have not done right by our underserved kids. Again, I know I’m generalizing. There’s 51 million kids. And of course, there’s some kids here and some kids there that are “break the mold.” There are some schools here, some schools there that will break the mold. Fifty one million kids, though, on average? No. We’re not changing things fast enough for them
So, regardless of what went wrong, we are where we are today. And the challenge for all of us — and I’ll just focus on Houston — but the rest of us in the profession need to think hard about what needs to change dramatically. There was a time two years ago, three years ago when COVID came out and we put all the extra dollars in schools. You might remember if you were an educator and there was a moment when we said, “Wow, we have a chance not just to come back to normal.” That was the headlines, guys. We won’t come back to normal. We’ll come back to something dramatically different. Let’s do something different because now we have extra monies to feed that, to put the investment in the upfront costs. That’s — if you read education headlines, that was the tune. And even I had some hope that, wow, the education profession might actually do it. And I was part of those conversations about how we do it. And we have not done it. Not even close.
Yes, you know, those are hard words to hear. And I’m part of the profession and I’ll take my hits just like everybody else. But I’m doing something about it.
Q: So, while we’re here in Austin, we’ll talk money in politics a little bit. You are currently projected for this upcoming school year to run a $250 million dollar deficit. That’s a quarter billion dollar deficit on a $2 billion dollar budget, roughly. You’re doing all kinds of things that, you know, whether it’s paying teachers more in certain schools, whether it’s differentiated pay, adding more people to the classroom, you’re doing all these things that people would love to do but they say they don’t have the money to do it and you’re running a big deficit now to do it. So long-term, how are you going to be able to afford to do all of this?
A: People always have the money they need if they prioritize. Now, Texas is not average or higher than average in the per pupil money. But I’ve been running schools in Texas. I ran Dallas also. And the per pupil operating revenue, while we want more, is sufficient to do the things we’re doing. We put in the largest pay-for-performance system in Dallas. Everybody said we can’t do it because there’s no money and we did it without teacher incentive allotment in Dallas. We did ACE without any extra money — now they’re getting paid for it — without any extra money. And we’re going to do the things we need to do in Houston without any extra money.
Now, don’t hear that we don’t want extra money. I want more resources just like everybody else. So, the extent that the legislature can give us more money, it allows us to do things better, faster, more effectively and also pay our teachers better. So, please give us more money. Still, having said that, $254 million dollars. The questions that should be asked are these: Number one, what is the reasonable fund balance before you lose your AAA (bond) rating or before you are in trouble? If you think about a 90-day operating revenue, that’s reasonable. And being able to keep our Triple A bond rating, what do you think the fund balance should be? What we think that fund balance should be is about $600 million.
That’s money in the bank for non-educated — fund balance is what you have available to spend. And we think to be extra safe, we should have $850 million dollar fund balance.
What is our fund balance today? It’s $1.14 billion dollars.
What are we saving the money for? We should be paying teachers more, which we’re doing. A third of all teachers got at least a $10,000 bonus. That’s a lot of teachers. We got 11,000 of them, so over 3,000 got a $10,000 bonus. And a subset of that, 1,000, got even more money because they got higher salaries.
So yes, we should be spending our money on teachers and instruction, which is what we’re doing in HISD. $254 million — yes, you can’t duplicate that every year. So, it’s still an appropriate question, but the budget process looks like this: In January, we will determine the revenue that we have coming in. Whether that means more money from the state or not. That’s OK. It’s all the revenue that we have. We will also determine what our bottom line fund balance should be, which is going to be $850 million. And then we’re going to spend money to match our revenue. Unless we have more than $850 (million), then we’ll spend a little bit more. So, that’s how a budget process works and if we can do even more raises, then we’ll do that. If we have to stop raising salaries, then we will do that.
Q: So, does that mean there could be things you cut back on?
A: Yeah, but we’re not going to cut back — yes is the answer — but we’re not going to cut back on teacher salaries. I’ve never done that. Look at Dallas. Dallas salaries have grown pretty substantially since I put in the pay-for-performance plan. So, we’re not going to cut back on the salaries. But there are other areas we can cut. We have a lot — and again, I hope I’m not offending too many vendors — we have way too many vendors. Too many contracted services. When I got there, $304 million was going to contracted services. These are vendors. $304 million.
Q: We’ve heard from a lot of democratic, or Democrats, especially in Houston, who are very opposed to the things that you’re doing. We have not heard very much from Republicans. I’m curious if you have heard from Republicans about what you’re doing. And if so, what their message is, what they’re asking you about.
A: So, I talked to a lot of people, including legislators. And I’m — there’s a wide range of views. And there’s a lot of support. From actually both sides of the aisle. People will say out loud what they need to say out loud. What they say behind closed doors is one other thing.
So, I think there’s a lot of support. And again, grace to those who aren’t educators and grace to those who’ve not been in our schools. At some point though, you kind of have to go to the schools if you’re going to really criticize. right? You kind of have to go and see what’s actually happening. And like I said, I’ve been in 20 schools or close to 20 already in the new education system schools. And I’m telling you — again, there’s no magic wand, there’s no magic pill — but things are really moving in the right direction already in those schools. They’re way stronger, more effective than they ever were, according to the principals and their executive directors who look at them. And then, also ask the police officer who’s in those schools. They’ll tell you how it really is. How the discipline is. Ask the people who work in the cafeteria. They’ll tell you what’s actually going on in the schools, too. So, things are going well. And there’s a lot of support behind the scenes.
Q: Two of the biggest things that you championed in Dallas, you’ve mentioned the ACE Program, essentially a kind of school-turnaround model, you mentioned the teacher incentive and teacher evaluation system. Like you said, those both became state policy.
A: The (TEA) was informed by the Dallas pay for performance plan and ACE is almost exactly the same.
Q: And those are things that have been very strongly championed by your former school board member, Commissioner Morath. And so, I think that’s very logical to look at what’s going on in Houston now and wonder, is what is being done in Houston instructionally, operationally, is this an experiment or a test case that, if it succeeds or whatever the definition of succeeds is, that there will be interest to turn this into statewide policy that affects folks from all across the state, many who are sitting in, you know, from districts that may be sitting here right now.
A: So, what I’m doing in HISD is informed from my past work and my expertise. Not informed by Mike Morath or the state. The commissioner selected me to turn around HISD because he knows what my skill set is. And he knows what — how thick my skin is. This is not for the faint of heart, as you can imagine.
And so what we’re doing in HISD is not a test case or an experiment for the rest of the state. I don’t have that mission. I have the mission I described to you. And I only have one agenda. That agenda is closing the achievement gap and getting kids ready for the year 2035. I recognize how drastic things are out there. And I recognize that this is the last generation of kids before the skills gap is locked in. That is what I wake up thinking about and that is what I go to bed thinking about. Kids of HISD. I don’t pay the — no offense to anybody there — but I don’t pay the state no never-mind, you know? I got enough challenges right here, or in Houston, versus at the state level.
Q: We’ll have one or two more questions. Then we’ll have about 10, 15 minutes for folks to ask the superintendent questions with microphones right here if you want to line up.
You know, you’ve been a big proponent of equity. And one of the biggest ways that many people see equity as being accomplished is through school integration and through bringing together students from many different backgrounds. This isn’t something that you’ve talked a lot about since you’ve been here and it’s something that I think you may have, you know, a real opportunity to talk about given that in all likelihood, we’re going to be looking at school closures in the next couple years in HISD, something that you’ve mentioned as a distinct possibility. How does school integration. if at all, fit into how you’re thinking about HISD?
A: One of the best performing, diverse-by-design schools is in Dallas that started under my watch. Diverse by design. But those are hard to replicate across the system because we don’t have as much control over that. In a Democratic society, people get to live where people want to live. Or can afford to live. And so sometimes diversity is not there. There are reports out in the country about how we’re becoming even more segregated as a nation. And unless you want to go to, you know, forced integration, that’s a really tough thing for me to do, and I’m not sure I have the ability to solve that part.
What I can do and what I’m doing is we can address inequity in the system. We can help make the schools and the underserved areas stronger and more effective and if we can pass a bond we can put some of the best magnet schools in the underserved areas.
That’s one of the ways we can help address inequity.
Q: Lastly, very briefly, you know, we have a system that has very robust school choice in HISD. Almost one out of every three students does not go to their neighborhood school in HISD, you know, school choice being a big issue at the moment.
The flip side of it, though, is a school like Wheatley that was in the news so much.
Many of the highest — you know, going into high school — many of the highest achieving students at that point, they leave to go to other schools. Whether it’s charter schools, whether it’s HISD magnet schools. What have you gathered from your experience in looking at HISD about the impact that it has on students in a school like Wheatley and how does that inform anything that you look at policy wise?
A: That is a great question. One of the things I’ve learned since I’ve been here, or in Houston, is the nuance behind your question. You’re absolutely right. There’s a trade-off for any decision that was made in the past. Instead of improving neighborhood schools, instead of putting resources in underserved neighborhood community schools, HISD over the last decade or two chose to put their emphasis on moving kids from one place to another, whether it was a better school or not.
Fifty five thousand kids transferring? That has some negative impacts on all kinds of things. Especially places that are under-enrolled. Because some schools don’t need to be — some schools need to be closed in other places when the demographics change, when they’re not enough kids. It seems to me a little unfair to close the school because the kids in the neighborhood are leaving because the school isn’t performing well and we have not done enough to improve that school. That’s two different things.
So, we’ve got to make some choices here about, do we want to regain that community concept? We’re forcing mobility on ourselves. It used to be that, “Hey, let’s not have high student mobility.” Well, every year we play this musical chairs game, 55,000 kids in HISD. That’s good for some choice, yes. But it has a lot of negative effects and when we go to close schools, if we do, and this school has low enrollment, but there’s a lot of kids in the neighborhood, wouldn’t a better solution be to improve that school? And make it as attractive as the magnet schools are going to, as the charter schools are going to, instead of closing that school?
That’s a consideration we need to do and I’m learning more about.