Hiding in plain sight: An ex-superintendent doing great front-line work under the radar

Getty Images/RomanSotola

Jason Gaulden

In reading Dale Chu’s recent Flypaper column entitled “The endangered, reform-oriented district chief,” I was struck by his post mortem concerning the era of strong school district leadership.

The analysis is spot on, I'd argue, with one major exception. He presented a solid list of reform superintendents, starting with Denver’s Tom Boasberg, who recently announced his departure, and listed his contemporaries who once served in other big cities, including “Joel Klein, Dwight Jones, Michelle Rhee, Terry Grier, Andres Alonso, and Mike Miles, among others.”

In referring to all of them in the past tense, Chu lamented: “Visionary superintendents in this mold are getting harder and harder to find. At a moment when states and districts arguably need braver leaders than ever before, why have they gone into hiding?”

My challenge is in the case of Mike Miles, former superintendent of Dallas Independent School District, whose systemic reforms were so effective they continue to benefit students and teachers long after he is gone.

But rather than putting his head down since leaving what Chu describes as the “hot seat,” he instead stuck his neck out. He went from high-impact district superintendent to brazen charter school entrepreneur with the experience, motivation, and backing to grow a school network as large as he desires. He’s begun that work.

Chu observes these former chiefs keeping their heads down, which may apply to some, but the opposite is true with Miles. Indeed, his work is more stealth these days, and smartly so, because he is letting his results do all the talking.

A year ago he opened the doors to The Academy of Advanced Learning, a charter school based in Aurora, Colorado, that is quietly making history. While Miles has been perfectly content to get no buzz about it, this secret is getting increasingly hard to keep.

His under-the-radar approach takes nothing away, and perhaps contributed to, the school’s wholesale success in its first year. He designed and launched a school with the following features:

Family-friendly school structure: Serving a 70 percent low-income population, the doors of his school are open from 6:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day to accommodate and actively engage these hardworking families. This is a smash hit with the community, causing the school to exceed it’s ambitious enrollment projections—expecting 420 and ending up with 500 at the opening of the school. Just one year later, enrollment is over 700.

All teachers are high-performing teachers: He threw out the traditional teacher pay schedule to which most districts are bound by collective bargaining agreements. However, in favor of paying highly effective teachers much more than the local market, Miles created a differentiated pay structure based on individual employee value propositions. In this way, he attracts the best talent, which shows in student outcomes.

A Year 2030 curriculum: Not waiting for the state or nation to realize that it needs to revise standards, Miles is deliberately raising expectations for what students have to know and be able to do. Information literacy and problem solving are mandatory classes for his fourth through eighth graders.

A novel governance system: Miles’s system is the only one in the nation with a checks and balances governance model that ensures effectiveness and keeps the system focused on student needs.

All students can and will learn: He is delivering on his commitment to major gains in academic growth, with nearly two year's growth in one year's time in both reading and math, according to year-one NWEA assessment data.

The real breakthrough is that Miles has seemingly cracked the code on serving this population, achieving extreme academic gains in the first year of the school, and having opened the school at full scale and capacity with 500 K–6 students.

Other rigorous charter schools have realized this level of gains by scaling up slowly, adding one or two grades each year. The implications for Miles having figured out how to attract and retain effective teachers and lead a full-scale school start-up, all while achieving impressive student outcomes, could define the next frontier of systemic education reform.

Slowly but surely—masterfully and methodically—Miles is either reinventing the education system, or arguably building a brand new one, one successful school at a time. That is a far cry from hiding out or retreating. He is quietly pressing forward in the most pronounced and powerful of ways. Rather than asking for permission, or seeking attention, he is just doing the work.

Chu’s overall point is correct. There is a severe lack of school board members and education chiefs who dare to walk into the headwinds of resistance—and too many who believe that slow, incremental progress is an acceptable path forward.

Combatting this unfortunate lull in leadership is Mike Miles—now outside the district structure—busy proving his innovative model, acting with urgency, and delivering educational excellence to underserved students and families. He not only remains on the battlefield, but he never left. If anyone is looking for him, you can find him on the front lines.

Jason Gaulden is Vice President of Partnerships at America Succeeds, a national network of business organizations working to improve and modernize education-to-workforce pathways.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.