Mercedes Schneider: Houston Schools Feeling the Chaos of Mike Miles.
Researcher and educator Mercedes Schneider takes a look at the takeover chaos unfolding in Houston. Reposted with permission.
In June 2023, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) became the latest major school district to experience a top-down, ed-reform tactic that largely ignores community investment and fail to deliver on promised academic gains: the state takeover of a school district.
On June 01, 2023, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) appointed Mike Miles as the new HISD superintendent.
Miles is the golden-child product of maket-based, ed-reform leadership. As reported in his LinkedIn bio, Miles holds no college degrees in teaching (engineering; slavic languages and literature; international affairs and policy). He has never been a classroom teacher, never a site-based administrator, yet he was a district superintendent in Colorado for six years (2006-11) and superintendent of Dallas ISD for three.
Though he does not mention it in his LinkedIn bio, Miles was a member of the Class of 2011 at the Broad Superintendents Academy A 2011 EdWeek article on Broad superintendents includes the criticism that “use corporate-management techniques to consolidate power, weaken teachers’ job protections, cut parents out of decisionmaking, and introduce unproven reform measures.”
In 2015, Miles abruptly resigned from Dallas ISD amid being, as WFAA.com states, “at the center of controversy since he took the position nearly three years ago,” which apparently included questions about misdirecting funding intended for at-risk students and the subsequent exit of the Dallas ISD budget director. (Also calling Miles “a lightening rod for controversy,” WFAA.com offers this timeline of Miles’ unsettling tenure in Dallas.)
Despite all of his Dallas ISD controversy, TEA– which is no stranger to stepping into its own controversy— chose to hire Miles to lead its newly-state-snatched HISD.
Following his Dallas ISD exit, in 2016, he founded a charter school chain, Third Future Schools, which has locations in Colorado, Texas, and Louisiana. For two years (2017-19), Miles was a senior associate in an education consulting firm, FourPoint Education Partners.
And according to his LinkedIn bio, Miles is/was on a number of ed-reform organization boards, including Teach for America (TFA) Colorado (2017-20); National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) (2013-present), and Chiefs for Change (2015-present).
Coming out of the gate, it seems that Miles is determined to create a fresh batch of controversy for HISD. On August 24, 2023, Mark Gruenberg published the following in People’s World. I excerpt Gruenberg’s article, but it was hard to decide to cut any of it because the writing is just so spot-on.
HOUSTON—Gag orders. Turning school libraries into detention centers. New teachers getting “bait-and-switch” acceptance letters with much lower pay. Even a farcical “play,” starring the state-named schools chief, staged for thousands of elementary school kids, at Reliant Stadium.
Welcome to the Houston Independent School District, where a state takeover at the start of the new school year in mid-summer has descended into dictatorship mixed with farce. Maybe the word “independent” should be removed from its name, thanks to right-wing Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and his hand-picked Houston schools chief, Mike Miles.
The first blow came earlier in the summer, when Abbott’s Texas Education Agency removed the elected school board, replaced it with the governor’s hand-picked “representative” allies, and fired the incumbent superintendent.
The move, telegraphed for months, drew thousands into the streets. Using old data, Abbott, a white right-wing Republican, justified the coup on the basis of one “failing” school, not coincidentally in a working-class neighborhood of color. The incumbent superintendent and board had turned it, and the entire district, around in recent years, gaining a district-wide “B” grade from the state agency.
Then came its impacts. Miles and the board decided the kids, who are 85% students of color in one of the nation’s largest school districts, needed more “discipline.” But where to detain them?
Answer, since another Miles move was to cut librarians: Convert 28 school libraries into discipline centers—after removing all the books, of course. …
The gag orders were the next move. “What is this man [Miles] afraid of? The truth?” [Texas Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Zeph] Capo asked in the phone interview. “And he certainly doesn’t understand how school libraries work.” …
The immediate trigger for the gag orders was that “a teacher made a comment” about the schools “in a meeting and was pulled out of it and hauled downtown to headquarters for discipline…I wonder how many parents and students want to be in the Houston schools,” Capo mused.
“People are angry, but there’s no school board to stop him” from converting the libraries into discipline centers. “If we had a real board”—the elected board whom Abbott ousted—“we could remove him,” the teacher said of Miles. But with Abbott’s appointed panel, “How is this democracy?”
A real school board, in Dallas, fired Miles two and a half years ago after he refused to investigate sexual harassment. Miles’s Dallas performance was so bad that when three city residents learned of his pending Houston appointment, they drove 274 miles one way to Houston to oppose it.
Capo and the teacher both say the sole solution they see, at this point, is to oust Abbott in the next gubernatorial election, and have a new governor end the takeover. Meanwhile, Houston federal lawmakers asked the federal Justice and Education Departments to launch a civil rights investigation.
“The only way to restore community control of the schools is to change the [political] power to change the law,” says Capo. The state Supreme Court is no help. “It sided with” the governor and Miles. All nine justices are elected statewide and all nine are Republicans.
The same day Gruenberg published the above article– August 24, 2023– Miles withdrew his threat of a teacher gag order, as Fox26Houston reports:
HOUSTON – After issuing a misguided gag order on employees prohibiting them from criticizing a school or Houston Independent School District on social media, Superintendent Mike Miles has backed off.
On Tuesday, The American Federation of Teachers, HFT, and Texas AFT said they were considering filing a lawsuit against Miles, alleging him of violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments by gagging educators.
Miles backed off the order following the announcement of possible legal action.
*Disruption* is certainly the way of it, with dissolution of HISD’s entire autism support team as well as two HISD principals “reassigned” only days before the 2023-24 school year begins.
On August 21, 2023, Houston Public Media reported the following regarding Miles’ giving the axe to the district’s program specifically focused on autism support:
With the start of classes one week away, special education teachers across Houston ISD have lost access to an autism services team that one educator described as “our lifeline.”
The team consisted of about half a dozen “itinerant teachers” who primarily supported educators working in Structured Learning Classrooms (SLCs), which specialize in serving students with autism. Houston ISD confirmed that those positions have been eliminated as part of an organizational overhaul.
While student test scores and school accountability ratings have made the headlines, special education is also at the heart of the state takeover. In 2021, the Texas Education Agency placed conservators to oversee special ed compliance in Houston ISD. …
Special ed staffers have argued that the strict accountability from the state is ironic, considering the severe shortfall in funding from the Texas Legislature. As the Houston Chronicle first reported, the TEA found that Houston ISD spent $166 million more on special education than it received in state funding from 2020 to 2022.
The article continues by noting that Miles plans to release a comprehensive plan for HISD special education, but not until September– one month after he chose to cancel a critical bridge to students with autism, their parents, and the teachers and staff in need of guidance with serving children with autism.
Nothing like timing a chaos-strike to hit just as a new school year is about to start. Such is also the case for parents, students, and staff (and other admin, apparently) at two HISD elementary schools. On the threshhold of the new year, Miles stunned stakeholders by removing the two schools’ principals, as Houston Public Media notes:
Two elementary school principals in Houston ISD were reassigned this week as students prepare to return to school on Monday.
Erin Trent, the principal of Stevens Elementary, and Linda Bellard, the principal of Garcia Elementary, were both reassigned to other positions this week, just days before the start of the school year. Trent didn’t respond to a request for comment. Bellard declined to comment.
The sudden reassignments have seemingly fueled the continued scrutiny that HISD has received since the state’s takeover back in June.
This sentiment was echoed by Adam Chaney, who’s been a parent in the Stevens community for five years and is currently the parliamentarian for the school’s Parent Teacher Community Organization. He said the district broke the news of Trent’s reassignment via an “impersonal” automated phone call Wednesday morning.
Regarding Trent’s removal, Fox26Houston.com offers these details:
Adam Chaney, a member of the school’s parent organization (PTCO), tells FOX 26 that parents were told on August 21, Principal Erin Trent would be taking some extended leave until November. Two days later, they receive a call with a recorded message.
“This is intended to inform you that Erin Trent was informed that she will no longer serve as the principal of Stevens Elementary. We know families and students are preparing for the start of the school year and this change may feel abrupt, but it has become clear that this change is necessary to ensure Steven’s Elementary students start the year off well with access to high-quality instruction on day one that meets their needs and supports increased academic outcomes on the campus.”
Chaney tells FOX 26 he was shocked and frustrated at the call.
“Meet the Teacher is Friday morning,” said Chaney. “Erin Trent usually brings donuts and coffee, answers questions, and gets to know new parents. She’s present and hypes up the kids. I have no idea what’s about to happen.”
“Having no idea what is going to happen” pretty much sums up what might befall HISD parents, students, and employees as they await the next chaotic newsbyte instigated by a man who envisions emptied libraries as holding cells.