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Dallas Superintendent Mike Miles on running a big urban school district

April 10, 2014 9 minute Read by William McKenzie

Mike Miles is about to finish his second year as superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District. The district of nearly 160,000 students has pockets of excellence, including several nationally-recognized high schools. But it also struggles with a large number of at-risk students, many of whom are far from being ready for college.

In this interview, Miles, a Broad Superintendents Academy alumnus who previously led a Colorado school district, explains the challenges of improving a big urban district. The West Point graduate and former U.S. diplomat also outlines his goals and the district’s core values, such as ensuring that at-risk students learn at the same rate as students who are not at-risk.

You are now nearing two years into your tenure of trying to improve a major urban district. What are the three most important things you have done?

Let me start broad with five broad points and then get into specifics.

First, we have tried to invest in our people so we can grow the capacity of our principals, teachers and office staff. As one example, we now match one executive director with a limited number of principals through a feeder pattern of schools. This means they work with principals from one high school, one or two middle schools and several elementary schools.

Second, we have tried to develop a laser-like focus on the quality of instruction in our classrooms. We do that through regular visits to classrooms, looking for specific ways in which instruction is being delivered. We also have implemented a culture of feedback so that each teacher gets spot observations six times a semester.

Third, we have focused on improving the district’s systems. This gets less attention but developing the right processes and procedures is hugely important. For example, we need to make sure that we have good Internet access and that our financial systems talk to those in our human capital operation.

Fourth, there is the notion of collective impact. We engage our parents, volunteers and community partners. It is not enough to have a great curriculum. You also must have enough resources to help students with other needs, such as their social-emotional challenges or matching them with an adult mentor.

Fifth, we look at data continuously. You have to look at the right data, of course. Most of that is achievement data. We review data from DISD’s own mid-year and end-of-year assessment of students. We look at STAAR data. We look at data that shows how well the curriculum is aligned to state standards. We also discuss curriculum alignment in mid-year reviews. And we look at data from parents and twice-yearly climate surveys of each school.

Each of these areas is important to ensuring we build up the district’s core beliefs.

What are some of the specific ways in which you have been enacting these changes?

Some of the most important work we’ve done is evaluating and supporting our principals. Last year, for example, the district approved a new principal evaluation system.

The second thing is raising expectations and creating a system of accountability and support. Something as simple as requiring teachers to keep their doors open and regular instructional walk-throughs is huge. And the new teacher evaluation system we are working on, which will come to the board next month, is about being accountable for what we do.

But how do you bake changes into the cake? The Dallas school district is big and diverse.

You have to have key operational principles so that changes are baked into the cake and are manifested in action.

As one principle, you need a sense of continuous improvement. You develop that staying power by enacting changes like the new evaluation systems. You use them to monitor the progress of principals and their schools.

Another principle is to make sure you have a focus on accountability and results. In other words, you need goals and targets as indicators of success. Then, you hold the whole system accountable for hitting the results. We have become afraid of the “a” word, but without accountability you can’t bake changes into the cake.

We also have to keep working on our core beliefs, such as believing all kids can learn at high levels.

How do you manifest a belief like that?

You need to do several things. You have to train people on what a belief looks like. That requires lots of exercises that work through the core beliefs. We take principals through our core beliefs and they take their teachers through them. As one example, principals talk to teachers about what is expected of them in a classroom. We measure whether the core beliefs are being accepted through climate surveys. You have to take everything back to your core beliefs.

So, when you see teachers selling students short, you have to go back to your core belief that all students can learn at high levels. At the classroom level, for example, you can’t have 10th graders coloring. At the district level, I have to make tough decisions that reflect core beliefs. We need to be proud of our successes, but, as one example, we are not college-ready. Only 10 percent of our students are ready for college. We may have to make personnel changes if that performance doesn’t change.

If we have low performance and low expectations, we won’t reflect our core beliefs. The actions that I take, that principals take and that teachers take need to reflect those beliefs.

What are the big obstacles to making these kinds of changes?

The biggest obstacle is the status quo. Change is difficult, especially transformative change. Lots of interests are tied to the status quo.

But what does the status quo mean?

Here’s an example: Not all people believe our kids can learn.

Some teachers show that in discussions. I have actually had people say to me that students in their classes cannot learn at a high level because they don’t speak English well. Now, we need to support the students to get them to a higher level. But, to me, that comment reflects an attitude that all students can’t learn. We need to help them learn English, but we also need to believe these kids can do a more challenging curriculum.

We need to believe that our kids can rise to meet expectations. Yes, that requires scaffolding them to a higher level and differentiating instruction in a way that helps them. But we can’t dumb down the curriculum.

Another obstacle is that the educational landscape is changing quickly. We have not kept pace instructionally and with professional development. We are a little behind with the practices we need to educate kids. One example is that we have not taken advantage of technology enough to differentiate instruction and personalize learning.

How do you know what works? Where do you go for ideas?

The landscape may be changing quickly, but there are foundational factors that make schools and districts great. One is making sure you have those foundational elements in place.

What foundational elements are you talking about?

One is that research shows effective teaching makes the most differences. So, you have to become skilled in delivering high quality instruction. We are working on many things to make that happen, including ensuring teachers have strong principals and good feedback. We know from business that good feedback helps us all improve our practices. Yet, in our profession, we have not provided effective feedback to teachers.

Back to what works. How do you know what works? Where do you go for research and ideas?

We have a team of education experts in our central office. We have cabinet-level people who have experience with what works. I have my own experience.

Most education leaders go to conferences and exchange ideas. We also have our own mentors. I have my own through the Broad Academy. My mentor here my first year was head of the Chicago school district.

Our team also reads a lot. We review research from various places.

And, as I said at the outset, we look at data all the time. This helps us implement reforms with fidelity. If you don’t know what’s going on in your schools, you can’t implement change.


William McKenzie
William McKenzie

William McKenzie is editorial director for the George W. Bush Institute, where he also serves as editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.

Active in education issues, he participates in the Bush Institute’s school accountability project. And he teaches as an adjunct journalism lecturer at SMU, where he teaches a course on media and politics.

Before joining the Bush Institute, the Fort Worth native served 22 years as an editorial columnist for the Dallas Morning News and led the newspaper’s Texas Faith blog. The University of Texas graduate’s columns appeared nationwide and he has won a Pulitzer Prize and commentary awards from the Education Writers Association, the American Academy of Religion, and the Texas Headliners Foundation, among other organizations. He still contributes columns and essays for the Morning News.

Before joining the News in 1991, he earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at Arlington and spent a dozen years in Washington, D.C. During that time, he edited the Ripon Forum.

McKenzie has served as a Pulitzer Prize juror, on the board of a homeless organization, and on governing committees of a Dallas public school. He also is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and their twin children.

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