Shutting teachers out of the education conversations, a national pathology – can Dallas avoid it?

September 26, 2012


Have you noticed, and has it bothered you, that many of the major discussions about what to do to help education shut out teachers?

This is nothing new.  As Director of Information Services at the old Office of Educational Research and Improvement, I occasionally got tagged to go speak to education groups meeting in and around Washington, D.C.  One or our projects was a reboot of the Educational Resources Information Centers, or ERIC Library System.

At every public function where I spoke, or where I attended and was identified as an ED employee, teachers would seek me out, and ask how long I spent in the classroom as a teacher.  Then they’d tell me teaching college doesn’t count, and they’d complain that education policy makers at all levels ignore teachers.  They didn’t appreciate people making policy for them who didn’t know their situation from having been on the ground with them, as one of them, or at least listening to what they had to say.

It’s a key principle of leadership, to understand what the frontline employee faces, to know what the workers on the shop floor see, to feel the heat from the open hearth, to know the discomfort of hitting Omaha Beach and be pinned down by gunfire while wet and sandy and weighed down with 80 pounds.  It’s one of the keys to understanding how Harry Truman, who saw action in Belgium at the Western Front and who lived in the trenches, could decide against a land invasion as a first option for forcing Japan to surrender at the end of World War II.  It’s why his troops thought so much of Patton, as he stood shoulder to shoulder with them at the front as bullets whizzed by, why Soichiro Honda’s workers listened when he stripped down and stripped an engine to find a problem.

A couple of days ago the president of the Dallas ISD School Board, Lew Blackburn, Tweeted his gratitude for help from Leadership Dallas for a “dine and discuss” session with DISD leaders.  It’s good that Blackburn Tweets.  He has good intentions, most likely — and he’s trying to let people know what’s going on.

What’s the topic?  How to improve education in Dallas, of course.

What ONE group of key stakeholders is left out of these discussions?  Teachers.

It’s a bugaboo for me.  Education discussion sponsored by the New York Times, but no teachers.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan buses across America — school kids show up to sing welcomes, but teachers appear to be left out of discussions along the route.

So I Tweeted back — what’s up with that?  In the past few months, I’ve gotten Tweets back from writers, scientists, friends, and Tom Peters, the management guru.  I was happy Blackburn responded.  it puts him in good company.

It’s not like this once teachers were left out, due to scheduling conflicts.  The process design pointedly includes stakeholders other than teachers.  Trained facilitators — professionals? paid? — are brought in, a touch that suggests these meetings are formal efforts whose products will be used for some formal policy-making purpose.  Invitees include “diverse” community members.

Listen. Learn. Dialogue.

Dallas ISD Dining & Dialogue is a pilot initiative in partnership with Dallas ISD and Leadership Dallas Alumni with support from the Dallas Regional Chamber.  The purpose is to encourage frequent communication over a meal between members of the community and Dallas ISD that address practical solutions to improve education in our community.  The roundtable-style dining events bring together small groups of individuals with diverse backgrounds to foster community-wide dialogue about Dallas ISD in an effort to gain understanding, share ideas, and increase diverse investment in education for the benefit of our region.

The FREE dining events are held quarterly at various sites within the Dallas metroplex. Discussions are led by trained facilitators who guide participants through questions designed to elicit thoughts and opinions on issues facing Dallas ISD.  This dining and dialogue framework is patterned after Dallas Dinner Table, a popular, highly-regarded community event founded by Leadership Dallas alumni, and DeSoto Dining and Dialogue.
Dialogues will include school board members and other important school voices along with community stakeholders such as business leaders, parents, neighborhood associations, nonprofits and members of the Dallas ISD Teen Board.


I still get some notifications from DISD, but none on this.

Should we be concerned  about any biases of Leadership Dallas, intentional or unconscious?  Leadership Dallas draws its inspiration from Leadership Atlanta, the formal effort to create a band of leaders to lead Atlanta after so many leaders died in a tragic airplane crash years ago.  Alas, the assumption is that educators cannot be leaders.  The course work is scheduled in a way that makes it difficult for any professional to participate, but almost impossible for any hourly worker, or teacher.

Looking through the records, I see very few people participating who have much to do with education, and especially no teachers.  Gross oversight.  There are no garbage collectors, either —  that may be a bigger problem in a place like Memphis with a different history on garbage collectors — or any other workers without graduate degrees.  Small business owners don’t get great representation, either.

Hmmm.  NEA?  AFT? We’ll check with them later.

So, Lew Blackburn — you’re the leader of this bunch, in some cases more than Superintendent Mike Miles (he may not be paying attention to this, either, let alone to the opinions of mere teachers, who make 17% of what he earns.  It’s up to you, I think.  You need to make sure teachers are a part of this dialogue, to be sure it doesn’t become a monologue.

Get some teachers involved in this process.  Get some principals involved, and some other school administrators.  Counselors might have a good, and different view.  Do you still have librarians enough in DISD to get a couple involved?  Libraries should be a key focus point for education in the 21st century, and many Dallasi ISD libraries have librarians who work harder and more effectively than the district has a right to expect (they don’t get paid for what they do, heaven knows).  And, keep records of these dinners.  These meetings are in the gray area of the Texas public meetings laws — but you want to be certain you have an open process that is not open to petty challenges due to bureaucratic miscues.  If any policy comes out of these meetings, you’ll need to be certain they were open for public meetings rules.

Gee, any reporters invited?

Are these sessions designed to improve education in Dallas, or to find new ways to flog teachers? Make sure the actions speak louder than words on these things.

Mr. Blackburn, you’ve made a couple of good moves here — including Tweeting about what’s going on.  Keep these processes going, and improve them.  Make sure teachers are not left behind.


Colorado’s Mike Miles named “sole finalist” for Dallas ISD Superintendent job

April 5, 2012

Four teachers mentioned to me last week their fear that Michelle Rhee might get the top education job in Dallas.  She didn’t, but is Mike Miles enough different to make them breathe easier?  Probably not.

Here’s the DISD video of his press conference, at which he was named sole finalist.  Under Texas law and regulation, a district must name a sole finalist, and then wait a period before confirming the appointment.

Miles, a former Army Ranger and Foreign Service officer, leads a school district serving part of Colorado Springs, Colorado, Harrison District #2.  He’s led the 11,000 student district since 2006; Dallas has 157,000 students.

Dallas ISD sent a notice to employees late Tuesday afternoon about Miles’s designation as superintendent-to-be:

Dallas Independent School District’s Board of Trustees have named Mike Miles as the lone finalist for the district’s superintendent position.

Trustees have been conducting a nationwide search for a new superintendent that included receiving input from several stakeholder groups.

Miles, 55, has served as Superintendent for the Harrison School District Two in Colorado Springs since fall 2006. He is known as an innovator and reformer who is changing the face of public education. His ideas and innovations around systems thinking, measuring teacher and principal effectiveness and building an adaptive organization have been recognized by national education institutes and have been adopted by numerous districts around the country.

Under his leadership, Harrison County District Two has experienced increased graduation rates and improved student achievement.

“The Dallas ISD Board of Trustees is thrilled with our selection of Mike Miles as the lone finalist for Superintendent of Schools,” said Lew Blackburn, President of the Board. “Mr. Miles has spent his entire life serving the public and has a proven track record of success. Not only will his life story serve as an inspiration to our students, he is a recognized leader who is focused on student results. Today is a great day for the Dallas Independent School District.”

Mike Miles is a former Army Ranger who graduated from West Point in 1978. He then entered the ranks of the officer corps at Ft. Lewis, Washington, where he served in the Army’s elite Ranger Battalion and commanded an Infantry Rifle Company.

After the Army, Miles studied Slavic languages and literature at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Leningrad in Russia. Miles then pursued advanced study of Soviet affairs and public policy at Columbia University and earned a master’s degree in 1989. The same year, he joined the U. S. Department of State as a policy analyst at the Soviet desk, and then from 1990 to 1995 as diplomat in Moscow and Warsaw at the end of the Cold War.

Miles and his family returned home to Colorado Springs in 1995 where he started as a high school teacher in his alma mater school district – Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8. Miles continued to grow professionally and held other positions such as middle school principal, coordinator of administration services and from 2003 to 2006 served as Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, in the same school district.

Currently, Miles also serves as an educational consultant and motivational speaker for school districts and other public organizations around the state of Colorado. He is recognized as an accomplished practitioner of curriculum alignment, organizational effectiveness, and systems thinking.

Miles is married to Karen Miles, and they have three children.

The Dallas ISD School Board plans to officially approve hiring Miles on Thursday, April 26. If approved, Miles is slated to begin work Monday, July 2.

Miles’s experience at the Soviet desk may prove useful in his work to understand various bureaucracies inside DISD (I hope I’m being overly, cynically sarcastic).  One might wonder how a leader could come from an Army Ranger background, but turn around to advocate pay-for-performance for teachers, as he did in Colorado.  Miles said he has no plans to do anything like that in Dallas, at least not without studying Dallas’s situation more.

Maybe more comments here, later.  Still have too much in the in box to write a lot here.


Teach for America: Savior of Dallas schools?

November 15, 2011

Lead editorial in today’s Dallas Morning News (page 14A):

Retaining Teachers

DISD should redouble efforts to support Teach for America recruits

In 2009, the Dallas Independent School District welcomed 80 Teach for America teachers to its campuses. These newly minted teachers were part of a competitive program that sends top college graduates to work in urban and rural public schools.

Two years later, only 45 teachers from that inaugural class remain in the district.

Where did the others go? DISD can’t say for sure.

Teach for America teachers make a two-year commitment. So, after fulfilling that obligation, they’re free to pursue other teaching opportunities, graduate school or entirely different careers.

Losing 43 percent of the first TFA class is somewhat troubling — particularly because that’s higher than the program’s national attrition rate in high-poverty schools. But that fact alone doesn’t mean that DISD and Teach for America aren’t a good fit.

One number doesn’t tell the whole story, and DISD would benefit from additional data as subsequent TFA classes complete their two-year stints. It would be useful for the district and Teach for America to know more about why these teachers are leaving and whether they are seeking out teaching jobs in other districts.

Still, the attrition rate raises important questions about what more DISD can do to support these young teachers — and encourage them to stay.

TFA is supplying the Dallas school district with teachers who were high achievers and leaders on their college campuses. And while they’re new to teaching, many are distinguishing themselves quickly. In 2010, DISD reported that the district’s TFA teachers were outperforming their peers in educating students in reading and math.

Even Teach for America’s critics, who often complain that TFA corps members don’t stay long enough to make a difference, would agree that these teachers will become even more effective with additional years of experience.

With all this in mind, DISD should refocus its efforts to ensure that TFA teachers who spend two years at a Dallas public school consider extending their stay. While this is still a relatively new program in DISD, the early numbers suggest that the district has not been a particularly welcoming place.

DISD should bolster its mentoring efforts and consider what other strategies could be employed to help TFA teachers succeed — and feel motivated to continue teaching.

There’s no doubt that some TFA corps members enter the program planning to teach only two years before embarking on another career. But Teach for America’s hope is that some will be inspired to continue in education.

Other districts with similar challenges have had more success retaining TFA corps members.

DISD should seize this opportunity to mentor and develop a unique group of teachers — instead of simply watching them walk out the door.

I work alongside several Teach for America people — to a person, great colleagues.  Some of them faced the same barriers to entry I did — Dallas was unhappy with my recommendations, for example, and held out my hiring for a few weeks because they didn’t want to take the recommendation of the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee which deals with education policy, for whom I worked for a decade, but instead insisted I get a teacher  or someone from a local education establishment to write the letter (I got a person who assigned substitutes in a local district to comment — we knew each other on the phone).  Why they wouldn’t take the word of someone who knows me over someone in education, I don’t know — but there is a moral in that morass, somewhere.

Dallas ISD is generally not a teacher-friendly place these days.  After two rounds of layoffs, we have all been informed clearly that we are all on the maybe-needs-firing line.  TFA teachers can stay above that only partly — the poisonous atmosphere infects all faculty meetings and department tete-a-tetes.

There is a big difference between TFA teachers and others:  TFA is tough (sometimes stupidly too tough), but they let every one of their people know that each one is valuable, and expected to do great things.

Dallas ISD tried to do that once.  We had a kid give a great motivational speech at the fall welcome-back-teachers ball.

Then the district announced it had goofed, and a few hundred teachers would have to go.  Then word got out that the mother of the kid who gave the speech — a teacher — was on the chopping block.  Then word got out that the whole program the kid was in, was on the chopping block. Yeah, we believe in you, kid — we just don’t believe in education any more.

Is TFA the answer to Dallas’s woes?  What’s your view?  I’m still thinking about an appropriate, and informative response.

Also see this at the Dallas Morning News site:


What is Teach for America?

Teach for America is an organization that works to recruit high-achieving college graduates for two-year teaching stints in urban and rural public schools. The hope is that many will continue to work in the field of education or an area that impacts student achievement.

The selection process is competitive — only 11 percent of this year’s 48,000 applicants were accepted.

The chart shows the number of Teach for America teachers in DISD, broken down by the school year they arrived. Many of those who started in 2009-10, the inaugural year in DISD, left after serving their two-year commitment.

School year TFA members received In DISD as of Sept. 26
2009-10 80 45
2010-11 107 102
2011-12 45 45
Total 232 192

SOURCES: Dallas ISD; Dallas Morning News research

2nd day of school in Dallas: Student asks, “Do you believe in me?”

August 23, 2011

It’s the second day of classes here in the Dallas Independent School District (Dallas ISD, or DISD).  Already we experience great trials from the loss of funding across the board in Texas education, as Gov. Rick Perry encouraged the state legislature to cut more than $4 billion from schools.  Cuts will be larger next fall.

At Molina High School we have about 25% more students, with 10% fewer teachers.  Classes strain the seams of the school — classrooms are crowded, desks and chairs are in short supply.  Computers promised for teachers, supposed to be delivered eight months ago, still are not delivered.  Printers, printing supplies, and paper, stand in conservation mode.  There are so few technical support people that those few new computers delivered often are not set up to operate yet.

Teachers need encouragement.  Here’s a bit of it.

What follows is mostly encore post, from 2008.


Taylor Mali is one of my usual suspects for inspiring teachers. He does a great job, with just a tinge of profanity (appropriately placed, many teachers argue – if they ask for it, you have to give it to them).

This year’s inspiration for Dallas teachers comes from Dalton Sherman, a fifth grader at Charles Rice Learning Center. Here’s a YouTube video of the presentation about 20,000 of us watched last Wednesday, a small point that redeemed the annual “convocation” exercise, for 2008:

Sherman’s presentation rescued what had been shaping up as another day of rah-rah imprecations to teachers who badly wanted, and in my case needed, to be spending time putting classrooms together.

(By the way, at the start of his presentation, you can see several people leap to their feet in the first row — Mom, Dad, and older brother. Nice built-in cheering section.)

Staff at DISD headquarters put the speech together for Dalton to memorize, and he worked over the summer to get it down. This background is wonderfully encouraging.

First, it makes a statement that DISD officials learn from mistakes. Last year the keynote was given by a speaker out of central casting’s “classic motivational speaker” reserves. As one teacher described it to me before the fete last Wednesday, “It was a real beating.”

Second, DISD’s planning ahead to pull this off suggests someone is looking a little bit down the road. This was a four or five month exercise for a less-than-10 minute presentation. It’s nice to know someone’s looking ahead at all.

Third, the cynical teachers gave Dalton Sherman a warm standing ovation. That it was delivered by a 10-year-old kids from DISD made a strong symbol. But the content was what hooked the teachers. Superintendent Michael Hinojosa provided a death-by-PowerPoint presentation leading up to the speech, one that was probably not designed solely as contrasting lead in. In other words, Dalton Sherman’s speech demonstrated as nothing else the district has done lately that someone downtown understands that the teachers count, the foot soldiers in our war on ignorance and jihad for progress.

The kids came back Monday, bless ’em. School’s in session, to anyone paying attention.


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It’s official: Dallas school Superintendent Hinojosa resigned today

June 6, 2011

Dallas Independent School District’s (DISD) Superintendent Michael Hinojosa resigned about an hour ago to accept the job in Cobb County, Georgia.  The board meets tonight, perhapsto appoint an interim superintendent.

Here’s the message sent out through the Dallas systems today, to teachers and administrators:


Accepts Superintendent Position in Cobb County, Georgia

Superintendent of Schools Michael Hinojosa submitted his letter of resignation from the Dallas Independent School District today to accept a similar position in Cobb County, Georgia.

Dr. Hinojosa has served as the superintendent for the stateâs second-largest school district for six yearsâthe longest term since Linus Wright held the position in the 1980s. His last day with Dallas ISD will be Thursday, June 30, 2011.

“It has been an honor to serve as superintendent for the school district I attended as a child and where I started my teaching career,” said Hinojosa. “I am enormously proud of our shared accomplishmentsâthe biggest of which is that the number of students graduating from Dallas ISD schools is at its highest since 1983.”

This school year, Dallas ISD expects to graduate a total of 7,200 students, up from 5,800 four years ago. The number has steadily risen each of the last four years.

Under Dr. Hinojosaâs leadership, the school district implemented a systemwide curriculum that was developed by teachers. In addition, principals for schools that had vacancies during the last six years were selected through a collaborative process that allowed staff and the community to provide input.

A $1.37 billion bond program to build and improve school facilities that was approved by voters in 2002was implemented on schedule and under budget. Another $1.35 billion bond program that was approved by voters in 2008 will build 14 more schools, 13 additions, and provide renovations to more than 200 district facilities.

Dallas ISD also became known throughout the country for its leadership in arts education. The Wallace Foundation provided an $8 million grant for the district to partner with Big Thought and the City of Dallas to provide more arts opportunities for students both during and after school.

Under Dr. Hinojosa’s leadership, schools in the southern sector received a significant boost. Two early college high schools are now operating, an all-boys school will open this fall as will a New Tech High School, and three renovated/new schools will open in Wilmer-Hutchins signaling a rebirth of public education in that community.

Grants from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation enabled the Dallas Independent School District to become a pioneer in the world of student data. The grants gave principals and teachers access to data dashboards, as well as established a Parent Portal for parents to monitor the progress of their students.

During his six-year tenure, Dr. Hinojosa responded to several crises, including the dissolution of neighboring Wilmer-Hutchins ISD and hurricanes Katrina and Rita, all of which caused an unexpected influx of additional students into Dallas ISD. The biggest crisis was a budget miscalculation that eventually forced the layoff of hundreds of staff during the 2008-09 school year.

Since then, the district has put in place a number of financial controls and rebuilt its fund balance to safer levels. The district now faces a significant cut in state funding because of a statewide budget shortfall.

“It certainly isn’t easy to be an urban school superintendent in todayâs environment, but I am proud of what this community has accomplished during the last six years,” said Hinojosa. “More students are graduating, more students are scoring at college-ready levels and our teachers and principals are better-trained. I hope whoever the board chooses as its next superintendent is provided the same opportunities to make improvements to continue the momentum on behalf of the students of this community. I am thankful to trustees, our staff and so many other leaders and stakeholders in Dallas who have been part of this experience.”

One of Dr. Hinojosaâs hallmarks was to make unannounced visits to the district’s 225 schools each Wednesday morning. He said the experiences kept him grounded on what was most important in the life of a large, urban school district.

“Every school has individuals who are devoted to helping our students succeed,” said Hinojosa. “I couldn’t help but be moved by the dedication of so many people, from custodians to food service workers, librarians to counselors, aides to front office staff and of course, principals and teachers. The Dallas Independent School District will continue to shine because of each of them. My address may soon be in Georgia, but a part of me will always be in Dallas. It has been a privilege.”

Dr. Hinojosa said he is moving to Georgia in part to be closer to his son whose wife is pregnant with their first child. He has two sons who have recently graduated from Hillcrest High School in Dallas who will be attending Ivy League colleges in the fall.

In Fort Worth, the board is expected to approve a separation agreement for Superintendent Melody Johnson, who is resigning to move to California to be closer to her aged mother.  Most people expect a tough fight to find a capable person to head either district.

Dallas educators still bracing for the budget storm

April 14, 2011

Here’s the view from Ross Avenue, HQ of the Dallas Independent School District, as of today:

A message from Superintendent of Schools Michael Hinojosa

Today, Proposed Budget Version 3.0 was presented to the Dallas ISD Board of Trustees. This plan considers what a $110 million cut would mean to the district’s budget during the 2011-2012 school year.

From the outset, I want to be clear that we are under no impression at this time that the district will end up facing a $110 million cut. It may end up being larger than that. At the same time, there is a slight possibility that it could be less.

In any event, with only six weeks to go in the Texas legislative session, it is more apparent than ever that school districts throughout the state, including ours, are facing significant cuts because of the state’s budget shortfall. I have worked in public education in Texas for more than 30 years and have never seen anything like this.

The Texas House already has approved HB1, which would require cuts to our budget of anywhere from $130 to $170 million. It would also eliminate significant funding for prekindergarten; reading, math, and science initiatives; and teacher performance pay incentives.

The Senate has yet to vote on HB1, nor has it passed a Senate version, but we are hopeful that it will be an improvement over the current bill. The deficit is so large, however, that it is difficult to get too optimistic.

Proposed Budget Version 3.0 would still eliminate more than 2,400 positions from the district’s payroll. The only positive under this scenario is that, thanks to the 700 contract employees who took the early resignation incentive, the district would not have to further reduce the number of teachers currently employed. While that may be a relief to many, it means that those teachers who remain will be asked to do more.

For instance, under 3.0, the collaborative planning period during the school day for secondary teachers would be eliminated. Middle and high school class-size ratios would be set at 25-1.

The details of Proposed Budget Version 3.0 can be found on the special Web site created to update everyone on our budget: Bear in mind, however, that as soon as you have a chance to review this plan, our financial staff will have already begun preparing Proposed Budget Version 4.0.

I again want to thank all staff members for your patience throughout this process. I also want to thank those of you who have contacted your lawmakers about your concerns and, especially, to all those who have traveled to Austin to speak out in person. Every little bit helps. Please continue to make your feelings known to lawmakers as they reach the final stretch of their discussions.

When school begins next fall, we will have the same number of students in Dallas ISD, all of whom have dreams for the future. None of them will care about our budget; they will only care about how we are preparing them with the skills to be successful. I know that our dedicated staff will once again rise to the occasion, as it has done so many times before, to meet their needs.

H. W. Brands on the study of history, with technology

September 26, 2010

Spent half a day with H. W. Brands, professor of history at the University of Texas, and author of at least one of my favorite history books, The First American (and several others).

Brands banned the use of computers for notetaking in his classrooms this fall.  It’s not the notes he objects to, of course, but the students’ side-activities of checking e-mail, eBay, and ESPN, rather than paying attention to the lecture, and other activities in lieu of taking notes.

Nominally our discussion centered on the decade of 1890 to 1900, the Reckless Decade, as Brands’ book on the era titles it.   Brands took a larger, circular route to the topic, today.  These discussions come under the aegis of the Dallas Independent School District’s Teaching American History Grant, and the Gilder-Lehrman Institute chipped in today, too.  We are a polyglot group of teachers of American history, and a few other related social studies subjects, in Dallas high schools.

I asked about technology beyond lecture, or “direct instruction” as the curriculum and teacher berating  rubrics so dryly and inaccurately phrase it.   Brands focused on the effects of connected students in the lecture, a problem which we officially should not have in Dallas schools.  We discovered he’s using Blackboard (probably the electronic classroom standard for UT-Austin).  I’ve used Blackboard in college instruction, and a somewhat less luxurious version in high schools.  Blackboard works better than others I’ve tried.

Over several hours Brands said he teaches best when he performs well as a story teller — when the students put down their note-taking pencils and listen.  Two observations:  It helps to be a good story teller, and, second, that requires that one know a story to tell.

Our grant could give us better stories to tell.  Most educational enterprises produce great benefits as by-products of the original learning goal.  Our teacher studies of history are no different.

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