Let Me Sum Up
DISD superintendent Mike Miles is right and wrong in wanting to fire principals
There are times when the daily newspaper is very good at telling you things you should know but do not. That usually involves lengthy investigations (example: the past few years of stories about Parkland Memorial).
Then there are times the paper is not very good at telling you what is going on, because to do so would mean stepping outside its false-equivalency constraints. It would mean explaining things to you that are uncomfortable truths — and doing so in a way that would make most people involved angry.
I don’t mean people on both sides of an issue angry. I mean everyone on all nine sides of an issue angry.
There are many, many people out there who fall in between the two extremes, who are “for reform” but who just want to tap the brakes and ask what harm we are doing by framing this problem in such a stark manner.
DISD principal reform is just such an issue.
The background: DISD chief Mike Miles said that a core part of his reform efforts would be replacing principals who didn’t measure up. Now, there may be 50 new principals next year through firings, retirements and assorted other force-out measures.
We’ve known this was coming for a while. But now that the axe-swinging days are upon us, communities are rising up to defend embattled principals, even those whose schools test poorest in the district. We’re even seeing officials outside DISD offices get involved, both from the city (see the column linked above; seriously, Carolyn Davis is a joke) and the school board (see the next Schutze column, this time breaking the news about Bernadette Nutall’s interference in these matters).
I’ll ignore that the DISD story in the paper mostly covers ground that Schutze first tilled and gave him no credit. (Again, that’s not a slam at Matthew Haag, a fine reporter. It’s a function of an antiquated newspaper philosophy. Thankfully, the editorial board has been open in its online praise of Schutze’s reporting.) More important is that the DMN, through only the fault of industry standards, makes it seem as though there are two sides to this story: those for reform, and those against it. (If being “for it” means sacking beloved principals.)
It’s just not that simple.
Yes, there are those who back Miles, who point to schools’ poor test performances and say, “I don’t understand this. Reform is hard. So what? You gotta crack a few eggs to make an omelet. Let’s get moving!” This is the path Miles takes, and the one that the DMN officially took in today’s editorial backing Miles (and telling trustees to back off).
And, yes, there is the community side, which as Schutze notes is true in black communities, brown communities and white communities — reform is well and good until you mess with our own. I don’t care about your test scores, your newfangled evaluation methods or your corporate doublespeak. Just don’t fucking touch my school’s principal, and we cool.
But I believe there are many, many people out there like me who fall in between those two extremes, who are “for reform” but who just want to tap the brakes and ask what harm we are doing by framing this problem in such a stark manner.
It’s not brave to say you’re for reform. What’s difficult to do is admit that a problem may not require one solution but many different ones.
I mean, it’s not brave to say you’re for reform. It’s one step up from this. What’s difficult to do is admit that a problem may not require one solution but many different ones.
Let’s take just one example: test scores. My daughter graduated DISD last year. In the past decade-plus, I don’t know that I’ve had a single meaningful conversation with someone about DISD where we didn’t decry the “teach to the test” mentality that pervades the district. (And the state.) But now that’s okay to fire someone for those scores being low, without community input? That seems just as wrong to me as allowing a bunch of issue carpetbaggers like Davis and John Wiley Price to demand a principal not be fired over test scores.
I don’t often encourage this, but you should read comments in these stories I’ve linked above. You start to get a real picture of how complicated these issues are. If you do, you’ll read some things that might give you pause, such as how important it is to take demographic information into consideration when evaluating test scores.
Or read blogger/school activist Bill Betzen’s first comment on the DMN editorial, in which he details how a South Dallas principal who turned around Sunset is leaving because Miles’ one-size-fits-all reforms don’t square with what has made that particular school successful. That would give any thinking person pause.
And no, I'm not saying we can let each school decide to obey Miles’ reform plan only if the principal thinks it’s needed. Of course not. But do you see how complicated this is?
Go read about Michelle Rhee and what happened to her district when she tried to railroad through reforms, all while painting these issues as black and white, as we’ve been doing. It ended in disaster, and I really believe it had more to do with how we frame these debates and set our expectations beforehand than what happened on the ground there. Unless we learn from that, DISD’s efforts will fail too.
Because it isn’t just about black southern Dallas protecting its own. It isn’t just about Miles needing to stand tall. There are people protecting principals for both right and wrong reasons. There are reformers demanding change who are smart about what the research shows should be done and dumb about the on-the-ground realities of running schools or classrooms.
Mike Miles is tough and smart and foolish and arrogant. All these things and many more conflicting, maddening elements to this debate are true.
I would just like a solution — and news coverage — that recognizes this.