Houston’s Independent School District (ISD) is no longer independent.
In June 2023, the district — the largest in Texas, with nearly 200,000 students and 274 campuses — was taken over by the state legislature through its Texas Education Agency. Politicians dissolved the elected school board and appointed their own, fired the previous superintendent, and appointed Mike Miles, who has never been a teacher and has no degrees in education. What he does have is significant training and experience in the military. As Edward Turner, a longtime Dallas education advocate, put it, “He’s a military-minded person, he came in saying ‘It’s my way or the highway.’”
In 2015, the elected school board in Dallas forced Miles to leave his position as superintendent of Dallas schools. Soon after, in 2016, he founded a charter school chain called Third Future Schools with campuses in Colorado, Louisiana, and Texas. He has been on the board of a variety of organizations that bill themselves as reform, including Teach for America. Miles believes that business models are the way to go. “Incremental change did not save Blockbuster,” he said. “They won’t save education.”
He continually talks about testing and data, yet it is impossible to find data that shows he has had positive results in any of his past education work. If one looks at the web pages of the charter schools that fell under his chain of schools, the description of student learning is very different from what he has been pushing in the Houston school district. Third Future Charter Schools invite parents to have their children immersed in experiential learning, travel, hands-on curriculum, projects, sports, music, and more — all things children everywhere should expect and deserve. Yet there is little data assessing whether and how such programs are developing at Third Future Charter Schools.
As of June 1, Mike Miles resigned his CEO position at Third Future Schools to be able to focus on dismantling Houston’s education system.
Not surprisingly, the targeted district is more than 90 percent students of color. The majority, 67 percent, are Latino; another 22 percent are African American. Houston is one of the largest “blue” cities in a state where all three branches of government, thanks to severe gerrymandering, have for more than 20 years been controlled by a trifecta of right-wing Republicans.
Mike Miles claims the reason for the takeover was the district’s low performance. His solutions: Create a culture of fear. Get rid of librarians. Reassign or fire teachers and principals. Impose a scripted curriculum for all students. Ignore parents and other community members. Ignore special education mandates or eliminate services, including autism support.
A central move by Miles has been to introduce a program he created called the New Education System or NES. As the fall semester started, the district implemented NES in 28 schools and identified 57 additional schools to align with NES over this school year so they can become full NES schools the following year. Those in charge are transferring a number of principals or putting them on leave. They have also been quick to remove or relocate or place on leave teachers who raise questions about the program. According to a Houston education reporter, on a Friday in September, an assistant superintendent told staff at two schools where she felt NES was not being “properly implemented,” to “take the weekend to think about their commitment to the school. And they could either come back and fully commit to NES . . . or if not, that she would immediately reassign them elsewhere.” Districtwide, 130 teachers resigned in just the first month of school.
One of the Miles administration’s first actions at the 28 schools was to reassign the librarians and turn libraries into what he calls “team” centers — parents, teachers, and students call them detention centers. This is where students are sent if they are falling behind or designated as being disruptive in the classroom. There they receive instructions to login virtually to the classroom they just left; a teaching assistant or “learning coach” monitors their work.
The transformation of school libraries into detention centers is coupled with a dystopian classroom pedagogy. Nelva Williamson, a respected teacher who’s been in the district for 43 years and has expressed the need for veteran teachers like herself to speak out, described the scripted lessons teachers must adhere to: “You give direct instruction to students for 10 minutes [from a script] and then stop. Then you do a DOL or Demonstration of Learning, as he calls it. That might be a multiple-choice question or a quiz or another type of assessment. Some of these are graded. Four or five minutes are given to the DOL and then you go back to a few minutes of instruction.” How much class time are teachers supposed to spend in this manner? According to Williamson, from the beginning of class to the end with “no time wasted.”
Williamson is horrified at the impact this approach has on kids. “They are killing children’s love of learning with this model,” she said. “Children are already bored and frustrated. We know the best way to educate children, and that has nothing to do with what he is doing.”
Williamson is also critical of their plan, as she put it, “to disrupt special education.” In NES schools, “special ed students are not receiving instruction mandated through their IEP,” thanks to the requirement that all students be at the same place at the same time. “There is no room in the classroom for individualized instruction or for work to be done independently,” she notes, in violation of state and federal law. “If a 504 student or a special ed student is having difficulty learning, they might be pulled out of the classroom and sent to the detention room to view the classroom virtually with the assistance of a TA, not a certified teacher.”
When teachers and parents at several schools voiced concern about this targeting of special education students, administrators told them the support minutes required by IEPs would be made up later — ignoring the fact that students need extra minutes at the time of the lesson and that IEP requirements include a wide range of supports specific to each student. “This, of course, is not how special education instruction, by law, is meant to be implemented,” Williamson points out. She also laments the elimination of the co-teaching model with NES: “There is no space for slowing down the lesson — co-teaching allowed for pullout of individual students or utilizing small groups to be able to go at a different pace.”
Williamson is disturbed about the big picture, which she believes is designed to destroy more than the Houston ISD. “If you destroy the school, you destroy the community, which then leads to the destruction of sections of Houston. It has a ripple effect.” For her, the cause is clear: “This goes all the way up to the state legislature, which is Republican-dominated with a Republican governor.”
Many teachers are also concerned about job security and retaliation for speaking out, after raising flags that no one was helping them address the challenges they face with this new system. “We’ve had to send so many students to the counselors because they’re having emotional distress over this system,” 6th-grade teacher Teresa “Reece” Carr told the Houston Chronicle. “These kids are not doing well emotionally or academically. This [New Education System] is not designed to set them up for success.” Carr, after raising concerns at a central administration presentation, was informed by email that she had been placed on “home duty” effective that day. She was “forbidden from returning to campus . . . at any time and for any reason.”
Another teacher quoted in the same article asked to remain anonymous. “I love my co-workers, I love my kids, my community and my school,” she said. “This year has honestly killed my spirit and made me fearful of how quickly the tides can change, for the worse.”
Resistance to NES is mounting. Some schools have seen regular picket lines since school resumed in August. When word got out about closing libraries, parents, teachers, and community activists staged a “read-in” protest. The group gathered in the lobby before a meeting of the appointed school board, known as the Board of Managers. Participants sprawled across the floor with books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and began reading. Once the meeting began, they took their protest inside.
Some school board and town hall meetings have become raucous.
An interaction between Mike Miles and a parent, Lauren Ashley, at a question-and-answer session went viral. Ashley’s daughter is dyslexic and should receive 504 accommodations. But that has yet to happen, and Ashley isn’t buying the assurance that the time will somehow be made up later. “Either you’re Greg Abbott’s pawn sent down here to destroy the largest district in this state so we can turn it over to the privates and the charters like they did in New Orleans,” she told Miles, “. . . or you think you really know what you’re doing and that we don’t, and that might be a little scarier.”
The Houston Federation of Teachers has also been highly critical of Miles. President Jackie Anderson stated, “Mike Miles’ plan is to turn half of Houston schools into NES schools by 2025–2026. His approach is disruptive, chaotic, and top-down. There is no collaboration with school communities or parents. And there is no evidence that these so-called reforms are good for children.” Anderson pointed out that some of the schools Miles turned into NES schools were far from low-performing and had been given an “A” rating by the Texas Education Agency.
“He’s sucking the life and joy out of these schools,” Anderson told Rethinking Schools.
Miles is attempting another major power grab to change the Houston ISD into what the state calls “a district of innovation.” The state law creating these “districts of innovation” was set up to weaken communities, school boards, and teacher unions. Once designated a “district of innovation,” a school administration is basically given a free hand to work outside of the state’s education laws, a move that leaves students, parents, and teachers without protections and is designed to lead to privatization. This was attempted a few years ago in Houston, Anderson said, but the elected school board stopped it, with the support of teachers and community members.
Like Nelva Williamson and Jackie Anderson, Lauren Ashley sees the attack on Houston’s schools as an attack on the city overall. “This is happening because we’re Houston, Texas,” she said, “a big blue dot in a big red state.” With the Houston takeover, the Texas legislature and governor have stepped up their push for authoritarian control. Miles is pushing a bootcamp style of teaching and learning. This scripted method eliminates the ability of teachers to build community and pay attention to the individual needs of students. There is no room for group work or learning that is hands-on, project-based, interactive, and focused on discovery. Proven tools such as critical thinking and incorporating issues of racial and social justice are nowhere to be found.
Ashley and others are determined to reverse this. At a school district family night in August she asked Miles, “When you ultimately fail us — which you will — how do we get you up out of here? Because I’m going to be leading the charge.”