What the Numbers Say (and What Critics Won't) about Mike Miles' Tenure in Colorado

A couple weeks back, a retired Dallas businessman named Don Williams published a set of three academic studies he commissioned at his own expense, all claiming to present evidence that Dallas ISD Superintendent Mike Miles is a failure.

I was impressed that Williams was able to commission a study by an associate professor at the University of Texas: Julian Vasquez Heilig, a professor in the education school and the proprietor of a blog called "Cloaking Inequity," which chronicles education reform.

Heilig is a guy to take seriously, so I paid attention when I saw he was making an argument I'd always dismissed when it came, as it had before exclusively, from a retired Dallas schoolteacher and activist named Bill Betzen. Betzen has been saying for a year that he has numbers that show Miles was a failure during his six-year tenure as superintendent of a suburban school district in Harrison, Colorado.

Betzen and I are not statisticians. Heilig is. When I saw that Heilig was taking on the Miles-botched-Harrison argument, I was hopeful he would supply some of the answers I had never been able to get from Betzen.

For example: Betzen has argued that the size of the senior class in Harrison suffered a serious decrease, going down by almost 33 percent over Miles' tenure. And he has numbers to prove it. Along with the decrease in senior enrollment was a decrease in the number of seniors taking SAT and ACT tests for college entrance.

What Betzen is suggesting is that Miles somehow ran students out of town if he thought they might turn out to be low scorers on tests. I asked him if he had any evidence to prove his allegation. He said, "[Miles] was, I am told, pushing out kids that were lower-scoring. Principals were allegedly told to push out such kids. I only have that secondhand, it is only allegations." What a remarkable admission!

More recently, Betzen has compiled numbers to show that the number of black and Hispanic high school students in Dallas who took the SAT and ACT college entrance exams went down during Miles' first year as superintendent here. Again, I've asked what that has to do with Miles and I have not received an answer.

I'm not alone in this. I spoke with Dallas schools spokesman Jon Dahlander last week, to ask if the district had any explanation for the decrease in minority SAT and ACT test takers that Betzen has documented. He said no, and then he told me he and Betzen had been carrying on a running dialogue.

"I told him," Dahlander said, "'If you can find any kind of directive or any kind of action by the superintendent to the staff to discourage kids from taking the ACT, bring it to me. I want to know. I really want to know. Short of that, all we have is some data showing that fewer kids took the ACT, and there's no real explanation for it.'

"He said, 'You're right, I haven't been able to find a fire, but there's a lot of smoke.' I said, 'OK, well show me the fire, and then you might have something.'"

When I saw the study by UT's Heilig, and saw he also was referencing the decline in senior class enrollment in Harrison under Miles, my hope was that Heilig was going to bring the heat — the numbers and the causal connections that give some useful meaning to the issue. Imagine my disappointment, then, when Heilig merely repeated Betzen's arguments, almost word for word, and then said in a footnote: "The following analysis was conducted by retired Dallas ISD teacher, Bill Betzen."

There is a more fundamental problem with the work Betzen, Heilig and other Miles critics have done to analyze his tenure in Colorado. None of them cites or seems to have seriously examined the one authoritative source of data by which Miles' tenure must be measured first — the annual student achievement test data compiled and published by the Colorado Department of Education.

Colorado does what Texas does: spends vast sums testing almost every kid in the state on reading, writing, math and science in order to track performance. As in Texas, all the key evaluations of school districts in Colorado are benchmarked to the annual test data.

I'm not arguing that annual achievement tests are the end of any story about education. As Michael McNaughton, another local activist and Miles critic, wrote to me in an email: "I use two different groups of professional education consultants that parse this stuff out for us for a fee because it is far more complicated than simply grabbing some numbers from the edu website and drawing blanket conclusions. ... You might want to try that approach someday if you are really interested in education issues."

Which is fair. But the numbers are still significant, and that's why Betzen, Heilig or McNaughton can't bring forward their complicated and sometimes obscure criticisms of Miles' tenure in Harrison without looking at the state data in Colorado first. The state data paint a picture of unmistakable and even dramatic success in Harrison on Miles' watch.

I looked at the Colorado state data to find the percentages of students in third and 10th grades who achieved scores of "proficient" on statewide tests in reading and math, both in Harrison and statewide in Colorado. I looked at scores in 2007 and 2012, the test years bookending Miles' tenure in Harrison. In particular I was looking for rises or decreases in the percentage of kids who achieved proficient status on the achievement tests.

In some metrics, Harrison trailed the state. But in many categories, Harrison's gains outpaced the state average by substantial amounts, often by two and three times.

When scores were broken down by ethnic categories, Harrison's ethnic minority students tended to trounce their statewide counterparts. Some math scores were stunning, especially given that Colorado instituted a new, much tougher math test during Miles' tenure. Over that span, black third-graders statewide in Colorado barely held their own. But the percentage of black third-graders in Harrison who achieved scores of proficient went up 15 percentage points.

Hispanic kids also fared especially well under Miles' watch. The one ethnic category that suffered a decline was white kids in math, maybe because they started the time span with high scores and then got hit by the tougher test. But often the improvements in test scores by children of color under Miles were encouraging.

It's hard to argue with some of the assertions made by Betzen and Heilig, because it's hard to argue with secondhand allegations.

I can argue that both Betzen and Heilig are intellectually dishonest to present these labored and unfocused statistical smoke shows without at least first looking at and then acknowledging the state data. And the state data seem to show Miles was a major success in Harrison.

I asked Heilig to talk to me about the state data in Colorado. He refused, saying he would answer me instead on his blog. A day later, he published a post saying some insulting personal things about me — we have never met — and attributing a stupid-sounding quote to me, in quotation marks, that Heilig made up out of thin air. That's OK: I get worse than that on my own block at home.

But he said nothing about the state data in Colorado. McNaughton told me my Colorado state data did not correspond with his. But it's all right there in the Colorado annual test data.

One last wrinkle in the matter of declining minority SAT and ACT test takers in Dallas under Miles. Miles recently persuaded the school board to fund the SAT test for all DISD seniors — something never done before in Dallas — so that for the first time, next year, every single senior will take it.

I asked Betzen to comment on that. I heard nothing.

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