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Mike Miles Gets 90 Days to Grow Up, Dallas Gets 25 Years

In the wee hours of today, maybe a dozen of us media people, half a dozen teachers union officials and another half dozen bitter-enders sat waiting in a semi-darkened auditorium at school headquarters while the school board was in "executive session" -- a closed-door meeting in another part of the building where the board was deciding in secret how to publicly humiliate the superintendent they had hired a year and a half ago to save their asses. I wondered what the moral of the story might be.

Be careful whose ass you save, I guess.

Earlier, five members of the eight-member body had voted to kill a resolution to fire Mike Miles. The attempt to sack him was based on an outside investigative report that found the superintendent innocent of all of a raft of serious charges. The board's three black members wanted to fire him anyway. The five who voted to keep him were white. Is it about race? Sort of yes, sort of no.

When they finally came out of their secret lair just before 1 a.m., a coalition of white and black board members supported a package of measures designed to mess Miles up a little in public even if he was innocent. They messed with his contract and slapped him with a couple other penalties that amounted to little more than personal insults. The main justification for them was that Miles had not done enough to maintain friendly relations with the board.

I was watching Miles last night. He looked gray and drawn. After the adjournment, board President Eric Cowan told us Miles had agreed to all of the changes in his contract and to the little insult deals. One of them, for example, was an agreement by the board to put Miles on a "growth plan." That's a term Miles has used for measures designed to put school principals on notice that they need to do a better job or face removal. Cowan told us the board didn't know yet what would be in Miles' growth plan -- what he would have to do. So that's what I mean -- it was just kind of a little nasty slap, something they did for grins.

Cowan said Miles will have 90 days to live up to the requirements of his growth plan. Board member Bernadette Nutall had already made the point very ostentatiously just before adjournment that Miles could still be fired if he fails to fulfill the strictures in the plan.

From the back of the media scrum that gathered around Cowan after adjournment, I asked a question: if it is found at the end of 90 days that Miles has fulfilled his growth plan, will he be all done growing? I had this vision in my mind of Miles, after 100 growth plans, looming over school headquarters like King Kong with a cute little teacher in one hand.

Cowan shrugged and gave me a look like, "Give me a break, pal."' Yeah. I know. Sorry. None of this is funny. Then again, I couldn't help but marvel at the board's utter hypocrisy. Ignored by the board were revelations earlier this year that some board members were going behind Miles' back to his own staff and bullying them, warning them not to do what Miles, their boss, told them to do.

In a letter about it, some of the executives said they had been buttonholed by school board trustee Nutall, who was one of those last night who wanted Miles fired for not maintaining good enough relations with her. "We were encouraged by Ms. Nutall to not hold certain principals accountable for their performances," they said in their letter.

Others said Nutall had warned them that Miles would not be around forever but she would be. That's some verbal bullying Tony Soprano could be proud of.

I may not even need to point this out, but just for the record the board did not vote last night to put itself on a growth plan. I guess they're done growing.

While waiting with the others for the board to emerge, I read M. Night Shyamalan's new book, I Got Schooled on my tablet. The famous moviemaker tries too hard to be breezy in this tome about school reform in America, and it takes a lot of poking around on a damned digital tablet to find anything like footnotes supporting his claims. But the citations are there somewhere if you dig, and so far the book is a pretty damned interesting read.

One of the things he points out at the top is that school failure in America is entirely about poor people. Citing statistics originally derived from academic papers, he says that U.S. students lead the entire world on the International Students Assessment or PISA, a test given all over the world every three years, if you measure only American schools with 10 percent poverty students or less.

Our problem is that we have way more poverty than Western Europe. Four percent of students in Finland are at poverty level, for example, but 20 percent of American students are at poverty level. When our poor students are included in our overall performance on PISA, which they have to be, we plummet far down in the ranks, especially against most of Europe.

From everything I have read, heard or been able to otherwise divine about Miles and his team, they are laser-focused on "the gap" -- the yawning chasm between student achievement for kids from more comfortable background and kids from poverty. They believe that bringing children to full literacy early in their school careers and keeping them at grade-level as long as possible is the single most important thing we can do to change their destinies.

And yes, it's about race insofar as minority kids are way more likely than white kids to be in high poverty schools. But, no, it's not about race in that the consistent factor across all ethnic lines is poverty. Minority kids in middle class and above schools test higher than minority kids in poor schools, surprise-surprise.

Before yesterday's meeting I had an off-the-record lunch with one of the young professional and business leaders who brought Miles here from Colorado and who are his behind-the-scenes sponsors in the reform effort. He already knew pretty much what the board was going to do that evening. He said in spite of all the setbacks and frustration he and his associates are still optimistic about school reform. Maybe I had a look on my face that said, "Yeah, and what are you guys smoking?"

Anyway, before I could respond he said, "It's a 25-year effort." He said we are halfway through year two, and things are still moving forward.

Great. I should ask him: if and when they ever get it done, please remember to ask in your prayers that I be informed, wherever I may be by then.

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