Mike Miles Is Challenging the ‘Immutable Laws’ of Public Education, and It’s Working

Jan 17, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Scott Laband

For more than one thousand years, science operated under the immutable law that Earth sat at the center of the universe. When observers questioned this law, the entrenched institutions of the time were steadfast in maintaining the status quo. Ultimately, of course, innovation challenged these institutional “truths” and brought some real answers for how the world works. I first heard the concept that public education has its own series of similarly flawed immutable laws from Mike Miles, former superintendent of Harrison, Colorado, and Dallas, Texas. I share his thinking that some entrenched institutions are more resistant to change than others, and, public education can be one of the most intractable. For the sake of innovating and improving our schools, these immutable laws of education must be challenged and overturned. It’s no coincidence that the man who brought me this analogy is also one working to change the immutable laws of education.

Reforming Teacher Compensation

One immutable law Miles is tackling is the idea that teacher compensation should be based on career longevity and education credits. Rather than tweaking the salary schedule, as so many school systems have done through each successive wave of reform, we must fundamentally change the system that pays teachers based solely on their years of experience and degrees earned. At Pikes Peak Prep K-12, a public charter school in Colorado Springs, Colorado where Miles serves as CEO, teacher pay is differentiated based on the organization’s values. This means math and language arts teachers receive significantly higher salaries than art and physical education teachers. “It doesn’t take the same level of skill to teach kids how to dribble or play volleyball,” Miles explained to me recently. “We believe that [pullquote]the middle school reading teacher for kids who are way behind is our brain surgeon[/pullquote] and so they are going to get paid more.” This type of innovation around teacher pay gets at the current (and historic) structure in teacher compensation where all teachers have the same market value. Instead, we need to personalize the contract for teachers, give professionals the opportunity to earn more and build a new value proposition that aligns to both the school’s and professional’s needs. In the case of Pikes Peak Prep, the school’s recruiting pool significantly increased over what would have typically been expected. It turns out, when we treat teachers like the professionals they are, they overwhelmingly respond. Miles plans to open a second school in Aurora, Colorado this fall and the same values will be applied.

End the ‘Factory Model’ of Staffing Classrooms

Another immutable law Miles is refuting is that idea that staffing should be based on standard student-teacher ratios. Typically, school staffing models take the number of students in a school, divide that by a set number of students such as 25, and end up with a certain number of teachers based on that equation. Miles call this the “factory model of staffing.” But when you overturn the first immutable law of teacher salaries, this system no longer makes sense. At Pikes Peak Prep, for example, learning coaches who receive lower salaries than teachers are hired to augment the teaching staff and help reduce student-teacher ratios. While students receive “direct instruction” (which is basically traditional teaching) for a portion of the day, they are then split into groups for individualized learning for the rest of the day. Depending on their needs in each subject area on a given day, students may work with a teacher or a learning coach. In an additional nod to invalidating this immutable law, the school also has contracted music and dramatic arts programming to the Colorado Springs Conservatory, a nearby nonprofit. The conservatory’s services cost Pikes Peak Prep significantly less than what the school would have to pay an experienced music or arts teacher. That saved money goes right back into higher teacher salaries for the teachers with higher market value for the school.

The Recipe for Revolution

In the end, despite the parallels to astronomy, this type of revolution [pullquote position="right"]to overturn education’s immutable laws isn’t rocket science.[/pullquote] And, as Miles is proving, it doesn’t have to require any additional money. What it does require is a willingness to think differently about our seemingly intractable approach to the standard ways of doing things and our priorities inside schools. This type of revolution requires us to not just move the margins of education, but change the existing parameters. What it comes down to is a willingness to do for public education what innovators like Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler did for astronomy: Bust conventional wisdom wide open and reorder the universe.

Scott Laband

Scott Laband is president of Colorado Succeeds, a Denver-based, nonprofit think tank that focuses on education and business issues.

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