04/09/2012 02:48 pm ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

New Style of Superintendent?

Unfortunately, this nation lacks a large pool of big-city school chiefs who are truly successful at their jobs. The only upside: the small pool of winners can be easily categorized.

For instance, there's the slow-and-steady type. Chris Steinhauser, who runs the schools in Long Beach, Calif., comes to mind. Each year, Steinhauser finds little ways to incrementally improve what was done the previous year: teacher training gets a little better; the curriculum gets tweaked for the better. Nothing happens quickly, but each year the system improves just a bit.

That slow-and-steady model can work, but few mayors and school boards have the patience. Precious few.

Then there's the firebrand reformer, which, of course, brings Michelle Rhee to mind. Rhee (correctly) figured out she didn't have a lot of time to fix the very troubled schools in Washington, D.C., so she did everything at once: closing schools, firing ineffective teachers. Anyone who got in the way -- unions or the city council -- got head-slapped.

That, too, can work. Washington, D.C., schools truly are better as a result of the Rhee reforms. Problem is, everyone's so dizzy from the head slaps they don't feel like things are that much better.

In Dallas, however, I suspect we will observe a new category, the Mike Miles model. I first met Miles in February when I slipped into Colorado Springs between snow storms to research a chapter for a College Board-sponsored book on what's working in American public education. We wanted to find a school superintendent pushing the envelope on improving the quality of teaching and settled on the relatively obscure Harrison School District Two, a smallish district that seems to collect most of the high-poverty, minority students in that city.

I started the day in the early morning darkness as Miles pulled up to my hotel in his Prius (I'll have to confess, in snowy Colorado I was expecting a four-wheel drive) and drove me to a nearby elementary school where he had a before-school meeting scheduled with the principal and teachers.

While researching a book about Rhee, I went to similar meetings in Washington. Often, the atmosphere was tense. I could see teachers in the back quietly rolling their eyes in disagreement. At the Colorado meeting, however, everything was friendly. Kind of earnest and dull, actually.

How could that be? Miles had just maneuvered into place the nation's most radical teacher evaluation/compensation system. No longer were teachers paid for their longevity in the system. Rather, they were paid for their standing on an elaborate evaluation system that factored in student test scores.

In Harrison, you can find highly rated third-year teachers experiencing rapid pay increases while lower-rated veterans get flat-lined salaries. How could that not generate the kind of hostility I saw surrounding the less ambitious pay reforms I saw in Washington?

Much of what has played out in Harrison schools since Miles took over for the 2006-07 school year can be traced back to his unique background. True, he has a military background, including a West Point diploma, but he's nothing like the general and admirals with no teaching experience who have been hired to "shape up" troubled urban districts (rarely works out well).

Although a former Army Ranger and company commander, Miles is not a "commanding" type of personality. In fact, he is both soft-spoken and a bit nerdy. At any time you can expect him to suddenly head to the computer and offer to illustrate his point with digitized graphics.

And Miles seems to sense what's on your mind. At one point early in my conversation with Miles, he turned to me and said, "In case you're wondering, my father is African-American, my mother is Japanese." In fact, I had been wondering.

Miles left the military for a second career in diplomacy, earning advanced degrees at prestigious universities and serving abroad in Poland and Russia. Then, at the age of 39, he sought out his third career: teaching.

One thing you won't hear from Miles is any strident language about terrible teachers. He keenly remembers the two first-grade teachers who devoted many hours to him correcting a speech problem with tape recorders. Without that intervention, he could have ended up another depressing statistic about black males. Instead, he ended up his high school valedictorian, which led to West Point. "I am eternally grateful to those teachers," he told me. "Eternally grateful."

However, another thing you won't see from Miles is any education conventionality. The reason he was able to push so far in Harrison is because he didn't know what was impossible. If something worked in the military world, or the diplomacy world, why not use it in schools?

The Harrison reforms started with Miles asking a simple question: If 80 percent of my budget is devoted to salaries, shouldn't salaries be linked to performance? "I don't think any organization is going to maximize effectiveness if they have that big a disconnect between what they value and how they compensate people," he told me.

Sounds logical, but in the school world, that's radical thinking. Also considered radical was his simple edict: All teachers will teach with their classroom doors open. In short: Expect classroom observations, early and often. Wow, that stirred up things.

Another unexpected move: Miles did away with extra pay for mentor/teachers and steered that money into the regular salary pool. In the Foreign Service, veterans naturally mentor new arrivals. That's what makes the embassy function. Why would anyone expect extra pay for that?

Some interesting things are playing out in Harrison as his system unfolds. True, some teachers got fired, but not as many as you might expect. Instead, a leveling occurred. Teachers who hated the new pay system left; teachers who found it challenging signed on.

More telling is the unexpected. I visited one high school where the principal described veteran teachers coming to observe highly rated young teachers. What were they doing that was working?

Can the radical reforms sparked in relatively placid Colorado Springs play out the same way on the "mean streets" of Dallas? Unknown.

The only certainty is that we will see a new type of urban schools chief at work. Miles is guaranteed to turn conventional practices upside down, but not out of ideological fervor. He simply doesn't know what "can't be done." So he'll do what made sense in the military and diplomatic worlds, and he'll do it in a calm, nerdy kind of way.

Richard Whitmire, with College Board President Gaston Caperton, is co-author of the upcoming book, The Achievable Dream: College Board Lessons on Creating Great Schools (The College Board, June 2012).

A version of this commentary first appeared in the Dallas Morning News.