Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles stars in his own musical about school reform.
HISD via YouTube

Houston ISD Takeover, The Musical

New superintendent Mike Miles put on a play to inspire teachers. Not everyone was amused.

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Josephine Lee is a Chinese woman with black hair past her sweater, wearing a red sweater. She has a slight smile on her face.

Hundreds of Houston’s teachers gathered at the NRG Center early morning Wednesday, where they were directed to wear school colors, wave school banners, and shake sparkly pom poms. Facilitators started the Harlem Shuffle dance in the aisles. And then, as the teachers were motioned back into their seats, the room turned dark and silence fell. 

A single spotlight shined on a student performer in an aisle belting the lyrics to West Side Story’s “Something’s Coming”:

Something’s comin’, something good
If I can wait!
Something’s comin’, I don’t know what it is
But it is
Gonna be great!

The stage lit up to reveal a 1950s diner with red and white checkered tablecloth tables and red rubber stools. In walked new district superintendent Mike Miles, playing “Mr. Duke,” owner of the joint who doubles as a counselor who listens to the teachers’ and students’ grievances. 

Since March, when the Texas Education Agency seized control of the Houston Independent School District (HISD), citing the failure to meet state standards at one high school, Houston’s teachers and parents have seen the battle with the state-appointed school board and superintendent play out in community meetings and in the press. Now, during a week of district-mandated conferences at the NRG Center, teachers were watching the takeover play out on stage. Miles directed the script—an hour-long musical that took six weeks to prepare, depicting how the new superintendent will rekindle the extinguished spirits of burnt-out teachers, give hope to hopeless students, and bestow a visionary plan to save public education. 

“We are lost as a profession,” a teacher said on stage. 

“My dreams are getting smaller and smaller,” a student later echoed. 

“Well, maybe that new guy—you know, super … super …”

“You mean Superintendent Miles?” 

“Maybe Superintendent Miles will make things better for us.”

Maybe.

But teachers who spoke to the Texas Observer said Miles’ performance wasted the district’s time and money and mocked their professional experience and concerns. 

“For him to turn our concerns into satire is really insulting,” HISD teacher Melissa Yarborough said. “It reeks of propaganda.”

“He wasted our time when we could be in our classrooms preparing our lesson plans before school starts,” said Chris, an elementary school teacher who asked only to be identified by his first name. 

Jessica, who has been teaching for 24 years, told the Observer Miles’ musical “was very condescending. The message was that we don’t know what we’re doing. And he’s coming in to show us how to do it right.”

Chris, Jessica, and others we spoke to asked that we use their first or middle names for fear of disciplinary action. A slide from the training states: “HISD expects any employee not to use social media or any communications platform or media, including forwarding, supporting, or ‘liking’ posts or communications to communicate false or misleading information about the school or district, particularly if designed to damage the school or district’s reputation.” 

“The message was that we don’t know what we’re doing.”

In recent weeks, criticisms of Miles’ sweeping reforms—particularly removing school librarians and using libraries as student disciplinary centers—have become national news. Miles has said that the 85 schools taking part in his New Education System program, which he transplanted from his Third Futures charter school network, will expand to 150 schools by 2025.  

Earlier this week, Miles terminated nearly two dozen special educational and mental health contractors after the Texas Education Agency tasked the new administration to improve special education services as a condition to end the takeover. 

The day before the performance, someone called the fire marshall to address the district’s chaotic and overcrowded training conference at the NRG Center.

“I saw somebody get wheeled out because they had a panic attack. Then this lady asked me to watch the door to keep people from coming in, so I didn’t really get anything from that training,” Chris said. 

In one scene, a teacher rebukes other teachers who waste class time.

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“Maybe I should show a movie every now and then and give you free time so you can surf the web and only look at videos and TikToks,” she said on stage.

In another scene, an older teacher admonishes a group of students using pretentious diction. Students respond with slang, saying, “They always treat us like we’re second class, but we’re not.”

Miles’ character Mr. Duke then stepped in to help translate for both parties and bridge their differences, telling the students, “There’s always going to be people like that, but you guys are the underdog, and you’re going to show them how you’re going to change the world.”

Comfort Azagidi, a senior at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, who performed in the show, said that unlike Mr. Duke, during rehearsals Miles “didn’t really talk to us. When he finally came to rehearsals, he never introduced himself or acknowledged us. He just came in and walked past students and teachers.” Comfort said they were misled into participating in the show and found the portrayal of Gen Z students and culture “offensive.”

Teachers also said the musical belittled their concerns about the lack of information and organization they see from the district as they struggle to prepare for a new school year starting in less than two weeks. 

Elizabeth, a teacher with nine years of experience at one school in Miles’ New Education System program, said administrators eliminated the elective class she had taught for years. She is now instructing a course called “The Art of Thinking,” for which she has received only a general curriculum guide and the first three lessons. 

“I don’t know what exactly I’m supposed to accomplish in this class,” Elizabeth said. 

In public meetings, Miles had promised he would not eliminate school electives. He has been under fire for instituting a salary system that pays elective, science, and social studies teachers less than reading and math teachers. 

“I can look at an elective teacher in third grade and say reading is more important to our students right now, and the value that teacher brings is higher than the value a P.E. teacher brings,” Miles told the Houston Chronicle

“The musical was a slap in the face to all the fine arts teachers,” Elizabeth added, noting that Miles had to obtain the help of fine arts teachers and students from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and other schools. “All the choreography, technology, and skills behind the musical—these elective teachers had to build up that skill.”

In another scene, Miles took a jab at the press and community members criticizing his decision to eliminate librarians and turn libraries into student detention centers. 

“Why are you getting rid of playgrounds?” students playing reporters asked. 

“I didn’t say I’m getting rid of playgrounds,” said Miles, playing himself. 

“Why do you hate children?” the reporters ask. 

Elizabeth told the Observer, “The musical was a dig at everybody who has criticized him. It wasn’t about what the schools could be. It was just about him.”

When asked to comment about teachers’ criticisms of the musical, Miles said, “Those are anecdotes from one teacher or a handful of teachers dissing the convocation. They didn’t get into the spirit of it. Some people always want to bring down something great.” 

Miles called his critics naysayers and said, “You will always have people who don’t want to change.”

Yarborough disagrees. She said that teachers have been calling for changes for years, including smaller class sizes and more resources and funding for the classroom. She said some of Miles’ reforms, which have not worked in the past, are moving the district backward. 

“I’d agree with Miles that things were not good the way they were,” Yarborough said. “But he is not inventing anything new. Districts have tried scripted curriculum in the past, and it has not fixed our problems. Reconstituting schools is not new. Paying teachers based on their student test scores is not new. I have not seen any evidence that that stuff works.” 

Miles’ musical ended with teachers and students singing, dancing, and laughing freely on stage, which teachers noted was a stark contrast to the sterile classrooms Miles wants in schools. 

“It’s all for show,” Elizabeth said. “Like in the Wizard of Oz, when you look behind the curtain, what’s being presented is not what’s really going on.”