You might say that Mike Moses is a leader of Biblical proportions. He runs a really big school district--12th largest in the U.S.--oversees a super-sized $1.2 billion budget and makes $325,000 a year, by many accounts more than any other superintendent.
Since he was anointed--ahem, appointed--head of the Dallas Independent School District in January 2000, Moses hasn't disappointed. He's led the beleaguered urban district to a promised land of financial stability, public confidence and student achievement. To the people of Dallas, where he is the sixth superintendent in a tumultuous five years, this tried-and-true Texan and former state education commissioner is like manna from heaven.
The easygoing Moses has a smooth relationship with the nine-member Board of Trustees, "probably the best the board and a superintendent have had in a long, long time," says board President Ken Zornes.
The district has resolved an FBI fraud investigation and received clean financial audits. Public support has been restored, says Zornes, who points to a $1.36 million capital improvement bond passed by 78 percent of voters in early 2001. "Folks have a lot of confidence in [Moses], from administrators to business people to parents, and the morale of the teachers has improved significantly."
Most recently, a U.S. District Court judge resolved a three-decade desegregation lawsuit against the district, freeing it to make decisions without court approval about things such as shifting resources to low-performing schools.
A Texas native, Moses was one of this year's four National Superintendent of the Year finalists. The 25-year education veteran began as a teacher and most recently served as deputy chancellor of the Texas Tech University system from 1999 to 2000.
From 1995 to 1999, he was Texas Commissioner of Education, twice appointed by then Gov. George W. Bush. In this post, Moses worked to implement more rigorous curriculum standards, establish accountability and improve student test scores. Now, he says, "I'm getting to live under the rules I adopted and the testing program I started. It's an interesting perspective, and sometimes I wonder, why did I do this or that?"
Between 2001 and 2002, student achievement on the state TAAS test improved. The number of low-performing schools in the 218-school district was reduced by half, and the number of exemplary schools rose from 18 to 27.
Also, according to Moses, the district's achievement gap between Anglo and minority students reached its narrowest margin ever. "We were the first state that started holding schools accountable for the performance of African-American, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students," he says. "It's a really powerful driver in Texas, and it's done a lot to affect teacher and administrator behavior."
Moses knows there's still a long, challenging journey ahead. He acknowledges that Dallas students are not as likely to ace the more rigorous TAKS test, now in place in the state. The district must also recruit more bilingual teachers to service its 60 percent Hispanic student population. And the high school dropout rate is dismal; some numbers show that of those who start ninth grade, half or more have left prior to graduating. "We know that it's a serious, serious problem and that there are too many children who aren't finishing school," he says.
The superintendent's contract expires in 2006, but he doesn't delude himself. He keeps the history of superintendent turnover in mind and knows his future rests in the hands of an elected board. "I have been gratified. It's an exhilarating position, though frustrating and sometimes lonely," he says. "Urban education is very daunting and very challenging."
Nonetheless, Moses doesn't plan on making his "exodus" before he's made his mark. "I'm comfortable with the fact that during my tenure, I will contribute as much as I can," he says. "I want to prove that urban education can work in Dallas, Texas."
Jennifer Covino, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a contributing editor.