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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Congressman George Miller's Take on NCLB: Part 1

George Miller, a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California, took the helm of the House Committee on Education and Labor, one of the most important positions on Capitol Hill. Miller, a long-term advocate for improvement in public education (and a former member of The George Lucas Educational Foundation's National Advisory Council) has a busy year ahead: The No Child Left Behind Act is up for reauthorization. Tech challenges face many districts. Some schools are physically crumbling. Dropout rates are unacceptable.

A few days before Miller left for his leadership position in Washington, DC, Edutopia editorial director James Daly sat down with him at the congressman's office in Walnut Creek, California. Here is the first part of the interview:

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1. What are your highest priorities in terms of the reformation of the educational landscape?

To make sure that we have a system that addresses the needs of every student. We know that every student walks into that schoolroom door under a different set of circumstances, whether it's their circumstances at home, their personal abilities, their talents, their attitudes -- all those things. We've got to be able to address that. Otherwise, we're going to continue to have a lot of students who check out of school. Either they're not doing their work, they're bored, or they drop out, and they find themselves later disadvantaged in life.

That means we need information about these individuals; we need real-time data on how they're doing. You can't wait until the end of the school year to have a high-stakes test. You can't wait until they're seniors in high school and tell them whether they're going to graduate or not.

That's what we've been doing, because we have not been paying enough attention to the individual students as they move through the system. When I think about the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, I really think about how you live up to the title of this federal education act. How do we address the needs of every one of these children? How do we put in place a system that responds to their talents, to their abilities? How do we put in place a system that really is conducive to both teaching and learning so that they happen, hopefully, at the same time, as the child is presented with that opportunity? We have a lot of work to do.

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2. In the business world, there's a concept of mass customization: You take a commodity product and you customize it, you individualize it. Dell does this with its personal computers. Is that sort of structure possible in the educational system, or are we fated to live in a world where we build students and we build young minds in the same mechanized fashion as we build automobiles on an assembly line?

Today, the world is completely interactive across disciplines. No longer can you teach math in isolation. No longer can you teach history in isolation. And yet the crude structure in most schools almost demands that this be done. I think that you have to start thinking about how you'll change the structure if you're going to deal with students as opportunities to learn.

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3. The No Child Left Behind Act is up for reauthorization this year. There are problems with it -- a lot of complaints, at least, about teaching to the test, which has taken over the school day. How do we fix that?

First of all, what I think we're starting to see emerge from NCLB is that those schools that are starting to be successful -- where more and more students are learning at grade level, are being proficient -- are those that are rejecting the idea of teaching to the test. The drill-and-kill is doing exactly that: It's killing the appetite for learning among the students. They're not doing any better on the drill-and-kill, and they're not doing any better on the test.

But, again, you come back to this idea of engaging students in the learning experience, in the learning opportunity. And we're starting to see where reading is incorporated throughout the entire curriculum, where mathematics is incorporated throughout much of the curriculum, that students are starting to be engaged in a different way, and it starts to appear that they're doing better on some of the exams.

Where there's cooperative learning, where students are learning from their peers, where teachers are sharing their teaching experiences, where they have time to plan programs, to align the programs to the proficiency of the children, there are a lot of successes out there that we have to focus on.

And then there are a lot of things we have to do to change the act that we've learned over the last five years. We really do have to think not just about Adequate Yearly Progress but also about the growth of each and every student, and giving teachers and schools credit for a year's growth in a year in school; even if that child still may be behind in grade level, they've had a year's improvement. How do we work that into the system? How do we account and educate and respond to children with disabilities in the system and yet recognize that you can't unfairly hold the system accountable for some of those children who are not going to be able to make the progress of the rest of the students?

We also have to think about English-language learners and how are we dealing with them. One of the things we know in the education system is, if you're not counting the kids, you're probably not teaching the kids. You can't just exit them from the system, because it makes things more difficult. Those are areas that have been raised with us and that we're going to address in the reauthorization.

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4. Many teachers complain that NCLB is an unfunded mandate, and that the implementation of its dictates causes a lot of financial stress for their school district. How do you respond to that?

Well, first of all, I understand what they're saying. The funding that was promised under NCLB wasn't delivered. The president essentially broke his word to the students and to the parents and to the school districts. But the fact is, the requirements of NCLB are what the schools are supposed to be doing anyway.

NCLB is a voluntary program -- you don't have to take the federal money. But whether you have NCLB or not, the question is, are schools going to be responsible for fourth graders reading at fourth-grade level, eight graders doing math and reading at eighth-grade level? That's really the question NCLB is asking.

For too long, school districts and states really covered up and ignored the fact that the bottom 30 percent of our students were simply being ignored; they were simply being passed through the system, and nobody was accountable for how they were doing and whether they were proficient in the subjects presented to them. NCLB has shined a lot of daylight on that problem, and on school districts. Some are angered, because they're embarrassed by the fact that these students aren't doing as well as they'd been suggesting to the community.

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5. Do you have confidence that the NCLB monies will be freed up?

We're not going to cure in one year the problem that the president created. The deficit funding is really staggering now, but we hope to be able to add new money to change the trend line, to tell school districts that we will steadily increase that amount of money in exchange for high-quality teachers, in exchange for accountability, in exchange for high standards. That's the bargain of NCLB.

More and more states are starting to understand that NCLB is not going to go away because NCLB is what parents want. Parents have high expectations for their children. They want them taught to high standards. They want them to have a highly qualified teacher in the classroom, so there's overwhelming support for the components of NCLB.

It's my job and the job of the Congress to make sure it's working the best it possibly can. There's been a lot of criticism. We've been listening to those people, and that will be part of the reauthorization process for the act. We have to do two things: keep the integrity of the act in place, and change it so we can make sure it's in fact working in the classroom and in the schools.

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6. How can NCLB help the problem of high school dropouts in this country? It's quite enormous. By some reports, 40 percent of the kids that go into ninth grade don't reach twelfth grade in four years.

One of our hopes is that as we start to see younger students doing better, closing the gap between poor and minority children and other children in third grade, in fourth grade, in fifth grade. Soon, we'll have a set of high school students where more of them are able to be engaged with the educational process because they can in fact read and they can compute.

Right now, you're taking a very large cohort of students into the high school system at ninth grade and tenth grade who are reading at fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade level. They are obviously not fully engaged, they're not getting the benefit of those years in high school, and they're making the decision to drop out. We'd like to have better-prepared students entering high school in the next few years.

The other goal is that high school has to become more relevant to what they view as their future. We've got to have a bigger interaction between high schools and community colleges and state colleges so that students can move according to their ability. I don't think just applying No Child Left Behind to high schools will solve that problem.

There is a lot of money being expended by the foundations, by the philanthropic organizations in this country, by the governors, looking at the models of success in engaging students so they don't drop out. I think that we've got to insist that we have accurate information about students who are dropping out and why they're dropping out.

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7. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has issued a report that suggests a dramatic rearrangement of the educational day. After-school programs will play an important part of that shift. Do you see a reconstruction as dramatic as that?

I'd like to see a reconstruction as dramatic as that. We've come to a crossroads in American education as to whether we can carry the current structure of this educational system through this century and really meet the needs of the students, of the parents, of the communities, of our economy, of our social structure. I think there's compelling evidence to suggest that we can't do that. We cannot hamstring education by the structure of the school day, whether it's because it was based on an agrarian calendar, or whether it's based on the idea that it's a simple way to manage young people from nine in the morning until three o'clock in the afternoon.

We have the opportunity to engage young people, students, with the educational process. We've got to recognize that they're digital, and most of the school system is still analog. We've got to recognize that they have a different attention span; they're exposed to vast amounts of information, but much of it very chopped up. We must present the opportunity to make all this relevant to the education process. The current structure really doesn't lend itself to doing that.

We know there are many ways to present the subject matter. Mathematics can be brought in through music, through woodshop and metal shop. Mathematics can be brought in through computer sciences. Mathematics can be brought in through the media. There are a lot of ways to engage students, but the current educational system, for the most part, simply isn't flexible enough, or comprehensive enough, to allow those opportunities to take place. We do see examples of this happening in districts and schools all across the country, but they're too few and far between.

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8. We have a war in Iraq, we have serious health care problems in this country, and we have tens of millions of working poor. How do we make the issue and importance of education reform rise above the noise of all those equally serious issues?

What's interesting is, you're seeing the business community, and certainly the tech community, the biotech community, and the innovation community, telling the policy makers, "The most important thing we can do to keep the American economy on the cutting edge, to keep America's leadership worldwide, is education." That's where the benefit comes back to us.

There's no greater investment we can make in the public sector than in the education of America's young people. I think that's starting to permeate policy makers and the general population. In this highly competitive world -- where we now have economic challenges from countries that we never thought about twenty-five years ago -- this investment in education is critical.

We're hearing that from the CEOs of the high tech companies, the biotech companies; we're hearing it from the venture capitalists. We really need to understand that education is absolutely fundamental to the well-being of a democratic society and to the economy of that democratic society. You can't have both of those if you don't have an educated population. The definition of an educated population, even for entry level now -- we're really talking about an associate degree, fourteen years of education, whether you're going to go to work, or if you're going to go on to college. High school is no longer sufficient, and of course we also need a greater emphasis in math and science and engineering.

Read or listen to the second part of this interview.

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Comments (6)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This was very realistic. I think he is right, that we are not going to get NCLB funding and it is something that we should be working towards anyway. However, setting specific goals to make people feel better, is not going to help. We can make a difference if we do start looking a authentic instruction and assessment. teaching math through music or woodshop would make a big difference to a lot of students!!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

NCLB is a good in many ways. However, it is completely unrealistic in many ways. NCLB will do wonders once it realizes that teachers cannot overcome what neglectful parents mess up quickly. Some of the suggestions stated above as far as adequate yearly progress seem to address that to some extent. However, that is just the beginning. As a teacher, I grow weary of working very hard and seeing all of my students make progress, but see my school get slapped with a low performing label because a certain percentage of one or two minority groups didn't perform to this year's percentage requirement. All the while, Johnny's mom yells at me about why his or her work is too hard and why he's failing.

In summary, NCLB is a wonderful idea in principle, but the practicalities of the situation require an entrance as well. Those praciticalities are simply that not every child will be on level. Some children take more time to learn things. Some children come from such difficult circumstances which to some degree can be overcome by a good teacher at the higher grade levels, but is impossible to overcome at lower grade levels.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Blaming the parents is a very old and tired excuse. We do not have the liberty of deciding which child is in an "impossible to overcome" situation. A lot of very smart people put a lot of thought into NCLB. I don't believe that they made this decision arbitrarily. The fact is, excellent schools and excellent teachers find ways to overcome the effects of seemingly impossible situations. It comes down to whether the school has the will and the courage to do the things that they know are necessary to make a difference.

Any public school teacher who blames their school's problems on "one or two minority groups" needs to think a little deeper about what this country has set out to accomplish. We all know there are a lot of negative things going on in this country. The children in our classrooms are a reflection of society at large. But where do we begin to break the cycles of ignorance and poverty? Is it too much to ask that every child who spends a year in a classroom be able to demonstrate that he or she has achieved minimum competency on a given set of instructional standards? I don't think so.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The problem of student mobility is a problem that many schools in California have because of the high migrant population. Students that check in and out of school constantly are a problem for teachers who must assess and evaluate their individual needs and levels. They must often try to catch up students who may have not been in school for sometimes two or more years, and often not continuously. This must be done often for many students at many times in the year while trying to maintain the rigor of the course for the other students. This is a very exhausting juggling act. These students are then often counted as a mark against the teacher in terms of standardized testing criteria. Often the teacher has done an incredible job but this will never show in the current growth models under NCLB.

Jennie Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Everyone seems to think that the "dropouts" of 40% and higher are only the poor, minority students. I can give you proof that it is a much deeper problem than this. My son, 10th grade, 16 years old ... failing high school horribly. He comes from a two parent home, no divorces, no drug issues, no alcohol issues with him or in the home, dad is a mental health professional, mom is primarily stay-at-home / PTA president, child has had tutoring, been in Gifted classes, incredibly gifted in music and arts, but is bored out of his skull with day to day learning in the broken system we call school. These so called highly qualified teachers are pathetic when it comes to motivating a non-motivated student. Those who could learn without a teacher present will continue to do fine. Fortunately for our son, we have the options of removing him from school to home school him. Grades have shot up from failing to a's and b's. Give me less "highly qualified" certified teachers and more teachers who simply have the gift of teaching, who love kids, who are motivators, and encouragers, who help students find direction, who respect the students. I'm sick of the experts thinking they have the answers when all the while they continue to make is worse.

Jessica P. Boise, ID's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

All I have to say to people like Jennie is if you think being a teacher is so easy...sign up and get into the classroom. It sounds like you have plenty of time on your hands since you home school 1 student (your son) and you obviously have the "gift" to motivate and encourage since your one and only student is getting A's and B's. We have "highly qualified" teacher standards so we don't end up with people like you that "think" they can do it better. When you go to the doctors, do you go to someone who is qualified to treat you or to someone that simply has a knack for medicine? We should all feel lucky that people are still going to college to become teachers. These are the people that love kids and have made a conscience decision to making a difference in the lives of our children and system. These are the people that make less a year than their student loans when they reach a classroom. These are the people that we should be supporting instead of demeaning! It's not the teachers' fault that NCLB required "highly qualified" teachers to be teaching our children. Nor is it this requirement that made teachers unsupportive, disrespectful, or unmotivating towards students. The teachers who are this way were this way before NCLB and will continue to be this way after NCLB. I don't think your comments are fair or accurate towards teachers or NCLB. How would you like it if people criticized you on your parenting skills? It sure sounds like you have the means to get your son into an arts school that would nurture his gift of music and the arts. So who's ultimately responsible for your son's success...YOU or the system? Instead of continuing to beat the "system" down put your time to better use by volunteering or tutoring at a low income school. Hopefully you'll see that teachers have much more to deal with than just teaching.

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