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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.