George Miller, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from California, took the helm of the 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 Board) 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 part two of the interview:
- How do our students stay competitive with kids around the world?
- Is it a question of more science and math education? Is it that simple, or is it much deeper and more complex?
- What is the role of the federal and state government in prekindergarten education?
- I think one of the essential components in educational reform is attracting and maintaining great teachers, yet half of teachers drop out within five years. Do you support financial incentives for teacher performance?
- How important is it that we attract mid-career-level professionals to the teaching profession? Not just people right out of teaching school, but people who've had ten or twenty years of professional experience?
- What can we do to make school-construction issues a higher priority?
- What subjects aren't we teaching in school that we should be?
- What kind of student were you?
9. How do our students stay competitive with kids around the world?
Tragically, when our students start out, in fourth and fifth grade, they're the best in the world, but by the time they get to high school, they're among the poorest performers in the world. It really is cause for concern, because we want students who are performing to the best of their talents and their abilities all the way through the educational system, but that's not happening.
That's why you see a lot of concern in the business world, because the businesses are paying $60 billion a year training and retraining these individuals. If these individuals don't have basic skills, and the ability to adapt and apply additional knowledge and information, there's a mismatch. We really can't afford that as an economy.
10. Is it a question of more science and math education? Is it that simple, or is it much deeper and more complex?
The question of our educational success is really about a retooling, a modernization, a comprehensive commitment to education from early-childhood education to the graduate level and to lifetime learning, because people from the workplace now are going back to school to acquire additional skills to hold onto their jobs.
It's really rethinking not only the shape of education but also the commitment to education as a nation. The other things you want to address really don't fall into place if you don't address education -- whether it's health care, the competitiveness of our economy, or the well-being of our society. All those key off the success of the education of the American population.
11. What is the role of the federal and state government in prekindergarten education?
If you're going to have meaningful expansion of prekindergarten education, the federal government must become a major partner with the states in that effort. PreK education cannot just become, again, the warehousing of children for some period of time because their parents are working. We've got to take that kind of opportunity and turn it into a benefit by having high-quality prekindergarten programs, because we see, from the research, that if you do that, those children are school ready, more able to take advantage of the opportunity of learning in first, second, third, and fourth grade, and they start to get a chance to be successful.
12. I think one of the essential components in educational reform is attracting and maintaining great teachers, yet half of teachers drop out within five years. Do you support financial incentives for teacher performance?
Absolutely. In every other aspect of the American economy, financial incentives play a role in attracting talented people. But we have to understand that financial incentives will not be enough if you're attracting highly skilled and talented people to a dysfunctional system.
When we look at why teachers quit in their second and third year, we see isolation, lack of pure contact to be able to talk to other teachers about what they're doing right and doing wrong, lack of a mentoring program so they can improve their skills and their talents, lack of a program to introduce them to teaching so that they have some kind of work experience, and the failure to be consulted on how the school or the school district is going to deliver the learning opportunity.
There's too much top-down, telling teachers do this and do that without really taking into account their experience, their talents, their learning on how to shape this educational experience to the best advantage of the students. If you just have financial incentives, you'll continue this current problem, which is that skilled, motivated, talented people come into the system, they spend a couple years, and they look around and they say, "This isn't logical that I stay here. This isn't going to be good for my financial future, or my professional future," and they leave.
That costs us about $2.5 billion a year, just the churning of those teachers who are leaving. If we took that $2.5 billion and put it into attracting high-performing high school students, high-performing college students, stipends and grants to keep them engaged, to go into math and science, to go into critical areas -- students with disabilities, English-language learners -- all of these kinds of educational opportunities, we'd get a better teaching corps, and a teaching corps that sees it in their interest to stay with the profession.
13. How important is it that we attract mid-career-level professionals to the teaching profession? Not just people right out of teaching school, but people who've had ten or twenty years of professional experience?
It's a good idea. I think we also have to understand, though, that we have to give them a support system. We have to make sure that we put in place those things that will give them the greatest opportunity to be successful in teaching. I think that whether we take people from the military, or from other business enterprises, who want to teach, who want to participate, we should encourage that kind of lateral transfer.
But it's not easily done. Teaching is more difficult than most people think. We suffer from a syndrome in America that anybody can do it. That's not true, in terms of high-quality, high-performing teachers. This is a very serious profession. But I think it's enriched by bringing people in from mid-career changes who want to really engage now in the educational experience, in teaching.
14. What can we do to make school-construction issues a higher priority?
We have to value the children who are inside of the buildings. What you have is a scandal. You have children spending six to eight hours, a school day, in a building, in an environment, that no employer would be able to put their employees in. No employees would work for an employer that had a situation that exists in so many of our schools -- certainly in urban areas, in other areas of the country. It's deplorable, it's unacceptable, and it certainly isn't conducive to the learning environment.
At some point, it's hard to believe that you can continue to fantasize about a world-class educational system in a third- world structural system in terms of school buildings and facilities. It's an indictment of the American commitment to education. How that's sorted out between federal government and state government and partnerships, whether we provide loans, whether we provide matching grants or tax incentives, it must be sorted out, because it is a scandal on this nation, the places that we send our children for education.
15. What subjects aren't we teaching in school that we should be?
I think today the array of subjects really is far beyond what anybody would have contemplated fifteen years ago, and mainly that's because of technology and media and the Internet. My concern is that for the students to take full advantage of any of these subjects, they really have to master the ability to read the written word. And I say that acknowledging the digital age, but there's a wealth of information and skills to be acquired if you're able to read.
There's an old adage: You've got to learn to read so that you can read to learn. I think that's fundamental. Once we've accomplished that task -- somehow, it's eluded us for so many years -- of proficiency in reading and mathematics, history and arts and geography and politics and religion come alive.
If you can't deal with the basic comprehension and the skill, it's hard to see how you can take advantage of everything else that's offered for your lifetime of education and the acquisition of knowledge. I'm a bit of a stickler on really arming students with the talents to take advantage of education in any subject in any situation for the remainder of their life. That would be the gift of the American education system, as far as I'm concerned.
16. What kind of student were you?
I was not a great student. I guess I was what would be considered an average student.
But my family always placed a great value on education. I'm an avid reader; I continue my education. I was fortunate -- I went to public schools: a public high school, a community college, a state college, and the University of California for law school. And here I am! I've been very fortunate. But I've never stopped my inquisitive nature. To me, a book is a gold coin. It's as valuable as it can get. To find out what's going on inside of that is, to me, an exciting discovery.
The goal of my tenure in Congress is to try to see whether we can really excite students about discovery and whether we can equip them to go after that discovery and see it as a pleasure and a reward, not as a drudge, and painful. I think that's when students are free to go off into so many endeavors and make so many contributions -- even those of us who are average students. If you tune in to the excitement of learning, that's all possible.
Read or listen to the first part of this interview.