Rep. George Miller, a leading architect of the No Child Left Behind legislation, says he never anticipated that the landmark education law would ignite the testing obsession that engulfed the nation’s schools, leading to what some have charged is a simplistic “drill and kill” approach that subverts real instruction.
EdSource sat down with Miller, D-Martinez, last week for a lengthy and wide-ranging conversation on his accomplishments, philosophy and hopes for the future of public education. The Contra Costa County congressman, who served as chair or ranking minority member of the House Education Committee and the Workforce Committee since 1997, announced earlier this month that after 40 years in the House of Representatives, he would not seek re-election when his current term expires.
In an animated discussion, Miller, 68, defended what has become one of the more controversial aspects of NCLB, testing and accountability. He said the purpose of the 2001 law that he co-wrote with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Republicans Rep. John Boehner of Ohio and Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire was to inspire a broader discussion of how children learn and to hold states responsible for ensuring that all students were learning, especially those at risk of failing due to income, ethnicity, race and disability. To Miller, the most important part of the law – which was championed by then President George W. Bush – was to require districts to publish data on how well students were doing.
“In this education system, if you’re not counted, you don’t count,” Miller said.
Testing was intended as a way to measure schools’ progress based on how well their students scored and to show schools where they needed to make improvements. Instead, said Miller “the mission became about the test.”
“I don’t believe you can drive a car blindfolded,” Miller said. “So all we asked was, ‘How are the kids doing in your test?’ And it turned out to be a nuclear explosion, because it wasn’t in the interest of the school district to tell the community how each and every kid was doing on their test.”
He was particularly ruffled early after the law’s passage in 2001 when school districts argued that they could never meet one of its key goals – having 100 percent of their students score proficient or above by 2014 on state exams. At the time, many schools had proficiency rates in the single digits.
“School districts and states came in, in the first year, and waved the white flag, and said, ‘We can never make the goal,’” recalled Miller. “Their proficiency was like 7 or 8 percent. I said, ‘Come back when you’re at 70 percent.’”
“I thought it was a legitimate question,” Miller said: “‘Is my son or daughter in her fourth-grade class reading at her fourth-grade level? Just let me know. It’s not a big thing. And then maybe I’ll get them a mentor, a tutor, or something.’
“It turned out to be a firestorm.”
Miller has also become involved in a smaller testing conflagration in California. He’s working behind the scenes, at the behest of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, to help broker a waiver that would allow California to postpone state testing until the new exam aligned to Common Core State Standards is operational. That test is a year away, and is only for math and English language arts. The congressman doesn’t agree with the state’s position, but doesn’t want California to face multimillion-dollar fines either – as Duncan has threatened. Instead, Miller wants California to use data from this spring’s Common Core field tests, known as the Smarter Balanced assessment, to measure student progress.
“My position, I think, is that we should extract the data (from the Smarter Balanced field tests) that we can extract because it would be helpful. I think it would be helpful for teachers. If the kids in your classroom didn’t thrive, what would you change for next year?” Miller said. “And from what the people at Smarter Balanced say, they’ve developed a range of data that can be extracted, and supposedly, if this is a road test, you’ve got to bring something back to analyze.”
The congressman is also guarded about California’s two most significant education reforms, Common Core State Standards and the Local Control Funding Formula. He likes Common Core’s focus on college and career readiness, but worries it may be premature to establish a higher bar beyond the proficiency required by No Child Left Behind, given how many California high school students can’t read well or do basic math, based on their scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and statewide exams.
He’s more skeptical about the Local Control Funding Formula, the historic change in the way California allocates money to public schools, particularly the local control part of it. He noted that districts had some local control until the 1970s, when a series of court cases found California’s method of school funding violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“That system wasn’t really working very well for most kids, and it certainly wasn’t working for poor or minority children,” said Miller, adding that this time around the state must have accountability. “You’ve got to have some system of determining how that local control is going.”
Miller brushed aside speculation that he is retiring due to polarization between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill that has brought most legislation to a standstill. This includes reauthorization of NCLB, formally called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. He said chances are “slim” that the current Congress will take action on the legislation, even though it should have been reauthorized in 2007.
In fact, Miller said his decision to leave Congress took root one day when he stood behind President Obama for a bill signing that he had spent years working on. And it wasn’t an education bill, it was the Affordable Care Act.
“I ran in 1974 on national health care and ending the war in Vietnam, and when he signed the (Affordable Care Act) bill … if I wasn’t on the stage behind the president, I probably would have jumped up and down. It was just a physical reaction, like, ‘Whoa, We just did it! It’s the law.’ And I started thinking, ‘Well, Jesus. You’re standing here on top of Mt. Everest, you know. There ain’t no up.’”
No Child Left Behind, the name given the to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act during President George W. Bush’s administration, received strong bipartisan support when it first came to Congress in 2001. That harmony has since ended and reauthorization of the federal education law is now seven years overdue.
EdSource: What is the likelihood that No Child Left Behind will be reauthorized this session?
Miller: I think it’s pretty slim. We have probably less than 90 legislative days left in this session of the congress, and this is a controversial issue, certainly, within the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives. We did pass out the bill that our committee wrote, on a partisan vote, and I think that bill will have a very difficult time in merging with the Senate. There’s very little support for the Republican-passed bill. … I don’t know if you can hammer out the differences at this stage. But the Senate is continuing to work on it, so if we get a breakthrough there, that would probably look more like a bill that you could pass and have the president sign. I think the House (Republican) bill has no merit, no legs, in the legislative process.
EdSource: What are the prospects of reauthorization beyond this year? Is it possible that this will just go on for years, not being reauthorized?
Miller: Well, it’s quite conceivable that that could be the case. I think that’s unfortunate, because No Child Left Behind is just so outdated. … I think the Race to the Top (a competitive $4.35 billion federal program for school innovation) program has … been very important (in giving) districts or states that really want to go to the future a chance to go, with some assurances about equity, about the use of data.
Testing and accountability
Miller is a strong proponent of testing, but says states went to the extreme after No Child Left Behind became law by putting all their efforts on teaching to the test instead of focusing on changing teaching methods to improve student learning.
EdSource: When you started out with No Child Left Behind, didn’t you have some expectation that this would have had more of an impact on closing the achievement gap? What happened?
Miller: To me, (it) was the failure to appreciate how the system would revert to a default position that the test became primary, as opposed to learning. So all of these different things were used to try to get kids over the hurdles, “drill and kill,” or however you wanted to do it, and we dropped everything else out.
In some cases, because of a lack of resources, (schools) reverted to this very simplistic approach. It turned out to be a disaster. But it was followed for over a decade, even when it was proving that nothing was going on.
EdSource: Can you fault districts for getting test-conscious when “proficiency” became the only measure? Isn’t it natural that that’s how they will respond?
Miller: That’s why we said, “Whatever test you’re giving, just let us know, how are the kids doing on that test, and are they proficient?” … I thought it was a legitimate question. “Is my son or daughter in his or her fourth-grade class reading at his or her fourth-grade level?” Just let me know. It’s not a big thing. And then maybe I’ll get them a mentor, a tutor, or something. It turned out to be a firestorm. … And now you’ve seen this come full circle, and people said, “We’re never going to get that proficiency standard if we don’t figure out how kids learn, because, obviously, what we’re doing is not working.”
But remember, there were people who believed that drill and kill could lead to learning. And there were people who were drilling and killing and saying “This is absolutely wrong. But that was the policy.”
The mission became about the test.
EdSource: Are you saying that the extreme focus on testing wasn’t the intention of NCLB?
Miller: Sure, it wasn’t the intention, but I didn’t anticipate that that’s what happened. In many instances, we probably didn’t anticipate how poorly so many schools were doing.
EdSource: What do you think of the goal of Common Core State Standards of getting students college and career ready, when we haven’t reached the proficiency goal yet?
Miller: Let me ask you this: In the existing system, given the level of proficiency, (what are) your chances of achieving college and career readiness? They may want to dismiss proficiency, but we have pretty good research on what happens if a child is not starting to read at a pretty proficient level in third and fourth grade, what happens to them in tenth grade, and the kinds of decisions they make?
So Common Core doesn’t say you just get to read the last chapter of the book. Common Core says you’ve got to understand all of the chapters in the process; and then you’ll end up with enough flexibility in your understanding of concepts that you’ll be able to pursue different careers or college choices, or the mixture of both.
But, again, if you can’t write, and you can’t understand concepts, and you can’t do basic, fundamental mathematics, your chances in this evolving economy are pretty limited. There’s got to be some benchmark somewhere along the line, because if I show up as a freshman at San Francisco State and I can only read “Jack and Jill,” I’m not going anywhere.
EdSource: So you’re a little skeptical?
Miller: No, no, no, no. All I’m saying is, you can’t wait until college to find out whether you’re on track. So I like the concept of “college and career,” because I think it reflects more what a workplace looks like today. Sort of college never ends, and the career is always evolving.
Teacher evaluations and tenure
School administrators in California have about two years to determine whether a new teacher will be granted tenure. Miller is among the critics of that system, who say that’s not enough time to make a well-informed decision about someone. He is a strong proponent of evaluating teachers’ effectiveness and using student test scores as a measure of teachers’ competency.
EdSource: Do you really think that linking teacher evaluations to student test scores will make a difference? This is such a key issue that it’s become the central stumbling block in terms of federal-state relations.
Miller: I think it’s a shorthand, manufactured issue to keep these reforms away from the schoolhouse door. … From the very beginning, this was a question of whether or not teachers wanted to be the architect of the system, or they just wanted to be the tenant. If you went back to Medicare, doctors chose to fight it at every turn, and they became the tenants of the system instead of those who were designing the system.
In fact, teachers unions have agreed to it in many parts of the country, so apparently it’s not the death knell (for teacher evaluation systems). But I think it’s important. Without any evaluations, after a few years, parents will tell other parents, ‘Don’t let your child get Mrs. Smith or Mr. Smith. You don’t want your child in Mr. or Mrs. Smith’s third-grade class.’ And the evaluation has already taken place because that (teacher) apparently didn’t work out for a lot of students.
EdSource: California has 1,000 school districts and these evaluation contracts are negotiated district by district. Practically speaking, is it possible to do in a state the size of California?
Miller: Of course it’s possible. All your preconditions are excuses to stay in the 19th century. It’s all possible. People are evaluated on the jobsites all the time today. Like it or not, employers want to know, “How are you doing? Is there value added through your participation in this enterprise?” And I don’t think that in something as important as teaching, that the personnel should be exempt from this.
EdSource: Would you change the tenure system? Would you scrap it?
Miller: No, but these are just logical questions that people ask in everyday life and everyday employment. You want to know how these people are doing. But to say we want to hire them permanently, but we don’t want to know how they’re doing, is just a really bad decision for the child, for the parents, for the taxpayers – right up the scale, a real bad decision.
Early childhood education
In November, Miller introduced the “Strong Start for America’s Children Act” to improve access to full-day preschool for low-income children. During his nearly 40 years in office, Miller also supported legislation to fully fund Head Start.
EdSource: Do you expect Gov. Brown to pick up on national movement and go forward with an expansion of early education?
Miller: The governor is going to move forward on early learning … with the use of these federal monies coming through existing programs. … Early Head Start is going to be used to handle part of that load, just as the schools and transitional kindergarten are all used to manage part of that load.
Other governors are running out way ahead of this, so I think there’s a way to do this. There’s a lot of infrastructure in early learning in California; some of it can be better quality, some of it can be better coordinated, some of it may need different leadership, so I don’t think any of that’s a barrier. And I think especially if you really look at the data on what it means to have those quality programs in terms of the future education of those children, (there is) a growing consensus on that part of it.
But the question is, are you going to insist upon quality? Are you going to insist upon skilled people delivering these services? You’re going to have to deal with it somehow. You’re going to have to deal with the question of pay to make this attractive, so you don’t just have this constant revolving door. The children deserve better than that, and the results will be better. …You’ve got to make the investment now, and the investment pays off later. It’s every bit as fundamental in terms of the economy of this state or the nation.
Miller was first elected to Congress in 1974 with a group of first-time lawmakers known as the “Watergate Babies,” who ran on a platform of cleaning up Washington in the wake of the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. He said he is leaving now not because Capitol Hill is in a state of gridlock, but because 40 years is long enough.
EdSource: In two years, what might we expect you to be doing?
Miller: I can’t answer the question. I don’t have that kind of plan. I know that this stage is closed. I think I have some talent, and we’ll see whether or not it works in another environment, and we’ll just have to see. People have been very kind, talking about all kinds of different things, but I have not focused on any of them. The response to my retirement was more than I would have ever imagined, and I can just tell you that I’ve happily spent my time returning phone calls to people that have been so very, very nice in their comments, and that’s what I’ve been doing since we got home from Washington.
Kathryn Baron is a senior reporter at EdSource. Contact her and follow her on Twitter @TchersPet. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.