Rep. Miller to grads: Be ‘disrupter’'Dynamic' environment is hope for reform
In his nearly 40 years representing Northern Californians from the East Bay, Congressman George Miller had turned down all invitations to speak at commencements – until Sunday, when Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, came down from The Hill to offer a deal to graduates of Stanford University’s School of Education. He’ll work hard to “create public policy that will empower and enable you to make the sustainable reforms necessary for our children and our schools to succeed,” he told the graduates. They, in turn, must agree to become “a disrurpter” – someone who will challenge the status quo and “won’t wait for change to come. You will embrace it and you will fight for your students.” (Go here for a transcript of the commencement address.)
What prompted Miller to accept Stanford’s invitation, he said, was his optimism that the “dynamic” education environment that graduates are entering “holds the most promise of sustained, meaningful reform that I have experienced since becoming a member of Congress.” He cited as evidence “conversations” in 17 states on revising teacher evaluations (no mention of new state laws forcing non-negotiated evaluation systems on teachers); the adoption by nearly all states of the Common Core standards and efforts to write better assessments; reforms pushed by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, and the Parent Trigger law, the parent-empowerment law first adopted by California and now being considered in a dozen states.
“As a result, the table is being set for real, systemic change recognizing the urgency of the needs of our children, our communities, and our nation,” he said.
Don’t sell yourself short; demand a good school
The job market for the new teachers and policy experts with master’s degrees and doctorates from Stanford is tough, he acknowledged, but “it is also a very different job market than previous graduates have encountered,” with a growing demand for new schools, a growing demand for smart, effective teachers, and a growing demand for enlightened administrators.”
So don’t sell yourself “cheap, or accept conditions that burden your talent and value. Schools that can’t or won’t keep up with the future will continue to lose market share,” Miller said, with new schools within districts or charter schools challenging “traditional schools.”
For his part, Miller vowed to help fix the No Child Left Behind Law that he helped craft a decade ago but which he acknowledged is “in need of substantial reform.” But what a reauthorized NCLB won’t do, he said in a conversation afterward, is go “soft” on accountability, because “accountability is the linchpin.”
“For all its flaws,” he said in his speech, “No Child Left Behind blew the doors off the notion that we could allow our schools to continue in an environment without real information about how each and every student fared in school. Schools were required, for the first time, to take some responsibility for student outcomes.”
A reauthorized NCLB, formally known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, will continue to hold schools accountable for the results of subgroups of children, but by multiple measures, including graduation rates, and not just one-time high-stakes standardized tests, Miller told me. And schools will have more flexibility to determine the ways to achieve improved results and to spend federal aid without dictates from Washington. He expressed confidence that the new federally funded assessments aligned with Common Core that two groups of states are creating will be “richer” and vastly better than the “mishmash” of cheap tests that individual states designed. (He didn’t promise that the feds would pay the states for the higher costs of better tests, but indicated that those in Congress working on the new law understand this is an issue.)
Congress, he said, has the obligation to create a “modern workplace” for teachers where they can work collaboratively, have access to real-time data on their students, and be effectively evaluated. They must be “at the center of any conversation about improving student achievement.”
The elements of an effective ESEA would include, he indicated:
- Accountability “through a richer index of measures that includes growth, graduation rates, and a high quality, modern assessment system;
- Flexibility for districts and students to improve schools, “whether it be extending the school day or providing wraparound services or developing a new curriculum.”
- Data-based decisions that communities and parents can understand;
- Flexibility at the local level to choose how funds will be spent;
- A professional environment for teachers and school leaders that gives them the information and the resources to succeed.
Miller said that he believes two-thirds of members of both political parties could agree on the basic elements of reauthorizing ESEA, and expressed optimism that the law could be reauthorized this year – a view not shared by many observers in Washington. His counterpart, John Kline, a Minnesota Republican who chairs the Education and Workforce Committee, has dismissed the possibility that a bill would be introduced by the end of summer.
UPDATE: Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters he would consider suspending parts of NCLB, including the requirement that all students be proficient by 2014, if Congress doesn’t reauthorize ESEA this year. On Tuesday, from 6 to 7:30 am Pacific time, Miller and Duncan will speak in a discussion on ESEA reauthorization at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. (Further update: Miller said at the discussion he is skeptical of he use of waivers and hopes states don’t see that as a path around accountability.)