Rep. Miller, Set to Retire, Had Key Hand in Federal Teacher-Quality Imprint

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 13, 2014 2 min read
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U.S. Rep. George Miller announced today that he’ll retire at the end of his term after 40 years in Congress, as my colleague Alyson Klein reports. One of his additional legacies is in focusing on the issue of teacher quality, a topic that contniues to dominate much of today’s so-called “reform” agenda.

Miller was primarily responsible for writing No Child Left Behind Act’s teacher provisions. He drafted the requirement that teachers of core academic subjects be “highly qualified,” and put in similar stipulations for paraprofessionals, many of whom were then hired in Title I programs for disadvantaged students.

That may seem like no big deal today, but consider that up until that point, the only real federal question on teachers was about whether to hire more or fewer. A 1998-99 class-size-reduction program in the Clinton era helped teacher rolls boom, but there was little focus in that effort on quality control—a job that states guarded jealously (and still do today).

The HQT mandate, for the first time, introduced federal stipulations on teacher hiring: The law required all teachers to hold state certification, to demonstrate subject-matter competency, and to hold a bachelor’s degree.

Most folks agree that the intent behind those provisions far outstripped their implementation or effect. There was, for example, a work-around for most veteran teachers, who could generally achieve the status by counting up professional-development hours. The consequences for states that didn’t bring their teachers up to highly qualified status were pretty weak soup. Meanwhile, some groups sued the U.S. Department of Education for allowing teachers in alternative-route programs to earn the “highly qualified” label. Researchers, using longitudinal data, found few strong connections between the HQT credentials and how students did. And civil rights groups faulted the Education Department for not enforcing the language in the law demanding that poor and minority students have equal access to qualified and experienced teachers in their fields.

But without this groundwork, it’s hard to see how today’s focus on teacher evaluations—which Miller has also endorsed—would ever have gotten off the ground.

During the last decade, Miller also introduced legislation, such as the TEACH Act, that focused on career ladders and performance-based pay for teachers. He was a supporter of the Teacher Incentive Fund, created by federal appropriators in 2006 to support similar ideas, and was willing to buck the teachers’ unions on the issue. Again, this was an important shift. Until that time, such ideas were mostly associated with Republican lawmakers. By helping prod Democrats on the issue, Miller created an environment in which it was possible for the then up-and-coming U.S. Sen. Barack Obama to hint to the National Education Association that he’d support merit pay if elected president.

Alyson’s write-up includes one other point that bears repeating, and that is that it was truly two Democrats, Miller and Sen. Edward Kennedy, who helped to put the teeth in the NCLB law. They insisted that schools break out test scores for students’ demographic backgrounds, disability status, and so on, and be held accountable for improvements in all those categories. Keep that in mind next time you hear someone talking about “George W. Bush’s NCLB law.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.