Candidate Survey: Robert W. Miller for Howard County Board of Education
Robert W. Miller
B.S. in Psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland;
B.S. in Music Education from the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland;
M.Ed. in Music Education from the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland
Retired teacher (band director), Howard County Public School System, 1981-2015; Presently a private music lesson teacher and HCPSS substitute teacher
Teacher (band director) at Hammond Middle School (1985-2015), Hammond Elementary School (1985-1988), and Howard High School (1981-1985); Presently an HCPSS substitute teacher; Taught private music lessons since 1974; Directed summer band camps from 1992-2006; Band adjudicator, guest director, clinician
I was a candidate for the Howard County Board of Education in 2016; though I was not elected to the Board, I received 40,484 votes.
Why are you running for office?
Having retired in 2015 after 34 years of teaching in the Howard County Public School System, and having two children who attended Howard County public schools K-12, I have acquired experiences and knowledge that I believe would enable me to help move the school system in a positive direction. Though overall we have an excellent school system, I would like to help bring about improvements. During my tenure with the school system, I have seen educational initiatives come and go, many of which have had negative effects. Being that I have a perspective shaped from working “inside” the school system as a teacher and from “outside” the school system as a parent, I believe I am uniquely positioned to help bring about positive change and to anticipate negative unintended consequences when making decisions. Presently, I would like to help to bring about change regarding excessive standardized testing of students, a poorly-conceived teacher evaluation procedure, financial management inefficiencies, Common Core implementation, Special Education implementation, behavior management procedures, student service requirements, the propensity to implement programs without sufficient proof of effectiveness, etc. I also want to see the school system focus more on the “intersection between students and teachers” and supporting and enabling educators to do their jobs as well as they can, removing unproductive time-wasting activities from educators and enabling them to focus on quality teaching, provide individual assistance to struggling students, and increase collaboration with parents. I would like to see increased expectations of elementary school students regarding their organization skills, and I would like to see the school system use natural opportunities to reinforce these as well as attributes like integrity, dependability, and the like that will increase students’ opportunities for success. I also believe that technology can be harnessed in ways that can more effectively assist student learning, but at a reduced cost. I believe that increased respect for educators can help to achieve some of these goals as well as to encourage students to value their education. I hope to be a positive force in making our school system a place where students will be well-prepared to pursue their passions and live fulfilling lives.
Who do you consider your political role model, and why?
I can’t say that I have one political role model. There are characteristics I like that are exhibited by many politicians, but I’d feel uncomfortable choosing just one person to represent my role model (especially as sometimes things are discovered about politicians that could be surprising and/or disappointing).
What is your favorite book about politics and policy, and why?
I don’t really have a favorite serious book about politics and policy. Books I read are often related to education and/or leadership. Most of the political information I read I believe is from newspapers, other articles, websites, social media, and government publications. Though I find politics interesting, and though being aware of politics as it affects educationally-related legislation is important, when it comes to my campaign, politics in general is more of a means to an education-based end.
What is your favorite book about education, and why?
I hesitate to choose just one, because there are many I like. I’d like to take this opportunity to mention three. The first two influenced me to change aspects of my teaching: “Discipline With Dignity,” by Curwin and Mendler, and “Punished by Rewards,” by Alfie Kohn. The former dealt with the benefits of treating students with respect and the often escalating problems that can arise when students feel shamed. The latter dealt with problems that are caused when praise and rewards are used manipulatively, and how that practice can lead to students working for the praise and rewards instead of for the learning. My third choice is “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” by Diane Ravitch. This is a relatively recent book dealing with testing and school choice, written by a historian of American education who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration as an advocate of standards, testing, and choice, but later had a change of heart. It provides much detail on the policies and programs that have evolved regarding these matters, which are all relevant today. (Please forgive the extreme summarizations of these, in my opinion, very worthwhile books.)
What will be your top priority on the Board of Education?
It is hard to choose just one “top priority,” but if I had to at this time it would probably be to focus school system efforts on the “intersection of students and teachers,” thus reducing instructional and preparation time lost to overemphasis on standardized testing, a poorly-conceived teacher evaluation procedure, unproven fads and initiatives, and unnecessary paperwork. This time could be used to provide one-on-one assistance for students struggling with basic skills, organization, and/or social and emotional challenges; it could help to eliminate achievement gaps and other negative consequences that can accompany students who fall behind and/or have difficulties. A climate where administrative / central office personnel serve educators, students, and parents, and not vice versa, would be essential to the success of this initiative.
What is the biggest issue facing your county schools?
At the present time (3/4/18), I would say that the biggest issue facing the Howard County Public School System would be the budget deficit. Due to mismanagement in recent years, the health and dental fund presently has about a $22M deficit that the present Board of Education and Superintendent are trying to resolve. It appears that money will be taken from other programs and initiatives, and class sizes will rise, in order to get the deficit under control. Finding ways to live within our means while producing a high-quality school system is becoming increasingly challenging due to many factors, but judicious budgeting is a key to achieving this goal.
What are the three biggest issues facing Maryland schools?
Though hard to isolate just three, I’d say:
1) Providing opportunity equity for students living in conditions of poverty, so their opportunities are not limited by the financial situations of their parents;
2) Integrating the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) into the functioning of our school systems;
3) Ensuring appropriate funding of our school systems’ needs, including what is approved from the Kirwan Commission recommendations.
Have you read your county schools curriculum? If so, which parts do you like and which parts do you dislike?
I have not read every subject’s curriculum in our county school system at this point.
What is your position on school spending?
I believe that a high-quality school system should be a priority for our county. The future success of our most important resource, our children, to a large extent depends on quality of our schools. Even from a financial standpoint, a high-quality school system is beneficial when it comes to property values, revenue growth, attractiveness to businesses, etc. Additionally, our schools play a large part in enabling our communities to thrive. Thus, I believe that compromising the quality of our school system is not an acceptable option. On the other hand, we need to eliminate poorly implemented programs and waste; we have many residents, some with students, who are struggling to make ends meet and/or have other financial needs. Thus, when it comes to school spending, we should address this challenge in a way that will maintain a high-quality school system in the most financially prudent way.
—– The question below is related to this question about school spending, but I am leaving it blank because of the overlapping of choices and the oversimplification of a very complex subject, and I don’t think it will present a clear view of my priorities. I would encourage anyone with specific questions about my views regarding school funding, or concerns they would like to discuss, to contact me through my website, social media, or email (email@example.com).
Please identify the three areas which you believe should be prioritized when it comes to school funding
What is your position on teacher tenure?
I believe teacher tenure is worthwhile for a number of reasons, possibly the most substantial being the removal of a lot of the “politics” from aspects of professional relationships. I know some people have concerns regarding the retention of the relatively small percentage of teachers who are not effective; there are processes in place to deal with this problem, including dismissal, but there probably needs to be some streamlining of the processes to minimize any compromise to students’ educations. I do not believe that tenure and solving the problem regarding ineffective teachers is mutually exclusive.
What is your position on standardized testing?
Though standardized testing can have some valid uses (i.e., providing possible insight into the “achievement gap”, and providing possible insight into individual student achievement and skill attainment relative to other students), during the past few decades it has often been misused and overused. An example of misuse would be when schools are compared by evaluating standardized test scores with the mistaken assumption that the quality of a school can be determined by examining scores. There are a multitude of variables affecting test scores, including differences in demographics, transiency, prior school and environmental experiences, etc. (which are also reasons that standardized tests should not be relied upon when evaluating teachers). Regarding overuse, the amount of instructional time students lose taking standardized tests and preparing for them is far out of proportion to the amount of useful information derived from the tests.
The valid uses of standardized testing should not require the testing of all students in so many grades each year. In addition to instructional time that is lost, standardized testing causes many tangential problems. During standardized testing windows, resources are often used for testing instead of for learning, and educators are often used for administering tests instead of for providing instruction, so students who are not testing are still negatively affected when other students in their school are testing. The normal functioning of the school is disrupted; testing days are commonly blocked from activities, and testing and make-up testing add instructional challenges when only some of a class is pulled for testing, sometimes for days. Furthermore, instructional time is lost while students practice and/or prepare for the standardized tests. Money that could be used for instructional purposes is instead being used to purchase the standardized tests, pay for the operation of the schools during the testing, and compensate the staff members who administer the tests when they could instead be teaching.
Though a great deal of student and staff time and money is spent on standardized testing every year from early elementary school through high school, there appears to be little direct benefit to the students themselves; they are generally not even able to see what they answered correctly and incorrectly on the tests.
Many of the tests (i.e., PARCC) are mandated by State and Federal governments, so we should do what we can to reduce the negative impact of over-testing while trying to bring about change at the State and Federal levels. At least until that is accomplished, we should consider reducing or eliminating other county-based standardized tests. Regarding some tests, teachers often lack the time and/or resources to use the results to tailor their instruction to the specific needs of their students anyway.
I imagine that, for most adults, the most important things they learned in school aside from the “three R’s” could not be measured by a standardized test (i.e., creativity, effort, ethical reflection). Time spent on these tests is time taken from the other instruction. Furthermore, excessive concern with test scores can lead to “teaching to the test” and “scheduling to the test”, distorting the curriculum in order to achieve higher scores. Standardized testing, as presently executed, is a disproportional and unsatisfactory use of student and staff time and effort, and of taxpayer money. I would like to do what I can to change this situation by reducing the amount and frequency of standardized testing, as well as by researching the possibility of using standardized tests that would provide for increased student learning by enabling students to obtain informational feedback regarding their specific test responses.
What is your position on classroom size?
For most classes in general, the higher the teacher/student ratio, the better. The reasons are probably fairly obvious, and include increasing the attention that educators could give to individual students. That said, a realistic balance must be achieved, as higher student/teacher ratios cost more money. I would at least like to see a return to the class sizes from before the budget issues of the past couple of years. Then, I think that some evaluating should be done to find the class sizes that produce the best educational “bang for the buck” while enabling our students to receive a high-quality education.
Do you believe the Board of Education should have taxation authority?
Presently, Maryland school systems do not have taxing authority. In most other states, school systems do have some type of taxing authority. There are many pros and cons, and both scenarios have proven to be relatively effective and relatively ineffective. As there are so many variables involved, I do not presently have a stance on this issue. If the possibility existed of our Board of Education having taxation authority, I would need to know the details of an implementation plan before I could make a decision.
—–To those who have read my responses, thank you very much for your consideration!
-Robert W. Miller