Jeffrey Miller

Below are candidate-submitted answers to a biographical survey Riverside-Brookfield Landmark sent out to all candidates running in this year’s elections.

Age: 53

Previous political experience:  District 96 Board Member, 2015-2017

Previous community experience:  Helped organize science fairs at Central School, Olmsted Society Board Member for 2 years

Occupation:  Proprietary Trader

Education:  A.B. Physics, University of Chicago, 1985

                     Ph.D. Theoretical Physics, University of California  Santa Barbara, 1992

The district has commissioned a comprehensive facilities survey as it looks to address 21st century classrooms and learning. The district has also purchased land next to Ames School. Is there a different way District 96 can provide services, for example, using buildings a grade centers versus neighborhood schools? What would be the best use for the new space at Ames?

I like our neighborhood elementary schools and do not think we should convert them to grade level centers. As the facilities committee has not yet finished its study, it is premature to have a strong position on the best use for the lot next to Ames. That said, any proposed use should address the chronic overcrowding at Ames.

Grade level centers have some advantages. For example, they allow teachers who teach the same grade to collaborate more easily, they provide more opportunities for specialization (e.g. one teachermight teach only math, another only social studies), they allow class sizes to be more uniform and occasionally they make it possible to reduce the number of sections in a given grade. 

But in our district, with our configuration of schools, and with our current enrollment numbers, grade level centers are not realistic. To see why, consider how they would work in practice. Currently every classroom in the district is being used (there may be one underutilized classroom at Blythe), so implementing a full blown grade level center model in District 96 would mean putting one entire grade at Blythe (e.g. kindergarten), one at Hollywood (e.g. 1st grade), two at Ames (e.g. 2nd and 3rd) and two at Central (e.g. 4th and 5th), with ratios of students roughly 1:1:2:2.  As the ratios for the numbers of K-5 students at Blythe, Hollywood, Ames and Central are now typically 1:1:3:3,  Blythe and Hollywood would become more crowded (especially when a grade cohort is unusually large, as are the current 6th, 7th, and 8th grade cohorts) while Ames and Central would become less crowded and the preschool and LADSE programs would need to be moved to Central and to Ames. So while it would be possible to convert our schools to grade level centers, the drawbacks of doing so are large and obvious. Students would not be able to walk or bike to a familiar neighborhood school but would instead have to be shuttled all over town, many more kids would need to cross 1st Avenue twice a day, kids at different grades in the same family would attend different schools, and in the short span of six years students would be required to attend four different elementary schools.

Also, students and their families form strong bonds with their neighborhood school.  Many parents volunteer in the schools and we have active and engaged PTOs and PTAs that do a tremendous amount of work to enhance the education and daily lives of our students through field trips, cultural arts, science fairs, social events, book fairs and many other activities throughout the year. If we replaced neighborhood schools with grade level centers these bonds would weaken. There would be less parental engagement and fewer PTO/PTA sponsored activities diminishing the attractiveness of our schools. As many families have moved and continue to move to District 96 precisely because we have good walkable neighborhood schools, it seems unlikely that many residents would embrace the grade level center scheme, especially as some of the benefits of these centers – like greater collaboration between teachers at the same grade – can be (and are being) obtained in other ways as part of the district’s professional development program. There are a number of variations on the grade level center theme but I expect all of them would suffer similar drawbacks.

There is one case where consolidating grades at a single location makes sense and that is the preschool. Our state mandated preschool has grown dramatically in recent years from around 25 a few years ago to 65 today. The preschool is intended to help children who have a learning disability prepare for kindergarten. The State requires that for every three children enrolled with a disability the district must also enroll an additional seven children who do do not have a disability; we charge tuition for the latter group. We don’t have space for a preschool class at all the schools and it would be inefficient to do neighborhood preschool even if we did.  Before this year, the preschool was housed entirely at Hollywood (two classrooms) but because the program grew a lot this year it had to be expanded into Blythe (one classroom).  As Hollywood is one classroom smaller  than Blythe,  the facilities committee should weigh the benefits of moving the entire preschool to Blythe and possibly moving our one LADSE classroom to Hollywood.

It might also make sense to consolidate a full day kindergarten in one location, if the district were to decide to offer it (more on this below), although the advantages of consolidation are less clear for kindergarten than for the preschool. We don’t currently have enough space for an all day kindergarten so offering it would require a build out of some kind at one or more of our schools. It might be that the best way to do that is at a single school in the form of an early learners’ center. But it also might be possible (without getting into the details) to run a full day kindergarten at each school if for example we added some extra classrooms to Ames. This again would be a topic for the facilities committee to analyze in more detail.

Regarding the property at Ames specifically, the facilities committee has been asked to develop a number of different options all with a view to optimizing district wide space usage. We don’t yet know what these ideas will be, but we do know that Ames overcrowding is one specific problem that should be addressed. The Ames neighborhood  – defined as all the residences which are closest to Ames, measured by actual walking distance (this corresponds closely to the actual enrollment boundary) – contains almost exactly as many students as the Central neighborhood. But unlike Central, Ames doesn’t have enough space to accommodate three full sections (it is at least one classroom short of three sections), let alone the the occasional additional sections that are required when there is a spike in enrollment. This creates a cascade of problems. It makes Ames overcrowded even by district standards. And students in the Ames neighborhood must periodically be sent to either Central (which is itself typically at full capacity) or Blythe. Without trying to anticipate the committee’s ideas I would simply note that if Ames had just a handful of additional classrooms to make it a full three + section school with an extra room for music (currently shoehorned into the lunch room), it would significantly  ameliorate our district wide overcrowding problems.  A modest buildout would also be a lower risk option if enrollment were to decline in the future.

Apart from any potential build out, the balance of the new lot at Ames should in my view be devoted to green space, playgrounds, naturalistic landscaped areas and student gardens.

Do you support full-day kindergarten? If so, how can the district implement such a program?

In the fall of 2015 the district engaged in a strategic planning process. Community members, staff, and board members met over several evenings in focus groups to map out the top district priorities for the next five years. There were five focus groups covering a range of topics. Each focus group came up with five priorities or goals relevant to that focus group’s topic. Every participant in the strategic planning process got to cast two votes for what should be the top two priorities in each area. All day kindergarten was one of the goals considered by the Curriculum and Instruction focus group. After lots of discussion and debate the final tally for priorities in this focus area was 42 votes for working to strengthen our core curriculum, 29 votes for studying how we could implement a foreign language program in the elementary schools, 11 votes for studying the possibility of all day kindergarten, and 4 votes for developing a more interdisciplinary curriculum. By design the strategic plan took the top two vote getters in each of the five focus areas so studying the possibility of all day kindergarten did not make the final cut and is not currently part of the strategic plan. That is not to say this topic could not be revisited, just that, because it is not part of the strategic plan, it is not currently a formal district priority.

If the district were to revisit the concept of an all day kindergarten, there are several questions that would need to be answered. The first question is whether such a program would benefit our students and if so in what ways. The other questions are how much such a program would cost to run, where we would house it, and how it would affect the long run fiscal condition of the district.

Last year, after extensive research and discussion, two neighboring districts, Western Springs (District 101) and River Forest (District 90)  both decided against offering all day kindergarten. They cited the additional cost and space and perhaps most importantly they both reached the conclusion that all kindergarten would not provide much benefit to their students.

Most districts in Illinois do offer all day kindergarten but interestingly it is much less common in more affluent districts than in poorer districts. The state funding model may be one reason: the State picks up a large fraction – sometimes almost all – of the costs of programming in less affluent districts, but in more affluent districts like ours a combination of local property taxes and tuition would essentially have to cover the entire cost.  (Some of the affluent districts that have decided to offer all day kindergarten defray some or all of the additional costs by charging tuition.)

Finally it should be noted that the district does run an extended day kindergarten – the KITE program – for students that the district has identified as being at risk.

What’s been the impact for students from the district’s change in its 1-to-1 program, replacing MacBooks with Chromebooks? Are there other ways technology can be integrated into the curriculum?

Replacing old MacBooks with Chromebooks should have no effect on student learning.  Chromebooks are cheaper than MacBooks (which is why the district is switching over to them) but have similar functionality.

The district has invested a lot of money in technology – both in underlying infrastructure, like the wireless network, and in its 1-1 laptop program. It’s important that we maximize the educational impact of this investment. To that end, the technology department has two people working full time with teachers on how to best integrate technology into the curriculum and in general how to use technology to improve learning.

There are a number of initiatives in this area including an ‘hour of coding’ program which teaches kids how to program using a pictorial but real computer language (Scratch), various STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) related projects that require a computer, using computers to make multimedia presentations.

Technology should also allow teachers to better tailor instruction to the level of individual students to make sure that students of all levels and abilities are suitably challenged.

District 96’s student body is becoming more diverse, as evidenced by ELL programs at both Central and Ames schools. How should the district address that growing diversity moving forward?

At the highest level, our educational goals are largely the same for each student: that they be well prepared for high school. But of course students differ in many ways when they start kindergarten. They may differ in the language they speak at home, in how many books have been read to them as toddlers, in what their home environment is like, in their innate personality, interests, inclinations, aptitudes, and so forth. We want everyone to end up in the same place (ready for high school), but everyone starts at a different place and the question is: given these differences, how do we make sure that every student gets a solid education?

The most effective way to do this – and I think this is what the district actually does in practice – is to carefully assess the strengths and weaknesses of each child  when they enter school and then periodically thereafter. Based on these assessments, the district should (and I believe does) tailor a program for that student so that they can quickly get any extra help that they may need to quickly get caught up with their peers. The idea is that by identifying any weaknesses early on, the district reduces the chances that students fall permanently behind.  The extra help comes in various forms, for example special language classes for students that don’t speak English at home, extra tutoring in math, and social work for students who, for whatever reason, need some extra support.

It’s really important that the district look out for students who are struggling, whether  because of their home environment or because they lack certain social skills or for other reasons. Often, these students have no one to advocate for them. We need  to ensure that we provide these students with the support they need so that they will have a chance to succeed despite starting life with the deck stacked against them.

Finally we need to make sure that the district continues to embody the American ideal that everyone is equally deserving of dignity and respect and that all are welcome in our schools.

Explain your views on the relative advantage of assessments and using them to measure proficiency or growth.

In moderation, assessments are necessary and useful. If they are properly designed and if the results are examined with care and skill, assessments can help teachers and administrators identify areas where students either need more assistance or where they might need a greater challenge. Taken in aggregate, assessments can also help to identify areas in which our curriculum and instructional techniques could be improved.

If an assessment is to be useful, it must be stable through time. If the test drastically changes every year, it’s of limited use. Likewise, for an assessment to be useful the results need to be reported quickly. If a student gets his or her results six months after they take the test, it’s not very helpful.

Some examples of useful assessments are the reading and math MAP tests, the Cogat, the ACT and the SAT. These are all stable through time (e.g. the numbers mean the same thing from one year to the next) and seem to be reasonably well designed.

A relevant question for well designed assessments is how often they should be administered for optimal results. Taking a test imposes an opportunity cost on the student. If we require students to take more tests than are necessary, we are taking time away from the other valuable things they could be doing in school. Good private schools, like the University of Chicago Lab school, seem to administer far fewer assessments than do public schools. One reason for this is that the state mandates public schools to administer certain tests, like the PARCC, while private schools have no such requirement. I think the current administration at District 96 is aware of the trade off between administering too few and too many assessments and is working to strike the right balance.

Unfortunately some assessments are neither well designed nor carefully thought through.  An example is the PARCC test whose roll over the last few years has been a debacle. In the initial version of the PARCC test given two years ago, students, for reasons that were not clear at the time (and at least to me, are still not clear) had to take two multi-day tests separated by only a few months. Then in the subsequent year (last year), the PARCC, which is written and sold by the publishing giant Pearson, decided to scrap the two stage test and just have one multi-day test. In the meanwhile, something like 19 of the 25 states that initially signed up for the PARCC had dropped the test entirely. Then just last summer Illinois decided to scrap the PARCC – but just for high schools – and replace it with the SAT. It is unclear what will happen with the PARCC going forward and there are presumably some lessons here about how not to do federal education policy.

All this said, I would encourage people to have their kids take the test and not opt out of the PARCC. From what I gather, the test has improved since its ill fated debut and actually does now provide a reasonable measure of how well individual students are meeting the Common Core standards. Also, at the district level, families that opt out tend to be the families of high achievers. If we have a higher percentage of students opt out than other districts, this could skew our numbers relative to other districts and make the assessment less valuable as a measure of district performance.

About proficiency vs growth. Growth is defined to be the change in proficiency from one time to the next. It is perhaps more useful for many purposes to focus on growth. One reason is that on average our students score much higher on standardized tests than the national average.  So to measure an individual’s progress, we need to look at his or her growth over time and not just at their proficiency which starts high. Likewise, and again in aggregate, growth numbers are a better measure of school performance than raw proficiency numbers which depend on students’ starting points.

What other issues are important to you as a school board candidate? How would you advocate for them as a board member?

In a nutshell, here are the issues that are important to me as a school board candidate:

  •  A rigorous academic program that challenges every student – from those who are high achievers, to those in the middle of the pack, to those who need extra help – and allows each student to develop their full potential.
  •  A well balanced curriculum that meets the needs of the whole child. Teaching kids how to constructively handle social and emotional challenges, allowing them ample time for recess and play, encouraging daily physical activity and sports, teaching students  how to get along with others, exposing them to the arts and music, and teaching them virtues like honesty and hard work are just as important as the academics.
  •  Maintaining the fiscal health of the district. The district is currently in reasonably good financial shape, but we need to remain vigilant. One big concern is the truly dire fiscal position of the State. It is not clear how the State will address its enormous fiscal mess but I expect, based on the bills that are floating around in Springfield, that whatever the legislature does decide it is likely to be bad for our district. We may lose some state funding and the State may push its pension liabilities on to us. Another concern is the mismatch between growth in our district’s revenues (which is capped at inflation, plus whatever typically small amount that we get from new construction) and the growth in our expenses. Expenses are growing two or three percent faster than revenues, which may not sound like much but quickly adds up over time. We absolutely need to keep this under control and can in part do so by making sure that our educational investments are well targeted – that when we spend money, it will have a real benefit for our students. My general position on spending district money is that we must do so with great caution. I want to avoid ever having to see the district in the position of having to cut important programs because we spent money unwisely on unimportant programs. But I also strongly believe that we must fully fund and not skimp on the truly important programs.
  •  Good communications with district residents. The district in some sense belongs to the residents of the District 96 community. The residents fund the district at a generous level because they care about the quality of our schools. It’s imperative that the district in turn keep the residents fully informed, via annual reports and other forms of communication, of what is happening in the district.
  • Recruiting and retaining excellent teachers, administrators, and other staff. Our dedicated, hardworking staff is the most important part of our schools. I believe that a fair, collaborative and respectful partnership with our administrators and teachers will yield much better results than taking a confrontational approach. As teachers retire, we should make a concerted effort to actively recruit the best candidates we can find, ideally candidates who have a demonstrated proficiency in both teaching and subject matter.