Profile: Matthew Miller

Standing Still Is Outside His Lexicon
BY PAUL RIEDE/School Administrator, November 2018

Matt Miller

MATT MILLER BEGAN a TEDx talk in San Diego two years ago next to a desk filled with textbooks. Anyone familiar with his thinking could have guessed what would happen next.

He talked about the $8 billion U.S. schools spend on textbooks each year and how much more effectively that money could be used. “We need to get rid of the textbooks and almost clear the decks,” he said. “Or really clear the desks, right?”

Then he lunged at the adjacent desk and used both hands to send the books crashing to the floor.

Miller, superintendent of the 16,500-student Lakota Local School District, 25 miles north of his hometown of Cincinnati, has been pushing the importance of digital resources and social media since starting the first of his three Ohio superintendencies in 2005 at age 33. Even before he arrived in Lakota in 2017, he claimed the Twitter handle @LakotaSuper for himself, and within a few weeks in the new job, he introduced the first districtwide hashtag.

He says that despite the worn-out mantra of “21st-century learning” — which he dispatched with a mock tombstone and funeral during his TED talk — many school districts are lagging far behind their students in fully embracing the digital revolution.

“We haven’t guided them to be good digital citizens, so they work around us,” Miller says. “Kids come into school, we tell them to turn everything off, and once they leave school they’re back in that digital footprint, they’re back online. We’ve just been telling them no, and we’ve done the same thing to teachers.”

At Lakota, as at his previous post in the Mentor Public Schools northeast of Cleveland, Miller is cutting back on textbook purchases and moving toward open educational re-sources, or OER, the vast trove of educational material on the web. He is not advocating doing away with textbooks altogether, but he is serious about ending the reliance on them. With proper professional development, Miller says, OER can liberate teachers and inspire students with a flexibility that textbooks can’t touch.

“Teachers are so much better than what the textbook companies are doing because they can pivot faster, they can build student interest, and it doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all,” he says.

Miller, who began his career as an elementary school teacher, further empowers teachers by having them share their own use of digital resources on professional development days rather than depending on outside experts.

Giving teachers greater autonomy and more opportunities to share with each other not only improves their teaching but pushes back on the negative stereotypes they have endured in recent years, he says.

“In public education our teachers and our administrators have been beaten down the last decade, maybe 20 years, in terms of ‘it’s not a noble profession, it’s not something flexible, you’re not very good at what you’re doing,’” Miller adds. “To me, that’s all rubbish.”

Lisa Phair, president of the Lakota District Parent Council and co-owner of a local real estate firm, says in addition to Miller’s digital push, she has been impressed by his focus on diversity and inclusiveness. In a well-off suburban district where college matriculation is the assumed outcome for the large majority of families, she says, Miller has changed the conversation from test scores and college admissions to preparing all students for the “three E’s” — higher education, employment or enlistment.

“I’ve found him to be fearless,” Phair says. “There’s nothing about his leadership that is status quo.”

PAUL RIEDE is a freelance education writer in Syracuse, N.Y.


Currently: superintendent, Lakota Public Schools, Liberty Township, Ohio

Previously: superintendent, Mentor Public Schools, Mentor, Ohio

Age: 47

Greatest influences on career: I’ve been blessed to learn from hundreds of teachers, staff members, administrators and others.

Best professional day: Two occur every year. The first is opening day for teachers and staff. The second is graduation.

Books at bedside: What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith; and Learner Centered Innovation by Katie Martin

Biggest blooper: Inevitably, every time I call a snow day, it’s a blooper. Half of the community thinks I’m the smartest guy ever (usually the students) and half the community thinks I’ve made the worst decision ever (usually the parents).

Why I’m an AASA member: AASA gives me opportunities to collaborate with like-minded superintendents who are passionate about improving public education. My professional network is fellow AASA members. We support each other.