Thursday, August 20, 2015
It was one of the strangest meetings I’ve ever had with a state legislator.
First of all, we were all teachers.
Even the legislator. Even his Aide!
Pennsylvania State Rep. Dan Miller (D-Mt. Lebanon) had been a history teacher before he sought a law degree and higher office.
His aide had been a Pittsburgh Public School teacher before she was furloughed and found a place in the representative’s office.
And, of course, there were the seven of us – all teachers at my school district.
We crowded together in his tiny district office to talk about how standardized testing is destroying public schools.
Which brings me to the second strangest thing – Rep. Miller didn’t just agree with us, he did so knowledgeably.
I’ve sat across a table from an awful lot of lawmakers, and they almost always try to find common ground.
Sure! I agree teachers are important! That’s why we need to fire more of them!
You bet neighborhood schools are vital! That’s why I want to close all the public schools and replace them with charters!
Uh-huh! School funding is critical but not more so than classroom teachers. That’s why we’re cutting your budgets! We want to see what you can do!
None of that at Rep. Miller’s office.
When we brought up how important it is to allow parents throughout the Commonwealth to opt their children out of standardized tests without penalizing their school districts, he praised parent rights.
When we described how the definition of school accountability has changed from holding lawmakers accountable to holding teachers accountable, he talked about the sad scapegoating of the profession.
And when we told him about how standardized testing is failing our students, he told us how it would have failed him if he were a student today.
“I wasn’t a very good student,” Miller admitted. He loved history and aced that class consistently, but he barely squeaked by in most other subjects.
The first book he read all the way through was “North and South” by Elizabeth Gaskell – in 11th grade!
Why? Because it interested him. “Jane Eyre”? Not so much.
And he admitted that in today’s environment where nothing is counted a success unless it generates a high test score, he would have been lost and probably would have dropped out.
Which brings me to the third strangest thing – Miller isn’t playing partisan politics. As a Democrat, he isn’t blaming everything on the Republicans.
“This is a bipartisan issue,” he said. There’s no reason why both parties can’t agree on what needs to be done to help our schools.
So why doesn’t the legislature do more?
Ignorance. “There’s a low level of analysis of bills down there (in Harrisburg).” Local government usually does a better job.
The representative’s teaching background gives him an edge, he says, but most legislators simply don’t have that knowledge base to draw on.
There’s a lot of good will in the capital, he says. “Most legislators aren’t trying to cause a problem.” They want to try to achieve something, but if those experiments fail, the consequences are dramatic, long lasting and hard to correct.
He even talks well of our Republican ex-Governor Tom Corbett, whose education policies – in my opinion – have crippled the state’s schools.
“He was always polite to me, “ Miller says. “He just didn’t talk.” He wasn’t approachable.
By contrast, Gov. Tom Wolf comes to you. Miller recalls walking in to his own Harrisburg office and Wolf was sitting there waiting for him because he had something he wanted to talk about. Wolf is well liked, even among Republicans. They might not agree with the new Democratic governor, but they have to admit he has the best interests of the state at heart.
Perhaps its Miller’s infinite good will that’s propelled the Democrat with only two years in state office to the House Education Committee.
Republicans have dominated state education policy for years. They still do. But in Miller we have someone who actually has a say in one of the most critical areas in the state. And he knows what he’s talking about, takes time to meet with real live educators and sympathizes with our cause.
Which brings me to perhaps the strangest aspect of the whole meeting – Miller’s analysis why more isn’t being done to combat the testing industry.
“The groundswell isn’t there,” he said. “You’re still the fringe.”
He praised teachers unions like the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) for being excellent advocates. He said lawmakers get all their emails, but the emphasis seems to be maintaining pension benefits. He understood why this is so, but the issues we were talking about didn’t seem to register on most legislators radar.
If true, there are a heck of a lot of folks on the fringe.
Rep. Miller, himself, for one.
The majority of public school teachers, too.
And the more than three thousand Pennsylvania students whose parents opted them out of standardized testing last year – they’re on the lunatic fringe.
Heck! If we’re all dangling on the outer edge, who’s in the middle? Where’s the mainstream?
Perhaps its just a matter of perception. Maybe the other side just has better public relations.
If so, it’s up to us to spread the word until all of us counterculture anti-standardization and anti-privatization folks are seen for where we really are – at the axis of real school reform.
Thank you to Meagan O’Toole for setting up the meeting. Thank you, Ben Lander, Yvette Robinson Logan, Mary Cay Rojtas-Milliner, Susan Olsen, and Roslyn Stulga for speaking out for your students and profession. And most of all thank you, Rep. Miller, for meeting with classroom teachers to talk about what’s going on in our state’s public schools and actually listening to our stories and advice.