Sunday, October 16, 2011

Issue #29 October 16, 2011- Jobs, Walker Recal, Democracy Destroyed?, Occupy and Testing

Issue #29- October 16, 2011
In this issue: Jobs, Recall Walker, Destroying Democracy, Occupy and more Testing.


Next week Wednesday, October 19, the Assembly Education Committee is holding a hearing on AB 314, prohibiting the automatic expansion of the taxpayer-funded private school voucher program to school districts beyond Milwaukee and Racine without specific legislative approval.

Please email your legislator.  Enacted, the 2011-13 state budget contained a provision to automatically expand the voucher program to school districts located in cities outside of Milwaukee, if certain criteria are met. Only Racine currently meets the criteria. At the time, legislative leaders indicated that it was not their intent to expand the program to communities other than Racine and trailer legislation would be introduced to make this clear. AB 314 delivers on this promise and now it is up to legislators to see it through by passing it in both houses of the Legislature and presenting it to Governor Walker for his signature.

The Politics of Jobs…
As the economy continues to struggle we look to our leaders to help improve our situation.  This has been a fact throughout our history.  There are many conservatives who would have us believe that "True Americans" are self sufficient and don't need anything but freedom to be successful.  That is simply not true.  Any government has a huge role to play in the economic success of its people.  Whether it is providing a viable infrastructure, providing education for people, or any of countless other ways government impacts the economy it is clear that the public sector is vital to economic growth in the private sector.  No individual in America today can honestly say that they haven't benefitted in some way from our government's actions and policies. 

It is disturbing that the political climate of today's America is one where nothing is being done to help correct our economic difficulties.  There is a lot of rhetoric from the right about creating jobs, but…

There is also significant concern about the effects of some of our Free Trade Agreements.

There is some positive legislation being put forward here in Wisconsin as some Democrat legislators work to restore collective bargaining rights to public workers.

Recall Walker…

The announcement that the movement to recall Walker was welcome news across Wisconsin.  It is truly amazing that a movement that began back in February is still going strong (and even gaining momentum).  If you think about the "shelf-life" of a typical political story in modern America it is even more incredible.  I remember the fear in late February/early March that, once everyone returned to work and the protests started to wane the movement would die off.  The Republican leadership counted on this to happen.  They were hoping that people would forget, lose interest and go back to political apathy.  Clearly that isn't the case.  

It bears repeating that the recall movement in Wisconsin is a special case.  Too often we see the "tools" available to defend our rights misused.  This is especially true when partisan politics are involved.  I sincerely hope that future movements think carefully before using recalls as a way of asserting their views.  Recalls should be reserved for situations that merit their use.  I've written before about why the situation in Wisconsin is a good example of the value of a people's ability to recall their elected officials.  The extreme actions, blatant disregard for the good of the people and the questionable methods employed by the Republican senators and governor merit the recall movement.  Just in case you needed more reasons to support a recall.

Now that the announcement has been made, it's time to get back to work.  The organizations that brought about the successful recall of the 2 senators this summer will be engaged again.  We know that it will be difficult to outspend the Republicans so it will come down to the efforts of a large number of people volunteering their time and energy to make the recall happen.   

The main focus needs to be on recalling Walker.  He is clearly a symbolic figure for both sides.  However, we need to remember that defeating Walker won't end the efforts of the right to advance their agenda of privatization and socioeconomic control.  It is clear that he is one of the figureheads for the movement that is guided by behind the scenes figures who mastermind the attacks on the common citizen.  Removing Walker from office would be a huge step in the right direction, but must be followed up by more victories in elections and a concerted effort to restore balance to America.

Are we able and willing to take up a larger fight and expand the recall efforts.

Another question is, what about Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefisch?  If Walker is recalled, she steps in and can continue his policies.  I believe that if she becomes governor she will be immune to recall for a year.  It seems clear that she should be a target for a recall effort as well.  However, one thing that we learned this summer is just how difficult it is to organize massive grassroots efforts in many different areas.  Republican efforts will focus on defending Walker so it may be possible to get one more senate seat back this spring.  It just becomes a matter of how much our activists can take on.

Destroying Democracy…
Obviously, the right to vote and the integrity of the electoral process is the cornerstone of any democracy.  Undermine any aspect of fair elections and you no longer have a valid system of government.  Yet, this is exactly what the Republican agenda seems to be.  The continuing effort to claim that voter fraud is a problem in America allows them to expand the restrictions on voting.
The blatant attempt to control our political system is offensive to true believers in our democratic ideals.  Here in Wisconsin, Republican legislators ignored precedent and redistricted in a radically partisan manner.  Now there is an effort to change the way our electoral college votes are cast. 

Remember, Wisconsin is broke.  Therefore, it makes sense to pass laws that make our public institutions spend more money.  Slightly flawed logic.

One of the key "natural rights" that citizens surrender when they become part of a civilized society is the right to use force at their personal discretion.  This right is transferred to the state and laws are enforced by the government, usually through a police force.  Each citizen makes an informal, yet binding, "social contract" to allow the state to defend their rights.  Unfortunately, through the course of history, it has been a reality that the upper class in a society are the greatest beneficiaries of the protections given by the government.  It has also been the case that they have used their resources to build their own private protection forces.  Here's a very frightening situation that leads us to question how our protective services are being used.

Don't forget that Scott Walker has been using agencies like the State Patrol in questionable ways.  Sounds like the initial stages of a separate police force, only accountable to individuals, not the people, doesn't it?

Wall St. and Protests…
Much has been made about the 99% movement and many different views have been put forward.  The reality is that, many Americans are truly struggling.  Some are seeing their economic health decline and others have been "economically ill" for years.  Whatever the case, we have a growing disparity in wealth and valid concerns about the future of our country. 

Instead of addressing the concerns of the protestors in a positive way, the right has made efforts to undermine the credibility of the movement and to create fear about what is happening.

Having spent countless hours in downtown Madison as part of the protests there, I feel qualified to say that we shouldn't fear the protestors.  The "Occupy" movements appear to be very similar in the demographics and ideals that the Wisconsin protests were.  The protestors are people from all walks of life, who are concerned about the future of our nation.  What we should fear is the inability of our politicians and our major media organizations to discuss what is going on in a rational and honest way.

Testing and Teacher Accountability…
Last week I wrote a brief review of the history of high-stakes testing and how we got to where we are.  This week I will look at testing and assessments and how they are used.  I will draw primarily on my experience as an educator over the past 16+ years. 

What is the role that assessment should play in our educational system? 
There is no doubt that assessment has a vital role in education.  Without assessing students we have no way of measuring what they know, and more importantly, what they need to learn.  I am constantly assessing my students every moment of every school day.  A question that is frequently asked in my classroom during the first months of the school year is, "Will this go on my report card?"  My students quickly learn not to ask this question.  I always tell them that in some way shape or form, everything they do is being evaluated and goes to shape the reports that I send home to families and that I record in their cumulative files.  All their work and their behavior becomes a part of the overall picture of their progress as a student. 

Assessments take on many forms.  There are the formal tests that are administered.  These are the standardized tests that create the scores that have become so important in our current educational system.   These are created by outside agencies and imposed on the schools. Currently these types of tests take up a few weeks of the school year. 

Then there are the tests that are created and used by teachers in our building.  These are the tests that help us break students into groups for math or are used as measurements of student achievement during a particular unit.  These tests are administered every few weeks and amount to a few hours a month at most.

This leaves a huge amount of the school year where students are evaluated in a more informal way.  Student's daily work, their participation in activities, their performance during experiments, their interactions with peers, etc. make up the majority of information that we gather about student achievement.  When I fill out a report card, or communicate with a parent there sources provide the most important resource for measuring the student's progress.     

Assessments have many roles in education, but the most important one in my mind is to help guide instruction in my classroom.  I use assessments to evaluate the effectiveness of my own instruction.  If I am working on teaching a specific skill or content area to students and they are not able to demonstrate comprehension or mastery in that area, then I know that there is more work to be done in order to reach my students.  Assessing students on a regular basis and reflecting on my teaching allows me to target areas that students need improvement in and use the time we have at school more effectively.

This constant teaching and assessing cycle creates an environment where students are given feedback about their progress and know that they are working towards measurable goals.  It gives all of us a sense of purpose and legitimate reasons to celebrate when those goals are met.  It allows me to communicate effectively with parents and allows them a place to voice concerns and provide support for their child.  

In order to be effective, I believe that assessments must meet several criteria:

*Feedback must occur quickly.  It does little good to administer a test in the fall and not get results until April or May of the following year.  That data can't be used to help the student or the teacher.

*There must be  meaningful and appropriate goals for students to be assessed on.  What they are learning needs to have connections to something that will be of use to the student in their lives.  So, learning basic math facts is something that is important, learning to spell a random list of words may not be as useful.  In order for these goals to be meaningful there need to be standards and benchmarks established that help guide instruction.

*The assessments must produce useful data that results in improved instruction or evidence of mastery in a particular area or skill.

*Assessments must be a natural and logical extension of classroom activities.  Spending any length of time working cooperatively in groups writing and discussing a topic and then giving a multiple choice individual tests will not typically produce valid results.

Unfortunately, standardized testing has become the only assessment seen as valid by a majority of the public and even by many of the "leaders" in positions of authority in the field of education.  The true assessments, done on a daily basis by licensed educators in classrooms around the country don't carry the same weight as one time, high stakes standardized testing.  Instead of being used to improve instruction these tests are used politically to reward or (more frequently) punish schools and school districts. 

Thus we find that in 2010 38% of American schools failed to make AYP (adequate yearly progress) when measured with standardized tests.  By 2011 several states have over 50% of their schools "failing".  In 2014 when all students are supposed to test proficient in core content areas (reading, language arts, math) we will see 100% failure. 

100% failure sounds terrible, until you consider what the standards are that schools need to meet.  No organization, business or field can achieve 100% success.  There is no place less likely to achieve this success rate than a public school.  In my 16+ years of teaching I have never been in a classroom where all students were capable of becoming proficient in all standards.  They can make progress towards the standards, but for any number of valid reasons will not meet the goals set in local, state and national guidelines. 

The problem is that as schools fail, the consequences become severe.  We have been down this path before and have seen the effects that top-down management, reduced funding and forced curriculum implementation have on schools.  There is a tremendous amount of literature out there that documents the dire outcomes of these "reforms".  I encourage you to read sources like Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School System which clearly outlines these. 

The issue that most teachers I know have with standardized testing isn't the accountability piece alone.  It is the fact that we are being held accountable for goals that are unfair and the information that is collected is used against us.  Educators are guilty of failure with little opportunity to prove their innocence.  This will continue to be the case as long as standardized testing is used to provide the benchmarks for success and failure.  In fact the system is so unfair as to make one wonder, is there another agenda at work here, one that goes beyond "reforming" schools and instead is part of a larger effort to change America socially and economically.   

When looking for underlying reasons for larger political actions it is always  relevant to look at who profits from a particular policy.  We are currently seeing a movement towards privatizing public services and centralizing wealth.  Clearly, the destruction of public schools would be a huge step in this process.  Over time, public schools have been one area where some level of equal opportunity was provided to all citizens. (I won't delve into the history of inequality in schooling now, but simply state that public education is more democratic than private).  By creating unachievable goals and then publicly punishing schools the trust in public education is undermined.  By altering funding structures for schools the weakening of public education in accelerated. 

The attacks on public education make for excellent sound bites and political slogans, but they ignore the facts and opinions offered by experts in the field.  They allow for the debate to center on one thing, testing, and avoid all the other issues that make for quality educational opportunities.    

Diane Ravitch again:
In 2005, she wrote, "We should thank President George W. Bush and Congress for passing the No Child Left Behind Act. ... All this attention and focus is paying off for younger students, who are reading and solving mathematics problems better than their parents' generation."
But four years later, Ravitch changed her mind.
"I came to the conclusion ... that No Child Left Behind has turned into a timetable for the destruction of American public education," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I had never imagined that the test would someday be turned into a blunt instrument to close schools — or to say whether teachers are good teachers or not — because I always knew children's test scores are far more complicated than the way they're being received today."
Here's one of the most ridiculous uses of testing I've seen.

Follow the money…

"'s Pauline Vu looks at the rise of standardized testing….The year before NCLB went into effect, Vu reports, states spent $423 million on standardized tests. During the 2007- 08 school year, that amount will increase to almost $1.1 billion. And the windfall largely goes to five (soon to be four) testing companies. And yet, federal funds have been lacking to help pay the tab for administering now 45 million tests a year (going up to 56 million once NCLB's science assessment is added). Hence a reliance in many states on cheaper-to-score multiple-choice assessments."
Next week, what the effects of testing have been, and what can we do to change the system for the better.

No comments:

Post a Comment