Sunday, November 20, 2011

Issue #34 November 20, 2011- "Nice" Liberals, Recalls, "Free" Lunches, The Media and Education Reform

Issue #34- November 20, 2011
In this issue: "Nice"Liberals, No Free Lunch, Media Dis-Unification, Education Reform and of course RECALLS

Are We Too Nice?…
So much news and so many items of interest this week.  I'll start with a quick quote I saw from Robert Frost;

 "A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel."

This got me thinking about how many liberal/progressives that I know seem to feel the need to apologize for our ideas and our passion for the issues we advocate about.  Teachers seem to be among the leaders in not advocating for ourselves.  A frequent refrain heard from educators is that we aren't in it for the money.  Educating children is supposed to be a calling, not a job.  Many educators are reluctant to admit that while what we do, we do out of a passion for education and working with our students, we also need and deserve compensation for our efforts. 

Unfortunately, this lack of assertiveness when it comes to compensation also seems to be playing out in other areas as well.  Educators have been too quiet about other issues relating to our field.  We have relied on others, whether it be our unions, the media or community members, to advocate for our schools.  During the school year we are "too busy" with our responsibilities to our students and during the summer we are recharging or furthering our own educations.  Many of us are also working summer jobs to make ends meet.

As a result we have seen a rise in the number of non-educators who are making decisions about what happens in our public schools and the people who work there.  Many educators have accepted this and simply worked to implement the ideas that these non-experts have implemented.  The general public is told that educators need direction and that schools can be run in a more businesslike way.

Ironically, the actions of Governor Walker and the Republican leadership here in Wisconsin may have provided the impetus needed to change this pattern which is undermining public education.  He may end up being the MVP for public education if we are able to stay engaged and keep fighting for what we believe in.  Since February there has been a different tone to educator union meetings and in staff lounges across the state.  Maybe we are finally waking up to the reality that we need to be the biggest advocates for public education.  We need to take real pride in what we do and speak out for what is right for our students, their families and public education. 

Recall Information and Other Positive Actions to Take…
November 15th, 2011 will be etched in many people's minds as "RECALL DAY".  At 12:01 AM the first petitions were signed and the energy level reached a new high here in Wisconsin.  The initial efforts were impressive and the mood was very positive.  People set up petition signing stations on corners, in parking lots, and anywhere else imaginable.

The kickoff rally on Saturday was well attended and an inspirational event.

Please take the time to download a petition and make sure everyone you know has an opportunity to sign one.   

Walker and the GOP leadership was hoping that the movement's intensity would die down as we got further away from the events of February.  However, the opposite seems to be true.

The recall efforts aren't the only game in town.  As we approach the holiday shopping season we can't forget who the major supporters of politicians like Walker are.  As the money from these corporations and extremely wealthy citizens starts pouring in to his campaign we need to think carefully about who we give our own money to. 

The temptation will be to do as we have always done, that is, look for a super deal on Black Friday and spend, spend, spend.  However, this year it should be obvious that that way of "doing business" simply continues to work against our efforts.  We all know that places like Wal-Mart will have the lowest prices.  We also should know why that is the case and what big companies have done to our local economies.  The more money we put into these large businesses the more small, locally owned businesses go under. 

Make an effort this year to spend your money wisely and look for union or locally made products sold by local merchants.  Take a little extra time to find out about the places you buy things and the products they sell.  It may seem like your purchases are a "drop in the bucket", but every drop can be part of a flood that changes the economic, political and social landscape of our nation.

There are many challenges to making a socially conscious purchase.  Not the least of these is the potential for spending more when we have less.  It is important to remember that the quality of our spending should outweigh the quantity.  Americans need to spend money in order to improve our overall economy, however, our need for "stuff" is excessive and our culture is based on consumerism that isn't always positive.

Other challenges include things like the time it takes to locate and identify business which share our values.  Many of these businesses can't compete with the larger chains in terms of advertising or location.  Some businesses that look like they support our causes may be part of other organizations that have a different agenda.  Once again, the time is well spent in finding these shops.  Dane Buy Local is one site that I've heard good things about and I found a couple of others that looked promising (however, I haven't researched them much yet so it would be great to know if these are valid sites or not).  

Finally, don't forget to tell the people at these establishments that you are making your purchase because of their support of worker's rights.  Tell them you are a union member and that you will be sharing information about their establishment with others.  This way the operators of these shops will know that their efforts are valued and will continue to advocate for the rights of the common people. 

No Such Thing As A Free Lunch or a Free Public Education…
Scott Walker has made a great deal of noise about the "reforms" and "tools" that he is giving people to improve the financial health of Wisconsin.  He talks about taking responsibility for tough decisions and not pushing off issues for future generations.  Then his budget and other legislation supported by his administration cuts funding for local governments.  It seems to me that these cuts at the state level are simply pushing the cost of government to the local level and thereby giving Walker the opportunity to say that he balanced the state budget. 

What isn't made clear to the people of Wisconsin is that there are really two choices when it comes to funding public services, either increase revenue or decrease spending.  When asked, most citizens don't want their services cut so… in today's economy taxes must be raised (or at least maintained).  In many cases the tough choices aren't being made at the state level in this administration, they are being made at the local level. 

This is especially true for public education.  We are already underfunded by the Federal Government and now the state is cutting back even more.  The end result:

Governor Walker and his supporters would have us believe that there is only one choice (which of course means no choice at all), to cut spending.  He would also have us believe that he is cutting taxes in addition to reducing spending on public services.  Yet, we have seen that the majority of tax cuts have gone to the upper income or corporate groups, not the people who spend their income. 

This returns us to the argument that has been at the center of much of our nation's recent economic debates, what tax policy will improve our economy?  Republicans continue to argue that tax breaks for the wealthy will stimulate job creation.  Progressives and Democrats contend that putting money in the pockets of everyday people will increase spending which will drive the economy upward.  Remember, if no one spends money there is no need for products to be made, or services to be offered.

The Media 101 -  More Dis-Unification…
Last week I talked about how history plays an important role in creating a national identity.  Historical references and precedent play a large role in shaping our discussion of current events.  However, history is not current events.  Rather history is made up of current events that happened in the past.  The quote from the Onion, "When you think about it, a lot of things have happened already.  That's what history is." isn't too far off.  Of course history isn't as simple as a collection of facts, but instead is an interpretation of events based on the perspective of the person sharing the history.  As Dan Brown says, “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books-books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, 'What is history, but a fable agreed upon?' ”

There is clearly a fine line between what is history and what is a current event.  The current events here in Wisconsin regarding labor rights is a great example of the ways that history connects to the present day.  While it may be difficult to distinguish between the two, there is no doubt that the way both are shared is vital to shaping citizen's opinions and knowledge of events. 

Historical information comes to us in a variety of ways.  We learn history in educational settings through lectures and textbooks.  Books, television, movies and the internet provide additional resources.  Primary sources in archives and libraries can also help us understand historical events. 

Many of these same sources provide information about current events as well.  The same problems that plague us in finding accurate information about historical events exist for events currently happening as well.  The bias, distortion of facts and inaccuracies caused by unknowns are magnified by the immediacy of the actions taking place.  They are also intensified by the need to shape the path of the proceedings.

Understanding history is vital to developing a nation's identity and directly affects its development and growth.  Accurate understanding of current events is even more important, as this shapes policy which affects present and future citizens and the continued growth of a country. 

Modern day events happen so rapidly that it is difficult to always get complete information before forming an opinion or developing a policy.  At the same time there is virtually unlimited access to sources of information if one has a radio, TV or computer.  The media that reports the news of the day goes a long way towards shaping public opinion of the people and events that affect our lives.  In fact, the media has gone beyond reporting news to, at times creating news stories.

Many of our media sources have become biased to the point of becoming an invalid source of information.  Of course the obvious examples are to watch coverage of the same event on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.  There are times where you might not even know the same thing is being covered.  As a consumer we are faced with the choice of accepting what we see and hear or trying to dig deeper to get information. 

It's not easy to find accurate information about events.  As an active participant in the protests here in Madison I can attest to that fact.  The inaccurate information and outright lies told about the protests of February and March still are used in arguments today.  Statements about the damage to the capital and the violence on the square are used to agitate citizens and distract them from the real issues that were the root of the protests. 

The way that video and audio recordings of events is edited and manipulated is a direct effort to create propaganda in support of a particular point of view.  I recognize that any coverage of an event will be biased in some way, shape or form.  It will be biased by the coverage, or lack of coverage.  However, it is clear that the media in the United States is becoming more and more unreliable and divisive. 

The ownership of a majority of the media by a small number of companies and individuals automatically raises questions about the validity of the information offered to the public. 

More and more people are turning to social media and the interned for their information, but that is also (by its very nature) unreliable and biased. 

So what's a concerned citizen to do?  I believe that the best way to form a valid and informed opinion is to read, listen and watch a variety of sources.  This means going out of your comfort zone and listening to an opposition viewpoint.  It also means identifying those sources which are clearly one-sided and which may be as much entertainment as news.  I spend a lot of time with my students trying to get them to recognize a reliable source of information as they do research about any topic.  Adults need to be as vigilant in their search for information in our confusing and misleading, media driven world.

This Is NOT Democracy or Why Change Needs to Happen In WI…
The recall effort against Wisconsin's Governor and Lt. Governor kicked off on Tuesday with huge fanfare.  I've previously stated that I don't believe that recalls should be a common form of political dissent.  They are costly, divisive and frequently unnecessary.  Simply disagreeing with a policy or action isn't enough to spark a recall.  However, the case against Walker is strong and he continues to add to the case against himself. 

His economic policies are misguided and ineffective.

His political moves have divided our state and have hurt the functional capabilities of our government.  The result has been to move Wisconsin away from democracy.  He ran a campaign on making our government more transparent and efficient and the results have been anything but that.

Here's an example at the national level of something that would help to make our government more accountable to the people.  This is the type of legislation that we need to see at all levels of our government.

His leadership has not lead to progressive actions to help common citizens.

This is a monumental effort that will spark emotions on both sides.  I hope that cooler heads will prevail and allow our system to work peacefully, however the early indications are troubling. 

We all know that both sides are capable of unpleasant, illegal and dangerous actions and words.  However, we all have a responsibility to allow for citizen participation in an honest political system.  Every citizen of Wisconsin must be vigilant and work to insure the integrity of the process.  Only then will we get a result that will allow us to move forward and rebuild our state.

Why We Need Teacher Unions…
Union Building
As the labor landscape changes in the post Act 10 era union members will need to be even more active to continue to enjoy the protections offered by unions.  It appears that some unions will go ahead and work for recertification.

However, it can't be stressed enough that, because of the "reforms" put in place recently union power will be reduced in its ability to influence employer actions.  The power won't come at the bargaining table but through member actions.  No one wants the ugliness of a strike or work slowdown.  In order to avoid this all parties must be proactive in their attempts to make compromises that ensure productive and positive work places.

Employees must be aware of their potential in influencing employers.  There are many ways for employees to do this, but almost all of them involve having unity and solidarity among workers. 

This solidarity can be achieved, but the current climate for public workers in Wisconsin makes it difficult for some to see hope for the future.  We are losing quality public workers because of the loss of income and the uncertain future in many areas.  Unions need to rebuild the sense of community and history that has been in place over the past decades.  They also need to connect the struggles of the current day to the battles waged in the past.  Our predecessors fought to win rights for us, and frequently did so without collective bargaining rights.  We can do this too, if we work together.

      Education "Reform"…
Perhaps the biggest threat to public education comes from the desire by a wide range of individuals and groups to "reform" it.  I should begin by stating the obvious, not everyone is successful in their educational efforts.  This happens for a variety of reasons and needs to be addressed by educators.  Along with this is the obvious observation that a disproportionate number of people who achieve at a lower level come from specific demographic groups.  Put more simply, our African-American students, English Language Learners, students with special needs and students of poverty don't do as well statistically.  They score lower on tests, don't meet grade level standards and don't complete their k-12 education in larger numbers percentage-wise than their counterparts from other groups.
Why this happens is best judged on an individual basis, but the overall statistical trends are clearly represented in data from school districts across the country.

These are the numbers that are used to demonstrate that our schools are "failing".  The MMSD is now a district in need of improvement and the reason is the lack of progress made at several schools by the previously mentioned groups.  Then, because of the labels applied to the specific schools and the district in general the public gets the perception that our schools are not doing well and that something drastic needs to be done to "fix" them.  Add in a few comments in the media and the attacks on public education accelerate in vehemence.

These attacks have always been a part of our political and educational landscape.  I'm sure that from the first time a student attended a school there were issues that arose about content or methodology of teaching.  However, it was true in the past and is true now, that a majority of families not only support their public schools, but also feel that their children's teachers and the curriculum presented are a positive part of their child's life.

Public schools have served a variety of roles in America.  They have served as a bridge to incorporate new arrivals into our nation.  They have taught the skills necessary to help student's become productive citizens.  Schools have also served as a force to unite communities in many ways.  They have provided opportunity and education for generations of Americans.

However, now the efforts to dismantle our public education system have reached new levels.  The reformers may or may not have the interest of all students in mind, but their efforts impact every child in America.  I, along with most educators, don't have an issue with change or improving our practices.  However, I strongly question the integrity of the reform movement for a number of reasons.       

The reforms that are currently being touted by many as the "cure" for our "failing" schools are ones put forward in the NCLB legislation.  These are tied to assessing students on a narrow band of standards and then punishing schools that don't meet the goals established by outside agencies.  These agencies frequently don't have direct contact with students and certainly don't have ties to the community schools they impact.  Our educational system has become highly bureaucratized and run by outside forces, not educators.

The forces at work are many and powerful.  They include a wide range of individuals and groups, including some educators and people who have very positive intentions.  Education is a very unusual profession and there are as many avenues to a successful education as there are students.  Once again we can only assume that most of them have a desire to educate all students at a high level.

The biggest supporters of reforms like testing and choice are big money foundations which are headed by the same people who run major corporate interests.  These groups and individuals lobby heavily to influence our educational policy and work to make it more difficult for public schools to "succeed".  Look carefully at most voucher, charter or choice school's financial backers and you will see a small number of names consistently appear.

These groups are critical of public schools and offer parents a supposedly different and better alternative.  They fund studies that support their ideals and then use this research to undermine public educators and schools.  They would have you believe that they are only looking out for the common citizen and are fighting the evil, greedy unionized teachers.  The reality isn't quite as clear as they would have you believe. 

One example of this effort to mislead the public is the issue of class size.  Most teachers will tell you that the number of students in a class has an impact on the quality of instruction.  However, the statistics don't always support this.  Yet if one looks more closely it becomes obvious, just how difficult it is to determine the effectiveness of any educational model or specific practice.  The one argument that I find virtually irrefutable, if class size doesn’t matter then why do so many private, choice, and charter schools mention smaller class size or small student to teacher ratios?  If it doesn't matter for public schools why use it as a selling point for other educational settings.

School choice initiatives use the selling points of different types of instruction, smaller class size, better behaved students, more opportunities for parental involvement and many other advantages over public education.  What is not made clear is that, with proper support and reasonable legislation public school are fully capable of providing anything a choice school can offer (except for specific religious instruction).  Most educator unions support reform efforts that are supported by their members.  If educators don't support a reform then there must be a logical reason for that.  Conservatives would have us believe that it is because of the laziness of our educators and their lack of intelligence as they are guided by their union bosses.  I've yet to meet a significant number of these educators, but then I've only been in the field for around 17 years (43 if you count growing up in a family of educators and then marrying one).

There is an ongoing battle here in Madison, WI over a potential charter school called Madison Prep.  The battle has been waged over a variety of issues, but at the core seems to be the issue of pay for workers and their ability to be part of the collective bargaining agreement between the school district and the union that represents the educators and support staff.  There are many unanswered questions about this proposal, but I find it difficult to support a school that uses public funds and operates without direct control of the elected school board.  It certainly seems strange to me that the administrators of the proposed school would be paid so much more than the educators in direct contact with the students.  That, combined with the fact that the money given to Madison Prep would take funds away from other MMSD programs makes it a tough idea to support.  In addition there are the discrepancies between their stance on MMSD being culturally insensitive and their apparent reluctance to admit students identified (by these culturally insensitive educators) as having special needs.  Others have written more insightful things about this issue and I invite you to do your own research. 

One huge problem lies in actually assessing the quality of a school.  We rely on test scores, graduation rates and other statistics that can be manipulated to serve the interests of anyone.  The unfortunate reality is that all of this time, energy and money is going towards benefitting people who shouldn't be benefitting from the process.  The students get lost in the ongoing battle and become pawns in a game that no one wins.  It is their love of learning and their futures which are at stake here and too many other groups are profiting before the students we serve are considered. 

The whole debate boils down to this question, what is the purpose of public education in America?  Our founding leaders were students of the Enlightenment.  John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others were part of this school of thought which put learning at the forefront of human endeavors.  Of course the philosophy was interwoven with influences from religious, economic and other areas.  However, the idea that learning was a noble effort was central to their beliefs.  Look at the notes taken by Lewis and Clark and you will see the effort to learn as central to their expedition.  True, there were economic and political goals as well, but the extensive notes about new species, new groups of people and the land show the wide range of interests that the expedition served. 

Throughout American history our leaders and/or great thinkers (certainly not always the same people) have been educated in a way that promoted their ability to reason and think creatively.  As the Industrial Revolution gained momentum education in America began to change.  It wasn't considered necessary for a common worker to know about philosophy or other less practical schools of thought.  Instead specific skills and basic knowledge were emphasized.  Schools became more structured and curriculum was developed to further the economic needs of the nation.  In fact on reason for mandatory schooling during the Depression was to remove children from the workforce and put adults back to work.

I believe that our real angst about the success of our schools comes from the Cold War and the launch of Sputnik.  Suddenly we were thrust into a competition with another nation for advances in science and technology.  Our continuing efforts to compare our schools to those of other countries can be traced back to that fear of being out-educated by a communist nation.  This fear led us to develop a set of specific goals that our students needed to know.  We could then measure their knowledge by their progress towards achieving mastery of a specific set of skills.  Knowledge became something that needed to be quantified and assessed, not a process of continually learning. 

The entire process of learning became a series of steps that could be followed sequentially to a final result of proficiency.  This is quite visible in the students I work with.  They rely on goals set externally by an adult or a curriculum established for them.  They wait for instruction and want to be told how to solve a problem.  Contrast this with their efforts outside of school to solve puzzles, play video games or other areas where they are allowed more creativity and are less pressured.

It is sad to see students with great potential lose interest in learning at school because of the need to master specific skills at specific ages.  We know that not all students learn at the same rate and not all learning proceeds in a linear fashion.  However, because of mandated testing that drives funding and public perception teachers are forced to develop homogenous curriculum that focuses on these narrow sets of skills and limited content.  That is the damage that testing has done to our students.  How does a school district begin to address the needs of its students along with the bureaucratic requirements.

Now, combine the testing and standardized curriculum with the limiting of opportunities for college education and the damage to learning continues.  No longer can most families afford to send their child(ren) to school to simply learn and find themselves.  Now, the costs of education must be justified with skills that will lead to employment.  Notice how the wealthiest Americans still have the opportunity to educate their children in ways similar to our original founding leaders.            

If all the rich and all of the church people should send their children to the public schools they would feel bound to concentrate their money on improving these schools until they met the highest ideals.
Susan Brownell Anthony (1820–1906) American civil rights leader.

As a nation we need to thoughtfully address the issue of what we truly intend our educational system to do for our citizens.  Unless the goals are defined we will continue to wage battles that lead to no solutions and that further disenfranchise many of our fellow Americans.

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