Sunday, February 19, 2012

Issue #49 The Achievement Gap- A Challenge To All

What This Is…
Issue #49- February 19, 2012
In this issue: The Achievement Gap- A Challenge To All Of Us

The Achievement Gap…
The achievement gap is truly the Achilles Heel of our public education system.  We all recognize it as a significant concern that needs our attention.  Yet at the same time the efforts to address the problems surrounding the gap are sometimes as problematic as the gap itself.  There is no doubt but that we must find new and innovative ways to meet the need of all our students, but the idea that we should do this regardless of the potential future consequences is as problematic in education as it is in any other area of our society.  For example, we need to create more jobs in our economy, but do we do this by allowing corporate interests free reign and thereby sabotaging the future of a majority of Americans.  Is a job today valuable enough to sacrifice our health and safety?  Are improved test scores a reason to completely alter the way we educate our children? 

When we put ourselves in a situation of stark contrasts with little (if any) ground in between we immediately reduce our chances of reaching a successful resolution to our problems.  Our political situation here in Wisconsin has clearly reached this level of division.  Unfortunately, it appears that the divisiveness in the political arena is unduly influencing our efforts to educate the children in our state. 

The achievement gap is being wielded as a weapon by those who wish to exert their political and economic goals on our state.  They see the children of Wisconsin not as a resource to be cultivated, but as a resource to be exploited.  Education should be an investment in an individual.  An investment that will benefit the individual first, and by enabling them to achieve success will in the long run benefit society as well.  Like all investments there is risk and the rate of return may not be equal in all cases. 

In past issues I have highlighted some of my concerns surrounding the issues of our Achievement Gaps.  They bear repeating for context to this part of the discussion. 
-The Achievement Gap is really many Achievement Gaps made up of many individual students and their families.
-These Gaps exist for multiple races, genders, and other groups.
-Many ways that the Gaps are measured are flawed.
-Our children, schools and educators are set up to fail under our current educational policies.
-Our Gaps are society wide and not limited to public education.

Another concern that I haven't raised before is the fact that the groups that are affected most by the Gaps are underrepresented in the creation of policy to address the issues.  We've seen it in the current debate over contraception where a panel of men debate issues of female reproductive rights.  We see it every day as the issues in education are discussed as well. 

This is a real problem in many ways.  It continues the imbalance in power and focuses on the groups that are struggling as a "problem" to be "fixed".  By implementing policy created by people who have different perspectives and experiences we don't necessarily address the problem in a meaningful way.  Policy created by "majority" groups is easy for "minority" groups to discount as disingenuous or otherwise irrelevant.

At the same time we have long standing issues of mistrust and a disconnect with the process involved in administrating our public schools.  This is an issue that won't be fixed quickly and takes time to address.  We can start now, but only through honest and open dialog about the problem.  Discussions that may be uncomfortable, but must be free of blame and instead focus on what will be best for our current and future students.  We need to have these discussions face to face and they must be filled with informative dialog, not rhetoric.   

The issue of who makes decisions about public education is vital.  Our current system puts people in charge of the policy decisions who are disconnected from the classrooms and schools they influence.  Our top policy makers at the state and national level have only a general idea of what impacts their decisions have on the daily activities in schools.  What sounds good in a meeting may not play out as well with individual students in a specific classroom.  By creating strict guidelines and punitive policies these officials further hamper educational efforts in schools. For example, the idea of testing students may appear to have significant merit.  However, by increasing the amount of testing and the stakes involved, educators are forced to alter their instruction.  The changes in instruction and content lead to more student disengagement.  We can use all the right rhetoric about fixing education, but the reality is that the real work is done on a daily basis in the classroom. 

Not only are our policy makers frequently removed from direct classroom contact, but their words and policies influence public opinion about public education.  Most citizens have little, if any, direct contact with schools.  Even parents don't see what happens on a daily basis and only hear limited amounts about what is happening in their child's classroom.  Our politicians have created a sense of crisis in public education that is magnified as our political situation in Wisconsin deteriorates.

A big part of the issue is the efforts by conservatives to destroy public sector unions.  In order to do this they must paint the picture of the gross incompetence and laziness of public educators.  Then they can use this to create an image of educator unions as defenders of these "thugs and slugs" who are simply trying to line their pockets on the taxpayers dime.  The Achievement Gap is a primary weapon in this effort.  The unions are portrayed as one of the primary obstacles in the efforts to reform public education.  Conservatives argue that if unions were removed than all would be right with public education.  Reforms could be implemented and the Gaps would be closed. 

By setting up this dichotomy and creating the illusion that unions are against reform the conservatives have driven a wedge between groups that actually share similar interests.  Educators are in the field of education to educate students.  Seems silly to say, but many outside of education portray our educators as in the business to avoid work and make money.  Families want the best education possible for their children as well.  By joining forces these two groups would present a united front and this is something that education "reformers for profit" don't want to see happen.  

In order to effectively address the Achievement Gaps that exist in our schools we must have an educated and committed team of educators who have the flexibility to meet the needs of their students.  They need support and engagement from the communities that they work in.  They also need administrators who are advocates for public education and who are willing to dialog with educators and families on an equal basis. 

These are things that educator unions can help provide in different ways.  Unions protect the rights and represent the needs of educators so that educators can focus on their primary job.  They also advocate for better conditions in schools and allow educator's voices to be heard in more powerful ways.  They strengthen a community of educators and create an environment that can help improve the quality of education for all students.  Once again I must mention that unions aren't perfect organizations, but they do reflect the needs and interests of educators in an environment that frequently ignores or undermines the efforts of educators to be heard. 

The Achievement Gaps exist, that fact can't be denied.  However, the emphasis on fixing them through increased testing and school accountability is of questionable validity.  This emphasis on testing and the continued coverage of our "failing" school systems creates an anti-educator/anti-public education environment.  Efforts made by schools to increase involvement in the schools is under reported, especially when compared to the coverage of a more negative nature.  For example, events like "Read Your Heart Out" where African-American families and community members were invited to 10 Madison schools were held last week?  Did you know that schools like Lincoln Elementary here in Madison have actually gotten off the dreaded "Schools In Need Of Improvement" list?  I could continue on and on about the positive initiatives being advanced here in Madison Public Schools, yet they get little (if any) press coverage.  This lack of balanced coverage further creates an atmosphere of crisis surrounding public education.

With the sense of impending doom and the emphasis on the failures of our schools it is easier for conservatives to advance their ideas of testing and privatization of schools.  Yet, the evidence supporting these "reforms" is inconclusive at best.  In reality increased testing and the spread of charter schools simply shifts the issues without addressing the underlying causes.  Instead of shifting support to these areas we could address most of our problems in a public school context.  This would enable communities to remain united around a common school system and ensure access to quality programs for a majority of students (not just a select few).   

That is the challenge to the Madison community, are we willing to stay informed, engaged and involved in the efforts to eliminate our Achievement Gaps?  Are we willing to assume the positive intentions of others ideas and work together in a joint effort?  Do we have what it takes to take on an immensely challenging issue that has historical roots and is deeply ingrained in our society at large?  It truly takes an entire community, united to address complicated issues like this.  Rhetoric and politics as usual will produce the same results we've already seen.  We owe it to our students, our families and our community's future to make the effort.  

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