Sunday, February 26, 2012

Issue #51 Addressing the Achievement Gap, Politics, Mining, Worker's and Women's Rights

What This Is…
Issue #51- February 26, 2012
In this issue: Addressing the Achievement Gap, Political News, Labor, Mining, and Women's Rights  

The Achievement Gap…
There is a growing sense of crisis in Wisconsin and across the United States.  We face challenges to our economic system as we work to deal with a growing gap between the richest Americans and the rest of the population.  We have deep political divisions that threaten the ability of our government to function effectively and to represent its citizens.  It's no surprise that the same sense of crisis has enveloped public education as well.

There is no doubt, but that we could do a better job of educating all students in our public schools.  If there is any positive we can take from NCLB and RTTT it is the fact that the data collection mandated by these policies has increased attention to the unequal results different groups garner from our public education system.  While public attention has been drawn to the Achievement Gaps that exist, those of us who have been directly involved in public education have long recognized (and been disturbed by) the disparity in outcomes. 

It is one thing to recognize the struggles of individuals and groups in a school system, but it is another thing to be able to act to correct the problem.  The variables involved in education are many and daunting.  As we work to directly address the Achievement Gap here in Madison we are seeing the challenges and difficulties clearly.  These challenges are deeply imbedded in our society as a whole and, as such, will need a concerted effort by all to address properly.

The Madison School District's administration has taken a step towards addressing the Achievement Gaps.  The proposal put forth has many strands and seeks to implement a variety of initiatives.  Over the next few months a great amount of discussion and analysis of the proposal will take place.  My hope is that people take the time to form their own opinions about how to best improve our public schools while keeping some of these ideas in mind.

-It is a proposal, not a final plan.  Your input is important.  We should expect that the end result will not satisfy every individual or group.  It is impossible to address the specific needs of all the different interests that exist in the population that our public schools serve.  However, the more voices that are heard in the process, the more inclusive and effective the final plan will be.  Everyone should take the time to read the proposal.

Once you are informed about this initial proposal there are many ways to get involved in the discussion.  The district is offering public forums in a number of locations in Madison.

You can also send letters or emails to district administration and school board members. 

In addition to reading about the specific plan I also believe that it is important to learn more about the issues surrounding public education.  We can debate about the costs and benefits of different aspects of the proposal more effectively if we are knowledgeable about the subjects involved.  Knowledge will help us reach more effective solutions and also help reduce the ability of others to manipulate our opinions based on emotions or sound-bites.  We have seen the damage that can be done when we base our decisions on education based on limited information.  NCLB and RTTT are examples of policies that sound good, but have significantly harmed our educational system in many ways.  

-All groups must participate in an open and honest discussion.  Just attending a session or communicating with administration or our school board aren't enough.  In addition to getting information from a variety of sources we must also listen to each other.  This means accepting another's viewpoint and recognizing the validity of other's concerns and opinions.  If we approach this process as a way to simply advance our personal/group agenda at the expense of all others then the process will result in failure.  We can't forget that each individual's experiences shape the collective whole. 

This means that community leaders and others with influence must encourage their supporters to participate in the discussion.  Educators are very familiar with the problem of getting community members and families involved.  Frequently it is the very groups who are facing the largest challenges who are least represented in discussions which affect them.  All of us must encourage participation either through formal or informal methods. 

I encourage all of us who are committed to making public education work to engage as many people as possible in discussion about this issue.  The more discussion we engage in the deeper our understanding of the problems become.  We will have more respect for each other if we connect in open dialogue and avoid formats that are not interactive.  This may mean leaving our comfort zones, but the results can be very positive. 

-Schools rely on community support and involvement.  Schools don't exist in a vacuum.  The problems that exist in our public schools are influenced by the problems that exist in our society at large.  This means that our dialog about the Achievement Gap becomes more than just an education issue.  If we can address the concerns raised by Achievement Gaps we can go a long way towards making our society a better place for all.  Our communities must be supportive of our efforts and engaged in our schools. 

Community groups, their members and individual citizens need to get accurate information about the schools in the community.  I hope that they will take the time to try and learn about ways that they can help schools effectively educate students.  There are numerous ways to be involved in our public schools.  By getting more community members involved the connections between schools and communities are strengthened and support for education will increase. 

At the same time educators must be willing to accept the opinions and ideas that community members have.  We can't expect a "blank check" and must remember our accountability to our students and our community.  The expertise of educators and our experience should be valued, but educators can certainly learn from others in the community as well.  The most important aspect of this is the idea that the dialog will be based on honest, positive intentions and not on the furthering of a political, social or economic agenda that reaches beyond the scope of education.     

-Educating students costs money.  Much will be made of the price tag associated with the proposal put forward by MMSD administration.  I certainly agree that we can't just throw money at the problems we face and expect them to be solved.  We need to be thoughtful as to how we spend money in education.  At the same time, the reality is that education requires specialized materials and a highly educated and well trained work force.  If our politicians and citizenry is willing to accept the argument that businesses need incentives and support, why isn't the same true for our public schools?

It is important that we analyze the budget associated with implementing any plan.  Yet, I can't stress enough the importance that education has for the future of our society.  The greatest asset of any culture or nation is the people who make it up.  Education provides us with a common core of knowledge and helps establish societal norms.  The fact that we are more willing to spend money on business, sports and war than we are on education does not speak positively of the direction we are headed. 

It is also true that students with the most needs will typically cost more to educate.  They need additional services and specialized attention along with modifications to materials and school environments.  These students drive up the cost of public education, but also represent a great investment.  If we don't educate all our students, what happens to them as adults?  It is also a measure of the moral soundness of a society in the way that those with the most needs are treated.  We need to commit to funding education for all students.

-We can't sell our educational system to the highest bidder.  Schools are not moneymaking endeavors.  One of the most harmful ideas put forward about our schools is that they should be "run like a business".   Groups that see schools as a way to make money do the students in those schools a disservice.  Students are not employees or simple "raw materials".  Each student's individual needs and goals deserve attention that a business model simply can't provide.  In addition to the economic interests that impact education, we can't ignore the fact that political interests play a large role in how education is funded. 

The "crisis" we currently face in education is not helped by groups that seek to privatize education.  While some privatized schools do well, others don't perform as well as public schools.  The idea that we need to completely revamp the entire system is a false and harmful one.  True reforms based on sound educational practices, combined with efforts to engage families can make a huge difference in the educational outcomes for our students.      

-It is important to recognize the past, while at the same time keeping the future in mind.  One of the biggest impediments in creating an atmosphere of open communication and trust in the system is the way that things have been done in the past.  Our history of educating groups outside of the dominant white-male demographic is not overly positive.  When you combine the historical context with the current Achievement Gaps and other issues it isn't hard to see why different groups would disengage from the system. 

Educators can look at their own reactions to the "reforms" pushed on the Federal and state levels to see how easy it is to become disenfranchised and unhappy.  As morale drops so does involvement in policy making.  However, the experiences that educators are currently having can also provide a guide towards increasing involvement in education policy discussions among historically less involved groups.  We can start by recognizing that there are legitimate reasons why people don't offer opinions about things that directly affect them, or their children.  Once we accept that people are interested in improving the system we can begin to find ways to get people engaged in the process of changing things for the better.

The experiences of educators and public employees in Wisconsin over the past year have been overwhelmingly negative.  We have been harmed financially, our rights have been restricted and we have been portrayed in increasingly negative ways.  Unfortunately, this is an experience that many of the groups that are the focus of the Achievement Gap can easily relate to.  Educators have formed networks and organized on social and political levels to try and regain what we have lost.  As we continue our fight we can work to include a wider range of groups who have interests that overlap or run parallel to ours.  Together we can form a larger voice with increased power.  That can only happen if we listen to each other and work to include each other in our efforts.    

We can't change what happened in the past.  We also won't improve our future by simply doing a "180" and thereby harming other groups to correct our past errors.  Instead we must work together to use our current strengths and prepare a path for future successes. 

-Strong leadership is vital in times like this.  When you have such a diversity of needs and concerns it is important that leaders emerge who can articulate and advance the positions of the many individuals involved.  We have a representative democracy that allows large numbers of people to have some voice in our decision making process.  The same holds true in our smaller organizations.  Strong leaders will guide their organizations while responding to the needs of their members.  In my experience, most people want to do something to help in a situation.  People frequently are unsure how to make a difference and leaders can provide direction.  Strong leaders also help bridge gaps between different groups and interests.  The success of the Wisconsin Resistance to the conservative agenda is based on individuals stepping up and taking on leadership roles. 

-We must focus our energy while preserving flexibility.  In the current environment the challenges are many.  New developments come up rapidly and it is easy to lose focus.  In the past few years the number of new initiatives and programs have increased significantly.  Educators are feeling overwhelmed and discouraged by the number of initiatives and the fact that they are often contradictory in nature.  In fact the volume of new initiatives probably is having a negative effect on education as educators scramble to adjust their teaching to fit new directives.  Directives that change on a regular basis.   

While addressing concerns raised by the achievement gap requires a broad view, it is vital that we recognize that our goals are fairly simple.  We want to engage students in meaningful learning so that they achieve to their highest potential.  We also want students to develop a positive view of learning and prepare them for future success.  If we can achieve these things then we will see positive changes in other areas as well.  Every action that we take needs to keep these simple goals in mind. 

In order to meet the needs of students we must be able to be flexible in our responses.  Each student is different in many ways and it stands to reason that each classroom, school, etc. has differences as well.  The idea that we can somehow implement a unified curriculum that will meet all student's needs is unrealistic.   

We can't afford to get boxed in to looking at education in traditional ways.  Students need experiences in many areas and research shows that we can reach students more effectively if we use a variety of approaches and mediums.  Reading, writing and math are important, but we can't ignore the value of music, PE, art, technology, science and social studies for the sake of improving our test scores.  

-Information is powerful and can be dangerous.  We've all seen how data can be used to manipulate opinion and advance a specific point of view.  In our modern world with the communication tools available it is relatively easy to spread information and just as easy to spread falsehoods.  No single person can be an expert in all areas.  We need to find reliable sources of information and utilize them to form our opinions.  As discussion continues on the Achievement Gap proposals we should keep this in mind. 

-It is possible to create a positive environment for most of our students.  Our schools work well for many of our students.  As we work to extend the umbrella of success we should keep this in mind.  I find that most students I meet enjoy school, feel relatively supported and safe and occasionally don't even want to go home at the end of the day.  There are models of success we can look to for guidance as well as models that we can look to avoid.

-Our students are only one group involved in public education.  While they are the reasons our schools exist, there are other groups that also need to be considered as we develop plans to address the Achievement Gaps.  Of course educators are directly impacted by changes in our educational system.  However, among educators the impacts are felt in different ways.  "Specials" teachers (art, music, phy ed., LMC and technology) have needs that are different in some ways from classroom teachers.  Support staff like OT/PT, Speech and Language, Psychology, Nurses and Social Workers also have unique issues associated with their jobs. 

We can't forget the hourly staff (custodians, clerical, special education assistants, security staff and others) who have been devastated by the recent legislation and corresponding budget cuts.  Any plan to address the Achievement Gaps must take all of these groups into consideration.  We focus on classroom teachers, but classrooms don't function without support and it is often our students with the most needs who interact with the most adults during a school day. 

In order for students to be successful in school, it is vital that their families feel connected and valued.  Achievement Gaps can be addressed by including families and making communication between home and school more effective.  Families of students in public education are often facing significant challenges which impact their children's abilities to perform well in school.

In addition to all the groups inside schools, the community as a whole has an interest in having a quality public education system that works for all students.  Whether it is for employment purposes, public safety, property values or many other reasons public schools provide a valuable community resource.  In return our communities provide resources that add to the quality of our school systems. 

Public schools are truly a vital part of any community and a necessary part of our society.  Public schools provide a mechanism to bring different groups together and to bridge gaps between different interests, beliefs and cultures.  This makes public education a messy and sometimes controversial part of our society.  However, as our society continues to diversify and change the importance of public education as a unifying force magnifies.  Madison has an opportunity to be a leader in creating a model for public education that works for all, we all need to be a part of making that happen.       

Not to be forgotten in all the discussion about the Achievement Gap is the political climate which is impacting all aspects of our society.  While we are in between major statewide electoral events we can't ignore the ongoing political struggles which engulf Wisconsin.  We can use this "break" to our advantage as we work to lay the groundwork for the upcoming, extremely high stakes elections.   

It is also a great time to get informed about the candidates in upcoming elections for Madison School Board as well as keeping up with issues that will impact our electoral process.

We should also continue to share the "alternative facts" that contradict Governor Walker's message about the successes of his policies.

The political climate continues to be toxic here.  The political infighting and the influence of forces from outside Wisconsin have made our state's politics a quagmire of accusations, antagonism and animosity.

We Are All Workers…
There's a certain amount of bitter irony in our current situation.  The level of hostility between different segments of our society have increased exponentially in recent months.  Groups that would seem to have similar interests are divided on political lines and are actively opposing each other in political and economic circles.  We seem to have forgotten the ties that unite us and instead are focused on looking at our differences.   

Yet, history can teach us the dangers of the direction we are headed.  No nation has been able to thrive when the gap between rich and poor becomes too large.  If allowed to operate without control the natural tendency of an economy is concentration of wealth.  However, this leads to widespread suffering and eventually to some form of uprising.  America has been a fortunate nation in that we have had a wealth of resources and an economy that has been able to grow, combined with a political and social system that has created relative stability over our history.  We have been able to allow dissenting voices to have some impact on policy and thereby avoiding major class conflicts.

With the current direction of centralization of political power coinciding with the concentration of wealth we face a mounting challenge to our democratic institutions.  If the voices of labor, women, different racial and ethnic groups and other non-"majority" groups are stifled then the tension in our society will increase to a dangerous level.  We've seen this happen several times in our nation's history and have been able to recover to some degree.  However, it has taken heroic efforts on the part of the oppressed groups to counter the conservative forces that seek to maintain the status quo.       

While the current conservative agenda being advanced in Wisconsin isn't unprecedented, it certainly is taking the fight to a level not seen here in a long time.  It is up to all of us to unite to restore a balance to our political and economic systems.

The issues raised by the controversies over the mining bill here in Wisconsin continue to provide examples of the problems we face in developing sound public policy for the good of all.  There are many questions that have been raised by the debate and they all point to the difficulty involved in making decisions in such a divided climate.

-The differences between regions of Wisconsin are highlighted.  The citizens of northern Wisconsin feel like their interests are not valued by political forces from more urban areas in the southern part of the state.  However, we live in a time when we can recognize that our environment is connected and what happens in one part of the state influences other places. 

-Different groups have different interests and needs.  Our government continues to ignore or violate the rights of other groups like the Native American tribes who are sovereign nations with treaty rights.  

-Outside forces seek to impose their agenda on our state.  The proponents of the mining bill are heavily influenced by companies from outside Wisconsin.  Along with the outside interests comes the seemingly inevitable political wrangling as legislators seek to promote the causes of their financial backers.   

-Data is used to support both sides.  "Experts" from both sides are at odds about the environmental and health impacts of the type of mining in the current bill.

Women's Rights…
It seems that the GOP wants to return us to the "Good Old Days".  They would impose a view of the world that minimizes the importance of anyone who is not a white, male, business owner.  Legislation designed to institute morality as defined by a small group of people is being forced through at a rapid rate.  In order to do this the GOP is promoting a wide range of fear based attacks on a variety of groups.  It seems like no organization is safe from their attacks.

Here in Wisconsin things are no different.  The GOP controlled legislature has once again done the unthinkable. 

One can only hope that people will realize what is being done under our current Republican controlled government and use their vote in upcoming elections.  Given the wide number of different demographic groups negatively affected by GOP policies it is difficult to imagine that they could retain power.  However, any change in political power hinges on an electorate that votes using accurate information and not one that falls under the media spell cast by the GOP and their financial backers. 

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