Sunday, March 4, 2012

Issue #52 March 2, 2012- Attacking Education as a Political Strategy, MMSD's Achievement Gap, Recall News

What This Is…
Issue #52- March 4, 2012
In this issue: Good Strategy- Attacking Education, Madison's Achievement Gap, Different Americas and Delaying the Recall

Attacking Education, A Political and Economic Strategy…
There has always been a certain amount of anti-intellectual sentiment in America.  We've walked a line between respecting well educated individuals while at the same time mocking and stigmatizing "nerds".   This is very clear in our representations of intellectuals in media portrayals of school settings.  You can see the influence of these attitudes in students across America.  The most academically minded have to find a way to negotiate between pursuing their interests and at the same time staying socially accepted.  Peer pressure to conform to a norm heavily influenced by media attitudes is tremendous. 
We also see a significant division in academic expectations between different groups in our schools.  For some of our students the expectation of good grades, putting school ahead of other interests and staying on a path that leads to college is the norm.  For others the expectations for school performance are less clear and frequently contradictory.  Attitudes that are brought in to our schools are then mirrored by the educators and expectations for some students are changed accordingly and lower performance is accepted.  It becomes a vicious cycle which leads to entrenchment of achievement gaps.  These gaps then perpetuate a negative attitude towards education which further exacerbates the problems. 

The same split in attitudes carries out to our social and political attitudes outside of academic institutions.  Our leaders have often trumpeted their ignorance in order to make themselves seem like a "regular American".  There is distrust of leaders who are highly credentialed by elite universities or colleges.  By sowing the seeds of doubt in our ability to trust academically adept individuals these leaders encourage the general public to continue to rely on "common-sense".  "Common sense" that frequently is not supported by information or that returns us to the "Good Old Days" which may not have been what they are advertised to be.  As Isaac Asimov said, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'

This anti-education sentiment is very clear in the current conservative leadership of Wisconsin.  While they will say that their actions are designed to improve and reform the delivery of education to all Wisconsinites the actual effects of their policies seem to run counter to those goals.  The twin pillars of conservative education reform, choice and testing, have not shown consistently positive results.  In fact, I would argue that after decades of accountability through NCLB we have seen a significant decline in the ability of public schools to effectively address the needs of all of their students. 

What is it about our education in general and more specifically, public education, that is so problematic for the conservative political leadership?  I've often wondered why it seems like so much of the current legislation in Wisconsin appears to be designed not to help, but instead to further damage the opportunities of people who are not in the economic or political elite.  The attacks on different demographic groups and our environment are troubling.  The attacks on public education are disturbing and seem counter productive to me.  How does it help our state if we undercut the efforts of public education to assist our students in achieving goals that can only serve to help our society in the future?

It appears to boil down to two main issues, power and money.  By controlling the debate over public education the right is able to divide the electorate and maintain their hold on political power at all levels of government.  With the debate over education framed by the issue of achievement as defined by criteria they've established it is easier to create a sense of crisis and division among the electorate.  

It is also possible to deflect criticism of conservative social policy on to the public schools.  This policy consists of a collection of legislation and administrative codes which have the effect of maintaining the status quo.  A status quo that significantly benefits the current social, financial and of course political elite.  Public schools, which by their very definition, serve any and all students who live in the area of attendance for that particular school and district.  By attacking the quality of the school system debate shifts from issues that are not easily quantified to a measurable set of numbers (test scores, graduation rates, etc.).    

One can make the argument that the threats to public education cause "reforms" which significantly impact the ability of students from historically disadvantaged groups to move up the social, political and economic ladders of our society.  As we reduce the services and supports available in the public schools groups that rely on these things suffer disproportionate consequences.  This is a model that has been used widely in previous efforts to eliminate public services.  By creating a sense of crisis a negative perception of a department or service is established.  Then the public is more likely to support cuts to the funding in these areas and the ability of the workers in the affected field to provide quality services is further reduced.  A vicious cycle is established, something that can be seen clearly in the area of public education.  

We can see in many studies that education has a large impact on a persons future success and that people with higher levels of education are more represented in the upper classes in America.  Groups who are on the lower rungs in education and income don't participate in the decision making processes of our society at the same level that other groups do.  By criticizing, undermining and then punishing public schools, conservatives perpetuate a system that keeps many individuals from specific demographic groups out of the political process.  These are groups whose overall size is increasing, thus the "crisis" for conservative leaders who face an electorate that is increasingly at odds with their overall agenda.  

As the gap between wealthy Americans and the rest of the citizenry increases the number of wealthy Americans declines relative to the overall population.  With wealthy Americans voting significantly more in favor of Republican candidates it stands to reason that conservatives would want to increase the number of poorer Americans who frequently don't vote.  The income levels that are currently being targeted in Wisconsin are the ones occupied in large measure by public servants like teachers.  If this group's political power is reduced then the security of conservatives in elected offices is increased.  This is another benefit of the attack on education and educators.

Income inequality and partisan voting in the United States - CiteSeer

As the attacks on education shift into high gear the attempts to divide supporters of public education increases.  When resources are plentiful it is easier to find ways to compromise and address the varied needs and interests in public schools.  As resources are cut (due to the pressures created by the image of public school failure) the battle for resources takes on a different tone.  No longer are groups with conflicting interests willing to compromise, instead it becomes a battle over the few dollars and other resources available to educate needier students.

The benefits to conservative leaders are not only found in the political realm.  Weakening public education also has significant financial incentives for the wealthy who are able to "invest" in the education "industry".  By garnering public money they can reduce their financial risk and instead reap big financial rewards by reducing their investment dollars. 

In order to protect their "investment" it becomes necessary, not only to frame the debate in a specific way (test scores for example), but to set up clear differences between public schools and private schools.  Luckily for "reformers" education data is relatively easy to manipulate.  In addition, it is also relatively easy to make a good "sound-bite case" for the need for private schools.  The arguments that public schools are filled with lazy, unionized teachers who don't have any incentive to help students fill our airwaves and other public forums.  Any counter argument offered by defenders of public education is diverted to the issue of unions and our budget "crisis". 

Assuming that my assertions are valid, these arguments raise the stakes in our battle to defend public education and public educators.  We are not simply fighting to maintain a status quo, but instead are engaged in a struggle that will shape the immediate future of our society as a whole.  The control of access to political power and money is one that affects all of us and impacts our lives in so many ways.  While it may sound overly dramatic, the reality is that we are engaged in a struggle to redefine democracy in American and public schools are a central part of that vision.

The Achievement Gap in the MMSD…
Public educators in Wisconsin (and across America) have a delicate balance to maintain.  On one hand we must continue to fight against the draconian legislation and public policy that undermines our efforts to education our students.  We recognize that testing and other elements of our current education policy are not positive or productive ways to address student's needs.  We have a responsibility to speak and act in ways that benefit our students.  As the Declaration of Independence states, "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."  This sentiment serves as a reminder of the charge that drove the leaders of the rebellion that created our nation and it still holds true today.

At the same time we are faced with a grim reality that our students from different groups are not succeeding.  They are not meeting standards, they aren't reading or doing math at grade level.  Their behaviors are undermining their school performance.  They are not prepared to be successful in the world they enter after they leave our public schools.  While it is easy to look at any individual group involved in public education and place blame, the reality is that we all have a part in the creation and maintenance of these shortcomings.  We must recognize that we can always find ways to improve our efforts at educating all students in our schools.  We can't neglect our responsibilities to the students in our classrooms in our efforts to improve the bigger picture of education in our state and nation.

We can look to the past for guidance (in things to do and in things not to do).  However, we must deal with the realities that we have in place now and look to the future if we are to overcome the Achievement Gaps in our public schools.  I feel like the Madison Public Schools are actively seeking ways to address our challenges and the steps being taken are in the correct direction.  The road will be difficult, but if we continue on the path being set the potential is there for very positive results.

My major reason for optimism centers around the discussion sessions being held around the district.  I attended my first one last week and was impressed by the quality of discussion and the level of respect and commitment I saw.  This truly is how a democracy handles its problems, through discussion and debate.  The initial plan offered by MMSD is of course flawed and incomplete (it is also comprehensive and an excellent starting point for discussion).  There is no perfect way to address issues that have such deep roots and that have so many different group's needs imbedded in them.  By actively seeking out public input it gives a voice to anyone willing to take the time to offer their thoughts.  Please consider registering and going to an input session.  At the very least, be sure to read the plan so that you are informed about the ways that MMSD is considering moving to address our Achievement Gaps. 

Different Americas for Different People…
There is no doubt that our nation is one that is made up of many groups that often have conflicting interests and needs.  Different races, religions, ethnicity, cultures, etc. along with gender differences make creating a unified nation difficult.  These divisions are no different when you move to the state and local levels of our society.  We are truly challenged by the differences among us and our efforts to create policies and institutions that support a majority of our citizens have been inconsistently successful.

Over time our constitution and legal system have worked to try and temper conflict among different groups.  However, it is clear that our political, social and economic system are geared more to the benefit of certain groups.  We see evidence of this throughout history and while we also see efforts to make our society more equal in distribution of power the bias in favor of some groups is obvious.    

This is not to say that America is "evil", but rather to emphasize that we are not that different from other nations throughout history.  We may try to emphasize our "exceptionalism" through historical or philosophical references, but the reality of our shortcomings shouldn't be ignored or glossed over.  We need to be sure to keep a realistic picture of our efforts and never stop trying to improve our society. 

At the same time we must also keep this realistic image of ourselves in the forefront of our current media portrayals of America.  It is easy to get caught up in the moment and get swept away in the rhetoric and hyperbole of current events.  Every generation views the current one as lacking in the some basic ways.  We must recognize this and work to make sure that we are being careful to sort through the emotional responses to events and make reasoned judgments with an eye towards the future. 

The media has become a vehicle used to promote a specific agenda and we are constantly subject to efforts to manipulate our opinions.  It is our duty to be informed, not only about current events, but also about our history.  Only through accurate information can we hope to form valid opinions.  We also can't forget that we have more power than we give ourselves credit for, and we must use our power of the vote and the dollar to influence our sources of information for the better.

Recall News…
Only in Wisconsin's current political environment would the announcement that Scott Walker's campaign would not challenge the recall petitions be viewed with skepticism.  Over the past year we have seen so many different strategies employed by his administration that it leaves us wondering, what's next?  Recent news seems to indicate that we may see recall elections as early as June.  Time will tell, but we will continue to do all we can to ensure that our democratic rights are recognized.      

Delaying The Recall, Pros and Cons…
There are some real downsides to the delay in holding the recall elections.  The most obvious may be the amount of fundraising that the Walker campaign is able to do during this time period.  We are now virtually guaranteed of a late spring/early summer media blitz that is unprecedented here in Wisconsin. 

The other problem with the delay is that it gives this administration and legislature an opportunity to further the damage they've already done.  This means more suffering for Wisconsinites and an increased level of difficulty in undoing the damage done.  Walker and his associates are using this opportunity to try and rush more harmful legislation and policy into our system.
 There are some advantages to the delay as well.  The biggest is that it gives us more time to get accurate information out to the public.  We won't be able to compete with the financial backing that Walker can generate.  He will be able to produce some slick ads that promote his agenda and will use the power of the governorship to trumpet the "successes" of his policies.  We need to keep talking and sharing information to counter these efforts.

Education- Efforts to expand charter schools while continuing to undermine public education through a variety of legislation continues.

Electoral "Reform"- This break between the filing of petitions and the actual elections allows GOP supporters to promote the idea of election fraud with the public.

Worker's Rights- Every day that goes by under the draconian legislation passed last year weakens the economic and bargaining power of workers in Wisconsin.  However, it also galvanizes support and can lead to a strengthening of resolve. 

Gender Equity- We've all heard about the legislation recently pushed through our legislature.  In addition the issues surrounding women's health and reproductive rights are receiving significant attention.  There are a number of reasons for these attacks and the actions of the GOP are quite deceptive.  For example, despite his announcement that 2012 is the "Year of the Veteran" recent legislation actually harms veterans rights.

This legislation, while on the surface a slam on single parent households (which are predominantly single mothers) also gives the opportunity to attack other family types.  The phrase used in the legislation is "nonmarital parenthood" which could be used in a variety of ways.

Environmental- The mining bill is the most obvious battleground here.  However, the wetlands legislation recently crossed his desk and more pro-business, anti-environment legislation is hovering around our legislature.

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