Sunday, March 25, 2012

Issue #55 Public Education Attacked and Defended

What This Is…
Issue #55- March 25, 2012
In this issue: Public Education Under Attack

Why Attack Public Education…
The conservative movement has shifted farther to the right in recent years and the current leadership of the Republican Party here in Wisconsin has taken that shift to extremes.  Along with this shift in ideology has come a change in tactics.  The GOP has shifted to attack mode in their efforts to control all facets of our society.  Their attacks have focused on several targets, but public education has been a central focus of their efforts to reconfigure Wisconsin's political, social and economic environment.

Conservatives have chosen public education as a target for a variety of reasons. 

A Need To Destroy Unions In Wisconsin- Employees in public education are heavily unionized and some public educator unions are among the strongest labor groups in Wisconsin.  Unions in Madison, Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha and Green Bay have large vocal memberships.  Act 10 and other GOP actions have clearly been designed to eliminate the power that these organizations wield.  By weakening these unions the Republicans will reduce the political challenges that organized labor presents to their agenda.  Political power that has been made clearly apparent by the multiple recall efforts which use union organization as an asset in mobilizing the electorate.

Reduce Access To Education- An educated population is more likely to speak and act against conservative policies that undermine basic rights and run counter to basic American values.  Educated citizens are more likely to have higher social and economic status and therefore are more invested in the political process.  By controlling access to education and controlling educational policies and funding conservatives hope to create a population that lacks the power to unseat elected GOP officials. 

We have seen how "reforms" to education have stratified the educational system and reduced the overall quality of education for our most disadvantaged citizens.  No Child Left Behind supporters may claim that their program raised public awareness of the divisions in our schools, however NCLB also created a system that widened the gaps in services provided in schools that serve poor and/or "minority" students.

Conservative "reformers" have also made it more difficult for many families to afford higher education for their children.  With less financial aid available and tuition rising at a rapid rate, even middle class families are struggling to save enough for college.  College graduates now face the prospect of large student loan balances, sometimes large enough to make them rethink the idea of attending college altogether. 

Divide Groups That Historically Vote Democratic- As "minority" populations become the majority and the number of wealthy Americans becomes smaller proportionally to the rest of the population the GOP needs to find ways to weaken their opposition.  Republicans also face the prospect of having the number of their strongest supporters (older, white voters) begin to dwindle.  As a result there are clear efforts to increase tensions between blocs of voters in the progressive coalition. 

Public education is one area that conservatives can espouse progressive values and still maintain credibility with their base.  Everyone wants quality schools for kids and it is easy to sell the idea of educator accountability to the public.  As a result you see conservatives speaking in favor of proposals like the Madison Prep Academy.  Conservatives are able to attack public education on many fronts and at the same time divide groups that would be united against conservative "reforms" if they were presented in a different format.    

It certainly appears that the conservatives have decided to invest a tremendous amount of effort in eliminating public education in Wisconsin.  Used properly education is a "tool" that can elevate an individual or group's social, economic and political status.  This is exactly what the far right fears.  As the demographics of our state change they can see the end of their reign at the top of our society.  If you combine the growing "minority" population with the existence of powerful public sector unions the conservatives will be hard pressed to maintain power through electoral means. 

The problems faced by public education provides ammunition for the right in their efforts to dismantle our existing educational systems.   No doubt there are problems, and the right uses these as "tools" to undermine an institution that is among the greatest hopes for any individual or group trying to advance themselves in our modern society.  Hard work and solidarity between groups will get you far, but when combined with a quality education they become a powerful force for change and improvement in our society.  A united, educated and mobilized progressive movement is extremely frightening to the GOP in Wisconsin. 

The Battle for Education…
The attacks on public education have taken on many forms.  They have been going on for years, but recently public educators have begun fighting back.  Frequently conservative arguments are based on partial truths, manipulation of data or outright fabrications.  Because of this it is vitally important that educators share their message and stand strong against the conservative assaults. 

During the protests in Madison last year my school created t-shirts that featured a quote from Abraham Lincoln, "Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm."   I won't pretend to have any right to modify the quote of such a great American leader, but I would add one thing to this idea.  Once we are set in the right place it may become necessary to use our firm base as a platform to push back and return our society to a more equal footing.

At the same time, educators can't ignore that there are significant challenges and problems within our public education system.  It is not a perfect system and educators must work to address the flaws in our school systems.  I strongly believe that our system can be improved by making changes within the system as it exists now.  Changes can be made by educators, policy makers and the citizens of a community working together to positively address the challenges we face. 

Unfortunately, there is a movement to destroy public education that uses the flaws in the system to undermine and weaken our schools.  The results of years of attacks on public education have been devastating and are gaining more momentum.  What form are these challenges taking (locally and nationally) and how are educators responding?   

Public Perception and Media Manipulation-
Conservatives are masters at manipulating public opinion and utilizing the media to their advantage.  They have used these skills to launch many successful attacks on public education.  Through media messages they have shaped the debate on education and have put public educators on the defensive.  Many Wisconsinites either don't have children in schools, or don't have frequent direct contact with the schools their children attend.  As a result they are vulnerable to messages spread through the media.  Conservatives have created an image of public schools that undermines public confidence in them.
In order to counter this, educators and their supporters must become equally media savvy.  We must use every available resource and media outlet to get a positive message out about public education.  Public educators and their supporters must be engaged and willing to share their message that our schools are valuable resources and that they provide an important service to our communities.  

Poor Education Policy
Our education policy is shaped by public perception of schools.  By systematically attacking our school's credibility with the public conservatives have created a political atmosphere that is favorable to their agenda.  Their "crowning" achievement was the passage of the No Child Left Behind Legislation.  This legislation created a poisonous environment in public education while leaving many private institutions unscathed.  The anti-public education sentiment in NCLB has gradually "trickled-down" to local school districts who are feeling the heat of the high stakes testing.  This pressure causes districts to alter what is taught and how it is taught.

Many educators joined in the celebration when President Obama was elected, thinking that it would mark a change in public education policy.  However, the negative influences and unfavorable perception of public education continued to affect policy decisions.  The Race to the Top policies implemented under Obama's administration have done little to alter the way public education is administered. 

Public educators have long argued that our goals and interests are not well represented in policy making at almost every level of government.  In fact public educators are often ignored as being self-interested or pawns of public educator unions.  Elected officials often go to great lengths to avoid getting a label of being an educator friendly leader.  Here in Madison we have seen a backlash against school board members who are considered "pro-union". 

It is common practice to nominate people from a specific field to head up a department in their area of expertise.  At the very least it is considered "common sense" to ask the opinion of "experts" in a field when crafting policy.  However, educators are not given the same level of respect in creating policies and procedures which will directly impact their ability to provide quality educational opportunities to the students we serve. 

As a result we see education policy created that might sound good in a debate, but in practice is ineffective or even harmful.  Poor education policy restricts innovation and flexibility, undermines instruction, and reduces educator effectiveness.  Our current education policy environment is toxic for public schools, public educators and students in our public schools.  It has created situations where high stakes testing drives curriculum and different groups find their needs pitted against other groups to receive support and funding.    

Once again educators and supporters of public education must work hard to get their message heard in as many forums as possible.  Only by spreading our message widely will we be able to gain influence on public education policy.  For too long public educators have been quiet about and uninvolved in the policy creation process.  We have relied on others to defend our profession in the false hope that they understand what makes good educational policy.  We must become active in the political process that ultimately impacts our ability to do the job we love to do. 

A Divided Society
If our public schools are not perfect, they are a direct reflection of our society as a whole.  America has a frustrating disconnect between the philosophy that guides much of our national rhetoric and the reality we see every day.  America is a nation built on the strong ideas of freedom and equality.  Conservatives would have us believe that by returning to some previously established set of values the problems facing our society would be solved.  They argue that American society is inherently equal and that individuals or groups who are not succeeding are simply not putting in the necessary effort.

What these beliefs ignore is the reality that race, gender, economic class and a host of other characteristics matter greatly in the opportunities available to any individual in our society.  Our schools mirror the larger reality of American culture in all aspects, positive and negative.  One needs only looks at the similarities between suspension/expulsion statistics and our incarceration rates to see how race and gender are linked in school and outside of school.   

The model for education that conservatives propose (that of privatization and competition for "business") only serves to perpetuate the differences between groups.  It will continue to segregate our schools and provide the best opportunities to the existing elite groups.  These models are damaging to all public education students, but are most harmful to our most vulnerable students.  The Nation had an article in the January 30, 2012 issue called "Redlining Our Schools".  In this article they discussed the reality that current administration policy simply perpetuates the destruction of public education in our poorest neighborhoods.   "The long awaited Senate bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) would build a bigger highway between low-performing schools serving high-need students and all other schools.  Tragically the proposed plan would weaken schools in the most vulnerable communities and further entrench the problems--concentrated poverty, segregation and lack of human and fiscal resources that underlie their failure."
The argument exists that poverty doesn't really matter as much as other factors in determining school success.  This argument proposes that race matters more than poverty or other characteristics in determining a student's chance of success in our schools.  I find this difficult to accept.  I certainly recognize the reality that a student will typically achieve more in a school where they feel their race/gender/sexual orientation/etc. are valued and respected.  They will also achieve more if instruction is delivered in a respectful and meaningful way.  However, this can't be the whole reason for the failure of large numbers of our "minority" students to succeed in our current school system.  Lack of culturally relevant curriculum and teaching methods can't account for the huge gap in our students achievement rates. 

Jonathan Kozol has written about the inequities in our schools based on race and social class.  His work has exposed a startling divide between schools in America and how our poor students face separate, and unequal educational opportunities. 
He documents a reality that shouldn't exist in a nation that espouses the concept of equal opportunity for all. 

Our society has continued to be one that is segregated by race and our schools reflect this.  More than 70% of black and Latino students attend predominantly minority schools with 40% attending intensely segregated schools with more than 90% minority.  We also see a distinct correlation between race and poverty.  This segregation of our communities and our schools creates very disparate results for our students.  In 2009 schools with a poverty rate of less than 10% ranked first in the world on Programme for International Student Achievement Tests in Reading while schools with 75% or more poverty rates ranked 50th.

Educators see the differences as well.  Nationally teachers in low poverty districts earn 1/3 more at the top of the salary scale than those in high poverty districts.  Class sizes, support and materials are all typically better in high income districts as well.  Where would you work if you had a choice?  We expect educators to be dedicated to their jobs, but there is the reality that educators need to support families and want to live as comfortably as possible just like everyone else.

Anti-public education forces use these divisions to further weaken support for public schools.  NCLB and other policies create a vicious cycle for schools struggling to serve populations that are struggling to survive.  Students at these schools often test poorly which results in a reduction in funding and services.  These reductions further erode student achievement which leads to more sanctions until eventually the school is closed/privatized and students are truly "left behind".

Foes of public education also use existing fears and negative attitudes to further reduce support for public education.  As our nation's demographics change, our public school populations show these changes. It's an age old image, the tough, less refined, less intellectual public school student vs. the polar opposite private school student.  With media attention on the issues of bullying, criminal activity in schools and other negative images it's no wonder that many citizens feel that our public schools must be the next closest thing to a war zone.  It's an easy image to create and perpetuate, especially if the students in the public school are from a different racial or ethnic group.  Conservatives use these fears and biases to create a frightening image of our public schools.

To counter this perception supporters of public education must draw on the strengths of the diversity our families bring to our schools.  Our students and their families are the members of the community that make up the school district.  It is their diversity that is modern day Wisconsin and it is their demographics that will be the future of Wisconsin.  Schools must lead the way in creating a community out of the, sometimes conflicting, wide range of groups that make up our contemporary society.

Financing Public Schools
Quality schools cost money.  Many people don't seem to realize that fact and instead look to try and cut costs in order to balance a budget or make a profit.  The best schools tend to have low educator/student ratios (if this isn't the case why do private schools advertise low class sizes when recruiting students?) and these educators are well trained.  Well trained employees cost more, but are better prepared to do their work well and typically achieve better results than less trained employees.  Because personnel costs are the major part of any school districts budget any cuts to school funding will eventually impact the quality of the work force and thereby affect the quality of the education that a student receives. 

The challenges of funding public schools are not new ones.  This quote comes from a 1921 American History textbook, "Massachusetts, under the guidance of Horace Mann, woke up in 1837 to the fact that she had wretched schoolhouses, dull textbooks, untrained teachers, and ill-disciplined pupils.  Public sentiment was aroused in the state, the school system was improved, the people began to tax themselves more freely…"

Many people don't want to hear that they may have to pay in order to maintain the quality of education in their communities.  Some places have gone to great lengths to find other ways to raise money for the schools.  In Minnesota some schools are now allowing advertisements in schools on places like lockers.  Tom Dooher, Education Minnesota and NEA affiliate says, "Exposing our students to commercial messages in school is wrong on many levels, but it's easy to see why schools are getting desperate enough to do it."  He goes on to say, "The real issue here isn't locker ads, but how to get politicians to do their job.  Politicians need to step up and provide equitable, sustainable, predictable and sufficient funding so educators can do their jobs."

Wisconsin provides an unfortunately powerful picture of what this reluctance to fund public education looks like.  Under Walker's Budget  71% of districts cut at least one core area, 59% increased class size, 46% made cuts in art, music and PE,  45% made cuts in career and tech ed., and 28% cut special education programming.  With draconian cuts like these it is easy to see where public education is headed unless significant changes can be made.

Once again the best way to improve the situation for public education comes from direct involvement in the political process that in turn creates the budgets that impact our education system.  We must also look for ways to fund education fairly so that all students can go to high quality schools.  There are many ways to fund schools in more equitable ways and we need to look carefully at these options to insure that necessary money is available for educating students.

Anti-Union/Anti-Educator Sentiment
Here in Wisconsin we have seen our GOP leadership put a tremendous amount of effort into demonizing public sector unions.  What they failed to realize was that the unions are made up of regular, hard-working citizens who are known in their communities.  This resulted in the backlash that has become the movement to reclaim Wisconsin and also has led to national movements like Occupy.  However, one only needs to read the letters to the editor or the comments on-line about educators to see that the conservative efforts have met with some success.

It remains to be seen which side will emerge on top in this round of the labor vs. management war.  However, conservatives have worked to drive a wedge between public workers and private citizens.  They have also been attempting to split unions from their members and even pit unions against one another. 

One way that they have tried to limit the influence of unions in education is to combine the concept of merit pay with an attack on seniority rules that have been a long time staple of unionized workplaces.  The argument follows the idea that the best teachers should be the most secure in their employment and the highest paid in their field.  This makes perfect sense to many Americans.  Michelle Rhee, former head of the Washington DC schools and founder of StudentsFirst a "grassroots" education "reform" movement, says, "It's about the kind of culture you want to create, where excellence is rewarded."

However, there is another side to the merit pay debate.  A Vanderbilt study showed that teachers who were offered a bonus based on their student's standardized testing performance didn't see any more gains by their students than those teachers who weren't offered bonuses.  Studies show that merit pay works for simple tasks that are directly tied to measurable results, but for complex tasks like teaching a class of students merit pay doesn't increase effectiveness.  Daniel Pink, author of "Drive" asks, "Do you want your kids taught by an intensely competitive person who's motivated by money?" He adds, "It's not that money doesn't matter.  It's that the best use of money is to get people to stop thinking about money."  Educators should be focused on improving their practice and helping their students, not worrying about bonus money.

This same thinking applies to seniority rules.  Without a good way to measure teacher effectiveness seniority creates a stable way to determine continuing employment.  I know that I'm a more effective teacher now, than I was 10 years ago.  Experience and training have improved my educational practices over the
years and allowed me to develop effective methods of teaching my students. 

The whole argument surrounding merit pay and seniority gets to a central part of the war on education, teacher evaluations.  Conservatives would have local school boards and administrators have the sole power to hire and fire employees without consequences.  Act 10 does a great deal to eliminate educator's abilities to influence the conditions of their employment.  We've seen this happen time and time again in a wide range of professions/occupations.  Employees faced with the potential of losing their jobs are more easily controlled than ones who are secure and who enjoy the protection of a union and a contract.

Educators are working to try and preserve the rights and privileges that have been negotiated and fought for over the years.  Our efforts to recall our governor and other elected GOP leaders are part of this effort.  However, we must also work to educate our fellow educators so that they understand the reasons behind the existing employment rules we follow.  Many of our newer teachers don't see the historical perspective and are vulnerable to the arguments of the conservatives when it comes to collective bargaining agreements and other workplace policies.
Privatization and Special Interests
Discussions about education are no longer just about simple policy or procedural actions at a local level.  Instead we have seen politics and outside interests gain a foothold in debates over the best ways to educate our students.  Here in Madison that became clear as the debate over Madison Prep heated up.  The current political climate and the potential involvement of outside groups changed the debate in many ways.  It became difficult to separate what was a local debate over how best to educate our children and what was potentially an effort by outside agencies to attempt to gain a access to a lucrative market here in Madison. 

This same debate plays out in many communities across the state and nation.  Private foundations and business interests recognize the tremendous potential for profit in education and look to gain access to these markets.  Standing in their way are unions and community leaders who want to preserve the integrity of their school systems, but who also want what is best for their students.  Caught in the middle are the families and students are desperately seeking the best educational opportunities available.   

I don't want to make too broad of a generalization about charter schools and the organizations that support them.  There is a place for private schools in our educational system and has been through our nation's history.  However, the integrity of our public school system must be maintained and public funds are for use by public schools that are monitored by publicly elected officials.  The movement to privatize our education system and to use public funds to do so is not an acceptable format.

It seems redundant, but once again educators must lead the effort to defend our public schools in political and social circles.  We must constantly get our message out that public schools are a necessary part of our democratic society.  If we don't we face significant consequences.

Public Schools Are "Failing"
By constantly emphasizing the Achievement Gap and other negative aspects of education conservatives have attempted to create an image of public education as a failed endeavor.  This allows them to promote their agenda of privatization as a means of protecting the rights of students and families.  They would replace the current system of public education with a privatized system.  One that doesn't necessarily improve educational outcomes, but certainly improves the bottom line of different organizations and corporations.

I continue to recognize that we have problems in education and that the Achievement Gaps are among the most significant issues that we face.  However, there are many ways to address these gaps effectively and privatizing schools is not the answer.  We can't forget that the true costs of the Achievement Gaps are faced by our students and their families and we must work to make changes that help them achieve success.  Too often changes in education are made that will result in better test scores, but won't necessarily reflect improved post-educational outcomes.  In fact testing and improving test scores have become an industry all of their own. 

High stakes, standardized testing has created an entire parallel system of education and an economic system to go with it.  To an educator it feels like we spend as much, or even more, time collecting and analyzing data as we do actually using the information we've collected.  New ways of looking at data create new terms, new concepts and even new jobs.  However, it is questionable as to whether all this data has actually improved our educational practices.   

The real questions that educators must get policy makers and the public to focus on are, how prepared are our students to succeed in life after school?  Are they well rounded and prepared to be active participants in society?  Do they have skills that allow them to pursue their interests?  Simply identifying schools as failing due to a lack of test success is not profitable for anyone except testing companies and private schools who take in the refugees from a "failed" public school system. 

What Can Be Done?…
With the wide-ranging, well organized and well financed forces arrayed against public education it may appear to be hopeless to try and defend our existing system.  I believe we are at a critical time in our society's development.  Many different issues have come together at the same time to create an environment where we are faced with difficult decisions that will impact our immediate (and potentially long term) future significantly.

We currently are seeing an effort in the Madison Public Schools to address the existing Achievement Gaps that negatively impact many of our students school experiences.  The 100+ page preliminary plan has been offered by Superintendent Nerad and the administration of MMSD.  It contains many ideas for addressing our challenges and sets out an excellent framework for continued discussion.  It is important that educators and other concerned citizens voice their opinions about the plan so that the final version truly represents a positive direction for Madison schools to follow. 

The progressive movement values hope for the future.  By working together we can arrive at a collective solution that improves the standard of life for all of our fellow citizens.  However, conservative forces will try and undermine our efforts and steer our society in a "safer" path that maintains existing norms while appearing to make changes.  We must be vigilant and stay informed in order to avoid being "tricked" by slick marketing campaigns.   

It boils down to our commitment to fight for what we believe in.  As a society we have the "tools" necessary to make progress in our ever elusive quest for a society where there is justice and opportunity for all.   

Second Amendment Rights?…
We've seen an ongoing debate about our right to "keep and bear arms" and it has been another point of emphasis for conservatives as they push their radical agenda forward.  This has become even more of a national issue recently with the murder of Trayvon Martin.  Now we see more radical legislation being put into effect in other states.

I was thankful that the combination of a heated political environment and the recent passage of concealed carry legislation didn't result in any major incidents during the recall petition signing efforts.  However, the same can't be said for the "castle doctrine" legislation passed during the recently ended legislative session.

All of these stories together paint a very troubling picture of a society declining into one where our citizens are as ready to shoot one another as they are to discuss a problem.  Our leaders set the tone for how we settle problems and when we have legislators carrying weapons on the Assembly floor it is no wonder that we have everyday citizens armed on our streets.  Guns and violence are a prevalent part of our everyday life and language.  We must work to address the underlying issues behind the violence and not simply create an arms race in our communities.

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