Sunday, April 22, 2012

One School's Perspective On Public Education in Wisconsin

What This Is…
Issue #59- April 22, 2012
In this issue: Get Involved, Recall News, Public Education From One School's Perspective

Get Involved…
Today we are only 16 days away from the primary elections and 44 days from the general recall election.  There's not much time left and a lot of work to be done if the recall efforts are to succeed.  There are many ways to get involved, you can volunteer for a specific candidate or devote your time to a more general organization.  Whatever your choice is, now is the time to commit to making the recalls successful.

Need some evidence that grassroots efforts can succeed.  Look at the effect we can have if we apply our efforts collectively.  How you spend your money is a form of political activism.

It's not just political candidates that need our support.  Other organizations are working to help promote public education and are actively working to help schools in many ways. 

As if there wasn't enough going on, it's budget season for the Madison Public School system.  We can't forget to make sure all voices are heard as the school board prepares to finalize the budget for next year.  This budget has implications for many important issues like the proposed plan to address the Achievement Gap as well as the potential for increased employee contributions to insurance payments.

Recall News…
Conservatives will continue to attempt to derail the recall effort through a variety of tactics and misinformation.  We can't allow ourselves to be distracted or allow others to be misled by the propaganda spouted by the GOP and their supporters.  The recall effort is justified and the Walker agenda isn't working for Wisconsin.   

I must admit that I've been struggling to decide which candidate to cast my ballot for in the primary on May 8th.  My heart goes with Falk or maybe Vinehout, my head says Barrett.  As the election draws ever closer I know that I need to start working to support one of the candidates.  This recent poll is helping me begin to cement my allegiance to Falk.  I won't worry about the fact that all the Democrats trail Walker in this poll, I'll wait until after the primary to pay close attention to those numbers, but the fact that Falk and Barrett poll so closely makes me question my thinking that Barrett is the better candidate statewide. 

Does this mean that we finally have some clarity in the rules for voting in the recalls?  Not yet, but we're getting closer.

Public Education- One School's Views…
These are difficult times to be a public educator in Wisconsin.  Public education is under attack in a variety of ways and is facing challenges from all sides.  While the attacks aren't anything new, the intensity of the anti-public education policy and rhetoric has reached an incredibly high level in recent years.  Public education is supposedly failing in nearly every measurable way and we are facing a crisis of epic proportions (if you believe all the hype in conservative and mainstream media). 

So called "experts" spout data to support their claims that public education is a failed dinosaur that needs either significant "reform" or even better, simply to be ended as a failed public policy.  Political leaders focus on the financial aspect of education and tout the savings that privatizing schools and breaking educator unions will give our state and local budgets.  The conservative propaganda machine has kicked into high gear and has made public education one of the top causes of our state's financial and societal woes. 

Politics in Wisconsin has become a very brutal and nasty world to inhabit.  Public educators are reluctantly being drawn into the political sphere.  This is primarily due to the upheaval caused by the passage of Act 10 and the subsequent conflict regarding public unions and worker's rights.  The political world is one where style is valued over substance, something that most educators are not very comfortable with.  Most of us simply go to school every day and do everything in our power to help our students and their families.  It's not a flashy job, on the contrary educators are often behind the scenes and rarely get much credit for the work we do. 

It's because of this behind the scenes mentality that educators have made such good targets for conservative politicians.  They have relied on the fact that we care enough about our students that we will work more, get paid less and go the extra mile for Wisconsin's children even as politicians savagely attack our status as professionals.  Imagine their surprise when, last February, we stood up and decided to fight back.  No wonder their attacks have increased in volume. 

What about these educators that the GOP likes to vilify?  We all know that it's easier to attack a group of people and create a stereotype of a particular demographic.  Educators have been portrayed as lazy, incompetent, and greedy.  Our actions in the political realm have been labeled self-interested and even anti-American.  Our professional actions have been "proven" inadequate and discriminatory.  However, most Wisconsinites know very little about what happens in schools and what educators do.  Instead of first-hand knowledge they rely on the media and other sources for their information.  Public educators go to work each day in a setting that is very different from what most citizens imagine. 

As one of the union reps for my school I spent the last couple of months talking to every professional educator in the school I work at.  I had short, individual conversations with every educator and hourly employee about their concerns and hopes for education.  The picture that one gets from these conversations is very different from the one that is presented in other venues. 

I should note that this information is from one school in a metropolitan area and shouldn't be viewed as representative of all educators everywhere.  However, my school has a wide range of political beliefs, different levels of union activism and provides a perspective that isn't much different from many schools in Wisconsin. 

Because of the amount of information I gathered from my staff I'm breaking up my summary of the conversations into two parts.  This week I'll share the general attitudes and concerns my staff have.  Next week I'll focus on their solutions to the problems and their ideas for maintaining union solidarity in our building (along with my inevitable editorial comments). 

We have concerns about the political events in Wisconsin.  Conservatives would paint a picture of a MMSD teacher as a liberal radical who comes to work ready to indoctrinate the youth of our city by day while screaming, drumming and chanting all night.  Instead most people I talked to were not enjoying our current political climate and were concerned about the future of politics in our state.  Many saw the recall movement as a necessary response to the actions of the GOP, but not as a desired way of doing political business.  In other words, if Walker and the GOP had negotiated and not been as radical in their actions most educators would have maintained the status quo and not become political activists. 

However, now that the process has started the general consensus is that it is vital that the recall efforts succeed.  Without regaining some control in at least one branch of government educators see a bleak future for Wisconsin.  The concern is that Governor Walker, if his power is unchecked, will completely undo the last century of efforts to protect the rights and privileges of common citizens in Wisconsin.  Even within that consensus there was still some division as to who the best candidates are and the endorsement process followed by MTI (important to note that MTI follows a set procedure for endorsing candidates and still hasn't endorsed a Democrat for governor). 

There were also divisions within the staff about actions like the protests of last February and whether MTI should be heavily involved in political actions.  The staff at my school should be commended for their ability to look beyond the political views of their colleagues and work together respectfully.  No matter what political views or ideological persuasion an individual has we recognize that our primary focus at school is on our students and our jobs, not our politics. Clearly an image that doesn’t fit the distorted view of an educator portrayed by conservatives.  An image of a group of people who only do what the "union bosses" tell them to do and who are incapable of seeing an alternative point of view.   

We are concerned about the future of public education in Wisconsin.  Educators at my school see a bleak future ahead for public education unless we can reverse current trends.  At the top of the list of concerns is the problem of funding for our schools.  Educators recognize that until we can find a way to adequately fund our public schools we will continue to see cuts to staff, programs and services.  This is a huge part of the "big picture" that dominates any discussion about our public school system.  It also ties in to the larger issues of the unequal distribution of wealth in our society today.  The facts point towards a system where the rich lobby their representatives and get richer while the rest of us just keep working to stay afloat as best we can.  Don't our schools deserve better? 

There is also significant concern about the privatization of our schools.  We saw the way that the discussion about Madison Prep influenced the public perception or our schools and how it is possible for different groups to infiltrate our education system to gain access to public funding.  Privatization is viewed as a negative, backward step in education "reforms" and should be resisted to the greatest extent possible.  

We value our union, but not unquestioningly.  Many staff members expressed strong support for our union and the things that it has done for educators and education in Madison.  The idea that the union has "had our back" and protected us while getting things that we now take for granted like planning time, salary schedules and reasonable work hours.  It is clear that most members recognize the need for the protections we have earned in our current contracts.  Without our contracts we are extremely vulnerable to principals and school boards.  Many of these members expressed a desire to make sure the union recertifies and would gladly pay dues to keep our union functioning.  They also valued the democratic process followed by MTI and the ability of members to influence decision making collectively.

At the same time there are members who have issues with MTI or who don't recognize a strong need for union representation.  As with any organization there is no possible way for everyone's needs to be met perfectly and this can lead to dissatisfaction.  Hourly employees of the MMSD have legitimate complaints about their contract language and are one example of a group that has been significantly impacted by current events.  Younger educators are also not as aware of what teaching could be like without a contract and some wonder if the union is necessary.  There is also an element of disbelief that this is happening and a feeling of safety for some Madison educators.  This leads to a sense of "that can't happen here" as the news about draconian handbooks from other districts comes out. 

There is also confusion about what a union can do for its members under the conditions imposed by Act 10.  "What will our representation look like?" is a common question asked by educators.  Yet after more discussion almost every member recognized some way that their union had helped them, either through legal representation, contract language or some other method of support.  Along with this realization comes a renewed interest in preserving and protecting our strength as a labor organization.  

All of this leads members to believe that, while our union has been beneficial to us, there are also additional ways that we can improve our standing, financially and professionally.  There is a curious mixture of despondence and hope about our union's future in my school.  On one hand there are the understandable feelings of despair and fear that go with the continuing assaults on our profession and our rights as workers.  However, there is also the sense that we can emerge from this time of turmoil stronger and with a renewed sense of purpose.        

We have significant concerns about what the future looks like for Madison educators.  With all of the changes in legislation and the impact of these "reforms" on educators wages and working conditions it is no wonder that educators at my school are worried about their ability to continue working in schools.  In fact several educators talked about needing to leave the profession  because of the lost wages and benefits.  The sense that we will never fully recover from the recent cuts to our incomes resonates strongly with educators in my building.  There is also significant concern about what the current climate will do to future educators and whether qualified individuals will want to join our profession. 

Despite the image of overpaid educators with lavish benefits, many educators at my school are struggling.  Several haven't had a pay raise in several years, while others have situations that are made more confusing because of recently negotiated agreements.  Changes in our health insurance coverage are also of significant concern as members worry about changing plans and being able to afford to keep seeing the medical specialists their health needs require. 

The current climate makes it difficult for educators to plan for their own futures.  Some are wondering if they should pursue and advanced degree or if the money invested in their own education will be "wasted" as qualifications for teaching are changed.  Others who are interested in starting/expanding their families or who have other personal concerns worry about job share benefits and family leave.  MTI members donate part of their sick leave to a "sick bank" that other members can access for extended leave needs.  It is a concern that this benefit might be lost and members might end up with significant financial concerns if they face an illness, a sick family member, or maternity leave. 

Fears about retirement benefits are significant among staff members.  Educators who have worked for years under the assumption that their retirement benefits were secure are now worried about their future.  Educators worry the Wisconsin Retirement System will be "looted" like other funds in other states have been.  There is also apprehension about our sick leave benefits and what happens to sick leave that individuals have accrued.            

Our concerns are not just financial in nature.  Another significant area of concern is that of how teacher evaluations will be handled in the future.  We have already seen new initiatives from the district that call for more direct observation of our teaching methods and strong directives about how we should be teaching.  Even more concerning to educators is the potential for using test scores as an evaluative tool for educators.  Along with concerns about evaluation there also exists a strong anti-merit pay sentiment among educators.  While seniority may not be a perfect method for determining salary, it remains a stabilizing and highly supported part of our contract.

Most of the anti-union rhetoric has focused on wages and benefits, but those are only a portion of the things a union does to represent its members.  Along with the financial benefits, MTI has also worked hard to make the MMSD a place where employees are respected as professionals and are treated fairly.  Staff at my school is worried that with the loss of our collective bargaining agreement other changes will take place that will damage the climate in our schools.  Things like class size, hours and scheduling (for classroom and specials teachers), caseloads for specialists, school and grade level assignments, planning time, what a reasonable workload is and many others are currently regulated in our collective bargaining agreement.  All of these items and more will be open to virtually unilateral control by the school board in 2013 when our CBA expires.           

We are feeling stretched, overworked,  over-managed and disrespected as professionals.  A common concern raised in discussions with staff is the feeling of top-down management and forced implementation of too many new initiatives. As elementary teachers we are receiving professional development in math, language arts, classroom management, culturally responsive classrooms, science, social studies and more.  The amount of new material is overwhelming and we aren't able to implement directives effectively.

In addition the existing knowledge of our experienced staff is often discounted in favor of a new program or proposal.  While staff recognizes the positive potential of many of the ideas we are presented with, we also feel that we have the ability to utilize our existing skills in conjunction with new methods of teaching to make our students even more successful.  Every school in Madison has subtle differences in clientele and staff and a top-down approach ignores these in favor of district uniformity.

Many of these initiatives are implemented with little, if any, additional support.  When support is offered there is concern among educators that eventually it will be eliminated and we will be left with more to do and fewer resources to do it with.    

There is a strong sense that current education "reforms" actually do little to help our students.  The current emphasis of "educational reforms" focus on a "back to basics" mentality.  Many educators are worried that "specials" like art, music and physical education will be phased out as more and more time is spent on "testable" subjects.  Even science and social studies are taking a backseat to literacy and math as more and more "accountability" is required for our schools.  We are given new standards and new guidelines on a frequent basis and little consistency exists for us or for our students.  

Educators are losing control of our curriculum and are being told what and how to teach.  Our directives often come from individuals or organization with limited ties to a community.  Frequently these "products" are sold to a district by salespeople who either haven't been educators or who have been out of the classroom for significant amounts of time. 

We are grappling with issues around a more diverse student body and with students who have exceptional/special needs.  There is no doubt that the needs of our students are more intense now than they were in the past.  We have seen an increase in the number of students with significant physical, emotional and other needs.  The safety of all who enter our school buildings is of primary concern for all educators and we know that we face serious challenges in this area.  We face the challenge of educating students who may have serious issues in their mental or physical health and educators need the support of everyone involved to meet these student's needs.  This means that all professionals involved with a student need to be informed about the student and that communication between staff, family and others must be open and direct.  We must consistently and fairly enforce district discipline policies and support each other in our efforts to help students grow into responsible members of society.   

As school budgets have been cut, the number of students who need support has increased.  Whether their needs are based on biological, environmental or societal causes doesn't change the fact that these students require additional support and extra staff time.  One group of professionals who have been dramatically affected by budget cuts are our SEA's (Special Education Assistants).  This group has seen their take home pay decrease, their hours worked decrease and their responsibilities increase.  Staff at my school would like to see our SEAs allowed to be more involved with the planning and implementation of programming for our students with special needs.  We also recognize the need for students to be supported in all environments while at school (recess, lunch, specials, etc.)

The demographics at my school have changed significantly over the last decade.  We've seen a rise in the number of students who receive free/reduced lunch by 250%.  At the same time our number of students who are learning English as a second language has increased.  All of this has put additional pressure on educators to develop new procedures and curriculum to engage different learners at a high level.  This means that we need more support staff and new materials to support our students in their academic efforts.  We also need time and support to reach out to families who may need additional communication about school related topics and issues.

Of course all of these issues tie in with the current discussion about the Achievement Gaps in the MMSD.  Staff at my school supports making changes in how we deliver instruction, but are also concerned that we will see radical changes to our school system. Most of us have difficulty imagining how our younger students (and our less mature students) will manage an extended school day with fewer opportunities to move (less recess, PE, etc.).  We also recognize that our students are most engaged when given an opportunity to explore different topics and subjects.  For example, our outdoor education program (utilizing the wonderful space around our school) is an excellent opportunity for our students to learn in an active way.  How will that fit a strict, regimented approach to education directed from high level administration?

Educators at my school are open to training in culturally relevant practices and are interested in developing new skills and strategies to help make all students feel welcomed and supported in school.  We also recognize the challenges in trying to accomplish this task in classrooms that are very diverse.  We would like to have the opportunity to learn from other schools and educators in our district and see how they have been successful addressing the needs of their students.                

Our nursing staff and other educational personnel are often equivalent to a "first responder" for health care, mental health services and other specific needs that students and their families have.  They are often the ones to diagnose a sick child, take a child to an appointment or assist with negotiating through our social service bureaucracy.  This is a tremendous amount of responsibility in addition to creating an environment suitable for learning and as such deserves a great deal of respect from our community.      

It is difficult (if not impossible) to separate the needs and concerns that educators have with those of our students, their families and the community at large.  It makes sense that the educators who are committed to their students share similar concerns with the families and community members in our school's attendance area.  As one protest sign said, "My working conditions are your child's learning conditions". 

At the same time educators face the challenge of communicating their efforts to the families and community they serve.  Many of our traditional methods are not "family friendly".  For example our report cards are extensive and complex.  A 2/3 teacher with 18 students will enter in 684 specific grades for one set of semester report cards.  This means that each student will receive 38 grades from their classroom teacher.  This is a lot for a family to sort through and a lot for any educator to record.        

Many educators wonder how we can add more responsibilities to our schools and still maintain a working relationship with the families we serve.  As education becomes more "high stakes" at earlier grades we worry that we will see parents disengaging from the process and looking to schools only to meet the basic literacy and math needs of their students.  Will a public school building become a test taking and assessment center, or will they continue to be a place where the neighborhood can come together for "Science Night", "International Potlucks" and other less assessable events. 

We must continually look for new and innovative ways to engage our students and our community in our schools.  We have seen several programs meet with success this year as our school hosted a day of reading with volunteers coming in to school.  We have also implemented a program called DOGS (Dads Of Great Students) that encourages fathers (and other male family members) to spend a day volunteering at school.  The more people who see the reality of our public schools the more complete a picture will be presented to the public at large. 

We care deeply about each other, our students and our community.  While one would hope that this would be obvious, the rhetoric about educators that is circulating distorts our efforts to gain professional respect and instead makes us appear greedy and self-serving.  Each educator I talked to spoke of trying to do everything possible to make each child successful and expressed a willingness to go the extra mile to reach out and make connections with students, families and the community.  Many of the concerns raised were because there was a specific negative impact on students learning or school engagement.  Disagreements with district policy were not due to a lack of desire to improve teaching practices, but instead based on philosophical or logistical concerns. 

In addition to caring about our students and their families we also have a deep respect for our fellow professionals.  We recognize the challenges that each individual educator faces as well as the differences between groups within schools.  PE teachers have different concerns than social workers who are different from classroom teachers who are different from custodians…  Yet at the same time we all share a common goal, to make our school a safe place of learning for everyone. 

Our union provides us with an opportunity to express our voice and be heard.  We see positive opportunities even in these difficult times.  Maybe it's because of the nature of our profession, but among all the uncertainty and trepidation there is also a message of hope for positive change. 
Along with these mixed feelings there is a strong sense of renewed pride in being a public educator.  A sense that we are doing something special each and every day and that we are capable of successfully defending our profession and our school system.

True, we are exhausted and on the defensive at times.  At the same time it is our collective energy that gives us strength to persevere whether in the political arena or in education a significantly challenging student.  Often a conversation would begin with a statement like, "They got us", "I've never been this tired", or "What's going to happen next".  After a little bit the tone of the conversation would change and suggestions for solutions to problems would be offered.  That sense of desperation would diminish and a strong sense of confidence and purpose would emerge. 

Our public education system and the educators who work in it are a tremendous resource for our entire society.  Instead of vilifying and marginalizing public educators we should be finding additional ways to support their efforts and enhance the school experience for every student who passes through the doors of a public school.    

Where to from here?  These are truly unsettled times for Wisconsin's public educators and their unions.  From the state legislature to the court system (state and Federal) it seems the picture changes almost daily.  There is definitely as sense of barely holding on, or treading water (at best) among union members at my school.  We wonder what can possibly happen next? and at the same time hope that we don't get an answer to that question.  

At my school we have nearly 100% membership in the union with only a tiny percentage of staff being "fair share members" (individuals who pay dues, but aren't members of the union).  All of these individuals are deeply committed to public education and have strong opinions about how to best educate our students.  We collaborate to make our jobs easier and to share our talents with others.  We celebrate our successes and support each other in our struggles.  At the end of the day we assess what happened and prepare for the next day.  A day that we will face together with our colleagues and supporters as we work to educate the future of our society. 

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