Sunday, September 30, 2012

Issue #81 September 30, 2012- Bargaining and My Education Reforms

What This Is…
Issue #81- September 30, 2012
In this issue: Collective Bargaining, If I Ran the Educational World

Madison Educators, a True (Collective) Bargain
I've written a lot about the problems with the "reforms" that are being forced on public educators.  It seems obvious to me that a vast majority of these are not actually designed to improve educational opportunities for most of our students.  However, it is also clear that there is significant public support for the idea of reforming public education.  This support is there for a number of reasons. 

Among the most prominent of these is the fact that "reformers" have done a great job of publicizing their arguments.  They have done this through a variety of methods, but have kept their message clear and consistent.  According to them public schools are failing, public educators are not competent and we must radically alter how we deliver instruction to our students.  The solutions for "reformers" are simple, assessment (to provide evidence of results and to hold educators accountable) and choice (usually by offering private alternatives that receive public funding).

Until recently most public educators have been aware of the attacks on our schools, but haven't seen any way to stand up for ourselves.  We are busy and often overwhelmed with our professional responsibilities.  We make connections with the families we serve, but we don't publicize our efforts.  As a result the debate over public education has become increasingly one sided and educators have been on the defensive.

The wave of legislation that negatively impacts public education from many state governments has given educators a vision of the future that many elected officials have for public education.  In this future public education is not the pillar of our educational system, but is the place of last resort for those who couldn't get in to one of the charter, voucher or other privatized schools.  Funding and other support for public schools is reduced to minimal levels and educators in these schools are ignored and/or vilified.  Our federal government doesn't provide much, if any, support for public education either as the debacle of NCLB is replaced by an equally faulty system of RTTT.

The result of the anti-education and anti-educator legislation, policy and rhetoric has been devastating to public educator's morale, financial status and has impacted our ability to serve our students.  It would certainly seem that the "reformers" are seeing the potential for total victory and an opportunity to dominate the educational landscape.

Something funny happened on the way to their victory party, significant numbers of public educators woke up and took action.  Often literally in the streets of places like Madison and Chicago.  We began to see that we have the power to fight back and to change the tone and tenor of the debate.  We know that it is an uphill battle and that the job of educating the public about what is really happening in education isn't going to be easy.  We will have to face elected officials that are often already convinced about educational issues or even hostile to public education.  We will have to get our message out, knowing that the mainstream press doesn't understand the real stories behind the budget numbers and test scores.  We will have to make connections with businesspeople and taxpayers who see our schools as a strange combination of financial drain and training ground for new employees.

The opportunity is here and we must seize our chance to make our voices heard.  The Chicago Teachers Union gives us an example of how to form strong connections within the community so that our resistance to false reforms isn't stifled.  Without the support of the communities we live and work in we lose our ability to utilize tactics like strikes or work to contract.  More importantly, we lose our power in bargaining that occurs before these, last resort, tactics need to be employed.  If an administration or school board doesn't see community support for educators then they have no reason to negotiate with us for anything really meaningful.
The message that the CTU shared and that we must continue to emphasize is that the battle for public education isn't about the money or the benefits.  Despite what the media wants the general public to believe, educators are in many ways more concerned about improving educational opportunities for all students and improving the conditions students and educators work in than they are about significantly increasing our wages or benefits. 

This isn't to say that we don't want to see our wages and benefits increase.  When you look at the salaries of other jobs in America it is obvious that educators are undervalued.  The recent controversies involving the NFL referees is a clear demonstration that sports and entertainment are valued more than education is in our country.  At the same time many people forget that our athletes are unionized and that their union works to protect more than the salaries that their members are paid.  Unions that represent players negotiate to protect the players health and also work to represent players' interests on many issues in addition to the financial ones.   

In addition to the recent successes of the CTU and the NFL Referees we are seeing other unions exert their collective muscle to represent their members.  Whether on the streets, in the courts or in other venues, labor is reawakening and recognizing the need to be assertive and even aggressive in the face of the ever increasing assault on worker's rights.  We are even seeing some business owners recognize the need to change the tone of the debate and to work with, not against, labor.    

Conservatives would have the public believe that the economic issues surrounding education, public sector unions and worker's rights in general are the only aspect of collective bargaining that matter.  What they ignore is that the money isn't the primary motivator for those of us who educate the young people of our city.  If we were only concerned about the money we would more than likely have chosen a different career path, but at the very least would be clamoring for bonuses and merit pay.  Instead, you find educators voicing concern about the effect that these types of reforms would have on the education that students are provided and the damaging effect on the school communities we work in. 

Madison's educators suddenly, as of last Friday, find themselves with the opportunity to negotiate a new contract.  An opportunity to buy more time to continue to do the jobs that we love to do, with at least some of the protections we need still in place.  We know that the negotiations will be difficult and that we hold few advantages in our efforts to protect the working conditions and benefits that we have fought to earn over the past decades.  We also know that the public discourse will feature some pretty unpleasant dialog about us and the work that we do. 

We also know that we have a responsibility to our students, their families, our community and ourselves to make a stand and do what is necessary to defend public education as a viable resource for our society.  We need to reach out and educate our elected officials, the general public and every citizen about the need for strong public schools and a educational workforce that is committed and dedicated to serving our students. 

We know that the citizens of Madison and our elected officials value public education and have strong opinions about what it should look like here.  We can't allow other agendas to insert themselves and gain control of the debate.  It is our vigilance and willingness to defend public education that will decide the future of our school system and the educators who work in it.  We've proven our ability to unite and mobilize against the forces that seek to undermine the values of our local communities and stand ready to do so again. 

If I Ran the World…
At the same time we are struggling to try and extend the protections of our collective bargaining agreement the Madison Schools are also in the process of searching for a new superintendent to lead our school system.  I've attended input sessions regarding the selection process and had numerous discussions about this topic with different individuals.  All of this got me thinking about how I would "fix" education if I were given the chance. 

My first reaction is that this implies that our system of public education in Wisconsin needs to be "fixed" or that it needs a massive overhaul and significant  reform.  I've said many times that I recognize the reality that our public education system isn't perfect and that we need to find ways to address the problems that exist within the system.  However, the idea that we have really given our public schools a fair evaluation or the necessary support is simply untrue.

We have an educational system that is the product of uneven and often undirected change over long periods of time.  This has created a lot of inconsistencies and oddities that impact the educational experiences of our young people.  Our school calendar is one example of this.  The overall calendar that most school systems use is one that hasn't changed, even as our society has moved from an agrarian to an industrialized economy. 

Technology is another area where schools often lag behind society as a whole.  I'm willing to bet that most business people would be shocked to see the state of technology in many of our public schools.  I know that we often get companies asking about donating their old technological tools to schools because they are essentially obsolete for their business needs.  Public schools struggle to provide the technology that their students will need to be competitive in their future activities.

Our buildings are old and often laid out in ways that don't support our academic programs.  We find ourselves struggling to provide adequate space for the additional programs that our schools need to provide students.  Visit schools around your area and you will often find students working in spaces not designed to be used as classrooms.  These students are often among our most at-risk and deserve better environments to learn in. 

Despite these, and many other challenges, our public schools do pretty well in their efforts to educate most of our students.  In fact when you control for different variables you see American schools near the top of many evaluations.  Public educators are for the most part well trained, well educated and highly dedicated to educating the students they serve.  The cry that our schools are failing comes primarily from those who have an interest in seeing them fail.  An entire industry has developed that has a vested interest in destroying public education so that it can be replaced with schools run for a profit.

Their primary weapon has been the use of standardized testing to create an image of school failure.  Students are tested and evaluated with the intent of providing data that doesn't make educators accountable for teaching, but instead makes them accountable for preparing students to test.  The data that is collected is then used to undermine public confidence in schools and educators.  Our Achievement Gaps and other failures of public schools are examples of this effort. 

This isn't to imply that certain groups fare better in our public schools, to the contrary there are clearly groups that rise to the top of our achievement measurements.  It is not surprising that these are the same groups that we see at the top of most of the measurements of success in our society as a whole as well.  Our educational achievement gaps are mirrors of our society's gaps and are deeply entrenched in our society.  Eliminating public education won't eliminate the gaps, in fact the opposite will occur.  The gaps will widen and stratification of our society in terms of social, economic and political power will result.             

So…If I were in a position to implement my policies and direct the course of public education what would I do?  To be honest, most of my ideas would involve less drastic change and more support for educator's existing endeavors.  I truly believe in what educators are doing and feel that our efforts need to be supported in real and meaningful ways.  Efforts to innovate and reform education need to be done with positive intentions, not with the intent to weaken public education, but rather to build on its strengths.  We can't let profit or special interests dominate our efforts to make our schools the best place for all students. 

Keeping that in mind, here is what I think is important to "reform" our schools.  Please realize that these are general thoughts and more specific proposals will follow once I'm elected "King of Education":).

Fix School Financing- Our schools need more resources.  Education is a very labor intensive venture and relies on a highly trained workforce.  These employees deserve to be fairly compensated for their experience, education and the demands placed on them in a highly stressful job.  In addition schools need appropriate spaces/buildings, specialized equipment and many other physical requirements must be met to fulfill our obligations to the students we serve.  Schools should also have access to technology both for training students, as well as assisting students who have needs that can be addressed through technological supports.  None of these things are cheap and all are necessary. 

The current system of school funding isn't equitable and creates issues in communities as school systems try to meet the many needs of their students.  Our state and federal governments consistently underfund the mandates they create and the result is an unfair burden on local governments.  This burden is then shifted to the schools and the students suffer the ultimate consequences.    

I'm no economist, but there has to be a better way to fund our schools and remove our public education system from the reliance on the goodwill of politicians.  There are several proposals, such as Tony Evers' idea of a 1% increase in the state sales tax, that need to be seriously considered.  Our inability to solve this problem and to fund our schools isn't because of a lack of ideas or resources.  Public schools are a political football that is perpetually punted back and forth, our students deserve better and our society needs an educated citizenry.

Implement Real School Accountability- Actually this would involve replacing the false perception that schools aren't accountable to their students with the correct vision of a system that operates under perpetual accountability.  Too many people think that educators simply show up for work and leave at the end of the day without any care or concern about what their students have learned.  The reality is that our educators are extremely accountable and this accountability comes from several sources.

1- The educators themselves- We are tough on ourselves and want to do our best.  The process of getting a degree and getting hired into a school district is one that forces an educator to assess their abilities and their effectiveness on a regular basis.  This doesn't simply stop when a person is hired. 

2-The families of our students- This is a vitally important part of the accountability triangle.  Families need to be involved and have a responsibility to monitor their child's progress.  Educators need to communicate effectively and recognize the input of parents into the process.

3- Our administrators and colleagues- Administrators need to be actively monitoring the efforts of educators in their buildings.  We also are responsible to help our colleagues and listen to their opinions and ideas as we work to improve our teaching.  Working together administrators and educators create a positive educational atmosphere that encourages all those involved to improve their practices and challenges us to be the best that we can be.

This triangle of accountability is further reinforced by the students themselves.  While our students may not always know exactly where they are headed in life or what they want out of their educational experience, a significant majority of them can accurately assess a teacher's effectiveness.  As students mature they should begin to take more accountability for their education, but as adults we must shoulder the primary responsibilities for the majority of a student's K-12 education.

The community members who have a vested interest in the schools in their area have a voice through their elected school board representatives and in the ability to participate in the open meetings held by the boards.  Their job is to be informed voters and not to become pawns in a game for political control of our school systems.  Citizens can also help hold schools accountable by volunteering or getting involved in the schools in other ways.  By being active participants in the schools they can increase their awareness of the needs and challenges that their local schools face. 

The idea that educator accountability and effectiveness can be determined by standardized testing is misguided at best.  After watching students take standardized assessments for the past 15+ years, I feel qualified to say that there are many variables beyond student knowledge that factor in to any test result.  While standardized tests can give us some information about a student, they can't replace the knowledge that professional educators gather over extended time periods of working with that student.  To have our schools judged in the community because of a series of relatively meaningless numbers is harmful to all parties involved.  

Improve the Physical Conditions of Schools and More- Our schools need constant upkeep and maintenance in order to be safe and healthy places for education to occur.  We also need to be aware of new needs, for example air conditioning.  It is unacceptable for students to be forced to learn in classrooms that are so hot that they become unsafe.  We all know that maintenance and necessary improvements aren't cheap and schools shouldn't be forced to choose between physical needs and educational needs.

The same holds true for technology needs in schools as well. 

Make Sure Leadership/Administration is Grounded in Real Classroom Experience- Too many of the policy and other decision makers involved in public education are distanced from the classroom.  They may have past experience and want the best for education, but their absence from the place where there policies are implemented means that they don't see the real effects of their decisions.  This means that we see policies implemented that actually are detrimental to student learning at times. 

I think that all individuals who make education policy should be required to spend significant time in schools working with educators so that they can recognize the impacts that their decisions have on educators and students.  

Demonstrate Respect for All Employees and Programs- Leaders in education often seem to forget that the employees in their schools are educated, dedicated and talented.  We need to be listened to and respected.  This applies to all educators and school employees.  Too often decisions come from administration and input from staff isn't heard until after the fact. 

By working with employees (through unions and collective bargaining in the best of scenarios) in solidarity school administrations will find that educators are very willing to compromise and that most of the disagreements and conflicts can be resolved.  It is a matter of employees knowing that their leadership "has our backs" and supports our efforts.  As educators we are all in this together for the students.    

Policy makers also need to demonstrate respect for their employees by advocating for public education.  These individuals have a voice that the common educator doesn't have.  They have access to other decision makers and to the media and should be strong voices in shaping the debate over public education.  Too many of our administrators and other leaders are willing to accept the premise that assessment and other "reforms" are a necessary part of our educational landscape without also offering support for alternatives and defending education. 

Administrators and policy makers also need to recognize the importance of all programs in their school systems.  Not every child is on track for a four year college or finds their passion in academic endeavors.  We need strong programs in technology, the arts, physical education and other areas to make sure that all students have the opportunity to develop skills that they can use in the course of their lives.  We also need to provide a broad based education for every student to help them become well rounded and complete citizens.  With the increased emphasis on testing and "core" knowledge the arts, social sciences, sciences, PE, music, etc. are facing cuts and being pushed out in many places.  This shouldn't happen.

Increase Access for All Families and Citizens- It is very disappointing that our schools are becoming more and more segregated.  As segregation increases we are seeing a return to the days of "separate and unequal" in terms of educational opportunities for all students.  Segregation of our public schools reflects a deepening racial, cultural and economic divide in our nation.   

Public schools need to have the resources and flexibility to address the needs of the students and families we serve.  This may mean extra staff is needed to provide communication and instruction in different languages.  We may need to compensate educators more for working extended hours when we meet with families who have work schedules that don't fit the traditional school day.  There are many ways that public educators are reaching out and working to develop connections with all families and all parts of their school communities.  These efforts would be even more effective if there was consistent support and additional resources provided by the districts we work for. 

Our public schools are a tremendous resource and have the potential to unite and strengthen our nation.  Many of the problems that our public education systems face now are of our own creation.  This country has the resources and the abilities to really make our public schools strong and viable providers of equal opportunity for all.  There are those who don't want to see this happen and it is our job as public educators to stand up to them and "Not Back Down" in the face of their attacks.  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Issue #80 September 23, 2012- Suits vs. Dungarees, Fighting for Public Education

What This Is…
Issue #80- September 23, 2012
In this issue: Suits vs. Dungarees- Class Warfare Continues, Public Educators Fight Back

The Suits vs. The Dungarees
We are in the middle of the latest confrontation between social classes in the United States.  It isn't surprising that those who have wealth and power would want to maintain their control of the system.  This is a trademark of almost every civilization in human history.  In many societies, the powerful were able to maintain their status through brute force and physical control of the rest of the population (Feudalism for example).  Here in the United States, like other democracies, they have to play the game by a different set of rules or else forfeit their claims of controlling power through legitimate means. 

In America success is defined by your material possessions and other types of wealth.  The "American Dream" revolves around the accumulation of "stuff" and the size of your economic portfolio.  While many can argue that there are other ways that we measure success, the reality is that most people who are considered "successful" are also wealthy.  We also can't ignore the fact that with the existing rules regarding campaign financing and lobbying, wealth also equals political power. 

This relationship between wealth and power means that our democracy is being dragged away from its core philosophical roots and becoming more of an oligarchy.  There is a reasonable argument that we have always had a semblance of a ruling class, but our current laws, policies and economic conditions are widening the gap between those who have power and those who are on the outside looking in.  This has been made abundantly clear in places like Wisconsin where the voice of many citizens has been ignored while the opinions of a few are clearly heard. 

There is a significant amount of data that shows that Republican policies do little to benefit any groups except for those with the top incomes in America and that they actually harm the rest of us.  Obviously there are only a relatively small number of voters who can reside in the top economic tiers of our society, and a much larger percentage of citizens who fall in the middle, working and lower classes.  It would seem that this would make it virtually impossible for the economic elite to maintain their political power, unless they can somehow use their wealth and power to influence the electoral process.

That is the question that so many of us are asking, why do so many people vote against their own interests and support a party that doesn't get results for them?  One of the answers is the, often successful, efforts to divide and conquer the electorate through a barrage of issues, rhetoric and propaganda that sets different groups against each other.  This is done through the GOP as well as by "private" citizens acting on behalf of the Republican Party.

In the end, the net effect is to create an atmosphere of us vs. them.  A society where the "other" is always trying to take something away from you.  WKRP, one of my all time favorite TV shows, nailed this phenomena in the "Suits vs. Dungarees" conversation between Les and Herb.

By dividing the population the GOP is able to reduce conversation and cooperation between groups who share common needs and interests.  They create a climate that makes people suspicious of those who are different from each other, or who are strangers to one another.  In doing so they undermine trust in our public services and deliver propaganda that leads people away from solutions.

I teach 4th and 5th graders, children who are a time in their lives where friends become a huge influence on their lives.  We spend a significant amount of time talking about what makes someone a good friend.  One of the criteria that we have students consider in a good friend is that the person helps you become a better person.  A good friend doesn't lead you towards bad choices and supports your efforts to do your best in positive activities.  Voters need to think along these lines and realize that the current GOP rhetoric is leading us toward a society that doesn't value education, doesn't respect diversity and advocates using any method possible to accumulate personal wealth, even at the expense of others.  In other words, I wouldn't want to be "friends" with most of the current Republican candidates.  Their policies don't appear to be about making America a better nation for all citizens, just a select few.

Are the GOP's efforts to divide us succeeding?  That is a difficult question to answer.  In some ways it appears that we are a truly divided nation, one where part of the population sees the other part as the cause of all the problems we face.  However, it is somewhat difficult to see if this is a widespread problem, or if it is just the "public" face of America today.  When we are home, among people we know, do we truly believe the hype and hyperbole about each other?  Whatever the answer to this question is, the reality is that when it comes to casting a ballot citizens are forced to choose and too many are choosing to vote against their own interests. 

As the current election cycles heats up we are seeing signs of hope.  Signs that more and more people are "getting it" and realizing, not only that they need to cast a ballot with thought and care, but also that there are other ways to stand up for their rights and interests.  People are seeing the need to stand up against the wave of "reforms" and the efforts of a wealthy minority to control the lives of all Americans.  By educating themselves and participating in democracy, not just observing it, citizens are able to make their voice heard and their collective power felt.

Public Education, We Can't Be Victimized…
Much of what is said, printed and shared about public education today paints a bleak picture for its future.  We hear about the continuing efforts to privatize our schools, the efforts to destroy educator unions and eliminate the voice of educators from the debate, the reform efforts that work against educating most children and of course the attacks on the abilities of public educators to do their jobs.  Public educators are truly on the defensive in most public debates.

Fighting a defensive battle is exactly what we can no longer afford to do.  At best this will garner us support from those who are going to "look out for us" or who feel sorry for our plight.  We don't need to be pitied or felt sorry for.  Instead we need to realize that we are hardworking, very skilled individuals who do a demanding job in a dedicated, caring and professional manner.  We want the support of the public, but we also need to gain their respect by advocating for ourselves and turning the tables on those who want to eliminate public education in America. 

Educators across America need to look at the efforts of the Chicago teachers and realize that the fight for public education is a desperate one, but one that must be fought in an assertive and proactive manner.  Chicago educators have been building community support for their schools and their profession through a variety of methods.  Their efforts paid off as much of the public rallied with them during their recent strike.  The battle is won, not in the media, but on the streets and in the neighborhoods.  That is the strength that education reformers and politicians who support them don't want public educators to utilize.  We have connections and support in the communities we serve and if we mobilize, that support will manifest itself in powerful ways.  

Educators can't afford to wait for someone else to take care of the problems that public education faces.  We need to be the ones to address these problems and take control of our own futures.  By doing this we will move public education in a direction that is positive for all, not just those who stand to profit from "reforming" our schools. 

Of course this isn't easy.  Educators in Wisconsin face a hostile political and economic environment.  As I write this I have just finished reading an email from MMSD stating that we will be losing more take home pay due to additional "contributions" to our pensions.  We are facing an uncertain future for our union and for our ability to negotiate with our administration.  While we are hopeful that we will see our cause prevail in the courts, we can't be guaranteed success.  We are facing a school year that begins with us receiving a full page of assessments that we are required to subject our students to.  Assessments that in many ways don't give us meaningful information to help better educate the children we serve.  Assessments that are more a bureaucratic exercise than an educational one.

Through all of this it is difficult to maintain a steady, positive course.  We celebrate our victories, in labor relations, but more importantly in the classroom.  Yet at the same time we fear for the future and wonder if we can undo the damage done to our profession and our personal economic situations.  As a collective group we are hurting, anxious and angry about the tone of the debate and the attacks on the profession that we have dedicated our lives to.

Keeping a strong steady and positive path is exactly what we must do.  This means advocating for ourselves, the students we serve and our schools.  Now, more than ever it is vital that public educators make their voices heard by any means necessary.  We are at a tipping point and if we go over the edge it will be an incredibly long and difficult road to return public education to a meaningful place in American society.  There is no group better informed or better able to articulate the needs that schools and students have.  Without an educator voice at the bargaining table, in committees and in the public eye all efforts to advocate for us becomes paternalistic and demeaning.

We need to stop fighting the battles on unfriendly ground.  For too long we have allowed the "reformers" to shape the debate using test results or economic arguments.  Our schools need to be places of hope and growth for our students, not just another obstacle to them achieving their goals.  By excessively testing, categorizing and eliminating opportunities (cutting programs, arts, etc.) we allow "reformers" to make schools a part of the existing power structure.  Schools are not just places to create better employees and rule following citizens.  Schools are where we allow students to develop their strengths and learn to question the world around them in positive and powerful ways.  

Public educators across Wisconsin (and the nation) must rise up and make our voices heard in the debate over public schools.  Now is our time, and if we don't take it we may not get another chance for a very long time.  The rights and privileges that we enjoy now are the product of decades and centuries of fighting by our professional ancestors and they are hard won.  We have a responsibility that goes along with these rights to utilize them in defense of what we know is right.        

More Injustice In Wisconsin…
No one surrenders power without a fight.  Public workers have shown a willingness to stand up and fight back when our rights are under attack.  It should be no surprise that our opponents will do the same.   

We must continue to publicize the efforts of the Walker administration to undermine public safety for the profit of a small minority.  The continuation of the debate over the mining bill, restrictions on the rights of renters and countless other examples of this effort need to be brought into the open.  This is one way to reach voters and show them that their interests aren't represented by the current administration.    

Of course there's always the continuing saga of Walkergate.