Sunday, October 21, 2012

Issue #84 October 21, 2012- Politics, Schools and Hope

What This Is…
Issue #84- October 21, 2012
In this issue: Politics, Public Schools and Hope for the Future

MMSD now has a website for Spanish speaking families!!

Style Over Substance
We are nearing the end of another heated election cycle (for those of us in Wisconsin it has been over a year of near-constant campaigning) and politicians everywhere are providing us with examples of "style over substance" as they trade one liners and air advertising aimed at convincing voters to "buy their product".  As a society we face many very difficult issues, issues that can't be summarized in a brief ad, speech or other campaign communication.  Unfortunately, those short, limited communications are what many citizens use as a basis for deciding what candidates and policies to support. 

The reality is that the solutions to our challenges and problems can't be generated by bumper sticker slogans that oversimplify a problem or vilify a particular stance on an issue.  By relying on the "packaging" of a candidate or party we ignore the substance of their positions on important issues.  It reminds me of my childhood (and embarrassingly, my adulthood as well) where I would buy a cereal for the prize in the box, not necessarily the cereal itself. 

The obvious danger to our society is that by voting on style, we put politicians in place who don't have the knowledge, ability, skills, and/or desire to work to find reasoned, moderate solutions to issues.  Our elected officials are often beholden to special interests, or products of a flawed system where they have been able to essentially purchase their office.  This is certainly not true of all politicians, but an alarming number of them do fall into this type of category. 

Voters in our nation are swept along in a mass wave that is generated by propaganda with little basis in fact.  Thus we see Russ Feingold's statesmanship replaced by Ron Johnson's demagoguery.  We also see people casting ballots based on incomplete information.  Scott Walker's call to balance the budget resonated with voters, would it have had the same support if he had proposed eliminating public employee's collective bargaining rights during the campaign?   

The policies that result from these elections mirror the elections themselves.  Candidates that are elected based on glitzy campaigns find themselves mired in a process that is far removed from the "glamour" that the campaign trail offered.  When done well, our democratic process is not a thing of beauty to most of us.  Meetings, compromise, debate, meetings, debate, communicating, discussion, compromise… the process of creating positive policy and legislation is a tedious one that offers few opportunities for publicity.  Yet, our politicians need their "moments of glory" so that they can get re-elected every election cycle.

Elected officials find themselves looking for issues and policies that will allow them to stand out and gain support among the electorate.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, we want those who represent us to do just that, represent us.  We elect them to stand up for us and to protect our interests while shaping policy that will allow our entire society to prosper.  Unfortunately, along with the need for votes, our modern candidates need significant financial support to "package" their "product" for the next election.  This leaves them vulnerable to influence by wealthy donors who may not be interested in promoting socially just, or economically fair policies.  In the end, we lose the substantive debate that our society's current, and future issues deserve and get a "sugary treat" that can end in decay.               

Public Education- Policy vs. Reality…
Public education is an area that has been significantly damaged by the lack of informed debate and the poor policy decisions that result from "Bumper-sticker Politics".  Too many of the people making important decisions about public education have too little knowledge about education in general and our public schools specifically.  This has resulted in decades of poor policy and obviously has damaged our public education system. 

This damage has accelerated exponentially in the last couple of decades.  Legislation like No Child Left Behind and numerous other "Education" bills have created an atmosphere where real education reform is stunted and resources are drained from our public schools.  All while touting privatization and attempting to funnel public money to for-profit schools. 

The actions of GOP leaders like Governor Walker have expanded the attacks by attacking not only public education (record budget cuts), but also by directly attacking public educators (Act 10 and the effort to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees).  This combination seems to have awakened many public educators and their supporters in states like Wisconsin.  We are realizing that we are involved in a struggle that goes beyond contracts, wages and benefits.  The future of our public education system is in jeopardy if we continue on the paths mapped for us by those claiming to want to "reform" our schools. 

The false reformers rely on their ability to simplify a problem and to create what appears to be a "common-sense" solution that will gain popular support.  They create and publicize a "crisis" and use the public concern to take control of the debate surrounding education.  The GOP has been very effective in their efforts to set the tone of discussions about public education.  So effective that Democrats echo many of the sentiments that Republicans have initiated. 

The "reformers" have used a few basic arguments to attack public education and have been very effective in delivering their message.  I have no problem with the supporters of these "reforms" touting their ideas, nor do I have a desire to stifle debate that could lead to positive results for our public schools and the students they serve.  The proposing and advocating of ideas is a vital part of our democratic process.  Concepts and ideas like the Madison Prep proposal focus attention on issues and generate more involvement from all sides of an argument. 

However, there is a more sinister side to these discussions that appears all too frequently.  It is up to all of us involved to make sure that we don't allow a small number of individuals with specific interests to manipulate and control the debate.  

We are seeing discussion in Madison about a proposed change at Toki Middle School that could result in a charter school program replacing the existing, more traditional school model.  More discussion needs to occur in a positive way, but discussing changes allows for growth to occur.  As Frederick Douglass said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress".  

My problem with education "reform" as it is currently presented in America is twofold.  First, I don't believe that a significant number of the "reforms" proposed are really designed to improve education.  Many of the proposals are simply efforts to funnel money to a new recipient, usually a private company or individual. 

My second major problem with education "reform" is the fact that policies based on simplifying issues or hyper-focusing on specific issues results in flawed policy.  If these policies were simply broad, generalized and relatively harmless that would be one thing, but instead these policies result in specific damage to schools and students.  Every piece of legislation or educational policy implemented has an impact on students or educators somewhere and we can't ignore the realities of the impacts that they have. 

A couple examples…

Accountability- We've been hearing it for some time, our schools are failing and we need to hold them accountable in order to compete with other nations in a global marketplace.  In order to know whether our students are succeeding or not we need to assess them.  We can use the data generated by these assessments to evaluate school districts, specific schools, programs and individual educators as well.  In addition there are key concepts that, if understood, will predict a student's ability to be successful in future activities.  That's what "reformers" would have us believe. 

It is true that assessment is a vital part of the educational process.  Assessments can be used to guide instruction and to determine a student's understanding of a subject or skill.  However, the best assessments are not single events based on a small number of responses on a standardized test.  Instead, a professional educator is able to assess a student in multiple formats on a number of occasions and monitors student progress over time. 

The results of the flawed "reform" policies are things like the upcoming DPI School Report Cards.  These evaluations focus on a small number of specific criteria and standardized testing.  The results will be released on Monday, October 22nd and I predict that turmoil, finger-pointing and confusion will result. 

You see, in order for a report card to be effective, everyone involved needs to understand what is being evaluated, how it is being evaluated and what the significance of the evaluation is.  None of these things is true with the school report cards and most people will simply look at the number and use that as a comparison of what schools are "good" and what schools are "bad".  Families will see a score and wonder what it is that they are missing when they think about the education their child is receiving. 

The report card is only the most recent, and most visible, example of the flawed policies involving schools and accountability.  I've written quite a lot about the problems with testing and other accountability measures.  The reality is that students lose valuable instruction time, educators find their curriculum limited to "testable" skills and topics and families are frustrated by the different numbers and results that are shared after assessments are given. 

If another example is needed, it comes from many Madison educators who are just finishing their initial rounds of required assessments.  Now they are ready to start teaching, but wait, November is "Standardized Test Month" here in Wisconsin.  This narrows many educators instructional time to a few weeks in October and early November sandwiched around 2 professional development days and Halloween.  No worries though, we will get back to instruction just in time for Thanksgiving, Winter Break and the assessments necessary to complete our end of semester report cards.  No wonder so many educators are frustrated.  Policy makers just don't understand what damage they've done to our students.    

Of course there are always those who resist these reforms.

School Finance Reform/The Schools as a Business Model- Reformers argue that our public schools are like "money sponges", just soaking up dollars and not releasing much of value.  They point to the test scores and rising costs of educating students and claim that it could be done more efficiently and more effectively if we just cut costs, trimmed staff, and ran our schools like businesses. 

The best example of this rhetoric, turned into policy should be obvious.  Scott Walker's budget trimmed the "fat" from public schools in Wisconsin to the tune of $1.85 Billion over two years.  In return for the loss of state aid, he gave local school boards "tools" to offset the cuts.  Act 10 and the changes in rules regarding collective bargaining for school district employees was supposed to make up the difference by having employees pick up more of their health care costs, pension contributions and eliminating the unions that supposedly cost the system so much money.

Here's a sampling of articles from the past week or so, showing just how successful this idea has been.    

Then there is the reality that if you combine high stakes testing with school financing you will get a business model.  Corners will be cut and changes made in order to insure success.  Unfortunately, we aren't talking about discontinuing a product line, or changing hours of business.  We are talking about someone's child.

As budgets are cut, students and families are also impacted as they look ahead to their college careers.  We are seeing a huge rise in student loan debt that is making a college education "unprofitable" for many Americans.  

Forming a Partnership Between Schools and Communities…
The current climate surrounding public education may be gloomy, but there is always hope.  An example of this occurred last week when a small group met at a local Madison restaurant to discuss public education and what can be done to defend it.  The group included a couple of educators and several community members who have students that attend Madison's public schools.  Discussion ranged from testing, to charter schools to curriculum and more. 

We talked for almost two hours and decided to meet again in the near future.  Each of us will try to bring a few more people in to the discussion group and we will look for topics that are of interest and importance.  We don't know where the group is headed and what will come from our meetings, but I have hope that it will be the beginning of a larger effort here in Madison to connect our schools and educators with the larger community. 

I am participating in a couple of other efforts to facilitate communication around issues involving public education and public educators.  These initial efforts to expand communication and to share information about what is happening to/in our public schools gives me optimism for the future.  I hear from other educators about their efforts to connect with the communities they serve and my "Hope-Meter" jumps more in the positive direction. 

As Ralph Ellison said, "Education is all a matter of building bridges."  Along the same lines, Isaac Newton stated, "We build too many walls and not enough bridges."  The survival of public education depends on the number of walls we knock down and the number of bridges we build.  The time to start construction is now.       

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