Sunday, November 25, 2012

Issue #89- Thanksgiving Thoughts and Educator Pride

Don't Know What You've Got 'Til…
Happy Thanksgiving to all!!  This Thanksgiving, much more than in past years, I am realizing just how much I have to be grateful for.  At the same time I am also seeing that much of what I value is threatened and I recognize that I must act now, or eventually I'll look back on the good old days with a sense of loss.  For me, part of being thankful is recognizing those things that we often take for granted.  Things that we believe are a natural part of our lives, that is until they are taken away or lost. 

So, in addition to all the things in my personal life that I'm thankful for, there are a number of societal things I hope to be able to appreciate through the upcoming year.  I fear that these things will be in jeopardy over the coming months, but also know that they are worth fighting for.  

Worker's Rights- Being treated fairly and compensated at an acceptable level are things that should be the norm in modern America.  There is enough wealth in our nation so that no person should suffer the deprivations of poverty.  Our gaps between the wealthy and the rest of us is unacceptable and we need to see changes made in how we "do business" here in the United States.  Whether this means increased taxes on the rich, or if it means that corporate leadership voluntarily changes their policies matters little to me.  I find it morally reprehensible that we put profits over people in so many cases.

I am also troubled by the continued efforts to paint unions and organized labor as "un-American", or somehow subversive.  People uniting to have a collective voice in their working conditions shouldn't be viewed in such a negative way.   

Environmental Protections- With all the talk from conservatives about the importance of economic growth and stability, there is a conscious effort to ignore the impact that our economic activities can have on the environment.  It is one thing to create jobs, it is another to do so at the expense of our future survival on the only planet we have to live on.

Voting Rights- In a democracy it is necessary for the people to have a voice.  If the people are not allowed to participate in fair and honest ways then the it is no longer a democracy and becomes another form of government.  Strange that our most visibly "patriotic" party seems willing to sacrifice part of our nation's identity to maintain political power.  

Finally, I am thankful that we live in a society where we attempt to hold all people, no matter how powerful, to the legal standards set by our elected officials and courts.  While it seems to be taking forever, we continue to hope that we will have something to be extremely thankful for in the upcoming year.  

Proud To Educate…
These are stressful times to be a public educator in America.  Public educators find themselves on the defensive in virtually all communities across the nation.  In some places this has been true for a very long time, while in others the most direct attacks on public education are relatively new to educators.  The "reform" movement has become entrenched at the highest levels of our educational administrations and has become a powerful voice in the public debate over how to "improve" our schools.

Unfortunately, this effort to "reform" or "improve" our public education system has a different, and much more sinister motive behind it.  While those of us currently working in public education might not realize it, there is significant money to be made in education.  The reality is that there are companies and individuals making significant profit in education.  However, in order to maximize profits the system must be changed to one that favors privatization and centralized control of curriculums across the nation. 

These "reform" efforts have coincided with a period of budget crises at all levels of government that has helped increase the influence of those who call for change in our public education system.  As public money becomes a scarcer commodity education reformers are able to call for more "accountability" and present public education as a "failed investment" that is unaffordable in the current economic climate.  The "reformers" offer the promise of more efficient and cost effective schools.  They claim to be looking out for students and taxpayers all in one neatly wrapped package. 

For conservative politicians there is an added bonus.  By undermining public schools they are also able to undermine public educator unions.  These unions are one of the last strongholds of organized labor and have had a huge impact in elections recently.  By weakening public educator unions, conservative candidates eliminate a significant source of political capital for their opponents.  The educator unions provide a voice for employees, students and taxpayers that isn't heavily influenced by "reformers" who are looking for profit over production.  They are a thorn in the side of those who would look to turn our education system into a series of privatized layers with those who have money and power at the center of a dysfunctional system.         

There are several key weapons in the "reform" arsenal.  The first is the fallacy of accountability as measured through standardized testing.  The second is the myth that a system of privatized charter or voucher schools, operating without the inconvenient oversight of local school boards and the bothersome voice of educators, can produce better results for all children.  That is, all children who don't come from poverty, don't have learning or behavior issues and who have families or advocates who can navigate their way through a maze of applications and layers of bureaucracy.   

Nothing I've written in this post is new to those who've been following these issues.  If anything the efforts to seize control of our education system are only intensifying at all levels.  The efforts of "reformers" to mislead the public and to distort the perception of public schools is having an impact.  This confusion shows up in recent Gallup polling.  Americans are listening to the debate and are influenced by what politicians say, even though they may not see evidence to support "reformers" claims in their own schools.  Locally, 48% of respondents gave their schools an A or B while 17% gave a D or F.  However, when asked about schools nationwide 19% gave schools an A or B while 30% gave a D or F.  In other words, the attack on schools is having the desired effect of undermining public confidence in public education.  Data from this poll also shows support for privatization growing, even while the performance of local schools is rated higher than in previous years.      

Debate over public education rages at all levels of government.  We are seeing "reformers" work to cement their control of political and economic power while working to control the flow of money to public education as well. 

Nationally- The re-election of President Obama was hailed as a victory for moderates and progressives, but it gave little solace to supporters of public education.  President Obama has surrounded himself with "reformers" who have done little to promote public education and who have bought into the "reformers" twin pillars of testing and privatization.

Federal mandates influence how local schools operate, but are often imposed without financial support or consideration for local needs.  In addition to the money that the Federal government can provide, our national leaders also have a powerful platform to promote (or in the current case undermine) public education.     

Conservatives and education "reformers" are looking at ways to extend their control of schools through national efforts to elect local leaders.  We've seen this happen across America as local elections are influenced by outside forces.  

Statewide- Wisconsin has seen a radical shift in politics on the state level over the past two years.  This drastic swing to the right has resulted in a very unfavorable climate for public education and severe cuts in state aid to schools.  We are also seeing increased efforts to privatize our state's schools.  All of this happening in a state that has long prided itself on the quality of our public schools.

While all of the proposed and implemented changes coming from the Walker administration are concerning, it all starts with the budget.  Walker has used our state's budget "crisis" to implement draconian cuts to areas like public education, and, after regaining control of the legislature it is unlikely that we will see a change in his stance on school funding.       

The rhetoric coming from the GOP about education is also troubling.  They are continuing their efforts to try and turn schools into job training centers, at the expense of student's opportunities to exercise creative thinking and problem solving abilities.  By emphasizing business' needs over all other considerations we know that we will see a renewed effort to impact the way students are taught and tested.  

The feelings of disrespect for public educators from the conservatives here have been made quite clear.  Legislation like Act 10 eliminated the power of educators in many districts and shifted the balance towards school boards and administrators.  This also allows for conservatives to advance their agenda and control the dialog around education.  Merit pay is one example of an idea that may sound logical to the general public, but is very troublesome for educators.  By silencing the voices of educators, conservatives gain the upper hand in any "reform" efforts in many districts.    

What is also troubling is the reluctance of legislators and education policy makers to fully address issues that impact the outcomes of testing and other educational measurements.  They are very willing to point blame at educators or our public school systems, but rarely look at the whole picture when it comes to our students and the challenges they face. 

Madison- Of course, it can't happen here in liberal Madison, in the heart of liberal Dane County, can it?  After all, we still have a powerful union and the support of the unwashed and brainwashed Socialists who populate our fair city.  There's no way that the "reformers" could have an impact on our schools, right?

Unfortunately, we are seeing the effects of the national and state level "reforms" "trickle down" to local communities, even Madison.  Local educators are finding themselves under siege from a barrage of district initiatives and have seen our contracts change for the worse over the past two years.  (This doesn't change the fact that we should be thankful for what we do have, while still fighting to regain what we've lost).  We have seen our take-home pay decrease and our benefits have been significantly impacted as well.

I've seen morale in the MMSD decline drastically over the past two years as educators find themselves with more to do and less to do it with.  Educators who love to work with students are now saying that it might be time to move on and retire or look at a different line of work.  Educators are feeling the strain of being told that their efforts are not good enough and that they need to adopt new methods of teaching (methods that change almost weekly).  We are struggling to meet the needs of our students, but are being threatened with consequences for things that are often out of our control.

We find ourselves constantly changing our instruction to fit new models that are imposed on us from outside sources.  Many of these policies and procedures come from groups or individuals who are not closely connected to classrooms.  Our public education system is being shaped by people who don't work directly with students and who frequently are influenced by factors other than  what is best for kids.    

In many ways, local educators are being crushed under the weight of the state and national efforts to reform schools.  We are the first layer, but the layers above us are also under pressure to conform to standards and meet expectations of the layers above.  It all comes back to the dialog and policy making at the highest levels that shape citizens perceptions of our public education system.  I sympathize with administrators who are facing heat from their superiors who are facing heat from theirs and so on.  Public education is truly being run as a business in this regard. 

What is missing from the current situation in many communities is the recognition from administration and school boards that we are all in this boat together.  While there are some leaders in public education who buy into the "reformer's agenda", many have serious concerns about the testing, curriculum alignment and privatization efforts currently underway in our school systems.  What needs to happen is for the leaders in school districts to rally to the aid of their employees who are resisting these "reforms".  Public educators in Wisconsin have put themselves at risk by speaking out in defense of public education and worker's rights, now we need to see our "bosses" step up and support us.  If they don't they won't have much, if anything to administrate in the future.      

The current landscape appears bleak, but as long as we are fighting there is always hope.  We must recognize this as a fact and take every opportunity to spread our message to counter the rhetoric that comes from the "reformers".  We need to challenge the "facts" that are generated by test scores and that are manipulated by those who are hostile to public education.       

One of the first things that educators must do is stop apologizing and defending.  Instead, we need to express pride in our profession and in the work that we do.  As I talk with educators, one of their biggest complaints is that their expertise is ignored.  Educators with decades of experience are being told what and how to teach, as thought all their experience and knowledge is irrelevant.  We are professionals and are competent in our field and should hold our heads up with pride for the work we do every day.  Those who are outside of our profession don't know, or understand, what we do, or how we do it.

It is true that there are new ideas and lots of current research that allows us to modify, refine and improve our techniques for educating students.  Education, like any profession, isn't static.  Rather it is a dynamic field where innovation and creativity are a strength.  Yet, new ideas often come from outside the classroom and need to be modified and implemented by educators working with students.  Instead, our current system calls for "experts" to come in and educate educators, without allowing for the diversity and uniqueness of any particular educator or educational setting. 

Teaching someone a skill or a concept requires a blend of knowledge, patience, insight and multiple other talents.  It can't be done effectively in a formulaic or prescribed manner.  Instead we must make room for a variety of methods for reaching students in our schools.  Teaching, when done well, is truly an art.  What modern "reformers" want to do is turn artists into "paint by numbers" technicians, following a set pattern to churn out "products" that have a similar skill set and monolithic experiences. 

Educators can't forget that we are ambassadors for our profession and our schools.  Instead of accepting the top-down curricula and prescribed methods of teaching we need to make it clear to our families and students that we are utilizing our professional knowledge to best serve our students.  We must take every opportunity to build bridges between schools and the community and to educate others about our efforts.  While there is certainly much room for improvement in public education, there is also much to be proud of.  It is our responsibility as public educators to act in ways that promote and protect these valuable institutions.            

Spend Your Money Wisely…
In case you hadn't noticed, we are in the midst of a busy shopping season.  Try and take time during these hectic times to try and buy products that make a statement about your social, economic and political beliefs.  It may mean a little extra time, or a little extra money, but the effort you make to support local, worker friendly businesses and products is extremely worthwhile. 

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