Sunday, December 23, 2012

Issue #93 December 23, 2012- Politicizing Tragedy, Educational Accountability, Right to Work

Politicizing Tragedy …
We continue to grapple with the emotions and other consequences of the tragedy in Newtown CT.  As a nation we are struggling to deal with the reality that something so horrific could happen in one of our nation's schools.  While we can all hope that something positive and constructive can come from this event, we are facing the sad reality that we are hearing the same recycled debates today that we've heard after every other act of mass violence.  Events like the one in Newtown should wake us up, spur us to action and unite us, instead they seem to serve as an impetus to entrench ourselves in our existing beliefs and further divide a nation that is already drifting apart.

Examples of these divisive opinions are not difficult to find.  

Opponents of gun control are calling for us to avoid "politicizing" the tragic events of last Friday and want us to continue ignoring the reality that guns are a problem in our society.  Instead of engaging in an honest dialog about the issues around the 2nd Amendment they focus on other issues that really don't have any connection with the issues at hand.     

I am particularly troubled by the ideas advanced that somehow religion in schools could have prevented this event.  As a public school teacher I spend a significant amount of my days working with students on their interpersonal skills as well as building up their own feelings of self-worth.  Along the way I indirectly teach values that most religions espouse.  Things like treating everyone fairly and kindly, respecting each other and the space we work in, resolving conflicts without violence, sharing, empathy and countless other values are a large part of my daily work. 

Yet, as a public school teacher I must realize that not every student in my classroom shares my specific religious beliefs, or even has religious beliefs at all.  It is my job to work to promote these values, in a secular way.  In fact I believe that I am able to exercise my own religious beliefs without specifically mentioning them or promoting them to my students.  I don't need to tell them that they are valuable beings who need to respect each other by using any religious language, yet the underlying message remains present. 

Our society is a collection of different beliefs, all working to try and exist together.  If we promote any specific religion in our schools we must, by necessity, exclude other beliefs from the discussions.  Unfortunately, we are hearing from a number of religious advocates that we should do exactly what our founders tried to avoid.  Remember that our original 13 colonies were made up of a variety of religious ideas that were often in direct conflict with each other.  The idea that historical revisionists would have us believe, that our nation was founded under a single set of religious ideals, is patently false.  Using it in the context of Friday's events is inappropriate at best.  It diverts attention away from debate that could serve to improve our nation's future and potentially stop a future catastrophe.

In addition to the religious rhetoric that is being spread, we are also hearing the usual defense of gun ownership.  It is understandable that people grasp at any way to feel like they have control when faced with such a terrible event.  However, increasing the number of weapons available in our nation seems counterproductive to me.  It resembles the arms race that our nation engaged in with the Soviet Union.  A race based on fear (as well as a significant profit motive for a small number of people) that drove both nations, and the entire world with them, to the edge of destruction.  The costs of the arms race were incredibly high and in many ways unnecessary.  Now, when faced with another threat we answer, not with positive and proactive responses, but rather with fear and an increased sense of impending catastrophe.    

I don't pretend to have the specific answers and recognize that we can't prevent all actions by disturbed and violent individuals.   However, I also recognize that we as a nation can do better than we have and we need to be able to have an open, honest dialog about the role of guns, religion, mental health, etc. in our society.  This extreme, emotional rhetoric gains us nothing and sets us up for more tragedy.

There are so many buzzwords in education that do so much to obscure what is really happening in our schools.  Instead of clarifying, words are used to promote policies and advance agendas that may not be accurately reflected by the words used.  Try to wade through any article, listen to any speech or read a document about education and prepare yourself for confusion and frustration.  It's easy to see why so many people have given up trying to comprehend and instead simply trust the "experts" (many of whom don't live and work in classrooms with students).

The unfortunate truth is that the debate about public education at the higher levels (state, national) is more about rhetoric and less about substance.  Yet, it is this debate that shapes the perceptions of schools at the local level.  The policies and legislation enacted at these levels directly impacts the functioning of the schools in every neighborhood across our nation.  Changes in public education are being driven by forces that have little interest in improving public education beyond looking at the financial costs and benefits.

Accountability is one of the major buzzwords that "reformers" like to use.  It is also one that is clearly misused by these so called education experts.  For them, accountability means using testing and other "objective" measures to evaluate the efforts of public educators.  Schools and educators are held accountable to their "clients" through data and publicizing the numbers that are so prevalent in education. 

It seems like this type of accountability is another example of taking the easy way out of really understanding what is going on in our schools.  As a classroom teacher I can talk about the numbers that supposedly define my classroom.  In fact I could call up a graph of my students progress this year and show you just how "successful" my students have been so far (by the way, my students as a whole performed well on the most recent MAP testing).  Yet, if you were to sit down and talk with me about what is really going on in my students lives and how they are doing it would take hours and hours.  The same is true if you ask me about the curriculum I'm using and the lessons I have planned.  Defining my classroom by scores and standards only gives a miniscule picture of what is really happening there.  Now multiply my classroom by the 100's of others just in the MMSD and you see the problem that higher level administrators and politicians face when trying to hold public educators accountable.

Even when you use objective data like test scores to define success or failure there is still significant confusion around the results.  We keep changing the ways that we use data and in all the confusion frequently decide that we need more information.  This results in more testing, more reports and more confusion.  At the same time it results in less time spent teaching, more student stress and less creativity and flexibility in our efforts to reach students who don't learn in ways that are defined by tests and standardized curriculums.
The best way around this aggravation for those of us who truly care about public education?  To me it is simply getting involved and participating in the discussions around public education.  Involvement and participation go a long way towards clarifying what the buzzwords mean.  It becomes clear that what is said at the administrative level and what is proposed in political circles is very different from what happens in specific schools and classrooms.  The family/community/staff group from my school has decided to begin our efforts to impact Madison's schools by attending our school board meetings and making our voices heard at the local level. 

Attending meetings as a partnership between school and community provides an opportunity for educators and families to see the same information presented and then discuss what is being said.  It allows educators to express directly to families the real impacts in the classroom of what is said by board members.  It also allows families to ask questions of educators and to increase the level of accountability that individual educators have, but also the accountability of the larger system as a whole.  We plan on continuing to attend board meetings and are also planning on focusing on some key committees so that we can be a presence at their meetings as well. 

I believe accountability is a concept that has been used as a weapon directed at public educators.  It is time that we revisited the real meaning of the word and recognized that accountability extends in all directions and to all parties.  Administrators, lawmakers, educators, families, students and the community all have a responsibility to make our public schools better. 

Board of Ed. Meeting…
Here are a few of my observations from the MMSD Board of Education meeting held on 12/17/12.  I hope that those of you who are interested in protecting, preserving and improving public schools in your area will take the time to follow discussions that your local boards are having.  With the changes in legislation enacted by the GOP in Wisconsin, local school boards have a tremendous amount of power in what policies and procedures are implemented in our public schools.

-Maybe it's time to look at how we "employ" our board members.  Listening to the discussions at the meeting it was clear that they have too much information to process and as a result are relying too much on information from others to guide their decision making.  Being a board member means making decisions that are vital to our school's futures and really should be a full time job.  Too much of the discussion reflected a lack of direct experience with classrooms and schools.

-This lack of experience and knowledge means that decisions rest on data and the advice of administrators.  I heard multiple mentions of this throughout the meeting, where board members looked to administrators and other sources of data to drive their decision making process.  It seems clear that many decisions are being made based almost exclusively on these types of information that sometimes come from "vendors" or company representatives who are selling a product.

-Board members want information, but also need to get out to schools and see what is really going on.  Policies and procedures may sound great in a meeting, but what do they look like when they are implemented in classrooms and schools?  I believe that every person who makes decisions about public education should have to spend significant time actually working in a classroom.  Not just walking through and visiting a selected sample at a school, but really dealing with the day to day existence of students and educators. 

-Board members are just as confused by the "objective" data as everyone else.  Listening to them try and figure out what some of the information from the latest MAP testing was enlightening for me.  They have so much information, but it is all "spun" to them in ways that are designed to "guide" their decisions in a certain direction.    

-I don't envy school board members.  They are in a difficult position caught between many forces that are outside of their control.  I truly appreciate their efforts and their service to our community.  Unfortunately, some of them seem to embrace the role that they have been placed in by the GOP in Wisconsin.  I don't expect them to follow the lead of educators in all matters, but there are clearly some board members who are excited to get a chance to exercise the power granted to them by Act 10 (if it is upheld in court) and other legislation. 

-I wonder if some of the board members recognize what the impacts of their words and actions are on public education.  I realize that they need to look at the district as a whole and that their perspective must reflect this.  However, our school board should be the primary defender of our school system.  Many board members seem to understand this, but others don't appear to realize the dangers that the "reforms" being suggested pose to the survival of public education.  They often seem willing to entertain ideas that open the door to more invasive "reform" efforts that could mean the eventual demise of our public schools.      

One clear example of this was the discussion about allowing 26 students to opt out of the WKCE testing through requests from parents/guardians.  Instead of appreciating the rights of families to decide for their children and recognizing that testing may not be the best thing for public education, several board members talked about writing DPI to request a change in policy to allow school boards to reject parent opt out requests.  No one went on record to state that standardized testing and the ways it is used to evaluate schools is wrong and harmful to education. 
Right to Work…
Labor and management have had a stormy relationship for what essentially amounts to all of recorded human history.  In many ways the conflicts arise out of basic human nature as those with power and wealth seek to maintain their status, while those who have less strive to improve their status.  Over time we've seen a variety of socio-economic systems develop and many different philosophies have accompanied them.  In the end, once all of the extraneous details are stripped away, the struggle boils down to this simple basis for conflict.  Sometimes the struggle is quieter and other times we see the disputes flare into heated conflict. 

We find ourselves in one of those periods when the "cold war" that always simmers in labor relations is flaring into a widespread and intense battle.  In some ways it appears that humans have a propensity for conflict and once America "defeated" the Soviet Union we turned inward and began to wage class warfare within our own borders.  This conflict ignited in Wisconsin during 2011 and is spreading to other states like Michigan. 

It is sad to see how quickly workers across America have forgotten their need for the protections that unions offer.  For many, the absence of "highly visible, sweatshop" labor here means that things must be fine and they buy into the conservative argument that hard work is all that anyone needs to get ahead in modern America.  The results have been devastating for organized labor.  

American workers are forgetting some key points and are being fooled by conservative rhetoric that is misleading at best and outright lies in many cases. 

-Right to Work legislation is at its core un-American and anti-capitalist.  By legislating that unions in a workplace must represent everyone, even if they don't pay dues, conservatives force unions to give away their "labor/product" for free.  No true capitalist would ever think of operating a business where they had to give equal service to those who don't pay.  If capitalism is at the core of American values (as conservatives would have us believe) than using legislation to undermine unions' abilities to conduct business is truly problematic.

America is built on a collection of progressive ideas.  The idea of democracy and freedom for all (while limited in scope originally) has grown in our nation and we continue to strive towards the ideals that our founding documents expressed.  Limiting individuals ability to participate in an organized effort to improve their conditions does little to promote the ideals that our nation claims to value highly.  In fact, it isn't difficult to argue, the reasoning that we need to restrict the rights of individuals to collectively bargain simply to promote business interests, or balance budgets flies in the face of what our nation stands for.  We are being forced to confront the question of whether our nation stands for values, or whether it is simply an organized business endeavor.

-While many Americans are uncomfortable with Affirmative Action and other similar workplace/hiring rules, we can't ignore that widespread discrimination still exists in our culture.  Collective bargaining agreements, negotiated by unions provide a clear and concrete set of rules that govern hiring, firing, promotions and wages/benefits.  By unionizing a workforce we can address some of the problems with discrimination that our culture struggles with.  Of course, unions aren't perfect and discrimination can still be a part of any institution, but a contract negotiated with transparency is less susceptible to bias than other types of labor agreements.  

-Workers in America are being told that they have the freedom to choose what type of employment they want and if things aren't acceptable in one job, they should simply move to another.  The reality is that freedom to move from one low-wage/low-benefit job to another is really a very limited form of freedom (if it is truly any freedom at all).  While the wealthy see their options expand, the rest of America struggles to make ends meet.  A union continues to be the only voice that seeks to represent labor in any meaningful way.  

Spend Your Money Wisely…
Only a few more days of holiday shopping remain.  Your dollar is your voice, and the one that businesses will listen to most.  No one who values labor, the environment or other progressive values should be giving their money to businesses that operate in ways that run counter to our beliefs.  Make a statement and support local, worker friendly businesses. 

Walkergate and Other Political Schenanigans…
We continue to hope that 2013 brings justice to Wisconsin in the form of a resolution to the "Walkergate" investigation.  At the same time we need to remind people that the conservative philosophy isn't producing the results that were promised.  Walker will use the media to spread a message that simply isn't true.  Wisconsin's economy is among the worst in the nation in terms of the recovery from recession.  In addition many of the initiatives that have been proposed under the GOP's reign have had little to do with improving employment options for Wisconsin's workers and have instead focused on cementing power for Republicans.  

While Rush Limbaugh is a national speaker and not directly associated with Scott Walker or Wisconsin GOP members (although he certainly has been a staunch advocate of their efforts) I include this article because of the potential conflict brewing between the sovereign nations in Wisconsin and our legislature that will soon offer another mining bill.  We must not forget just how important our views of others are when we engage in political debate.  Many of our legislators don't respect the rights of Native Americans (remember the representative who didn't know that they were really sovereign nations during the last mining debate) and their actions will certainly reflect this ignorance and lack of respect.

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