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.