Sunday, February 3, 2013

Issue #99 February 3, 2013- Reforming Public Education and More

Education Reform …
In order for individuals to survive and thrive in modern America they need to have some form of education or training.  In order for our society to do the same we need to have a population that has the preparation and ability to adapt and innovate in rapidly changing political and economic environments.  Most of us in the industrialized world have moved beyond the lifestyle where such training can occur in informal settings.  We need to have institutions or mechanisms to educate and train our citizens in order to prepare them for jobs and careers that allow them to support themselves (and possibly their families) as well as to contribute to the success of the economy as a whole. 
For decades the public school system, supported by some private schools (often religious in nature) was viewed as a strength of our nation.  During the decades immediately following WWII, when the U.S. enjoyed economic success unparalleled in history, our public schools contributed significantly to the development of our economic power.  This isn't to say that our schools were flawless institutions, for example, segregation and inequality based on race meant that significant numbers of citizens were denied equal opportunities to education.  Yet, for many our schools were a source of national pride and were a centerpiece of many communities. 
Fast forward to 2013 and the situation is significantly different.  The news about public schools often makes it seem like they are at best an impediment to our success as a nation and at worst a drain on resources and a vacuum that is so flawed as to be in need of a complete overhaul.  Public education has become a battleground where different factions compete for financial resources and to promote their political agendas.  Too often the students and the true purpose of our educational system is lost in the uproar.  Education is a political issue, and educational policy is often decided by politicians or people who don't have an understanding of what happens in our schools.  This includes elected officials, political appointees and wealthy individuals who create foundations or other instruments to impose their ideology on students, educators and schools.
Public educators have been warning that the "reforms" that these educational policy makers propose will be harmful to our schools and our students.  We have heard that we are obstructing "reforms" that can help students in order to protect our "cushy" jobs.  We've been told that we are overreacting and that those who are outside of the educational mainstream can provide innovative ways to make our schools better.  We've been told that our public schools are failing students of color, students of poverty and any number of other demographic groups.   At the same time we are told that we are failing our white, middle class students by changing our methods of education to try and adapt to a changing population in our schools.  We've been told that class sizes don't matter, that schools need to tighten their belts and that we need to operate like businesses.            
All of these criticisms of our public schools are part of what appears to be a deliberate attempt to destroy our public school system and replace it with a private, for profit, system.  A system where a small number of people stand to make an extremely healthy profit, at the expense of the majority of students and educators.  The tactics used to undermine public schools are employed by a variety of sources and are used to shape policy debate and public discussion around issues in education.

One mode of attack is to create unrealistic expectations for public schools in order to create dissension, ruin educator morale and set the stage for "reformers" to step in to save our education system.         

Another tool in the "reformer's" toolbox is the use of high stakes testing as a way of identifying flaws in our public school system as well as a way to try and define success in educational endeavors.  By testing students in public schools and holding these schools accountable for student's scores as the main measure of student achievement, "reformers" are able to promote private schools as a positive alternative.  Never mind that the private schools are often not tested, and when they are, often perform either the same, or worse than similar public schools.   

Educators are beginning to fight back against the wave of testing.
Of course, money is a powerful weapon used by "reformers" to weaken public education.  It is a strategy employed frequently by conservatives who want to privatize a specific area.  By taking away funding from schools, the conservatives weaken the ability of public schools to provide necessary services and this leads to an ongoing spiral of budget cuts and reductions in school's capability to deal with increasing challenges.
Budgets also allow for leaders who have weakened our public schools to appear bi-partisan.  After decimating school budgets they are able to offer small incentives to appear like they support public education.  Public educators are faced with the continuing decline in their economic status or accepting "reforms" like merit pay that aren't in the best interest of educators or their students.   

As we reach the end of "School Choice Week", we hear the promises of "reform" and "innovation" from those who would privatize our school system.  They tout the flexibility of the private schools and criticize the "one size fits all" public school system.  What they don't promote are facts about what is really happening in schools and what the data really says when public and private schools are compared.  They also forget to mention that a privatized school system doesn't provide equitable opportunities for education and frequently promotes segregation in our schools.  Not to mention that academic achievement is not guaranteed for any student no matter what type of school they attend.  Promises can be made in glitzy ads about private schools, but too frequently these are promises broken, or promises given to only a limited few.    

Supporters of public education recognize that, while not perfect institutions, public schools offer opportunities that privatized schools don't.  Public schools are governed by elected school boards, are monitored by the media and the public through open records requirements that private institutions don't have and are accountable to serve all students in the communities they are located in.  As the struggle over educating our students continues, it is vital that public educators and other proponents of public education get the message out about how important our public schools are.  It is also important that pro-public education advocates keep the public informed about positive things happening in our schools.  If we don't, then the only message being heard will be one that is designed to eliminate public schools and create a privatized system of education.    

Politics, An Ugly Busine$$…
The struggle over education is one part of the ongoing conflict in America over just how we want our country to be governed and what role our government has in creating a socially just society.  There have been, and always will be, differences in opinion about these issues.  While it is good to have dissenting viewpoints, we are currently involved in a crucial struggle to define our national identity. 

Do we want a nation where only those with wealth or political connections (or both) have hope to advance their interests?    

Do we want a society where our politicians use any means necessary, even if it isn't legal or ethical, to advance their agendas and personal careers?

As always, there is hope for the future.  However, that only occurs when enough "regular" citizens do exceptional things and participate in the process.

Buy Local…
If you haven't already purchased the items on your Super Bowl menu, consider this list.

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