Sunday, April 7, 2013

Issue #108 April 7, 2013- Election Results and the "Real" VAM

April 2nd Election Analysis…
We've come to the end of another election cycle and (most of) the results are in. 

Of course, with the election completed there is always the need to reflect on the results and to try and get a sense of what the impact of the voting will be.  We find ourselves looking for trends and analyzing results in an effort to determine who "won" and "lost".  As I've become more involved politically I've begun to realize just how unreliable election results can be in many ways.  On one hand, elections (are supposed to) give us clear winners and losers in terms of total votes.  However, trying to predict what will happen next isn't always as clear. Determining the mindset of the electorate is very challenging, especially in a state that has elected both Tammy Baldwin and Scott Walker within the past year.  How do we make sense of the direction that Wisconsin is headed in? 

That being said, I do have a few observations and conclusions about the results of the April 2nd voting.

Not enough people are participating in elections.  This is the biggest concern that I have regarding elections in Wisconsin.  It isn't a problem that is exclusive to the Badger State, but with the contentious climate and major conflicts about important issues we need to increase voter turnout.  The turnout in the April 2011 spring elections was not trend setting.  That election saw 34% of voters head to the polls, but the 2013 elections saw about half that number cast a ballot.  This reflects a return to the politically disinterested and unengaged electorate that has been the norm during recent history.  Without the accountability of having to answer to voters, how can we expect our elected officials to represent the people?  The majority of citizens in Wisconsin are failing to uphold their responsibilities to their communities and to themselves.          

Campaign spending is a significant problem.  It is scary to think that spending in this Supreme Court election was on the lower end, when compared to recent years.  Once again we saw spending by outside groups exceed that spent by the candidates themselves and are left questioning the integrity of the process. 

We see each other by demographics and organizations instead of individuals.  When it comes to casting a ballot, or to determining the mindset of our community we give too much credence to a small number of people.  This confuses and frustrates the general population and causes division and animosity where unity and community should exist.  All of the attention on a small number of individuals and organizations distracts from the real work that needs to be done.  As a member of MTI as well as a parent and taxpayer I can say that I am able, and encouraged, to make my own decisions and to participate in the process independently.

Educators in Madison should have a voice, just like any other group.  To imply that educators either control the debate, or shouldn't use their strength and influence to try and shape the future of education in our community is not realistic or responsible.  MTI is one player in the debate over education, but by no means is my union the sole power broker in the Madison political scene.  MTI represents educators and the educators that make up MTI are extremely dedicated to trying to improve opportunities for all students in Madison Public Schools. 

Many people seem to forget that a union is a democratic institution and that a union is its membership.  It is an insult to devoted educators to portray us as a monolithic group that is opposed to any change in our schools.  We recognize the system isn't perfect, but also see the need to work together with everyone in the community to make positive change happen for all of our students.  

Finding common ground on challenging and sensitive issues is difficult.  This is especially true once we go beyond the personal level and move into the media, or public realm.  Issues like race and poverty are complicated and bring with them a history that bring out strong emotions.  Madison is grappling with these challenges and we need to find a way to bring the community together in order to achieve lasting success in reducing the gaps in opportunities that exist across the board for many members of the community.

The races for school board featured some excellent candidates and also some heated accusations about race and existing divisions in our city.  The fact that we focused as much on the race of the candidates as we did on their message at times is problematic.  It is true that we need to increase the diversity of our elected bodies, but at the same time we also need to make sure that we are supporting a candidate because of their stances on the issues. 

I spoke to many people of different races, genders, economic status and political beliefs and there wasn't a clear consensus regarding the race between Strong and Loumos.  In most cases it boiled down to a concern over the issues of privatization and vouchers.  We are struggling to differentiate between protecting public education and the reality that "minority" students in our schools are experiencing significant gaps in achievement.  The Achievement Gaps in our schools are real, but to believe that expanding vouchers and privatizing education will solve them doesn't hold up under scrutiny.  What is clear is that the Gaps are being used by conservative "reformers" to divide and conquer the educational world so that they can profit financially and politically. 

Race is used by these "reformers" as a weapon to undermine public education and to drive a wedge between different parts of the community that should be united in their efforts to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all students.  I try and listen to, or read conservative media sources and find that they only talk about educational issues when there is an opportunity for them to benefit in some way.

This isn't to deny that we have a real problem here in Madison and that we have not been a community that has lived up to its progressive, liberal reputation.  There is an unpleasant reality here that is difficult for many of us to accept.  However, name calling or confrontation won't, in my estimation, resolve the problem.  Calling voters racist, either overtly or covertly, only widens the divide and reduces communication between different groups in the city.  I equate it to working with one of my students who is struggling and not completing their work.  I can confront them and tell them that they are "stupid" or "lazy" thus eliminating their desire to improve, or I can encourage and motivate them, hopefully giving them the incentive to change for the better.          

We know that racism is present in our society and that it is a deeply rooted problem requiring intense, long term effort to eradicate.  We also know that prejudice and discrimination can't be legislated or mandated out of existence.  It must be removed through communication, cooperation and education.  People must grapple with the reality that we live with the legacy passed down through the years.  This will not change overnight, but with positive effort and increased awareness we can make positive change happen.  

Elections matter, but aren't conclusive.  We are painfully aware of the reality that elections have an impact on our lives, but also realize that every election is followed (often immediately) by another political campaign.  We are engaged in a long term struggle and should celebrate our victories, while gearing up for the next challenge.  

A citizen's work is never done.  In the end, this may be the most important lesson to learn from this, or any, election.  It isn't enough to cast a ballot, citizens must stay engaged and make sure that those who are elected know that we are interested, involved and vigilant.  If we don't hold our elected officials accountable, who will.

In education this means that we must be aware of the small details.  Politicians, by necessity, aim to make large, sweeping statements or policies.  However, the "devil is in the details" when it comes to educational policy.  Small changes can make big results even if they don't make headlines.  When it comes to educating our children what do we want, a political circus or positive results.  Too often we have been getting the show and not the substance and this must change.  Change will only occur with active citizens who are engaged in the process.  Attend a school board meeting, visit a school, go to a PTA/O meeting, get involved.  

De-Walkerize Wisconsin…
Scott Walker has been called many things, positive and negative, but one truth about him is that he is a politician at heart.  This means that he is constantly working to create an image of himself and his policies with an eye towards expanding his personal power and influence.  It is a lesson that many of us involved in opposing his agenda should learn from.  In the end, the conflict in Wisconsin isn't about Walker, but it is about the quality of life and the social, political and economic climate in our state. 

If we are to limit the influence that Walker has we need to begin to learn to let go of the negative feelings that we have towards him and recognize that he is just another in a long line of political figures looking to benefit from their skills in the political world.  Politics can't be personal if they are to succeed in building united opposition to legislation and policies that are not beneficial to a majority of citizens.  By making politics personal we mask the issues and instead focus on the "celebrity status" of those involved.
Wisconsin's Future…
Wisconsin is struggling.  The legacy of the past two years is one of negative progress and division. State Republicans have a vision for Wisconsin, but it hasn't been successful here, or in other places around the nation.  It is time for the citizens of this state to get informed and speak out about the direction we want our state to move in.  Blame won't improve our status, it's time to move beyond the past two years and into the future. 

One of the other challenges that our state faces is the fact that by attacking labor directly, Republicans have made economic recovery more difficult.  In order to grow an economy there should be labor stability and consumer confidence.  Both are lacking due to GOP policies and legislation enacted in the past two years.  

Vouchers and Accountability, and Money- OH MY!!…

These three words make up the real VAM (Value Added Model) in education in 2013.  In eduspeak Value Added Model refers to the use of data to compare individual student achievement on standardized tests over time in order to measure the effectiveness of a district, a school, or individual educators.  While the merits of this use of data can be debated…

the real problem is that it is even a debate at all.  This focus on test scores and accountability for educators has changed the debate from education to data collection.  It is a symptom of why the fight for education is so disheartening for people who really value education and the future of our students. 

By focusing on standardized tests and tying the results to the public's perception of the quality of our public schools, education "reformers" have created a new reality that educators and schools must operate in.  This change in focus has allowed them to promote "reforms" that are geared towards dismantling our public school system, breaking educator unions and generating profits for a small number of people. 

Under the VAM the goals of privatization efforts are realized and schools are turned into a for-profit system.  Here's how it works…

V- Vouchers "Reformers" hail vouchers and other alternative schools as the epitome of the American ideal of "choice".  The real benefit to those who seek to destroy public schools is the use of public education funding to support private schools.  This harms public schools who need significant amounts of funding to meet the wide range of needs that their students bring with them.  Expansion of the voucher system in Wisconsin has been proposed and touted as an improvement in our ability to educate students.  This despite the fact that data doesn't support these claims.   

A- Accountability  This is actually the first step in the process and is based on the "common sense" notion that we need to hold educators responsible for student progress.  Because education is so complex and involves so many students and variables, "reformers" "simplify" things by measuring student progress through standardized tests.  These tests are highly profitable for those who make them and the results are used to show just how troubled our public school systems are.  

As the emphasis on testing has increased, the pressure for students to "achieve" has risen and schools are forced to change their curriculum to meet the supposedly higher standards.  This has the result of driving some families out of the schools to seek more student friendly schools, and at the same time makes the public less supportive of the public schools.

M-Money  It is clear that the leadership in Wisconsin is looking to dismantle public education.  All one has to do is look at the last two budgets proposed by GOP controlled state government.  The impact of the previous budget was felt in districts across the state and the current budget will continue the all out assault on public education.  

In the end we are left with the reality that we must make our voices heard if we truly value public education.  At times it may seem hopeless, and the challenges appear overwhelming.  Yet, we are seeing a change in the public's perception of issues around public education.  By continuing to speak out and inform others of what is happening we can, and will, see the pendulum swing back towards more reasonable educational policies. 

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