The Problems With Education "Reform", and What to do About Them…
Public education and education "reform" are much discussed topics in recent days. It could be argued that this is a good thing, after all, isn't a quality education for every student a worthwhile goal to pursue? Isn't public discussion about finding ways to make this happen something to be encouraged and valued?Of course public educators and those who value education want public schools to be an important part of any public dialog that goes on as we continually seek to improve all aspects of our society. Why then are we seeing so much concern raised by supporters of public education about the conversations currently happening regarding our public schools?
Education "Reform" is a political power tool, not a real effort to support or improve public education. Public education has become a target for those who would seek to increase their hold on political and economic power. Public educator unions are one of the last bastions of organized labor and the elimination of their power by any means necessary is a clear goal for conservative political leaders. Education is one of the largest items in many state and municipal budgets and there are those who see the schools and their students as line items to be exploited, not people to be educated.
Information shared by "reformers" is misleading and designed to harm public schools. In order to change the landscape of education from one dominated by public schools to one where for-profit privatized schools are the norm, there is a concerted effort to undermine public confidence in our school systems. One example of this is the recently developed "Report Cards" that evaluate public schools in Wisconsin. It has become clear that there was a "hidden agenda" behind the development of the report cards and that they were intended to be wielded as a weapon of destruction not an instrument of change.
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says 1 in 4 schools in the state are failing on DPI report card
Organizations opposed to public education look for any way to discredit educators and harm public school systems.
Proposed "Reforms" are (ironically enough) untested and often without educational merit. Many of the champions of education "reform" have been discredited after their policies and practices are analyzed by real education experts. We have seen individuals rise to the top of the educational policy pyramid, not on merit, but on their willingness to promote an agenda supported by interests from outside the field of education. The end result has been lasting harm for students and schools that have been under the control of these "reformers".
The voucher program in Wisconsin is one example of these unproven "reforms" being treated as good educational practices for political purposes. Expanding voucher schools in Wisconsin does little to improve the educational outcomes for most students, and actually harms more than it helps. What it does do is cripple public schools and open the door for more privatization.
Voucher schools are promoted as an alternative to a "one size fits all" public education, yet the reality is not what is promised. In many cases voucher schools have less qualified (uncertified) staff that works more hours (for less pay), experience higher turnover rates in staffing. Yet administrators and investors in these schools reap financial rewards denied to employees.
The Common Core standards currently being touted as the next great advancement in education are another example. These standards change the way that we deliver instruction in our schools and they increase the value that is placed on standardization of curriculum and testing. Essentially, Common Core standards force our schools to limit the ability of educators to deliver instruction in ways that benefit the students they serve. Even in districts like the Madison Public Schools we are seeing a move towards a top-down more restricted teaching environment.
How can we resist the tide of "reform"? There are many answers to this question, but all of them start with conversations about what we are defending. It isn't enough to simply speak out against the "reforms" being touted. Public opinion and dialog has been directed in ways that focus attention on the negative aspects of our schools. To speak out against the "reforms" is seen as obstructing progress and defending a "failed" status quo.
Public educators and supporters of public education need to take control of the debate around what makes good educational policy and what our schools can do to meet the challenges that exist. The idea that our public schools are "failing" and that drastic changes need to be made is a false one. Ask most families who attend public schools and they will speak about the many positives that are happening in schools across our state. Public educators are not comfortable with the "one-size fits all" model that is being forced upon us from outside our classrooms.
What isn't happening is an effective counter message to the negative imagery delivered by supporters of educational "reform". Public educators are being battered and flooded with constantly changing directives that eliminate their will and ability to counter the claims of the "reformers". At my school we are seeing drastic changes in the climate and the sense of community as our curriculum is standardized. Opportunities for creativity are limited as emphasis is placed on testing and making sure all students are meeting these new standards. In essence we are fighting a battle on unfriendly ground and on terms decided by our opponents.
By taking the initiative and changing the debate away from standards and testing we can begin to push back against the wave of "reform". This must be done purposefully and with a recognition that assessment and standards are not the enemy. It is the use of these educational necessities that is the problem, and educators can use these tools effectively to promote sound educational practices.
In order to take control of the debate we must engage the public in real conversations about education. As communities we must determine what we value in our public schools and look for ways to foster these things. Educators, families and community members must truly commit to our public schools and work together to develop policies that will promote achievement and build support for our schools.
People who work in, or who send their children to, public schools recognize the harm that is being done to children by the "reforms". They see children's love of learning decrease while stress levels increase as students are pushed to achieve instead of learn. Families whose children are part of the Achievement Gap see how testing and "rigorous" standards destroy the sense of community and eliminate a sense of community in a school building. Instead of having time to build relationships with students, educators are forced to push students academically, even when those students need emotional support to engage in learning.
Educators in buildings are being asked to do things that they don't fully believe in. By implementing top-down curriculum decisions and mandating policies designed to increase academic challenges without utilizing the strengths of specific schools we fail to meet the needs of our students. Educators need to reach out to the communities they work in and promote the educational practices that they know will work for students.
For example, at my school we have a beautiful wooded grounds, a pond within walking distance and a large public park (with ponds, prairie and woodlands) directly across the street. If we allow our curriculum to be mandated by someone outside our building we will lose the ability to utilize the natural assets that we have. Over the years we have developed a strong outdoor education program and a vibrant community garden outside our school. Our students do soil testing, water testing, help monitor the health of our restored forest, track changes in climate and engage in countless other real-life learning opportunities. This outdoor education program has the potential to unite staff, families and the community at large around our school in a way that a standardized reading program, or improved test scores never will.
Every school in every community has some similar strengths that can be emphasized as we work to engage all citizens in promoting our system of public education. People are motivated to support ideas, policies and programs for many different reasons. "Reformers" are using fear and confusion to instill a sense of crisis in the public. Schools have the obligation to counter these tactics with a sense of purpose and stability. Public education has the potential to unify different aspects of a community in ways that are central to creating a united sense of purpose and strong common interests. We can't allow our public school system to be replaced by a collection of separate schools that serve to further the separation and segregation of groups from each other.
Working together we can fight back against the "reformers" and strengthen our public schools for the benefit of all.
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