Saturday, June 15, 2013

Issue #119- How to Make Good Decisions About Education and Politics

Good Decision Making…
The school year ended this past Thursday for students in Madison's public schools.  With any ending comes reflection, assessment and a look ahead.  That's what educators do on a regular basis.  This process allows us to decide what worked, what didn't and how we can improve our practice in the future.  It seems obvious that this shouldn't be a strategy employed only by educators in schools.  Our administrators, political leaders and other public officials need to take time to really think about what is happening in our society and how we can make progress in our efforts to improve things.

I'm sure that many in power would argue that they do reflect, assess and plan.  However, this process is only valuable when a certain things happen.  People must set aside their pre-existing biases and honestly reflect about the results of their actions.  They must also be strong enough to admit mistakes and recognize the flaws as well as the strengths what they've done.  The information used in this process must be as accurate as possible and not simply gathered to validate existing beliefs.  Too often data used is edited to be used as a defense of policy and not as a true evaluative tool.  Finally, plans and policy based on the reflections and assessment must be developed that will address the needs of our society and create the best outcomes for the most people.  All of this with a careful look at the potential results from a variety of perspectives. 

There are many barriers that get in the way of the process.  There are political realities that exist for all of us involved in the public sector.  These make it difficult for people to really be honest as they look at what has happened.  Instead of really reflecting and assessing, too many in the public sphere simply defend their actions and hold on to beliefs/policies that are partisan in nature.  They refuse to see the strengths that integrating opposing viewpoints might bring to future plans.  Many of the issues we are dealing with are complex in nature and don't have easy solutions.  Gathering data that makes sense, and that is accurate can be challenging.  There are real differences in the outcomes that we want from our plans and policies.  We see a constant tension between short term and long term goals.  We have a diverse society and there is naturally conflict between groups that must be addressed.  We fear the potential unintended consequences of actions and look for "slippery slopes" in every potential action.  Too often we are paralyzed by our own biases and fear and end up missing opportunities for real change.  The final barrier is time.  It takes time to go through this process in a real, meaningful way.  We live in a society where quick, decisive action is viewed positively, while more deliberate thinking is maligned.  However, we often see quick actions result in inconsistent and incoherent policies that reinforce all of the barriers that exist.     

These barriers have a significant impact on the plans and policies that are implemented.  If our process of arriving at decisions about actions we are going to take is flawed, then it stands to reason that our results will be too.  We find our leaders proposing ideas that are unchanged from previous ones (often policies that have failed in the past).  We see a cyclical pattern that causes us to refight battles that were previously resolved.  We also see a lack of vision that causes us to put short term interests ahead of a more coherent plan that addresses the future of our society.  Too often we see groups that share a common interest either ignore their shared concerns, or create conflict where there shouldn't be any.  Enemies are made out of allies. 

This lack of reflection, assessment and planning is a real problem for our society in many ways.  It causes incoherent policies and leads to a breakdown in the cohesiveness of our society.  It means that we spend too much time and energy in pointless conflict and ignore many of the real issues that need to be addressed.  We can see the results of this issue right here in our own state, and we need to work to address the concerns that so many citizens have about the decision making process currently employed by our leaders. 

The flaws in our decision making processes are extremely evident in the public education arena.  Education policies have been punitive to schools and educators.  There has been a lack of clear, measurable and achievable goals.  Our public schools have not been guided by a coherent policy that is in the best interest of students.  Instead we have seen a confusing, haphazard and partially implemented series of reactive "reforms" imposed on public educators.  A few of the lowlights. . .

"Higher" standards that change the emphasis on learning from being child centered and developmentally appropriate, to mastering a series of skills that have been deemed the "core" of education.  It is very difficult to quantify what it means to be an educated citizen.  One persons idea of what is important to learn can be different from what someone else may value in an education.  No one can know everything and we will all have our own set of strengths and weaknesses.  By trying to quantify acquisition of knowledge and make the process into a sort of "checklist" of concepts and skills that students must demonstrate proficiency in (during the "appropriate" grade) we have changed the purpose of acquiring an education.  Being educated becomes something that is defined by others and is uniform in nature.  Many of the most brilliant thinkers in history thought "outside the box" and would struggle in modern, standard driven school curriculums.

In our struggle to quantify a complex concept we have turned to standards and assessments as our primary means of defining success in educational pursuits.  Yet, these standards and assessments have been rather hastily implemented and have ignored the concerns of professional educators.  The thinking behind these "reforms" may be laudable, but the results we are seeing are questionable at best.           

We have used school "reform" as a political weapon.  Political leaders who say that they don't have a political agenda when it comes to proposing "reforms" to our public school system are being disingenuous at best.  The past two years have featured wave after wave of attacks on the abilities of public educators to organize and exercise their rights to speak out on issues around their profession.  In our current situation any proposed legislative "reform" must be analyzed in a political (not educational) context.  This isn't a phenomena exclusive to Wisconsin either.  

The resulting, bitter divisions have created a climate of fear, anger and retribution that does nothing to improve educational outcomes for our students.  
In this environment, rational and realistic reforms are ignored or silenced.  Cooperation and compromise are eliminated from the equation and we see a polarizing effect on educational policies.  

Data about our schools is frequently misunderstood, or misused by people trying to advance their own agenda (which rarely includes promoting the interests of our students).  Articles and discussion about our public schools is filled with "facts" and numbers.  What these "objective" bits of information mean is open for significant debate and discussion.  Instead of allowing professional educators the ability to use the data that we collect on our students’ progress, we use the information to undermine public confidence and distort the perceptions that people have about our schools.      

The current struggles are guiding us back to a place where we have already been, and a place that wasn't a positive one for many of our students and families.  All of the "reform" efforts and the constant assault on our public schools have returned us to a bygone era of "separate and unequal schooling".  We are so busy attacking public education and eliminating the voices of professional educators that we ignore the realities that these policies create.

One of the starkest examples of this is our highly segregated school systems that exist in almost all parts of the country.  Some statistics from these articles. . .

--41% of Chicago's public schools are at least 90% black, and 68% of the black students in CPS attend one of these schools. 

--Non-Hispanic whites are 32% of Chicago's population, but only 9% of CPS's enrollment.

--In Wisconsin 41% of black students attend schools that are 90% black and that percentage doubled between 1991 and 2005.

--17% of Wisconsin's Latino students attend schools that are 90% Latino.  

We’ve seen what happens when we segregate our schools throughout our history.  Essentially when we ignore, or agree to, segregation we are saying that we are giving up on the idea that our children can live and work together.  We know that segregated schools don't have equal resources, or equal access to quality instruction that all students need.  Policy makers at the highest level don't seem to be bothered by this, but those who work in the schools want to see changes made, before we go further down this destructive path.  A report from the Chicago Teacher's Union states, "CPS does not even have a semblance of a plan for integration and equity in learning conditions and opportunities that those who fought for desegregation hoped to ensure."  The union goes on to advocate for the school district to work with other organizations to try and address the complex issues around segregation of our schools.  Cooperation to promote equity, what a truly revolutionary concept!

Education is an investment that pays off over time, but our current climate is one that calls for instant results.  Much of the damage done to our public schools has been done because of a sense of crisis.  This results in policy and budgeting that eliminates innovation, experimentation and forces educators and students to work under pressure.  It also results in constantly changing curriculums and policies that confuse educators, students and families.  The pace of change, spurred by so called "reforms" has accelerated to the point where those directly involved in our schools are frustrated and uncertain.    This also forces educators to make quick decisions about curriculum and policies that are often unsupported by significant data.  I have experienced this multiple times in the past few years as programs are implemented to "improve" educational practices, and then changed almost instantly in favor of new and even more "improved" programs.  No wonder many public educators suffer from "reform burnout".  The families we serve are equally upset and discouraged. 

"Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering."  Yoda, sums it up well in this quote.  We are operating in a climate of fear.  One where every action and reaction is analyzed with the underlying belief that we are facing an educational crisis of epic proportions.  Our students pick up on this and their attitudes and performance in school reflect this pressure and intensity.  The families of our students are given conflicting information and are encouraged to question every aspect of their children's school experience.  Educators fear losing their jobs (or working under new, unfavorable conditions), face constant criticism and encounter financial stresses that magnify their anxiety.  Very few positive things come out of a climate of fear.

Divide and conquer strategies disrupt communities and limit the ability of schools to respond to student needs proactively.  The end result of the atmosphere of fear is a loss of trust and a divided society.  Instead of becoming rallying points for our communities, our public schools become places where competing ideologies come into conflict.  The heart of any educational debate should be the impact that any action has on student achievement, yet we find ourselves in nearly constant quarrels that too frequently don't lead to more positive outcomes for all students.  A society that can come together around all of its children is one that will be stronger over time.  That modern America struggles so much in this area raises serious questions about the future of our nation. 

The use of fear and divisive political strategies means that words like accountability are defined in multiple ways.  Having been a part of some of the discussion that is referred to in this article I can attest to the power of uniting people from all levels of the Madison School District and the value of clearly defining what we mean by accountability (and other key terms).  The comments at the end of this article show just how divisive words can be.  If we spend our time responding to every perspective and every comment we will find ourselves chasing our tails and getting nowhere.  Accountability is a concept that is defined by those involved in the process.  While all of us have a stake in public education, there are certainly some who play a larger role in the system.  Students, families and educators all need to be accountable to each other in order to make the system work.  If these three groups live up to their mutual obligations then the public should be able to trust that the outcomes will be positive.  Instead we see people who have little or no idea of what happens in our schools trying to impact educational policy decisions, and it isn't working well for our schools.    

Politics/Business As Usual…
Education isn't the only arena where we see this lack reflection leading to poor policy making.

There are overt (and covert) attempts to create a sense of fear and anxiety. 

Partisan politics creates hypocrisy as leaders on both sides criticize their opponents for doing things that they do themselves.  This creates a cycle of action, reaction and retribution that spirals beyond reason.  Educators don't accept the excuse of, "They did it to me first!" on the playground, and we shouldn't accept similar excuses from our leaders and their propaganda machines.    

Conservatives in Wisconsin blame educators for poor results (although the true analysis of our education system is open to debate) while producing outcomes that are abysmal. 

Sooner or later the citizens of Wisconsin need to realize that we are all more successful when we stop fighting each other over topics that are peripheral to issues that really matter.  We have the skills, abilities and resources to be a leader in all areas, but not if we squander these assets in conflicts that undermine our ability to function as a cohesive society.  If the current leadership in Wisconsin is unable to find common ground on important issues, then it is up to us, the people, to find a way to move our state forward.    

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