Sunday, July 21, 2013

Issue #122 Standing Strong for Education

What Do We Stand For?…
"A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything." Malcolm X
"A house divided against itself cannot stand." Lincoln
"Stand With (Walker or Wisconsin depending on your political persuasion)"

We've done a lot of standing with/for/against things in Wisconsin over the past couple of years.  The imagery associated with standing can be associated with strength, support, stability, or sometimes stagnation.  We can be seen as standing together to support a position or individual.  We can be standing strong against an outside force, but we can also be standing still and not moving forward.  This idea of solidarity vs. stagnation is an important one in the current political, social and economic climate.  It is an image with historical connotations and one that is a powerful motivator that unites supporters.  It gets at the heart and soul of our own individual beliefs and bonds us with others of a like mind. 

People may be familiar with the phrase, "My country, right or wrong."  This phrase has been used to describe unthinking support and could easily be extended to all areas of our lives.  It depicts a type of behavior that is automatic and based not on independent thought, but on a blind obedience or belief that we must stand behind all actions of a larger entity, even when we know that they are not proper.  This quote is actually the beginning part of a slightly longer quote attributed to Carl Schurz in 1872 that goes, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”  Obviously, this longer quote has very different implications.  The idea that we should support our country (or any other organization, individual, philosophy or ideology), but should be willing to recognize the fallibility of any human activity and make necessary changes to it, is very different from blind acceptance and unquestioning loyalty.   

Because the current environment is so confrontational and antagonistic it becomes very important that we are choosing our positions carefully and defending (or standing with/for) the correct things.  We can't blindly stand with or against someone simply based on their political party, other associations or ideological viewpoints.  The more we base our allegiances on these types of characteristics the more divided our society becomes.  If our loyalty is based on a reflexive response and not from thoughtful, rational and well developed thinking we fall into the trap that has done so much harm throughout history.  We put ourselves on a path that has, too often, caused significant problems for so many.  Loyalty to a cause is a valuable trait; however, loyalty must be tempered with reason and a willingness to accept changes or to admit mistakes.

Along the process of discovering what we stand for we need to challenge ourselves to hear the opinions and beliefs of others who may disagree with us.  It is only through exposure to multiple ways of looking at an issue that we can identify the strengths and weaknesses of our own beliefs.  We live in a society that is diverse in so many ways.  This diversity is a strength, but one that isn't without challenges.  The positive aspects of our vast diversity can only be realized if as many voices as possible are truly heard in a meaningful way. 

Unfortunately, the hostile environment that currently exists in much of our public discourse makes it less likely that people will hear other viewpoints outside of their personal comfort zone.  We seem to spend more time looking for flaws in opposing opinions than we do looking for commonalities or positive aspects.  This causes us to miss opportunities to find compromises or even solutions to our problems and further divides groups in our society. 

It certainly isn't hard to see multiple examples of this phenomenon in modern America.  Here are a few from the last couple of weeks.  

One of the most vivid examples of our inability to communicate about challenging issues is the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. 
This case provides and example of just how complicated it is to have public discourse around a tragic and controversial incident.  Cases like this one serve as a lightning rod for people to score political points or to make sweeping commentary about issues of great importance.  However, lost in the hyperbole and rhetoric is the reality that we need to be able to move forward and work to escape our historical legacy of violence and inequality.

Unfortunately, it is too easy to take cases like this one and only hear one side of the equation.  Instead of uniting around the idea that no one should be killed, injured or feel unsafe in our society and working together to achieve a goal of peace and justice for all, we find too many people isolating themselves in a cocoon of fear and suspicion.  We worry more about "standing our ground" and defending our own personal space than we do about making changes that lead to a more unified and a stronger America.    

While there are many different ways to interpret this case and many issues involved, for me, in the end it boils down to a sense of community and belonging.  We will probably never know all of the details, or the full truth about why Zimmerman shot Martin.  That's the complex reality of human events.  However, it isn't difficult to see that the climate that exists in modern America lends itself to these types of violent incidents.  We have created a world where there is a clear sense of who belongs where.  Knowingly, or unknowingly we separate ourselves by age, race, gender, and countless other categories.  All of which are magnified in importance beyond an understanding of the basic humanity that should unite us.  Racial profiling by police, racial profiling in our daily interactions and an increasingly segregated society turn simple differences into potentially deadly divisions. 

George Zimmerman trial: Not guilty in shooting death of Trayvon Martin

Issues around race are very difficult to discuss and come to any sort of positive resolution on.  They permeate through our history and impact virtually every aspect of our society from economics to education and beyond.  We can try to fix them through public policy, however, legislation and regulation can only go so far in changing our society.  Real change occurs on a more personal level.  Each of us is constantly searching for acceptance and a sense of belonging.  Unfortunately, for many this necessitates a rejection of those different from us.
Winner take all politics makes us all losers.  Wisconsin is a divided state and nowhere is this clearer than when you mention Scott Walker's name in conversation.  Once again this reality provides and example of why those who oppose his policies need to articulate our thinking and make it clear that we oppose them, not just out of spite or vindictiveness for some imagined wrongs, but for real substantive reasons.  Walker's supporters would paint a picture of his opponents as unionized dinosaurs living in the past, while Wisconsin Republicans try to move the state forward into a fiscally safe future.  Yet, there are very real reasons for opposing the political, social and economic policies that have been enacted here in Wisconsin over the past few years. 

An accusation, realistic or not, is a powerful weapon to be wielded against opponents in public discourse.  We've been told that there are massive amounts of voter fraud going on across the country.  In order to fix the "problem" many states have been working to enact stricter rules around voting.  Yet, the accusations of fraud don't appear to have much substance and seem to be more of a political tool than a real concern for protecting the sanctity of our electoral process.

Voter ID laws and voter fraud have been portrayed as a racial issue.  I won't deny the racism that is implicit in many of the so called "reforms" that have been passed by Republican dominated legislatures.  At the same time, to simply look at the changes in our electoral process through a racial lens limits the full impact that they have on our society.  Any attempt to limit the voice of citizens, for any reason needs to be viewed as a serious threat to our republic.     

Extreme actions lead to extreme reactions, which lead to more extreme actions, which lead to more extreme reactions…  There will always be a fringe element in any society that is willing to take issues beyond what seems to be a logical extreme.  However, when pushed too far, even more moderate individuals begin to react in ways that are confrontational or outside the typical.  The protests of February, 2011 provide an example of this.  People who normally wouldn't take to the streets felt obligated to stand up for their values.  The exclusion of the people's voice from the decision making process made "rebels" out of moderates. 

Now we see an escalating pattern of violence and militarization in the northern part of Wisconsin due to the controversy over mining.   

There is always hope.  None of these issues are unprecedented or unique.  We've been dealing with them for the entire scope of history and will continue to struggle with them into the foreseeable future.  What then is the motivation for us to continue to struggle for justice and equality for all citizens?  It would certainly seem easier to give up and simply try to protect our own personal interests.  The answer lies in discovering what we stand for and finding others of a like mind to work together with.  As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

 Standing Up for Public Schools…
The idea of standing for something is an important aspect of any individual's character.  We all want to believe that we are useful, contributing members of society and that what we do and value is important.  The attacks on public education have certainly challenged educators' self-esteem and core beliefs.  We have been told that we are not competent and are lazy.  We've been told that our methods of educating students are insensitive and outdated.  We've been told that our whole educational system is flawed and should be "reformed" or even eliminated.  Public educators truly feel like we've been blamed for much of what ails society, from budget woes, to the decline of the workforce, to racial divisions and inequities. 

Our public schools face attacks on many fronts.  Here in Wisconsin the most recent threat is the expansion of the voucher program.  

The attacks on public sector workers through Act 10 and the general disrespect for the education profession have affected the number of students looking to join the field. 

Of course these challenges aren't occurring only in Wisconsin.

Yet, even in the face of these assaults, we continue to fight to preserve, protect and promote our public schools.  There are many reasons why public educators work so hard to defend our profession.  For me it goes way beyond a simple desire to protect my livelihood.  It isn't about trying to justify the last 20 years of my life and the work that I've done as a public educator.  It's a real belief that our public schools and the work that goes on in them is a valuable, even vital, resource that our society needs in order to evolve and thrive. 

My fight also centers around the idea that we need to protect the interests of the children and families we serve.  Education for profit won't protect the "consumers".  We know that turning our schools into businesses will not serve those who need the "product" the most. 

In some ways this debate goes even deeper than just educational policy and developing the future of our society.  The struggle revolves around a constant tension between the real need to develop talent and to learn practical skills, and the innate drive to learn about the world around us.  The idea that everything in our society needs to have a practical application that produces measurable results is clearly demonstrated in many of the "reforms" that are currently attracting so much attention.  By quantifying and measuring the knowledge that our students achieve we are able to somehow make education more substantive and useful.  This is why, in many circles, a student pursuing an engineering major is held in higher esteem than one working towards an art history major.        

This is one reason that I continue to speak against the wave of testing and standardization of curriculum in our public schools.  It is not a desire to avoid accountability, nor is it a fear of trying new things.  Instead it is a reasoned reaction to the constant pressure to make the 9 and 10 year olds in my classroom "career and college ready".  I truly want what is best for my students, but if Margaret Mead (writing in the 1940's and 50's) felt that, "In the modern world we have invented ways of speeding up invention, and people's lives change so fast that a person is born into one kind of world, grows up in another, and by the time his children are growing up, lives in still a different world," then what are our children in the 2010's facing.  We have very little idea what the world will look like in almost a decade when these children will graduate from high school.  By limiting their opportunities to what a publisher who doesn't know them at all believes to be appropriate, and ignoring what those closest to them (families, educators, and community members) see daily we do our students a huge disservice.  

This is not a phenomena limited to the United States either.  The results can be disastrous for any individual.  One of the comments after this article sums up the potential damage well:
"Absurd. I sat the old 11-plus in 1946. My father had recently returned from the war a broken man and on the day of the exams I suffered both a hay fever attack and a migraine. For that I was categorized a failure. It took me over ten years to recoup and to follow a career in education to university level."

This constant drive to quantify the level of education and sort our students creates a real problem in many ways.  Testing and collecting data become a driving force in education instead of focusing on student learning.  We put as much, or more, energy into designing assessments and scheduling tests as we do on actually educating our students.  So much of a district's budget and resources are devoted to this data collection that we lose sight of what is really important.
This idea that education should be assigned a value carries beyond the school walls and into all aspects of discussions around education.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in discussions about the school budgets that are created annually.  The headlines may blare “PROPERTY TAX INCREASE" but the reality is that these increases are due to the decisions made higher up the food chain at the state and national level.  These decisions are made, not to improve education, but to gain and hold on to political power.   What if the headline about the school budget mentioned the fact that it is decreasing by a half-percent from last year, or that the tax increases resulted from an $8.7 million cut in state funding to MMSD? 

What is just as clear in educational issues, as in any other societal concern, is that individuals working together can make a difference.  Many people spoke up about the need to continue holding conferences at the start of the school year in Madison's elementary schools.  These conferences help set goals for students and establish communication and a working relationship between educators and families.  School administration and the Madison School Board heard these concerns and worked to make sure that the conferences will be held again this school year.   

Small groups of thoughtful, committed people are working all over our city, state, nation and world to try and bring important educational issues into the public debate.  While the challenges are many, the potential results are well worth the struggle. 

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