Sunday, September 15, 2013

#130- Reforming Reform, Economics and Politics

Reforming Educational Reform…
The new school year is well under way, and we are quickly seeing that this year will bring more of the same from the "School Reformers".  Given the successes that they've enjoyed recently, and the fact that supporters of public education are on the defensive in legislatures, statehouses and many public forums, why should we expect to see any change in tactics.  In fact, it is likely that we will see efforts to undermine public education intensify in the immediate future as "reformers" sense the potential for a "knock-out blow". 

These attacks on public education take on many forms, and are often disguised as "reforms" that are supposed to improve the quality of education in our public school systems.  Yet, the results are contrary to the claims in many cases.  Here's a sampling of some of the so called "reforms" currently impacting our schools.    

Excessive Assessment- Assessment continues to be a valuable tool turned into a weapon of educational mass destruction.  There is no denying the necessity of assessment in educational efforts.  Educators need to be able to determine what students know, what they don't know and how to best advance the learning of the students we serve.  Assessment provides vital information that can be used to drive instructional practices. 

However, we've turned assessment into a weapon by assessing in excess and using assessments incorrectly or for a different purpose than they were intended for.  This reality hit home for me as I returned to school in August.  As I listened to the discussion I was dismayed by the way our school year was being co-opted by testing and realized that even our school goals had become assessment driven. 

My students will be tested and assessed intensively from September to November.  I am really wondering how I will ever get the opportunity to use the data from all these assessments effectively to benefit my students before I give them their first report card.  I certainly will have data about each and every one of them, but won't have a chance to deliver instruction to them on a consistent basis. 

Not only are we going to be testing students frequently over the next 3 months, but we will be giving them tests that cover similar skills and material.  This testing redundancy does little good for anyone and will likely result in students performing poorly due to fatigue or frustration.  Remember, these are 9 and 10 year olds who are providing data for the system when what they really want to do is learn and be a part of a positive community.

It also became apparent that these all of these assessments have become the driving force for programming, scheduling and essentially all aspects of our schools academic efforts.  Our school's SIP (School Improvement Plan) has the end goals of improving specific groups performance on the MAPS testing.  All of our efforts will be controlled, summarized and measured by the performance of a handful of students on a computerized test.  We can try and believe that isn't the case, and that we can continue to attempt to reach students through a variety of means and through engaging activities.  We can pretend that we will celebrate their small successes as a larger school community.  Yet, because of the intense focus on achieving improved success on a test we know that most of the time and resources of our school will be dedicated to mastering skills and information that are measurable.  It will be up to individual educators to operate behind the scenes to support our students as they grow as people, the system will focus on them as numbers.    

Cutting Funding for Public Schools- Wisconsin has cut state aid for public education at unprecedented rates.  This means that local school districts must make up the difference.  To make things worse, the costs for implementing "reforms" such as the Common Core State Standards and the testing that come with these "improvements" are coming out of local budgets as well.   

Privatization Efforts- The effort to expand vouchers is a major step towards creating a dual system of schools that receive public funds.  One system, the public schools, will be accountable to the laws and standards established by the community.  The other system, the publicly funded private voucher schools, will operate under their own rules and serve a small portion of the population.  This transfer of public money to private hands could eventually become the largest entitlement program ever in Wisconsin's history.  It is a movement based on faulty logic, questionable data and uneven results.   

Attacking Educators- We've seen the efforts to eliminate the power of educators to influence their working conditions succeed across the state as Act 10 takes its toll on public educator unions.  The far right is now celebrating a major victory as Kenosha educators didn't recertify their union.  This gives them an opportunity to tout the supposed successes of Act 10 and the "freeing" of public educators from the evils of unionization.  Yet, this article quotes no administrators or educators in Kenosha's school district.  Instead the conservative media outlet uses quotes from extremely conservative organizations and Republican legislators.  Hardly a ringing endorsement of Act 10's reforms from educators who were wedged between a rock and a hard place in deciding whether to recertify their union or not.       

Another way to control educators and undermine their ability to voice their opinions about educational policies is to intensify the pressure of educator evaluation processes.  Educators, stripped of their negotiated protections, are now vulnerable to the twin powers of student outcomes (test scores) and educator practice (too often determined by non-educators or those with limited actual classroom experience).
It may be time to look at improving and changing aspects of our educational system.  But, the drive to make these changes should come from families, educators and administrators at the local level.  Allowing companies to profit from the decisions made about public education is not going to make a positive difference for our students.  It's hard not to be cynical about "reforms" to educator evaluations when, "The requirement that alternative models (of educator evaluations) be allowed was included in legislation crafted by state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon. The agency administrator of CESA 6, which stands to receive about $1 million a year in taxpayer money from selling this model to schools, is Olsen’s wife, Joan Wade."

Public educators, families and their supporters are not simply sitting back and letting these "reforms" destroy our public schools.  While "reformers" may feel like they are in the driver's seat, the tide may be turning.  More and more people are becoming aware of the misguided "reforms" and the way that data and rhetoric is used to mislead the public into supporting "reforms" that work for the few and against the many.  Efforts to reform school funding formulas are gaining traction.  Grassroots movements against testing and other "reforms" are making headway. 

Last week I posted an article about a girl who was disciplined at a private school for her hairstyle.  This week I saw an article that focuses on dress codes and policies that address issues of girl's attire at school.  While I am in agreement that we need to have standards and prepare students for real life situations, I also understand the issue that we are emphasizing females and students of color's choices of apparel more than males and white middle class students.  We can also point to the issues raised by students being disciplined for speaking their native language that have occurred and we see a pattern that is disturbing.  The solution may lie in how we enforce the policies that we have in place.  If we treat our dress codes and other policies as educational in nature and work with our students, we are more likely to see positive results and changes in behavior than if the policies are used to bully and harass our students.       

Economics and Politics…
Public educators aren't the only employees who are seeing their wages and benefits decrease while at the same time seeing their influence in the workplace eliminated.  In fact, public educators, while struggling in many ways, are still relatively well off when compared to many workers around the nation.  This negative employment atmosphere is all too common in today's America.  It is fueled by a drive to increase profits and to cement control of our society in the hands of a small number of the wealthy elite.  New economic and electoral policies combined with a favorable political climate are allowing a minority of Americans to have an influence far beyond what their number should allow.    

The war that is being waged on America's public employees is damaging our nation's economy.  Those of us in Wisconsin have believed that the efforts to reduce the number of government employees and to reduce the incomes of the employees who are left will harm our overall economic health.  Our fears have proved all too true both in Wisconsin and across the United States.  

Governor Walker and his GOP allies are using the divide and conquer strategy successfully across the state.  This is a very effective strategy that is made even more viable in uncertain economic times.  We are now seeing a division between some labor unions and Native Americans over mining issues in Northern Wisconsin.

What we are seeing here in Wisconsin is the continuation of the struggle between distinctly different visions of what a government and a society should be.  Differences that we need to emphasize as we prepare for the 2014 governor's race.  The campaign shouldn't focus exclusively on the struggles of the past 2 years.  We need to highlight the differences between Governor Walker's vision of Wisconsin and the Progressive values that have been so evident throughout our state's history.  Values that focus on a positive, cooperative and productive state, not a divided, corrupt and fiscally weakened state.     

In order to successfully unseat Walker, I believe it is vital that the Democrats have a open and competitive primary.  I'm worried that we will see a similar situation to the one that occurred during the recalls happen as we head towards 2014.  The power of the Wisconsin Uprising didn't come from the top levels of the Democratic Party, it came from the people.  If we leave the decision making in the hands of the wealthy donors and politically influential, high ranking leaders we will find ourselves with a candidate who will be supported, not for their platform and record, but rather because they aren't Scott Walker.  That type of candidate won't win an election, and will set us up for another term of divisiveness and failed economic policies. 

I'm not endorsing or condemning any candidate.  It's too early in the process for that, and we aren't even sure who the Democratic candidates will be.  However, recent actions by Mary Burke have caused me to wonder if she is truly the potential candidate that many want to believe she is. 

Specifically, her votes against the MMSD budget need to be clarified.  This budget was about as good an effort as could be expected given the economic constraints and the other challenges that the district faced.  To vote the way she did and then explain her vote by saying, ". . . given the projected cut in state funding and the increase in the local tax levy, I don't think this budget meets that test of balance," didn't clarify her position.  She had an opportunity to vote for the budget, make a strong stand in favor of public schools and distance herself from the positions of the Walker administration.  Instead she appeared to be voting to establish herself as more acceptable to conservative voters and did nothing to reassure Progressives that she will stand up for our values.

We are engaged in a struggle of significant proportions.  The outcomes of these battles will impact the immediate and long term future of our state.  We need to be sure that we are selecting candidates who will defend the common citizen and promote policies that work in their favor.  In the end the best candidate may be Mary Burke, but it could also be someone else.  We need to have a competitive primary to make sure we know exactly what we are getting in a candidate. 

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