Sunday, October 20, 2013

#135 October 20, 2013- Battles in Politics and Education

Getting Ready for the
Next Battle. . .
With the end of the recent standoff in Washington D.C., many around the nation breathed a sigh of relief and moved on.  In fact, this is exactly what those responsible for giving us the recent crisis would like to have happen.  The most extreme members of Congress and their supporters don't want the public to remember their words and deeds over the past couple of weeks.  Instead, they hope that the ACA will fail miserably and that the public will focus attention on that, not their own divisive, inequitable and unsustainable policies and beliefs.    

What exactly did the extreme conservative faction of the Republican Party do that should cause all citizens to be concerned?  They changed the rules of House to limit the ability of members of Congress to call for a vote on the shutdown.  This limitation of power extended to all members of Congress except for a select few.  They took our nation to the brink of the economic unknown.  They further divided a nation that is already struggling to find reasonable ways to resolve our differences.  That they did all this for what really appears to be a combination of political vindictiveness and short sighted political gains makes it all the more problematic.      

Wondering how your elected representatives voted?   

What was made crystal clear during the recent conflict in D.C., and what should be obvious to anyone living in a battleground state like Wisconsin, is that this recent defeat for the radical members of the GOP isn't the end of their efforts to undermine our system of government.  In many ways the defeat will only fuel the fire of the most extreme members of this faction.  The most terrifying side to this is that, instead of admitting defeat and trying to make our system work for the majority, these radicals will return to their demographically isolated enclaves and create schemes to destabilize our democracy.  

Wisconsin is gearing up for our next political struggle.  The next election will help determine what direction our state will move in, as well as be a benchmark for the nation.  We are already seeing significant interest on a national level in the upcoming race for governor and Congress.  Wisconsin's Congressional delegation was divided along party lines in voting to end the shutdown.  In 2014 we have a chance to make a real change in current political trends.

Wisconsinites also have an opportunity to determine what kind of society we want to live in.  Too often politics and elections offer relatively similar candidates with ideologies that are too similar to really provide significant choices.  The argument that a moderate Democrat and a moderate Republican are virtually the same candidate isn't too far off the mark.  Yet, the current brand of Republican candidate pushes the debate far to the right.  The strategies, philosophy and policies that these candidates support put an emphasis on money and power, while pushing quality of life and opportunity for all out of the debate.  

We will see and hear lots of claims that the conservative agenda here in Wisconsin has improved our state's economic outlook, its political functioning, and made Wisconsin a better place overall.  However, there is another side to the "facts" and figures that the Republican Party of Wisconsin will either ignore or attempt to hide.  

An example of this is the ongoing debate over tax relief and the efforts of the GOP to help the middle class.  They have framed the debate so that it appears that there will be some relief for taxpayers, and created a situation where a vote against their proposal will appear to be a vote for higher taxes.  Yet, the property tax relief that is proposed is more beneficial for wealthy residents and large scale property owners.  Ignored in the debate is the potential increase in property taxes due to an inequitable school funding formula and cuts in state aid to public schools.  School districts across Wisconsin face the potential need to increase their tax levies to meet the needs of students.  This provides fodder for more attacks on our public schools and the high cost of educating our students, when the reality is that the state isn't meeting its Constitutional obligations regarding public education.    

Also ignored are other ways to help families meet the costs of higher education.  

Education Reform, Why We Need It and Why We Need to Fight It. . .
Reform has become a controversial and often despised word for public educators.  We face a continuing onslaught of "reforms" that come from outside our schools, are promoted by "experts" with few real educational credentials, and that do little to help the students who need the most support.  

These "reforms" change the way we teach and impact the daily experiences that our students have in schools.  Testing, interventions, core instruction and a constant pressure to implement new curricula so that students are "rigorously" challenged to develop new skills, all have a significant impact on our students and our schools.  Educators are told that every minute of every day must be applied to activities that will produce measurable results.  Too often ignoring that we may not be able to measure the most valuable skills students learn, or that 9 year olds are not factory employees.  Note #2 on the following list.

We spend so much time collecting data and evaluating our practices based on measurable statistics that we ignore the humanity that is the children we are educating.  School Improvement Plans in the Madison schools are reduced to improving student's test scores, ignoring school climate and student engagement.  Students lose opportunities to study science, social studies and the arts so that they can receive extra instruction in literacy and math.  Yet, this extra instruction doesn't seem to impact their achievement, and reduces their love of learning.  Specialists like school social workers, psychologists, bi-lingual educators and others are taken away from students to help with assessments.  The monster of data that has been created is quickly devouring students and schools.     

The phrase stating that there are, "Lies, damned lies, and statistics" applies directly to education in today's America.  Statistics are thrown around in discussions about our schools, but they are often misleading and frequently self serving.   

We even see our need for data impact national foreign policy as we seek evidence that deaths of innocents caused by drones may, or may not increase the allure of terrorist organizations.  This debate ignores the reality that killing citizens of other countries shouldn't be acceptable whether it fuels terrorism or not.   

Reform shouldn't be a "bad" word for educators.  In fact, we need reform now, more than ever.  The divide between the "haves" and the "have nots" in our society is widening.  The gaps that exist in income, social status and political influence are mirrored in our schools.  Our society is becoming more segregated and less equitable as these gaps widen. 

Our public schools could be a vehicle to address the inequities in our society and potentially provide the "tools" necessary to make significant, positive change.  Yet, we are mired in a constant struggle to simply maintain what we currently have.  We engage in debates over details, but don't impact the larger picture.  We are creating an educational climate that will only increase the gaps that exist.  Students from poverty, students from different cultures and students with exceptional needs have been failing in our system, and they will continue to fail unless we act to make real change happen. 

These efforts to resist "reform" are often portrayed in one of two ways by "reformers".  One view is that fighting school reform is part of a series of radical, liberal attempts to indoctrinate the youth of America into Socialist ways of thinking.  Schools are Liberal hotbeds of educators plotting to overthrow all that is "good" in America.  The second view is that the resistance to "reform" represents the efforts of educators and their unions to hold on to the status quo that fills their pockets and fuels their political efforts.  By forcing educators who disagree with testing, standardization of curriculum and other "reforms" into one of these two camps education "reformers" can portray them as radicals and out of touch with what the public wants for education.    

Too many educators simply give in to the demands that are placed on us.  The loss of union protections and collective bargaining agreements weakens our ability to resist.  The vast scope of the attacks leaves us frustrated and without the time and energy necessary to resist.  We face public opinion that has been shaped by the fallacies and misleading statistics from those who seek to "reform" our schools.  We receive policies shaped by leaders who don't live and work in the same schools that we do.  They see numbers and we see families and students.

We do need to reform our schools in some ways.  However, the reforms that we need are not the ones that we are currently implementing.  Those "reforms" come from people who are outside the system, and who far too often don't even send their children to the schools they create policy for.  Those "reforms" are driven by business and economic interests and don't provide opportunity for all students to access the skills that are needed to be successful entrepreneurs, scientists and leaders.        

Instead of going along with the current "reform" movement in education, educators, public and private, need to make a stand for their students, their families and their profession.  We are professionals and we work on a daily basis with our students.  We need to make connections with our families, our community and those in policy making positions to insure that all voices are heard.  We need to unite and support each other in our efforts to meet the real needs of our students, not the needs of business and lobbyists.   

This is a national debate, but one that plays out in the personal lives of millions of children in our nation.  It is a debate that we must win.  All students deserve an educational experience that is enriching, engaging and that opens the doors to a brighter future.     

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