Sunday, October 27, 2013

#136 October 27, 2013- Education Reform, Labor News and Politics

Education Reform- A Tool or a Weapon?. . .
Caring for and educating our children is one of the most important things that any society can do.  When done equitably, rationally and positively education creates opportunities and hope for the future.  When done poorly or with questionable intentions our system of education can serve to institutionalize inequities and limit opportunities.  In doing so we not only harm our nation's "bottom line" by reducing the potential for innovation and economic success of future generations, but we also create a society that fails to live up to the language of its founding documents. 

If America is ever to truly live up to the lofty goals of freedom, opportunity and equality that we claim to aspire to, we must provide every child with an opportunity to make the most of their skills and abilities.  In short, education is the cornerstone of a true democratic republic.  As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1786,  "I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness...Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance." 

As a nation, our struggles to educate our young people mirror our struggles as a society.  We've seen our schools be visible reminders of segregation.  We've seen our schools used to eradicate cultural differences in brutal and inequitable ways.  We've seen our schools perpetuate deep divisions and offer "separate and unequal" services to our students and communities.  We've also seen them become visible symbols of hope for a better future.  Our schools have been a measuring stick for our society's efforts to provide for all of its citizens. 

The efforts to educate our students equitably has been, and will continue to be a double edged sword that can be wielded as a tool for reforming our society, or as a weapon to perpetuate the inequities in our political, social and economic systems.  On one hand we see committed educators and supporters of our schools working to try and do things in new and improved ways.  We see efforts made to take what is working in our schools and expand on these things.  We see new and innovative uses of technology combined with tried and true methods of inspiring and educating students.  Schools are providing needed supports and services to students and families and are uniting communities around the hope for a better tomorrow. 

On the other hand we see a concerted effort to continue the use of education as a "divider" not a "uniter".  Whether by igniting a war against educators and public education through attacks on collective bargaining, constant efforts to undermine confidence in our public schools or efforts to privatize our schools, there is clearly a group of people who don't see the power of education as one that should be shared among all members of our society.  For these people, the "American Dream" isn't one of equal opportunity, but rather one of holding on to power and wealth even at the expense of entire segments of our population. 

In any conflict it is important to know who your allies and opponents are.  In the battles around education reform these lines are sometimes difficult to identify.  There are many people who are truly interested in improving our schools and who have been working tirelessly to find ways to make our system of public education better and more equitable.  At the same time, there are those who use the language of "reform", but who are pushing education "reform" for less than pure reasons (profit, political power or other ulterior motives).  Too often, those in the latter group are well connected, wealthy and powerful.  They are the ones whose voices are heard most often in the public debate over education.  The voices of the educators and those who work in our schools is muted by the unequal financial capital, limited access to decision makers and less public visibility that limits the audience for our message.   

These inequities in power mean that the discussions and debates around our public schools is shaped by a small group of individuals who control the direction that our educational legislation and policy making take.  The language that we use, the tone of the discussions and the climate that we educate our students in is shaped by these, small number, of groups and individuals.  The Common Core State Standards are an example of what happens as "reforms" are offered and implemented.  Without debating the standards themselves, there is a definite problem with the way that they are being used in creating curriculum and programming in our schools.    

It is in the materials, curriculum and resources that are available to educators that we see the true harm of the "reforms" offered by these supposed allies of public education.  A small number of individuals, companies and organizations are behind most of the products and services that are being sold to school districts.  This has been made very clear to me over the past few years as I have researched the companies and foundations that provide materials that MMSD educators are given during professional development sessions.  The materials we use are frequently sold to us by groups that support the privatization of our schools.
The end result of this connection between "reformers" and "educational profiteers" is that educators are now fighting against the forces that seek to destroy our profession even in our own staff meetings and professional development.  MMSD staff was given an article about the CCSS in our most recent professional development that gave thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a group that has done so much to undermine our public school systems across America.  The article seemed to be about ways to implement changes in reading instruction, but didn't miss an opportunity to criticize our past efforts and further the opinion that the new ways of educating students will magically fix our problems.  New ways that have products and programs available for purchase.

The reality that many of the so called "reformers" don't want people to know is that most of their products are repackaged ideas that educators have been using for a long time.  While there is no doubt that we can continue to improve our methods of teaching, the fact that we already have qualified professionals with a wealth of knowledge and skill in our schools shouldn't be ignored.  The efforts of professionals in our schools are being limited by the increased amount of time taken to administer assessments and learn supposedly new ways of teaching.  We are told that we need to improve our practices by doing things that we are already doing.

Whether placebo (CCSS) or poison pill (privatization and testing), the prescription leads to the same result unless public educators and their supporters are able to change the current educational trends.   As many top authors expressed in a letter to President Obama recently, "We are alarmed at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates, including your administration’s own initiatives, on children’s love of reading and literature. Recent policy changes by your Administration have not lowered the stakes. On the contrary, requirements to evaluate teachers on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration."

Labor News. . .
Recent news from the ongoing struggles around worker's rights. . . 
While the effect may be short lived, public sector unions in Wisconsin won a victory in the courts as WERC was found to be in contempt for ignoring Judge Colas' ruling.

Madison educators were able to negotiate a contract for the 2014-15 school year, but the confusing legal situation continues to cause uncertainty and anxiety for us.

Of course the assault on the rights of employees in the workplace shows no signs of slowing down either locally, or nationally.  

Political News. . .
The struggle over the government shutdown has ended with the Democrats emerging on top, Republicans are concerned about the upcoming 2014 elections and the economy is continuing to show signs of recovery, yet the mood among Progressives is still apprehensive and cautious.  One of the major reasons for this is the fact that with all of the positive news, the debates on issues of importance are still being framed by Conservatives.  Whether it is education reform, economic policy or issues like electoral reform, the discussions still begin with austerity, anti-government rhetoric and other Conservative talking points. 

Despite their recent defeats and questionable track record Republicans are gathering strength to fight another day.  Here in Wisconsin they control all branches of government and are working to set the tone for the 2014 races that will be vitally important on both state and national levels.  This means that there will be a concerted effort to portray Governor Walker's policies in a positive light.  A couple of examples. . .

Despite record cuts in state aid for schools, the headlines give the impression that schools are receiving more aid from the state.  The increase in aid in the current budget doesn't offset the cuts in the previous budget.

Walker and the GOP will attempt to portray any problems with the ACA and healthcare issues as the fault of Democrats.  They will try to ignore and cover up their own efforts to make the system fail.

Property tax relief will become a political tool to bolster Walker's claim that he is looking out for the taxpayer.  Yet, the small gains for individual taxpayers are part of a plan that gives landlords and large property owners more relief.  The claim that property taxes have gone down because of Walker's policies also ignore the reality that in many cases, the reason for lower taxes is lower property values.  

Progressives in Wisconsin are hoping that the Democrats will be able to put a candidate against Walker who can not only win the race, but represent our values once elected.  Values that include public schools, equitable policies and a restoration of collective bargaining rights for all workers. 

My family and I have been enjoying the TV show The Walking Dead, and I have been reading some of the books that are set in the world of the show.  This quote from The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury caught my attention.  While the Walker in the quote refers to flesh eating zombies, not our governor, the message still resonated with me.

". . .This is how the world ends not with a bang but with a Walker, a constant reminder of the end of society and government services as we know them." 

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