Sunday, November 10, 2013

#138- Hidden Agendas, Obstructionism and Misplaced Anger

Wolves In Sheep's Clothing. . .
Education reform is a hot topic in modern America.  The discussions around reform too often center on how our public schools are failing students, how our public schools are failing society, and how we can radically change the ways that our public schools function (or even completely eliminate the existing public school system altogether).  The language of the debate has been shaped by reformers to create an atmosphere of crisis and mistrust around public schools and public school educators (especially those that are unionized). 

This language is almost always grounded in a few main themes.  Each of these themes has been chosen to appeal to the "common sensibilities" of the "everyday taxpaying citizen."  They are designed to make the ideals of educational "reform" seem logical and positive in nature.  They sound good when touted by politicians and sound good in advertisements and in media reports about education.  Yet, when the ideas of "reformers" are carefully analyzed and scrutinized their "common sense" nature is exposed for what it really is, a vehicle for expanding the economic and political power of a small number of individuals and groups. 

These groups are the "wolves in sheep's clothing", or the "Trojan horses" of modern education.  They say that they are "looking out for kids and families", but the "reforms" that are offered too frequently do little to actually help the students and families that need the most support and assistance.    

One of these themes is the idea that our public schools have been a government run monopoly that needs some competition to create an educational marketplace.  This line of thinking taps in to the American ideal of capitalism and free-market economics.  The idea is that if schools had to compete for students then they would improve their practices and their service. 

The expansion of the voucher system is the major vehicle used to advance this idea and has been pushed by conservatives here in Wisconsin.  It relies on creating the perception that the public schools are failing, that they are educational dinosaurs and that the educators in these schools are self-absorbed and unwilling to meet the needs of the students.  The efforts to discredit public schools are widespread and based on questionable data that does little to really justify the use of public money to support private schools.  This is especially apparent when the public schools that are being attacked often perform as well, or even better than, voucher schools on the very assessments that are designed by the "reformers."  Public schools can beat the "reformers" at their own game and still lose funding and political support.           

The attempts to change the ways that we run our schools to a more businesslike model alters the way that we view the efforts of educators and the services that schools provide.  Suddenly, we are looking at the bottom line, and not at the needs of our students.  Schools are forced to justify every penny spent, but are not playing on a level playing field.    

Along with competition, accountability is another theme that sounds great in a sound bite, but fails to provide the benefits that "reformers" claim.  No one denies that schools and educators need to be accountable to the students and families we serve.  The question is, just what does accountability mean?  Is it defined by assessments, numbers and "hard" data, or is it defined in other, less objective ways? 

The harm that we are doing to students through constant standardized assessment is becoming more measurable.  The damage done to schools and our public education system is just as apparent.  We are assessing our students and schools to the breaking point, and getting very little in return.  

Another theme of reformers is the idea that our schools haven't challenged our students enough and the work that is done by staff and students needs to be more "rigorous."  Because our test scores are lower than we would like and because we have achievement gaps between different groups, we need to increase the level of difficulty and challenge each and every student to meet standards that may or may not be developmentally appropriate.

Along the way to increasing the "rigor" in our curriculum and our schools a few things are ignored and/or lost.  One of the major problems with setting standards that all students must reach is that not all students are prepared for this environment when they arrive in school.  The idea that "Kindergarten is the new 1st Grade" is one that I often hear from fellow educators.  Inserting children who aren't ready for the challenges sets them up for failures that can haunt them the rest of their academic careers.  By creating a system of "rigor" that doesn't account for individual circumstances and different student needs we fail to create an environment where learning can actually occur. 

We also ignore the reality that not every student, school or community receives equal support in the process.      

Finally, the "rigorous curriculums" and new standards are not being developed by educators.  They are being developed and promoted by people outside of the schools who don't always understand or advocate for real students.  A new "hobby" of mine is to take materials that are given out during staff professional development sessions at my school and research the authors and sponsors of the articles.  Too often they are linked back to a small number of foundations, individuals and think-tanks with ties to corporate reform efforts.  

Testing, "rigor", one size fits all curriculums and standards all are used to attack public schools.  Yet, these "reforms" are all being imposed on public school educators.  These efforts to "help" make schools better may not be what they are advertised to be.  It is up to us as supporters of public schools to make it clear that real improvements to our schools come from classrooms and communities, not from legislation and corporations. 

Truth in Reporting. . .
The battles in education are mirror those occurring in other parts of our society as well.  There is an obvious effort being made to divide our society into competing fragments.  We are constantly being warned to look out for those who would take advantage of safety nets and who abuse the supports that protect our most vulnerable citizens.  Just like in education where the "reformers" claim to be looking out for the "common everyday citizen/taxpayer", the debates around economic and social issues sets up the same divisive mindset.  There are those who work hard, and those who live off the labor of those who work hard.

This isn't a new phenomenon, nor is it one exclusive to American society.  There has always been a tension between different classes and groups in every society.  What makes the current conflicts so problematic is the reality that we are living in a world where we are more dependent on each other than ever before.  We can't ignore the fact that all of us need each other and our government in order to enjoy the benefits that our society provides.  There are those who deny this and seek to restrict others' access to resources and support. 

While there is a natural tendency to portray those who express more conservative beliefs in a negative light, that line of thinking only serves to increase the sense of division between segments of our population.  Just like educators, administrators, families and members of the community need to rally together to promote quality public education, we need to see the same coalitions forming to address issues of poverty, discrimination and injustice.

One of the major impediments to building societal unity is the way that stories around policies and events are covered in the media.  Americans have long touted the protections that our Constitution gives our press, but we shouldn't forget that those freedoms come with significant responsibilities.  Responsibilities that include doing more than just running superficial stories and that require reporters and media sources to do their "homework" in order to present accurate and complete information to the public.    

One significant concern that many Americans have is the increasing control of our society by a small number of individuals and corporations.  This is true in terms of products we buy as well as in information we consume.   

Unions- More Necessary Than Ever. . .
In the face of the increasing consolidation of power in the hands of a small number of people, the majority of us have two distinct options.  We can attempt to navigate the challenges we face as individuals (with most of us failing to reach our political, social or economic goals), or we can unite with other like minded people to utilize our collective power to make change happen for us.  Listening to a conservative Madison radio celebrity this past week I was amused to hear a call to work collectively to resist the implementation of the ACA.  The tactics that were described sounded suspiciously like those that a union organizer might use in organizing a workplace.  They involved cooperative action, and without using the word, a reliance on the solidarity of a large number of individuals to accomplish a specific goal.

The philosophies that support unions are both logical and popular.  What is missing isn't the ideals that unions espouse, but the formal organizational structures.  These structures are often difficult to implement, especially in the current anti-labor environment we live in. 

The Supreme Court will begin hearing the case where MTI challenged the Constitutionality of Act 10 on Monday, November 11th.  This case is of vital importance for public education employees in Wisconsin, but also for unionized workers in general.  

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