Sunday, November 17, 2013

#139 November 17, 2013- Do the Right Thing

What's Right For Kids. . .
It certainly appears that something truly has gone horribly wrong in the American public education system.  All of the rhetoric and hype about our schools failing our students and the issues around Achievement Gaps paint a very bleak picture for our students' futures and our nation's prospects.  It isn't hard to find someone publicly airing the "dirty laundry" of our public education system, and it's equally easy to find people offering solutions that will fix all of our problems.  Solutions that inevitably involve eliminating educator unions, increasing assessments and following the outlined plans of some, for-profit, think-tank/business/organization with ties to one of the major corporate "reform" groups.   

These so called "reformers" have the ear of the American people, and they certainly have access to those who make policy decisions about education at the highest levels.  This is obvious when we examine the current trends in public education.  These, supposedly new and innovative, "reforms that are offered are presented in a way that seems to make sense with many citizens.  Who can argue against the idea of challenging students, providing increased "rigor", holding schools and educators accountable, and many of the other theoretical benefits of the assessment/privatization movement in education?

The problem with these "reforms" and the battles that they have caused around public education in America is that they too often focus on the wrong things, and do so for the wrong reasons.  There are two common refrains used by "reformers" to justify the need to implement their ideas.  These two ideas are not necessarily compatible and in some ways are actually mutually exclusive. 

The most important tenet of the reform movement is the idea that our schools are not providing a quality education to students, and this results in a lack of quality employees to power the American economy.  This principle gets to the heart of what those with the most economic power want from our educational system.  The system should be set up to serve the needs of business and the economy first.  After all, "The business of America is business."  Along the way, "reformers" can justify their emphasis on making students "career ready" by emphasizing the economic benefits that individuals can reap, but many of the skills that are emphasized in the current climate of standards and assessment are not those needed for innovative thinking.  Instead, we emphasize computation, decoding and a strict adherence to what others have written, not creative thinking and problem solving skills.  

This starts at a younger and younger age.  It is reflected in the emphasis on the basics and the resulting lack of instruction in content areas like social studies.  Elementary school schedules begin to resemble middle school schedules and students lose opportunities to play and explore the world.  Opportunities that they need in order to fully develop their cognitive abilities.    

The second part of the "reform" platform is the idea that change needs to occur in order to give families and students freedom from a system that doesn't work for them.  According to this line of thinking the public school system, public educators, and most importantly the unions that represent the educators have all conspired to create a system that benefits educators at the expense of students.  In order to recreate the system and avoid those "greedy educators" the "reformers" have turned to people outside the world of education for ideas.  They have created marketing campaigns and well packaged programs that are very consumer friendly.  However, the supposedly innovative and progressive ideas are usually either repackaged ideas with a new cover, or simply business proposals that lure families away from real educational opportunities.    

It would be one thing if the "reform" movement would be content to operate independently of the public school system and attempt to really offer new ways of educating students.  Competition and choice are not necessarily bad, especially when they occur in a truly fair and unbiased environment.  Instead, they have been lobbying hard to steal needed resources away from the public schools through voucher programs and other initiatives.  Educators in the public schools can't escape their efforts to profit from education and students.  We are swamped with new packaged programs that are created by companies who are pretending to care about students, but who actually are looking for profits.  Too often the same companies that are lobbying for privatization are also providing materials that public school educators are being forced to use.

In the end, it boils down to creating a system that really is best for kids.  The question is, who are we to trust to build that system?  Should we be trusting groups and companies who stand to make huge profits from pushing a specific program or agenda?  Should we trust educators who have been working directly with students and who are a part of the community that they live and work in?  The choice seems obvious, yet in our consumer driven, highly distractible, and "flavor of the moment" society we too often fall for the former.     

There is hope for the future.  Educators across the nation are ending their silence.  They are no longer willing to simply "do as they're told" and follow the directives that they recognize as questionable in intent and result.  They are banding together with families and students to make sure our voices are heard loudly and clearly.  

Wisconsin Politics: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. . .
The Good. . .
The Wisconsin Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the case the MTI brought against Act 10.   

After and intense and sometimes bitter struggle Kenosha educators negotiated 2 one year contracts.

The Bad. . .
This goes into the "Bad" category because of the mixed nature of the ideas offered by Mary Burke.  While it is good to hear that Burke, the current frontrunner in the race to be the Democrat's nominee to oppose Walker in 2014, isn't in favor of expanding the voucher program, I hope that she continues to develop her platform regarding education and becomes an even stronger advocate for public education so that her candidacy can move firmly into the "Good" category.     

We know any GOP controlled legislature will fight to expand the vouchers and any Governor will have to find a way to protect our public schools from these efforts.  It is true that Burke will have to work with the legislature, it is also clear that the current legislature in Wisconsin isn't very open to bipartisan ideas or compromise.  If elected governor, any Democrat will face bitter opposition to any changes in the current direction our state is moving in. 

Burke's ideas that all schools need to be held accountable is fair in some ways, but part of the problems that we are seeing in education can be traced back to the attempts to instill accountability in ways that damage students and educational efforts.  Simply making voucher schools accountable in the same ways that public schools are won't improve things for any students.  

The Ugly. . .
Supporters of Scott Walker who want to believe that their "hero" is all about limiting the power of government should keep this quote from Attorney General Van Hollen (referring to a comment by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley  about two ships passing) in mind, "I don't believe the two ships pass in the night. I believe they collide and the state has the bigger ship and we shall win." 

"It's the economy stupid" is a mantra that has worked in political campaigns throughout history, and Wisconsin's Democrats should keep hammering on this issue.  

We should be very concerned about the future of democracy in Wisconsin and across the nation.  

Think carefully before heading out to shop on Thanksgiving.  It is our opportunity to use the "Free Market" to help regain some control of our consumer driven insanity.  

Race, Education and
Madison, WI. . .
Madison, Wisconsin has long been known as an island of liberalism surrounded by the reality that is the rest of Wisconsin.  This is sometimes used as a derogatory phrase to try and paint the city and its residents as out of touch with the rest of the state and with the "real world" in general.  It is also a source of pride for many residents and is consistently demonstrated in elections, policies and attitudes of the residents of the city.

Within the supposedly ultra-liberal bastion that Madison represents, there are some significant problems that exist.  This shouldn't come as a surprise, after all, no human society has, or will, achieve complete equality or justice for every member.  However, this doesn't mean that we simply accept the problems that exist.  What it does mean is that we must be aware of the challenges and work to try and address them in the most equitable and proactive manner possible. 

Some of the most glaring, and surprising to some, issues that the city must work on are the problems involving race.  These issues are multi-faceted and exist across a number of different areas of political, economic and social importance.  The statistics are striking and startling.  In a city that prides itself on socially just policies and providing opportunity for all, the reality for many citizens is quite different.  Black youths are six times more likely to be arrested here, compared to 3 times more likely to be arrested in the rest of Wisconsin.  The economic statistics for non-white citizens are drastically different than their white counterparts.  We have a huge achievement gap that exists in our public school system.  In short, there are really multiple versions of the Madison reality that differ based on an individual's race and native language.       

A significant amount of effort has been made by defenders of the city's reputation to justify the statistics.  Many of these arguments are grounded in the reality that we live in here in Madison, and help explain some of the differences between groups.  The fact that Madison is a city that features a major university and several other colleges plays a role in the discrepancies between groups.  The types of jobs that are available lend themselves to a significant gap in economic status, and a corresponding gap between members of different groups.   

The explanations also have a historical legacy that makes changing the current reality difficult.  Over time Madison's neighborhoods have developed in ways that are highly segregated, with groups separated by distance and natural barriers.  I also believe that we are a part of the next wave of the Great Migration that has involved the movement of people from negative locations (the Deep South, poverty stricken inner cities) to places where the migrants hope to find success.  Yet, when arriving in towns like Madison, the migrants find themselves without a social network and without opportunity for employment that provides an income equal to the cost of living in a largely upper middle class, white-collar community.

Our schools reflect these problems that exist in the larger community.  There is no denying that the relatively rapid shift in demographics that has occurred in Madison has left our school system struggling to catch up with the needs of our students.  That this has occurred during a time when school budgets are slashed and fewer resources are available for our students has certainly not helped.  

All of these facts, and more that I didn't mention, combine to create an environment where inequality exists in the midst of a community that claims to want to do anything possible to avoid that exact outcome.  That they are real, and that they impact any efforts to eliminate gaps and inequality is true.  Yet, the fact remains that we must find ways to overcome these challenges and move forward in closing the inequalities and gaps that exist in our city.  No challenges can justify such grim realities that our fellow citizens live in.

One of the biggest barriers to creating a truly equal society lies in the fact that much of the racism and bias that occurs is hidden and covert.  In fact, to a large degree the problems that exist are hidden even from those who perpetuate the problems.  We simply don't realize that we are contributing to a problem through  words and actions that, at best, simply create an environment that ignores the underlying problems in our society.  This is true on all sides of the political "aisles", and the general sense that it is someone else who is causing the problems allows the gaps to expand and halts our progress towards a socially just society. 

We toss around terms like racism and prejudice, but those words only apply to other people, in other places and often in other time periods.  The fact that many in America applauded the decision to roll back parts of the Voting Rights Act, and that so many express the opinion that Affirmative Action is no longer relevant demonstrates this false belief that we have moved past our troubled racial past.  It is troubling that we can claim to have overcome our past, while we still continue to see so many people struggle to succeed in our society.  It is also disturbing that we see other groups targeted for the same types of discrimination and abuse that African-American citizens have endured, all while continuing to make the claim that our society is unbiased and a provider of equal opportunity for all.           

Conservatives love to point fingers at Madison and trumpet our failure to address issues of race and achievement.  These barbs hurt, not because they are untrue, but mainly because, when we really think about it our efforts to address the inequities of society haven't worked.  We have been comfortable with modest efforts, and satisfied that we are not overtly racist in the policies that we promote.  It is easy for Progressives to look at the heavily biased policies of the modern GOP and think that we are doing better than they are.  While that might be true in many ways, in others it is simply a justification for failure.  We may mean for our policies to create a different environment, but the results just aren't there.

The other problem that the attacks on Madison, and liberal policies in general, by conservatives create is the climate of crisis that increases tension and reduces compromise and problem solving.  When two such drastically different philosophies compete (as is the case in Wisconsin) there is little opportunity to truly debate and discuss issues in a positive way.  It becomes a war of attrition, a climate of survival of the fittest, a place where truly progressive and proactive efforts are swallowed up by the bigger conflicts for power in society. 

Many different groups have found themselves cast as pawns in the game.  Organized labor, environmentalists, and many other groups are forced to choose between one of two routes to power.  We see groups played against each other, and used by those in power to maintain control of the access to political, economic and social control.  The struggles of the common citizen to achieve and find success in society are ignored by those who look to advance their own views. 

An example of this is the struggle to close the Achievement Gaps in Madison's schools.  The efforts of educators, families and students to find ways to address the issues around achievement in school are used by politicians to promote their own agendas.  Conservatives point to the Gaps and garner support for destroying educator unions.  Private companies point to the gaps and use them to promote for-profit voucher schools and packaged curriculums.  Lost in the shuffle are the students and the ability of educators to work cooperatively with families to promote achievement.        

There are no quick fixes for the problems that exist in Madison, just like there are no quick fixes for the rest of Wisconsin and America.  Our problems around race go back through history and are deeply ingrained in the way that each of us view the world.  We can only continue our efforts to try and create opportunities for our society to address the underlying issues that create the problems we see manifested in our statistical failures. 

One of the most important things that we can work towards is the elimination of the stratification of our society by income.  The gaps between the wealthy and the rest of society are widening and this will only create more problems for the citizens of Madison, and the rest of America.  Poverty is increasing, and we know that poverty is one of the most important statistics in determining the success of a student in our schools.    

Poverty is also a huge indicator of the health of our society.  This is true whether we are talking about a city, county, state or nation.  We can't ignore the fact that more and more people are slipping into poverty and fewer are reaching even middle-class status.  This is a difficult cycle to break, and even more so when compounded by racial, gender or language barriers. 

As individual citizens we have little ability to impact the larger economic picture.  Yet, our society is made up of a large number of individuals and each of us has a role, no matter how small, in how our society behaves.  We need to closely examine our own beliefs and our own actions and look for ways to make changes.     
We, as a whole society, have the potential to improve and do better than we currently are performing.  

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