Sunday, December 1, 2013

#141 December 1, 2013- Failed Potential and Critical Thinking

What's Best for Kids. . .
America is a nation with virtually unlimited potential.  As a society we are able to accomplish great things and have a history of tremendous achievements in almost every aspect of human activity.  Yet, despite this potential and history of achievement, there are still some areas where widespread success has proved incredibly elusive.  One of the most significant of these is our inability to address issues of equality and opportunity for all citizens.  This failure has been a consistent feature of our society from the very beginning, but is has been magnified in recent years beginning with the "War on Poverty" and continuing to the huge disparity in wealth in current American society. 

These gaps in opportunity and achievement are clearly on display in our educational system.  We have a system that is one of the best in the world for some students, and one that struggles to match these successes for many others.  Our Achievement Gaps in schools, mirror the gaps that exist in our society in terms of income and access to power. 

For all of its flaws, one positive that No Child Left Behind accomplished was to shine a light on these gaps in our schools.  While it didn't come as a surprise to those of us in school buildings, the struggles that many of our students experience shocked a significant number of Americans into believing that our schools were in crisis and needed to be "reformed".  Politicians and educational "entrepreneurs" saw this as an opportunity to make a statement, or a profit, and jumped into the debate over how to make our schools better for all students.  The phrase, "What's best for kids," became a common refrain heard in almost every debate around education.

Moving forward from the 1980's we've seen a wave of "reform" efforts buffeting our public school systems.  The efforts to improve our public schools have dominated public policy debate and have been major parts of political campaigns.  We've seen a wide variety of ideas put forward from voucher programs, to new standards, to new curricula.  Efforts have been made to empower families, empower students, dis-empower educator unions, the list of "reforms" is many.

Yet, when you look at the data and look at the outcomes for students, none of it seems to be working.  Why is it that in a nation with so many resources and so many brilliant minds we just can't seem to create a system, method or program that will educate all of our students?  We jump from reform to reform always in search of the next "magic bullet" that will solve our problems and eliminate the gaps in achievement.  Taxpayers bemoan the huge investment in education that seems to be a "waste" of their money.  Politicians criticize their opponents and look for scapegoats, too often the educators in schools, to gain political power.  The pressure on public schools to meet the needs of all students is incredible.

In the end, I believe that there is one simple reason why our efforts to "reform" our schools and to meet the needs of all of our students don't succeed.  Despite claims to the contrary, education in America has always been more about power and control than about teaching students.  Just look at our nation's educational history.  We've always used education as a tool to promote a specific way of thinking, or as a political tool.  Whether it was used to indoctrinate immigrant children, "Americanize" Native Americans and eliminate language and cultures that were "foreign" to the "majority", or to funnel money to (or away from) different interests, education has been more about power than about learning. 

If we really want to change the conversation around education, if we really want all students to succeed, then we need to realize that education can't be about gaining power and control of those being educated, but must be about empowering our students and our educators.  Unfortunately, most of the, so called, reforms that are being offered are tied directly to some political agenda, or some for profit scheme that ignores the reality that most of our students and educators work and learn in.  

Just look at some of the recent discussions about "fixing" our public education system and you can see just how far from students, educators and learning the conversations are.  Instead of focusing our attention on what our students really need, the debate focuses on policies that do little to impact our most at-risk students directly.  Instead of really trying to address the needs that exist in our schools, too many of the decisions create conditions that actually hamper student learning.  Supporters of public education are reduced to fighting to make sure that voucher and charter schools are held to the same irrelevant and irrational standards as the public schools, or simply trying to defend our public schools from being destroyed by vindictive policies that seek to undermine the political and economic power of professional educators.  Even ideas that sound like they would be positive have been corrupted by outside interests and questionable motives.    

What we should be fighting for is a totally different approach to fixing education.  Instead of dissecting good literature, looking for specific criteria and reading historical documents in a sterile context that ignores the stories behind the sources, educators should be teaching all subjects in an integrated and engaging manner.  Instead of cutting back on programs that engage students and expand their skills, we need to put more emphasis on the arts, music, physical education and other "non-core" subjects.  Evidence supports the idea of teaching subjects in this manner, not by teaching skills in isolation.  Yet, we see many of the "reforms" being pushed take us in a more traditional and skill based bearing.  

The struggles to define the future of public education in America are vital to our success as a nation.  It is up to us to move the debate in a new direction.  

Compare and Contrast. . .
Most of us remember the essay questions on exams where we were to compare and contrast two books, characters, events, or any number of other things that had been covered in the class we were enrolled in.  While a very common type of question in many classes, they can be a very good critical thinking exercise.  Essentially, to compare and contrast means that we take two different things and look for the similarities and differences between them.  This can be done in any content area and forces students to think carefully about the topics they are analyzing. 

We do this to students all the time in our classrooms, but something happens to many of us when we leave the academic environment.  Too many of us seem to lose our critical thinking skills and instead become entrenched in a dogmatic way of thinking about the world around us.  We accept or reject ideas or opinions based, not on critical thinking, but instead on our entrenched ideas that may or not be supported by information.  As adults we lose our accountability in decision making and become static in our ideas, opinions and problem solving strategies.  We recycle the same "facts" and refuse to consider alternatives to the reality that we exist in.

This lack of critical thinking becomes all too apparent as we continue to engage in bitter debate and conflict on a wide range of issues here in Wisconsin and around the United States.  Sides are drawn, political positions are fortified and groups and individuals on all sides are unwilling to allow for compromise, or even real discussion to occur.

When we do this we ignore the "compare" part of our critical thinking exercise.  To compare different ideas means that we look for similarities between the opposing items.  This can result in some positive building blocks to work with.  After all, we are all citizens of a specific municipality, state and/or nation.  We should have some common interests that could serve to unite us, if we could look beyond the differences that we see too clearly.  We don't have to agree 100% with others, but there should be some common ground to work from.  As human beings who share communities with other humans we need to find these areas of common ground (safety, survival needs, etc.) and build from them. 

"Comparing" can also expose some troubling realities.  When we look at the policies and philosophies of our leadership, there is a striking similarity between their supposedly very different political, social and economic agendas.  Education "reform" provides us with a clear example of this.  The policies of the Bush administration, famous for the debacle of No Child Left Behind, gave way to a more "Progressive", Race to the Top, that essentially continued the policies that have been so harmful to our schools and our students.  In many ways, education "reform" is indicative of the prevailing solutions that are offered at the highest levels of our leadership.  The rhetoric may, or may not, change, but the policies remain strikingly similar.

Economic policy is another place where comparing leads us to believe that the decision makers at the highest levels are very similar in their motivations and their actions.  The wealthiest among us have the most access to power, and are able to move our leaders in directions that clearly benefit a specific segment of the population.

For real, positive change to occur we must look to identify places where these common interests diverge, and different ways of thinking emerge.  This is the "contrast" part of the critical thinking exercise.  If we stay in the "compare" section of our thinking we will remain mired in the same quagmire that we've always existed in.  Comparing requires us to look for differences and to base our decisions on the distinctions between competing ways of thinking.  It means that we don't have to continue our present course, but can work to make a difference in the world we live in.  If enough of us engage in thinking about the contrasts between ideologies we can shape the world that we live in.

This type of thinking can be painful and troubling at times.  It can force us outside of our comfort zones and make us take a stand for what we truly believe in.  It challenges us to look beyond the rhetoric and force our leaders and policy makers to respect the real wishes of the people they lead.  Too many of us are either unwilling to look critically at issues, or operate under the mistaken belief that their opinions don't matter because only the elite have any power.  This combination of ignorance and apathy is deadly, both to democracy, and to the "free-markets" that supposedly drive the American economy.

When we look carefully and analyze our society from a political, social and economic perspective, we can see that there are some real problems with the status quo.  We can also see that there are distinctly different approaches to resolving the problems that we face.  None of these problems are new, or unique to Wisconsin, or America, but we can work to promote creative, Progressive and positive solutions. 

Sometimes we need to have leaders speak up and give voice to our concerns.  Pope Francis has drawn criticism for his views on many issues, but they resonate with many progressive thinkers.  His statements about economics and social justice are particularly poignant.     
“This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation,” Pope Francis wrote. “Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.”

“The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits,” Pope Francis wrote. “In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”

There are different approaches to resolving our problems, and nowhere are these differences more stark than between Wisconsin and Minnesota.  

Here in Madison we see a contrast between our measures of success for our African-American citizens and our LGBT citizens.  How is it that a community can score so well for one group and be at the opposite end of the spectrum for others?  How can we work to stay #1 in one area and still improve outcomes for all citizens?  

The struggles around Worker's Rights is another example of the need to think critically about issues.  There is a significant portion of the population that refuses to recognize the need for workers to organize and advocate for themselves.  Yet, all the evidence says that without collective action, the "market" simply crushes most individuals.

Here in Wisconsin we are gearing up for another, very visible, conflict around many of these issues.  The elections of 2014 will be won, or lost on the strength of the ability of Progressives to engage the citizenry in critical thinking.  This means finding ways to reach citizens, but also finding ways to influence the leadership that most closely represents our ideals.

Of course we can't forget that in order to effectively compare, contrast and otherwise use our analytical skills to make sound decisions, we need to have accurate information.  This means being careful about who we listen to, where we get our information and otherwise being careful consumers of information we use in our decision making processes.   

Don't forget to spend your money wisely during the holiday season.  Along with your vote, how you spend your money is an important way to express your values.

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