Sunday, December 22, 2013

#144 December 22, 2013- Fixing Education and More

Why Fix Education?. . .
When we discuss finding ways to "fix" education our conversations seem to veer in different directions depending on a variety of beliefs and ideals about the true purpose of education in our society.  Is that purpose to prepare students for future employment and to shape them into model citizens, or is the purpose to provide knowledge and skills that will improve an individual's quality of life in ways that may or may not have an economic benefit?   

In the end, the "fixes" or "reforms" that we support depend on what we see as the answer to the question about the purpose of education.  For those who see education purely as an investment for economic gain the ways to improve our public education system are clear.  Education serves a purpose only in its ability to provide some sort of return on our outlay of resources.  For ‘reformers’ education is a business, and the students are a strange combination of consumers and products at the same time.    

When we treat students as commodities and education as a result that can be easily quantified we end up with a system that truly fails most students.  We spend out time trying to identify the best programs to implement and the best tests to measure our progress and we sacrifice students learning and creativity.  We also restrict the ability of professional educators to meet individual student needs.  Essentially, we are spending significant time, money and effort debating about the wrong issues in education.  This is time, money and effort that severely tax the limited resources of our public educators.  By promoting the "reforms" that center on testing and privatization of our schools we put professional educators on the defensive.  We shift the focus of debate away from students and learning and towards identifying the best test and the best packaged curriculum to sell our schools. 

This debate is summed up in the comments of two participants in this debate over school reforms happening in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
 Santa Fe School Board Member Steven Carrillo states that current reforms benefit, "No one except the companies that sell everything to public education.  It does not benefit kids, principals, parents, teachers, supers, districts. No one."
New Mexico Public Education Department Spokesman Larry Behrens responded in a statement:  "We believe student success, and not adults clinging to a failed system, should be the measure for which we hold ourselves accountable. When we talk about joy, we talk about students who are successful in the classroom ready for the next step in life because they have great teachers who are recognized for their hard work. It’s unfortunate some disagree."

In my opinion what is unfortunate is that we are failing to realize that all of the testing, and all of the supposed "reforms" that have been imposed on our public schools are driven by an agenda that has so little to do with education.  This isn't to say that changes in our public school system aren't necessary, or that everyone proposing changes is a pawn of for-profit education companies.  However, we can't ignore the reality that so many of the "fixes" that are being suggested for our public schools benefit specific companies and foundations, while at the same time either directly, or indirectly harm students, families and educators.   

Opposition to many of the supposed "reforms" isn't a symptom of "adults clinging to a failed system" as much as it is an example of people fighting to defend something that they believe strongly in.  Public education in America has a long and sometimes unpleasant history, yet in the end it still provides a service with vast potential for making our society stronger and improving opportunities for all citizens.  Things that testing and privatization have failed, and lack the potential, to deliver.

"Fixing" public education according to many of these "reformers" relies on attracting the best talent into the profession.  I don't think there is any way to disagree with the idea that our schools will be more successful if we have highly competent and well trained educators in our schools.  Yet, there is a clear misunderstanding on the part of many as to just how this should happen.  Once again, the business model is touted as the way to achieve this goal.  This thinking centers on ideas like merit pay, and eliminating collective bargaining.  However, business model ignores a number of important realities about public education (lack of money, no reliable way to identify success, etc.) that render it useless as a way to attract and retain professional talent.       

By trying to treat professional educators like professionals in other industries we eliminate many of the features that promote success in our field.  For example, the best talent in many professions is much more mobile than educators traditionally have been.  We already lose about 50% of new teachers within the first few years of employment and need to work to retain those who "survive".  When we look at schools, an experienced, highly stable staff promotes sound practices and helps build vital connections with the community.

Professional educators operate in a profession that is very different from many other fields.  Our "product" isn't one that can or should be marketed in the same way as other professions.  In fact, we really aren't "selling" anything; instead we are in an "industry" where the rules of economics don't apply.  Our most challenging students, the ones that need the most time and resources, are the ones that we should dedicate our most intense efforts to.  In business, these students would be discarded as being unsound investments, and they are excluded from many private schools.  Public schools don't have, nor should they, the option to simply decide not to deal with the challenges that these students bring with them to school.

"Reformers" seem to fail to recognize the needs that public educators have and the support that we need to continue our work.  Here in Wisconsin public educators had a system that provided them with some recourse, relief and protections through our unions and collective bargaining.  These protections were stripped away for most educators by Act 10, a great example of looking at the world through distorted financial lenses.  In fact, the supposed financial "savings" of Act 10 are directly countered by the loss of "Just Cause" and other protections that allow educators to be strong advocates for their students.

If we look at this list of "Rules" for educators, think about how many of these are put in jeopardy by the directions our current "reforms" are leading us towards.           
Rule 1: Rules are made to be broken.
Rule 2: All for one, and one for all.
Rule 3: Bring your passions into the classroom.
Rule 4: Never teach to the test.
Rule 5: Keep it real.
Rule 6: There is no such thing as an un-teachable child.
Rule 7: Necessity is the mother of all invention.
Rule 8: Produce good people, not just good students.
Rule 9: The future is now.
Rule 10: Be the person you want your students to become.
Rule 11: You can't do it alone.
Rule 12: Be a student of your students.

Education does play a role in an individual's and a society's economic success and we certainly need to be aware of the economics involved.  Yet, economics shouldn't be the sole, or even the primary, motivator in making decision making around education.  When we put dollars ahead of anything else we lose many of the benefits that education can provide us as human beings.  True educational opportunities provide hope; they inspire us to become something more than we were before.  In the end, how we choose to educate our students says a lot about who we are as a society.  That is why we need to "fix" education. 
The Good, The Bad and
The Ugly. . .

The Good. . .   It seems so logical that a positive, collaborative relationship between labor and management should produce better results for all parties involved, yet there is a continual effort made to drive a wedge between the different groups.  It also is logical that, because no human relationship can be successful when one group monopolizes all power, labor needs a voice in the workplace.  Organizing is what gives individual workers power in their efforts to be heard on many important issues, finally, some good news on the labor front.  

We’ve heard all of the stories of disaster and suffering, but there are many who are benefitting from the changes in health care.  It is important to remember that those who are trumpeting the failures of the ACA are often those who simply oppose anything that this administration does without even considering the merits of any specific policy or act. 

Democracy isn't a spectator sport.

The Bad. . . It seems that virtually every large international event brings out the unpleasant realities that labor works in.  However, the attention that is focused on events like the World Cup also gives workers an opportunity to make their concerns heard on a world stage.  

There is an ongoing effort being made to deceive the public into believing that radical Conservatives are acting in the best interest of the people.  These headlines tell a different story.  Political leaders and organizations that are supposedly pro-democracy, pro-American and fiscally responsible seem to be anything but those things.    

Headlines can say virtually anything.  This one from a conservative source makes it seem that Act 10 freed thousands of workers from their union "bondage".  It ignores the fact that the overwhelming majority of voters in most of the elections voted for unions.  The rules and procedures established by Act 10 simply stacked the deck to make the results appear different.  Remember, the threshold for recertifying a union isn't a simple majority of voters; it's a majority of eligible voters.  How did any of our elected leaders, Walker included, fare against that standard?  

Talking about race, poverty and our shortcomings as a society are always difficult and unpleasant.  However, it is only through having these discussions in very open, honest and forthright ways that we can ever hope to really address the challenges that we face.  Right now too many of us choose to ignore the reality that we still have a long way to go in our efforts to achieve a society where we truly judge people, "Not . . . by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," and where equal opportunity is more than just rhetoric.  It starts with communication and education and then transforms into reality.  Then we can move into the "Good" category. 


The Ugly. . . Everything in "The Bad" category could easily be in "The Ugly" section, however, a significant amount of our current difficulties could be addressed more effectively if we can limit the influence of big money in politics.  Here's another example of how our politicians can be purchased by those who can afford the cost.    

Buy Local. . .
We are nearing the end of the holiday shopping season, but there's still time to shop at labor friendly, locally owned establishments.  

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