Saturday, May 25, 2013

#116- More Failed "Reforms", The Blame Game, Food Wars

Happy Memorial Day!!!
As we enjoy the long weekend, remember to honor those who have served our nation.  Remember the sacrifices they've made, but also remember that they served to protect our rights and our existence as a UNITED States of America.  Their service has allowed us to continue our journey to try and live up to the principles that our nation was founded on.  In order to truly honor their legacy we need to be ready to work together to overcome the current challenges that face our nation.

Why Education "Reforms" Fail…
Last week I wrote about some of the reasons that "reforms" of our educational system "fail".  I should add an additional reason that we are not successful in our efforts to close Achievement Gaps and fall short in many of the measurable goals set by "reformers".

Many of the so called "reforms" are divisive in nature and target only specific segments of the student population at any given time.  Instead of building on the successes of any given school or district, the "reforms" attempt to build outrage regarding some aspect of the system.  It may be directed at the administration, the educators, the curriculum, real or perceived injustices, or some combination of these, but the motivation for change is usually the same.  Thus we see "Parent Trigger Laws", lobbying for vouchers and other "reforms" that rely on anger and frustration to motivate participation in the process. 

We also see reforms that are geared specifically for a single group.  Educators and schools are told that they need to change their way of teaching to accommodate the needs of a particular group.  Supporters of the group meet and lobby administrators and school board members in an effort to make sure that the students from their demographic are being treated fairly and educated well.  Unfortunately, this means that families and community members from other groups feel excluded and turn to similar tactics to advance their interests.  The result is a piecemeal series of reforms that often contradict each other and that are often only partially implemented before they are discarded to meet a new group's objectives.  It also means that we see special interest groups operating where the real goal of public education is to provide educational opportunities for all of our students. 

What both of these approaches do is widen the divisions that already exist between groups.  They fail to build sustainable successes and instead create animosity and frustration for everyone involved in the educational process.  The political conflicts that are raging in our state and nation provide further opportunities for those who would advance these "reform" policies.  They are also a fertile environment for groups who want to advance a political agenda using education as a vehicle. 

We end up creating enemies and rivalries where we should have cooperation and unity.  A society that vilifies its public educators and that can't find consensus about educating its young people faces serious questions about its future.

In order to counter this divisive and destructive process we need to break down the barriers between groups.  Instead of meeting as separate groups and looking at the problems we face from a single perspective we should be forming coalitions between groups committed to public education.  Educators, families, students, administrators and school board members may have some differences of opinion, but in the end they all should have the same goals.  If we are able to keep the focus on providing safe (physically, culturally and emotionally) schools that offer equal educational opportunities for all then we should find enough common ground to implement real educational reform.  We also will build stronger communities and create sustainable success for our students, our schools and our future as a society. 

The Blame Game…
Education is only one aspect of our society where we see these divisions occurring.   At the heart of the problem lies the fact that most of our public figures and political leaders appear to be less interested in finding solutions to problems than they are in finding someone else to blame.  Blaming someone else allows them to deflect criticism, build power and promote a specific agenda.  These arguments rely on talking points, rhetoric and manipulated data for support.  They also may ignore facts that are inconveniently in conflict with their entrenched positions.  Anything can be "spun" to make the other side look bad.  Sometimes "facts" are even manufactured to support a specific viewpoint.    

There are several serious "side-effects" to the "Blame Game" that is played out in the media and other public venues.

The public becomes more informed and yet has less information to base opinions on.  We are flooded with information, but too many of us receive it through sources that are significantly biased.  We only hear one side of an issue and assume that it must be "true".  The world of education provides a many pertinent examples of this.  Stories about education typically focus on a few major points; School budgets, educator unions and how educators are asking for something, concerned families who are victims of the system, and courageous "reformers" who are taking on a bloated and biased system "for the kids".   

Take the school closings in Chicago for example.  The APPOINTED school board in Chicago voted this past week to close around 50 schools.  The media coverage doesn't provide the whole story.  They provide examples of why schools need to be closed for budgetary reasons.  They talk about the failure of the public schools in Chicago to educate students.  They pay lip-service to educator efforts, but give credence to the idea that educators and their unions are self-serving.  They give leaders credit for making tough decisions to promote the interests of students.  In the end the public perception of the reality becomes biased in favor of a specific interest, and the public doesn't necessarily realize what has happened.  

Here in Wisconsin, the proposed expansion of voucher programs into new communities follows the same pattern.  Voucher schools can supposedly do a better job, for less money, for more students.  Yet, the rhetoric doesn't match up with the reality.

Playing the "Blame Game" also focuses attention on individuals and not on programs, policies or the good of the majority.  President Obama is a lightning rod for conservative attacks.  No matter what he does, it should be opposed.  Here in Wisconsin Scott Walker and "The Bad Teacher" play the same role.  Our news becomes more of a soap opera and less a provider of information.  We need to move beyond vilifying or glorifying the individual and deal with the underlying issues.

We set ourselves up for an endless cycle of retaliatory policies and legislation.  One side blames the other and when they achieve positions of power use their authority to promote actions that are harmful to their opposition.  This leads to resentment and a perpetuation of the conflict.  We are involved in a political "Gang War" over turf that is slowly being destroyed by the conflicts.  

Too often we ignore the attempts to compromise or unify around a potential solution.  This doesn't make for good news, and doesn't provide public figures with an opportunity to "prove" their "commitment and strength" to their followers.  This message from the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff runs counter to the expected message and received virtually no notice in the media.    

It becomes a matter of civic responsibility.  Conservatives and Progressives agree that we can't rely solely on our government and bureaucracy to unify and protect us.  We need to take responsibility to hold them accountable and to work to counter the divisive message being spread through public venues.  Find ways to build consensus and strength through unity, not by attacking those who disagree with us.  Look for common goals and common values.  Too often, the bitterest opponents share many common objectives and their conflicts allow unscrupulous individuals to manipulate people's opinions and to seize power for the minority.  We must organize, educate and act to protect and preserve the things we value.   

Food as a Battleground…
Human beings must meet several basic needs in order to survive.  Consuming healthy food and water is one of the most essential of these.  Yet, here in America we don't pay enough attention to how our food is produced, what goes into our food, and the people who work in the food supply chain.  The farmer was, at one time in our history, considered the backbone of American culture.  Yet, as we moved from a rural to an urban society we lost our connection to our sources of food.  We commercialized our food production and marginalized the workers who produce and serve our food.  The results have not been positive, and we need to act to make changes to protect our own health and the health of others.   

A large part of the problem is that much of the labor in the food supply chain is provided by workers who are marginalized.  They often work for minimum wage and are often from a "minority" demographic.  They lack power in the struggle to promote their interests, which coincide with the needs of everyone in our society.  Until we truly honor all labor we will continue to see our most basic needs jeopardized by moneyed, corporate interests. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Issue #115 May 19, 2013- Why Education "Reforms" Fail

Reform is a current buzzword that is used by those who would change our existing public services to a for-profit, privatized system.  The new systems that are put in place are designed to benefit a few key investors and wealthy contributors.  They also attempt to cement in place a stratification of social and economic classes, with those at the "top of the ladder" positioned to continue to receive the best services and opportunities. 

Reform in and of itself is not a negative thing.  Merriam Webster defines reform in the following ways:

transitive verb
1 a : to put or change into an improved form or condition
b : to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses
2: to put an end to (an evil) by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action
3: to induce or cause to abandon evil ways <reform a drunkard>
4a : to subject (hydrocarbons) to cracking
b : to produce (as gasoline or gas) by cracking
intransitive verb
: to become changed for the better

We should be looking for ways to reform our government, and the way our social and economic support services are delivered.  In fact most of the leaders that Progressives and Liberals hold in high esteem were in fact, reformers.  However, the current crop of reformers have taken the concept and made it unpalatable for many of us.

Public education is one area where the word reform is now being used in a negative way.  Conservatives who have been working for school "reform" have used the word to justify standardized testing, standardized curricula, closing of schools and privatizing our educational system.  They point to the "failure" of our public schools and use specific examples like Achievement Gaps to further undermine public confidence in our schools.  Yet, their "reforms" often don't produce any better results and effectively re-segregate our schools, returning us to a "separate, but unequal" system of education. 

Those of us who work in the public schools are deeply troubled by the Achievement Gaps.  We know that there are flaws in our delivery of educational services to all of our students.  We constantly strive to do better and to look for ways to truly reform our schools, and to rethink the ways that we provide educational opportunities for our students. 

Unfortunately, in today's climate of high stakes testing, standards and demonization of educators (and education) we are seeing significant changes in the way that we are trying to improve our schools.  Changes that are reactive and too frequently don't move our system in a positive direction.  As a result we see test scores, graduation rates and other benchmark measurements showing little positive change in the years since No Child Left Behind was enacted. 

Conservative reformers would have us believe that the continued struggles of public schools to close Achievement Gaps and to create a new generation of students with great test scores demonstrates the need to completely overhaul the system.  They are quick to point out the failures of the schools and use statistics and budgets to "prove" their arguments. 

Because Achievement Gaps are a reality, because our TAG students are too frequently unsupported, because our Special Education students struggle, because of a whole host of reasons, public educators find themselves on the defensive.  We truly want to do better for all of our students, and we can't deny that there are those who don't perform as well in our schools as we would like.  There is no doubt, but that public educators would like to see our schools reformed in such a way so that all students would have an opportunity to succeed in school and to build a base for their continued success once they are out of school.  We want to erase the Gaps, graduate all of our students and see every child develop a lifelong love of learning along with the necessary skills to be productive and happy citizens. 

To achieve these results we need strong, vibrant, well-supported PUBLIC schools.  We need to have comprehensive and meaningful discussions involving professionals in education to design and implement real reforms and programs that will achieve our goals.  We need to remove the political shenanigans from the debate on education and focus on the ways that we can make our schools work for all children. 

Conservative reformers have put pressure on our public school systems to reform their practices.  The "tools" of budget cuts and educator accountability have been wielded to force school districts to make significant changes in short amounts of time.  Yet the reforms that have been implemented in too many places are failing to achieve positive results.  This is the ammunition that "reformers" need to work on expanding programs like Voucher Schools in Wisconsin.  It is the impetus that drives school closings in Chicago and Michigan. 

The question is, why do these "reforms" fail?  There are many answers to this question, but here are a few.

1- They are supposed to fail.  Cut budgets, increase testing and put intense pressure on educators and students, then wait for them to struggle.  Public schools are required by law to serve any and all students who live in their attendance areas.  By setting up impossible standards and tying funding to the achievement of these standards, "reformers" created the conditions that drive the public perception of "failing schools".  Students with disabilities, language needs and who come from poverty require more services and are more "expensive" to educate.  They also tend to score lower on standardized tests that are culturally biased and geared towards rewarding specific types of students.  Using test scores and budgets, "reformers" talk about expensive and under-performing schools.  This allows them to portray our public schools as budget "parasites" and talk about the "value" of privatization in education.  

2- They are implemented in a top down manner.  If you follow most of the discussions that surround school "reform" you will see nationally recognized, big moneyed and well connected names talking about improving our schools.  Most of these individuals haven't been responsible for a classroom of students for years, if ever.  They have an outside view of the way schools work, and use their "expertise" to tell those of us who are in schools on a daily basis how we should do our jobs.  

3- They are based on producing a "product" to fit a flawed outcome.  Almost all of the efforts to improve our schools center around the twin pillars of "college and career readiness".  Sounds great, doesn't it.  After all, who wouldn't want to have children leave our schools ready for college and/or a career?  However, if you look beyond the cool catch phrase you'll see that by defining our schools success rate in this way, we've immediately created the very Gaps that we are trying to eliminate.  We are trying to mold our students to fit the system, not to make a system that actually educates, supports and nurtures our students.  It is a system that is heavily biased against students from poverty, "minority" students and students who come from different language backgrounds.    

This isn't to say that we shouldn't be preparing our students for the future.  One of the worst things that we can do to our students is lower our expectations for them.  Unfortunately, we know that there are students who are "written off" by the system before they get much of a chance.  We should work to educate every child, no matter what demographic or geographic group they belong to.

However, the current system is designed to make students fit into a specific mold and to achieve narrowly defined benchmarks in order to stay on the "proper path".  That these requirements for success may not be developmentally appropriate children in general doesn't stop us from evaluating, labeling and categorizing students based on subjective standards.  I am a college graduate with a BA and a Masters Degree, but needed a year off from college as well as several years post-college to really find my way.  This was as a white, middle class, male, from a family of college graduates with all the advantages that brings.  I can only imagine how difficult it is for someone from a different demographic group who doesn't meet with success in school starting in Kindergarten.

Our current system doesn't leave much room for error.  Students need to make progress against a mythical "normal" student or else they are targeted for remediation.  This has gotten worse in the years following NCLB and continues through the RttT policies.  We are constantly measuring and defining students in order to keep them on the “college and career readiness pathway” and there is no room for deviation.

In fact, this need to quantify learning and set goals for our students’ means has created a "trickle-down" effect in education.  Trickle-down policies don't work in economics and they don't work in our schools either.  What we have done is look at what makes a student successful in college and project these skills down into our schools, all the way to our Pre-K and Kindergarten students.  Yet we know that the skills that are learned along the way may not have much relevance in either the "real world" or in our student's lives.  In our efforts to make sure all students are "successful" we have made school less engaging and educational for many of our students.    

All of these efforts imply that the college model is the pinnacle of our educational efforts.  Yet we know that the Achievement Gaps are most visible at our highest educational levels.  This isn't because of test scores, but is measurable by the disparity in the number of students of poverty and diversity who are admitted to colleges and who go on to complete their degrees.    

Achievement Gaps are also visible in our employment statistics.  If you come from certain demographics you are much more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, or working at a job that doesn't pay a living wage.       

So we put our students on a "racetrack" that, just like most tracks, is a circular course that encourages speed, but gets nowhere.  The winners get the glory, but there are fewer winners and more individuals who are pushed out of the system and relegated to the "pit stops".  We set goals for them based on current conditions, when we know that the world that a current 5 year old will enter in 13+ years will be very different in terms of needed knowledge and skills.     

We work to reform our educational system from the bottom up.  We focus on reforming grade levels where the knowledge and skills are much more constant than they are in "higher education".  Skills that are taught at the elementary level should be basic.  Things like reading, basic math skills, cooperation, responsibility, and a love of learning are relatively constant in nature.  It is later in our educational experiences where we gain the specific, content knowledge that change more rapidly. 

As students move through the educational system too many believe that they are either incapable of achieving, or that the educational opportunities provided for them are irrelevant to their needs.  That student who hung in through elementary school, barely stuck with it through middle school, is lost by high school and disappears from the college scene.  Visit schools at each level and notice the differences in class composition.  Elementary schools are integrated and inclusive, middle schools mostly the same, but by high school students have been "sorted" by the system and our AP classes look distinctly different from our "regular" classes. 

This effort to reform our schools from the "bottom up" demonstrates the lack of respect we have for elementary educators as well as a lack of commitment to truly educating our students.  In the public's mind elementary students are easier to teach, and the subject matter is not as difficult.  However, just try to get a classroom of 15-30 students aged anywhere from 5 to 11 to function as a learning community and you will get an appreciation for what elementary educators do every day.  Elementary educators shape a student's future educational track by developing basic skills and encouraging a love of learning.  By making elementary school more "rigorous" and starting the track to college at age 5 we eliminate the second of those goals from the picture.  Students begin to see learning as simply a means to an end, or a number to achieve.  What would our founding leaders like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson think of an educational system like the one we have established in recent years? 

With all of the knowledge about the ways that students learn best, and how children's abilities and attitudes develop it seems that we could do much better in making our schools accessible to all students.

Along the way we ignore some obvious needs that many of our students have, all in the name of "reforming" our schools and "helping" the students that are often harmed by "reforms". 

They are political and economic tools, not educational ones.  Our students and our schools are pawns in a game of political and economic domination being played by the elite in our society.  The entire "reform" movement is designed to put money in the hands of the few and to break the political resistance to a takeover of our government by the wealthy elite.  Break the public educator unions, turn public opinion against educators and enjoy the benefits.  

All hope is not lost!  Educators in Madison and across the state of Wisconsin are working to combat the "reform" effort and institute real reform that is student centered and relevant to the needs of our communities.  Working together with the families we serve we prevail in the struggle.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Issue #114 May 12th, 2013- Mythology in the Modern World

Mythology 101…
One of my students' favorite units every year, is our study of Greek Mythology.  The students love the stories and enjoy the constant turmoil that the Greek gods, goddesses and heroes lived in.  The stories are filled with intrigue, treachery and drama.  They also provide many teaching opportunities as we read and analyze the myths.  Along the way we also talk about different aspects of human nature and think about what the myths tell us about their culture and the times they lived in.

All of that got me thinking about what our modern "mythology" is and what this says about modern Wisconsin's political, social and economic culture.  Carrying this analogy a little further makes me wonder what people in the future will think about us when they look at what was passed off as truth by those "ancient Wisconsinites".  Maybe our "myths" don't have the same storytelling aspects, but we sure can tell some "whoppers" can't we?  In fact it may be debatable as to whether our society is producing mythology, or just extremely tall tales.       

Educational Mythology…
Almost every component of our society has its own set of "myths".  They have their own pantheon of characters as well as recurring themes that appear frequently as the tales unfold.  Education is one area that is a fertile ground for our modern mythology.  

One aspect of our modern Mythology is a tried and true storyteller's strategy, repeat a key catch phrase or idea enough so that it becomes part of the listener's reality.  Education reformers have done this and created the "reality" that our schools are not up to international standards.    

Myths rely on common themes to support their "validity".  For modern "mythologists" the themes of "freedom" and "choice" are used frequently.  For school "reformers" this means that the traditional public schools in their neighborhoods have become the enemy of the values that make our nation special.  Unfortunately, this message of "freedom" and "choice" is one that is very marketable, and even our highest ranking officials (who many supporters of public education voted for has fallen for the mythology of charters and choice). 


With mythology, there is often enough potential truth that the stories can be accepted by the casual, less informed consumer of any given myth.  For example, it is feasible that the gods do cause natural disasters because of their ongoing conflicts with other gods.  In the same way it is possible that vouchers would provide better educational opportunities and more equitable schooling for some students.  Yet, more careful analysis and knowledge of our existing laws show a different story to be more truthful.     

Myths, legends and fables become important ways for a society to promote values, highlight things that are important to a culture, and to create a common sense of purpose (or to identify a common foe).  For these reasons the modern mythology isn't a collection of harmless stories that make for interesting conversation.  They are used as weapons to promote an agenda, divide the population and demonize specific groups of people.

In the case of education they promote privatization, standardized testing and the "de-professionalization" of the jobs educators do in our society.      

Modern myths use data to drive their message, but often the sources of data are often questionable.  It is also true that data can be manipulated to support a specific viewpoint.  We can't forget that the people who are polled are frequently basing their opinions on the existing mythology they have been told is accurate.  Articles like the following one are a big reason why the public perceives our schools as problems in society, not solutions.    

The language used by the mythmakers resonates with what the public views as "common sense".  Take the idea of merit pay for educators as an example.  To those outside of education, the idea of paying for performance sounds reasonable.  After all, if I'm the best at my profession, I should get the best results, right?  Yet, the world of education doesn't operate in the same way that a business or industry does.  The variables that are involved in the education of students in public schools are nearly infinite and impossible to control for.  Thus it becomes virtually impossible to identify those most deserving of the highest pay. 

Educational success is the result of collaborative efforts between professional educators, families and of course the students.  We rely on each other in order to support, encourage and educate our students and no single individual is solely responsible for the end "product".   Basing individual educator pay on the results of these efforts is unfair and unreasonable.       

This is especially true when standardized test results are used.  While watching my students take a recent computerized standardized test, I turned to another educator in the room and simply said, "Merit pay based on this?" and we both smiled.  At the time one student had discovered how to select an answer using the keyboard and was rapidly tapping out answers, several had their heads down, a few more were watching a squirrel outside the window and another student kept asking me how they figured out the scores and what scale was used.  Then I looked over a students shoulder and realized that they were trying to answer a question about "gerunds".  How many of you knew what a gerund was when you were 10?   

After all of the myths are generated, they are used to influence voters and the actions of our politicians.  Unfortunately, by the time we realize we have been sold a myth disguised as truth, it may be too late.  We find ourselves fighting an uphill battle against foes with entrenched positions.  

Labor Mythology…
Of course, education isn't the only place that myths are used for political purposes.  We are seeing a concerted effort to create a version of reality that is anti-labor in our state and nation.  This mythology seeks to portray management as the driving force in economic growth.  It portrays workers as villains who are parasites living off the efforts of the "job creators".   

There are countless examples of how this mythology is used here in Wisconsin to promote economic policies that benefit a minority of citizens at the expense of the majority.  

An important part of the mythology of conservative economics is making sure that only one message is heard by employees and the general public. 

The result of the mythology is that the public believe that unions are anti-American, anti-business and are anti-worker.  None of which are true, but a message that has been effectively delivered over time.  The anti-union rhetoric has been used to support legislation and policies that have tilted the playing field in favor of the employer.  These policies have also created more uncertainty in the labor market and have hurt the economic recovery here in Wisconsin significantly.  

 Political Mythology…
The mythology of labor is mirrored in our more general political, economic and societal dialog.  The use of language that appears to be "common sense" and the use of misleading data forms the basis of the recent rhetoric coming from the most conservative leaders.  Yet, when looked at carefully we see that the results of this agenda lead in directions far removed from what many of its supporters seem to value.  Economic independence, honest, freedom and equality are cornerstones of the message, but are eroded by the actual policies when implemented by conservatives.    

Flawed Logic and Doing the "Expected"…
We live in turbulent times when it seems like most political interactions are confrontational and antagonism is rampant in discussions around important issues.  Too many are spending too much time trying to defeat an opponent, and too few are spending time trying to promote positive solutions to the problems we face.  We can try to blame Bush, or we can blame Obama, yet in the end the problems still exist. 

By putting so much emphasis on blaming or winning we miss the point of why we debate issues.  This isn't a forensics class, it is real life and the conflicts that are occurring are having a detrimental effect on real people.  The constant conflict has eroded public trust in the ability of our leaders to resolve problems in ways that benefit the common person.  Instead we find ourselves divided into subgroups and special interests, fighting for resources and power. 

We see ourselves promoting policies that may be inconsistent.  This allows for our opponents to point out the hypocrisy of our arguments, yet most people fail to see their own contradictory positions.  Thus we have people on both sides of the political spectrum calling for use of identification and background checks, while at the same time arguing against these same methods of controlling who votes, who is a citizen or who owns a gun.  Whether the arguments are logical or consistent isn't as important as the fact that they can point to their oppositions double-standards.  The constant, circular arguing leads us in a perpetual, downward spiral that ends in a total breakdown of our society's ability to resolve problems. 
We find our leaders painted into corners where they have to do what's expected of them, not because it is the correct thing to do, but rather because it is required for them to continue in their positions of power.  Compromise is seen as weakness, and communication is done in short sound-bites that convey a simple message.  A message that doesn't help find solutions, but that instead often further alienates opponents.  In fact, in the current situation we find ourselves in, there is a need to alienate others and to create villains in order to solidify a power base.           

In the end this lack of substantive discussion and limited statesmanship puts us in danger of undermining the very ideals that we claim to value so highly.  The simple reality is that most people in our society simply want to be able to live peacefully and enjoy the opportunities that a successful republic can provide.  In order to do that, we must regain control of the direction that our nation is headed and to hold our leaders accountable for the policies that are enacted.  The ancient Greeks saw themselves as relatively powerless in the face of the actions of their mythological pantheon.  We can't allow ourselves to believe the same thing!