Sunday, September 29, 2013

Issue #132- Economics, Politics and Education

Flawed Economics, 
Flawed Politics. . .
We continue to be told that conservative fiscal policies are the best way to promote a healthy economy.  Yet, the people telling us that are the ones who profit from the policies that are enacted.  The illusion that the wealthiest of Americans need protections while the poorest simply need to work harder is harmful to our nation socially, economically and politically.  Conservative financial policies are set up to do one thing, preserve the status quo that allows the wealthy to maintain their elite status.     

Our nation is founded on the principles that all of us are equal and are entitled to equal opportunity.  While these ideals have been unequally promoted over the years, the message is one that we should strive to achieve.  Governmental protections, legislation and regulation are some of the major driving forces in promoting opportunity for all.  This may scare some people who feel that government is incompetent and invasive, but the reality is that without a strong governmental influence we see increased segregation and stratification in all aspects of our lives.  Despite conservative claims to the contrary, most of our major positive steps towards equality have come through government interventions.  

We have had an ongoing conflict in our nation to find the proper balance between local governmental control and a stronger national government.  At times we have leaned in both directions and have seen the benefits and drawbacks of having one level of government be dominant.  One of the major drawbacks in centralizing power is that it allows a small number of people to dictate their ideas on the majority.  The Tea Party and extreme conservative political leadership are a great example of this phenomena in America.   

The current drive to cut government, eliminate safety nets and ease regulation of business are not going to improve conditions for most of us.  Here in Wisconsin, where we "enjoy" a climate dominated by conservative policies, this is becoming crystal clear.  

Wisconsinites are gearing up for another bitter gubernatorial campaign in 2014.  During this political contest we will hear how positive and powerful the conservative ideology claims to be.  We can only hope that whoever runs in opposition to Governor Walker is able to be equally forceful in promoting a different way of governing.  This message must be truthful, forceful and articulated clearly.  The numbers and reality demonstrate that we are currently on the wrong path, but it is up to progressives and Democrats to make the case to the majority of the people.     

As this article states, it is vital that the people show up in 2014.  If we don't we will see another 4 years of failed policies and controversy.  It is interesting to hear Senator Ron Johnson essentially admit that he was elected by fewer people than Senator Baldwin was.  While he may claim that the additional 800,000 voters who cast ballots in the election that gave Baldwin her seat were ignorant, that's a pretty bold, and insulting assumption to make.    

Flawed Education Policies
Economics isn't the only place where we see a struggle between competing ideologies.  The topics may be different, but the themes are the same.  It boils down to a continuing push by those with wealth and power to consolidate, maintain and expand their supremacy.

School "reformers" use the language of freedom and choice.  They point to statistics that demonstrate the failures of public education.  They blame educators, and especially educator's unions.  Unions that, while certainly not perfect, often are the only real defense against the implementation of destructive "reforms".   

Yet, they offer little in the way of reforms that will actually help students who are not succeeding.

The struggle is very real, and its outcome is extremely significant for all of us.  How all of our children are educated should matter to everyone.  While we do need innovative and creative new educational methods to reach today's students, we should be listening to the trained professionals who work IN our schools.  Unfortunately, we seem committed to trying "reforms" proposed from so called experts who are far to often extremely distant from actual classrooms. 

Social Justice…
As we continue the struggle to promote positive resolutions to our societal challenges and to protect key elements of our society like public schools and safety nets we can't allow our society to simply return to the conditions that existed previously.  Our goals in the current conflicts must be to not only hold on to what we have, but to build a stronger future for all citizens. 

We have engaged in an Uprising that has been very active since 2011.  An uprising that has exposed some unpleasant and ugly truths about our society.  Things that we wanted to believe had been "cured" still exist and need to be addressed.  If we are going to force our schools to be "Data Driven" then we should also make sure that we hold all aspects of our society to the same standards.  However, we can do better than those who force educators to view students as "data".  We can strive to understand the individuals behind the numbers and the history that has created the current realities that our fellow citizens face.  

America in 2013 is a place of tremendous potential, but we need to work to make sure that we are moving towards achieving that potential.  It is too early to talk about a legacy, but instead should think of these ideals as goals we are currently working to achieve.   

"So, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which many dismissed as the wails of the young and disaffected without clear objectives, clear leaders or a clear political agenda, may, in the end, have a rather clear legacy: ingraining in the national conscience the idea that our extreme levels of inequality are politically untenable and morally unacceptable, and that eventually the 99 percent will demand better."

There will be significant pushback from those interested in maintaining power and the status quo.  This is true around the world, around the U.S. and here in Wisconsin.

The conflicts of 2013 are not new conflicts.  They are variations on themes that have been ongoing throughout our history.  Just like the conflicts are recurring, so too are the solutions that pull people up.  One of the most important of these potential solutions is the effort to find common ground between groups and to build relationships that will unite people, not divide them. 

Too often, we see groups and individuals who share common interests engaging in conflict while others profit from the divisions.  Examples of this are easy to find.  One clear example comes from a book about the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to Northern cities by Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns).  As the migrants arrived in Northern cities they were met with hostility and discrimination, yet, as Wilkerson states, "They were essentially the same people except for the color of their skin, and many of them arrived into these anonymous receiving stations at around the same time, one set against the other and unable to see the commonality of their mutual plight.  Thus these violent clashes bore the futility of Greek tragedy."

If we are to achieve success in our struggles, we need to avoid becoming another legacy of tragedy.  We must learn from our history.  We must put aside some of the differences that only serve to perpetuate conflict that lead to continued strife, and we must work together to build a better future based on the founding principles of our nation.  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

#131- More Contract, Less Data

Collective Bargaining…
MTI, AFSCME and MMSD have agreed to begin bargaining for contracts that will run beyond the end of the current school year!!  While hailed as good news by most who work in the schools, this is sure to raise the ire of citizens who believe that Act 10 and other policies are positive steps in "reforming" our state's budget and labor relations policies. 

Conservatives have put significant effort into promoting the ideas that unions are irrelevant and unwanted, and that public educator unions actually stand in the way of improvements in our public schools.  To a large extent it would appear that they've been successful in their efforts.  In 2010 the, over 400 public school systems in Wisconsin, were each operating under collective bargaining agreements.  In 2013 only 4 such agreements are in effect.  By 2014 there could only be 1 if MTI is able to negotiate successfully with MMSD.  The remainder of the school districts will employ handbooks that are created by administration and school boards with educators on the outside looking in at their creation.  Along the way we've heard many lies about the opinions of workers in our state, lies about the impacts of Act 10 and hateful rhetoric designed to inflame public opinion against public educator unions.

MTI and AFSCME members have conflicting emotions around the negotiations.  There is no doubt that the vast majority are hopeful that we will see a contract emerge that continues to provide the benefits, conditions and protections that members deserve.  There is also the pride in our union and the confidence in our leadership that I hear expressed on a daily basis. 

Along with these positive emotions, come the fear that we will lose more of the things that we value in our contracts.  Things like planning time and educator independence have all been reduced in previous negotiations, held under less than favorable circumstances.  We also dread the inevitable educator bashing and union bashing that inevitably accompanies any public discussions involving our union and the district.

Yet, the positives in a new contract outweigh the negatives by a wide margin.  Among the most significant are the legal protections that a collective bargaining agreement provide school district employees.  We need these protections if we are to continue the fight to advocate for ourselves, and more importantly, the students and families we serve.  New evaluation systems, expanding efforts to "reform" our schools and other policy changes leave us vulnerable to the whims of the current educational environment.  Something that doesn't benefit the majority of those who work and learn in our schools.   

In the end we may not achieve all that we want in our negotiations, yet we do achieve two vitally important things.  We hold on to hope, and we maintain our ability to continue the struggle on terms that we have had a voice in creating.  A voice that our school board and administration need to listen to, and to respect.  If our staff is truly the resource that we hear those in authority say they believe it to be, then we deserve a contract that gives us the "tools" we need to do our jobs well and lets us know we are valuable parts of the school system.    

Data Driven, In the Wrong Direction…
The latest buzzwords and trends in education focus around the theme of data.  We collect data, we analyze data, and of course we are supposed to use data to improve the quality of education for our students.  Data is supposed to be the central justification for any action that educators make.  We should be able to use data to identify problems, plan solutions and determine if our efforts were successful. 

It all seems to make perfect sense and turns educational efforts into easily understood and readily evaluated enterprises.  Educating students becomes a series of "if, then" statements.  If we do this, then we will see students respond and achieve in this way.  Educational policy makers from all sides of the issue are being swept along in this flood of data.  Well meaning advocates for students and public education find themselves joining the call for using data to drive instruction.  This type of thinking is not revolutionary.  Educators have been using data to help guide instruction and to evaluate the effectiveness of their efforts forever.    

Merriam-Webster defines data as, "Factual information (as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation."  In other words, data is concrete, measurable and can be clearly defined.  Traits that reduce education to a series of points on a graph, or a collection of facts that we learn.  We can identify a good student because the data tells us that they are proficient of advanced, and we can recognize problems when students fall into basic or minimal categories. 

What then is the problem that educators are having with data in our current educational climate?  For me, there is a distinct difference between data from assessments being used as a part of planning curriculum and evaluating student progress, and the idea that our educational efforts will be "Data Driven".  In the former, data is one piece of the puzzle.  In the latter, data is the entire picture and it eliminates any other potential tools that can be used to improve the educational outcomes for all of our students.     

When we define success purely by data we face the potential to turn the quest for knowledge into a linear progression that centers on the acquisition of facts.  Learning becomes a step by step process, the equivalent of a paint-by-numbers piece of artwork.  Students become trapped in a system that doesn't allow for growth in other directions or in leaps that move them outside of accepted pathways.  We narrow our definitions of intelligence, limit student achievement, reduce educator effectiveness and simplify our analysis of educational outcomes to the point that they are rendered meaningless.   

There is a distinct difference between assessments that guide instruction and the belief that assessment drives instruction.  To me, guiding instruction implies a place for assessment that is equal to other aspects of the educational process.  A guide is a person or resource that is with a group of equal and equally committed partners.  Guides lead us, where we all want to go.  Guiding is gentler and more responsive to the needs of those being directed.  On the other hand, driving seems to imply a more forceful and less cooperative approach.  We drive cattle, we don’t guide them.  When we drive in any direction we have a direct and specific purpose.  I return to the days of long family trips where the driver chose the radio station, the destination, the pace and the stops along the way.  A driver is in total control and dictates the journey, a guide is a leader who facilitates a journey. 

Assessment has become the driver of virtually everything in our schools.  Instead of being a part of the process, it is the process.  We have become so fixated on identifying problems and quantifying our efforts to address these issues that we have forgotten about meaningfully educating our students.  We ignore the multiple intelligences that exist in our students.  By focusing on testing we miss the brilliance that exists, and the sheer joy of learning new things.  I watch my students struggle to answer A, B, C, or D when they really want to talk about the possibility of E.  I hear from families that, because of the need to address academic concerns identified by assessment, their child hasn't received science or social studies instruction during previous school years.  I hear that my instruction should focus on using literature to validate teaching points and expand skills, not to build my students ability to really read and think for themselves. 

Educational decision makers can speak all they want about the importance of assessment, they can trumpet the need to make sure we close every Gap.  What they can't do is convince me that the scores on my students achievement tests define my students as learners, or more importantly as people.  The drive to close our Achievement Gaps focuses on the wrong place.  We want our students to test well, even if they don't learn well.  Education becomes a job.  A job with clear pathways and outcomes.  Scoring proficient or advanced on an achievement test doesn't make a student well educated, but it does give the appearance of success.

The emphasis on testing impacts the curriculum and climate of a school in many ways.  The time taken gathering data to drive our instruction, eliminates time to give instruction.  Educators in my building are grappling with the reality that there are more tests to administer, less support given to administer these tests and less time to build the sense of community that will allow our most challenged students a chance to thrive.  Imagine coming to school as a child and having the majority of your initial interactions with adults at school be based around individual assessments, not on learning.

The pressure on our schools and our students to achieve on tests is very real.  Take for example the DPI School Report Cards.  These are issued at the beginning of every year and rate schools based on a variety of criteria.  The public sees the scores, but little deep analysis is done.  A significant portion of the report card is based on testing.  Testing that is done in November of every school year.  A month that follows the initial wave of assessments in September and the MAP testing that occurs in September and October.  Students are tested before they are instructed and schools are judged on the results.  No matter how much we say we are going to not "teach to the test", the reality is that our educational environment is shaped by these assessments.  We have little choice, but to give assessment a prominent place in our schools.  

Assessment takes resources away from education and transfers it to testing.  Our efforts to refine assessment don't come without a hefty price tag.  Yet, these valuable funds don't really end up helping students, they go to the makers of the tests. 

All the assessment and data in the world won't address the root causes of our student's struggles.  Knowing what they don't know isn't the answer to improving educational outcomes.  All of the assessments don't provide us with significantly more information than educators can already gather as they work with students.  Instead, the assessments cement a sense of failure in our students who already have a fragile sense of self in school.    

As assessment gains more and more power in the educational system we find that it eliminates educator responsibility, educator creativity and puts students in categories that are difficult to escape.  Educators give assessments and then respond to the assessments using prescribed methods of addressing concerns that are raised by a student's scores.  We turn education into a bureaucracy and a formulaic delivery of isolated skills.  Students who test well are allowed some latitude in learning because they have achieved basic "core" skills.  Students who don't test well, are trapped in a cycle of remediation.  We use data to reassure ourselves that we are correct in our instruction of students, even if the data measured may not consistently provide information of significance. 

Educators who speak out against this new data driven system are criticized and soon will be evaluated on their adherence to the prescribed methods of educating students.  Half of our evaluations will be based on "Professional Practice".  As we lose the protections that we've negotiated over the years we are vulnerable to discipline if we don't adhere to the programs that our districts purchase and promote.  Of course the other half of the evaluation will be based on student achievement, another way that data drives our system. 

Data driven instruction, and multiple assessments also are used to justify the "reforms" that are promoted by policy makers.  We use data to make broad policy decisions that supposedly improve the quality of instruction.  Yet in the years following NCLB, with all the emphasis on trying to close the "Test Score Gaps" we haven't succeeded.  Instead we've created a culture of assessment and remediation that promotes stagnation and segregates our schools.  As we slowly have eliminated NCLB we find ourselves trapped by Race to the Top, Common Core and other reforms. 

Data driven schools are more segregated and the "reforms" do little to help students who have traditionally struggled in our schools.  Most of my students who are part of the Achievement Gaps, are people who learn in less traditional ways.  By testing them endlessly, identifying what they don't know, battering their self esteem, and then putting them in situations where they are asked to learn skills in isolation, we do little to improve their performance, or their attitudes about learning. 

Can, and should, schools improve?  Of course, there are many things that we could be doing better in our public education system.  Are we currently headed in the correct direction, using the best "drivers" available?  The general consensus among professional educators is a resounding, NO!

Closing Achievement Gaps, and improving educational outcomes for all students isn't an easy task.  If it were, we wouldn't have the Gaps and the disparity that currently exists.  That is, if we are truly putting all available resources and best efforts into improving our public school systems.  It certainly appears that there is a concerted effort to try and "reform" our schools, not for students or education, but for profit and maintaining a social structure that is segregated and stratified.      

It is vital that parents, educators, and community members join together to become informed and involved in issues that impact our public schools.  If not, we may well see that we've been "driven" off the road and have become lost in a maze of data that obstructs and obscures our vision of education.  A vision that must always be focused on promoting equal opportunity and student achievement, but that must also be based on the use of a wide variety of strategies to accomplish these goals. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

#130- Reforming Reform, Economics and Politics

Reforming Educational Reform…
The new school year is well under way, and we are quickly seeing that this year will bring more of the same from the "School Reformers".  Given the successes that they've enjoyed recently, and the fact that supporters of public education are on the defensive in legislatures, statehouses and many public forums, why should we expect to see any change in tactics.  In fact, it is likely that we will see efforts to undermine public education intensify in the immediate future as "reformers" sense the potential for a "knock-out blow". 

These attacks on public education take on many forms, and are often disguised as "reforms" that are supposed to improve the quality of education in our public school systems.  Yet, the results are contrary to the claims in many cases.  Here's a sampling of some of the so called "reforms" currently impacting our schools.    

Excessive Assessment- Assessment continues to be a valuable tool turned into a weapon of educational mass destruction.  There is no denying the necessity of assessment in educational efforts.  Educators need to be able to determine what students know, what they don't know and how to best advance the learning of the students we serve.  Assessment provides vital information that can be used to drive instructional practices. 

However, we've turned assessment into a weapon by assessing in excess and using assessments incorrectly or for a different purpose than they were intended for.  This reality hit home for me as I returned to school in August.  As I listened to the discussion I was dismayed by the way our school year was being co-opted by testing and realized that even our school goals had become assessment driven. 

My students will be tested and assessed intensively from September to November.  I am really wondering how I will ever get the opportunity to use the data from all these assessments effectively to benefit my students before I give them their first report card.  I certainly will have data about each and every one of them, but won't have a chance to deliver instruction to them on a consistent basis. 

Not only are we going to be testing students frequently over the next 3 months, but we will be giving them tests that cover similar skills and material.  This testing redundancy does little good for anyone and will likely result in students performing poorly due to fatigue or frustration.  Remember, these are 9 and 10 year olds who are providing data for the system when what they really want to do is learn and be a part of a positive community.

It also became apparent that these all of these assessments have become the driving force for programming, scheduling and essentially all aspects of our schools academic efforts.  Our school's SIP (School Improvement Plan) has the end goals of improving specific groups performance on the MAPS testing.  All of our efforts will be controlled, summarized and measured by the performance of a handful of students on a computerized test.  We can try and believe that isn't the case, and that we can continue to attempt to reach students through a variety of means and through engaging activities.  We can pretend that we will celebrate their small successes as a larger school community.  Yet, because of the intense focus on achieving improved success on a test we know that most of the time and resources of our school will be dedicated to mastering skills and information that are measurable.  It will be up to individual educators to operate behind the scenes to support our students as they grow as people, the system will focus on them as numbers.    

Cutting Funding for Public Schools- Wisconsin has cut state aid for public education at unprecedented rates.  This means that local school districts must make up the difference.  To make things worse, the costs for implementing "reforms" such as the Common Core State Standards and the testing that come with these "improvements" are coming out of local budgets as well.   

Privatization Efforts- The effort to expand vouchers is a major step towards creating a dual system of schools that receive public funds.  One system, the public schools, will be accountable to the laws and standards established by the community.  The other system, the publicly funded private voucher schools, will operate under their own rules and serve a small portion of the population.  This transfer of public money to private hands could eventually become the largest entitlement program ever in Wisconsin's history.  It is a movement based on faulty logic, questionable data and uneven results.   

Attacking Educators- We've seen the efforts to eliminate the power of educators to influence their working conditions succeed across the state as Act 10 takes its toll on public educator unions.  The far right is now celebrating a major victory as Kenosha educators didn't recertify their union.  This gives them an opportunity to tout the supposed successes of Act 10 and the "freeing" of public educators from the evils of unionization.  Yet, this article quotes no administrators or educators in Kenosha's school district.  Instead the conservative media outlet uses quotes from extremely conservative organizations and Republican legislators.  Hardly a ringing endorsement of Act 10's reforms from educators who were wedged between a rock and a hard place in deciding whether to recertify their union or not.       

Another way to control educators and undermine their ability to voice their opinions about educational policies is to intensify the pressure of educator evaluation processes.  Educators, stripped of their negotiated protections, are now vulnerable to the twin powers of student outcomes (test scores) and educator practice (too often determined by non-educators or those with limited actual classroom experience).
It may be time to look at improving and changing aspects of our educational system.  But, the drive to make these changes should come from families, educators and administrators at the local level.  Allowing companies to profit from the decisions made about public education is not going to make a positive difference for our students.  It's hard not to be cynical about "reforms" to educator evaluations when, "The requirement that alternative models (of educator evaluations) be allowed was included in legislation crafted by state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon. The agency administrator of CESA 6, which stands to receive about $1 million a year in taxpayer money from selling this model to schools, is Olsen’s wife, Joan Wade."

Public educators, families and their supporters are not simply sitting back and letting these "reforms" destroy our public schools.  While "reformers" may feel like they are in the driver's seat, the tide may be turning.  More and more people are becoming aware of the misguided "reforms" and the way that data and rhetoric is used to mislead the public into supporting "reforms" that work for the few and against the many.  Efforts to reform school funding formulas are gaining traction.  Grassroots movements against testing and other "reforms" are making headway. 

Last week I posted an article about a girl who was disciplined at a private school for her hairstyle.  This week I saw an article that focuses on dress codes and policies that address issues of girl's attire at school.  While I am in agreement that we need to have standards and prepare students for real life situations, I also understand the issue that we are emphasizing females and students of color's choices of apparel more than males and white middle class students.  We can also point to the issues raised by students being disciplined for speaking their native language that have occurred and we see a pattern that is disturbing.  The solution may lie in how we enforce the policies that we have in place.  If we treat our dress codes and other policies as educational in nature and work with our students, we are more likely to see positive results and changes in behavior than if the policies are used to bully and harass our students.       

Economics and Politics…
Public educators aren't the only employees who are seeing their wages and benefits decrease while at the same time seeing their influence in the workplace eliminated.  In fact, public educators, while struggling in many ways, are still relatively well off when compared to many workers around the nation.  This negative employment atmosphere is all too common in today's America.  It is fueled by a drive to increase profits and to cement control of our society in the hands of a small number of the wealthy elite.  New economic and electoral policies combined with a favorable political climate are allowing a minority of Americans to have an influence far beyond what their number should allow.    

The war that is being waged on America's public employees is damaging our nation's economy.  Those of us in Wisconsin have believed that the efforts to reduce the number of government employees and to reduce the incomes of the employees who are left will harm our overall economic health.  Our fears have proved all too true both in Wisconsin and across the United States.  

Governor Walker and his GOP allies are using the divide and conquer strategy successfully across the state.  This is a very effective strategy that is made even more viable in uncertain economic times.  We are now seeing a division between some labor unions and Native Americans over mining issues in Northern Wisconsin.

What we are seeing here in Wisconsin is the continuation of the struggle between distinctly different visions of what a government and a society should be.  Differences that we need to emphasize as we prepare for the 2014 governor's race.  The campaign shouldn't focus exclusively on the struggles of the past 2 years.  We need to highlight the differences between Governor Walker's vision of Wisconsin and the Progressive values that have been so evident throughout our state's history.  Values that focus on a positive, cooperative and productive state, not a divided, corrupt and fiscally weakened state.     

In order to successfully unseat Walker, I believe it is vital that the Democrats have a open and competitive primary.  I'm worried that we will see a similar situation to the one that occurred during the recalls happen as we head towards 2014.  The power of the Wisconsin Uprising didn't come from the top levels of the Democratic Party, it came from the people.  If we leave the decision making in the hands of the wealthy donors and politically influential, high ranking leaders we will find ourselves with a candidate who will be supported, not for their platform and record, but rather because they aren't Scott Walker.  That type of candidate won't win an election, and will set us up for another term of divisiveness and failed economic policies. 

I'm not endorsing or condemning any candidate.  It's too early in the process for that, and we aren't even sure who the Democratic candidates will be.  However, recent actions by Mary Burke have caused me to wonder if she is truly the potential candidate that many want to believe she is. 

Specifically, her votes against the MMSD budget need to be clarified.  This budget was about as good an effort as could be expected given the economic constraints and the other challenges that the district faced.  To vote the way she did and then explain her vote by saying, ". . . given the projected cut in state funding and the increase in the local tax levy, I don't think this budget meets that test of balance," didn't clarify her position.  She had an opportunity to vote for the budget, make a strong stand in favor of public schools and distance herself from the positions of the Walker administration.  Instead she appeared to be voting to establish herself as more acceptable to conservative voters and did nothing to reassure Progressives that she will stand up for our values.

We are engaged in a struggle of significant proportions.  The outcomes of these battles will impact the immediate and long term future of our state.  We need to be sure that we are selecting candidates who will defend the common citizen and promote policies that work in their favor.  In the end the best candidate may be Mary Burke, but it could also be someone else.  We need to have a competitive primary to make sure we know exactly what we are getting in a candidate.