Sunday, October 27, 2013

#136 October 27, 2013- Education Reform, Labor News and Politics

Education Reform- A Tool or a Weapon?. . .
Caring for and educating our children is one of the most important things that any society can do.  When done equitably, rationally and positively education creates opportunities and hope for the future.  When done poorly or with questionable intentions our system of education can serve to institutionalize inequities and limit opportunities.  In doing so we not only harm our nation's "bottom line" by reducing the potential for innovation and economic success of future generations, but we also create a society that fails to live up to the language of its founding documents. 

If America is ever to truly live up to the lofty goals of freedom, opportunity and equality that we claim to aspire to, we must provide every child with an opportunity to make the most of their skills and abilities.  In short, education is the cornerstone of a true democratic republic.  As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1786,  "I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom and happiness...Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish & improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils [tyranny, oppression, etc.] and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance." 

As a nation, our struggles to educate our young people mirror our struggles as a society.  We've seen our schools be visible reminders of segregation.  We've seen our schools used to eradicate cultural differences in brutal and inequitable ways.  We've seen our schools perpetuate deep divisions and offer "separate and unequal" services to our students and communities.  We've also seen them become visible symbols of hope for a better future.  Our schools have been a measuring stick for our society's efforts to provide for all of its citizens. 

The efforts to educate our students equitably has been, and will continue to be a double edged sword that can be wielded as a tool for reforming our society, or as a weapon to perpetuate the inequities in our political, social and economic systems.  On one hand we see committed educators and supporters of our schools working to try and do things in new and improved ways.  We see efforts made to take what is working in our schools and expand on these things.  We see new and innovative uses of technology combined with tried and true methods of inspiring and educating students.  Schools are providing needed supports and services to students and families and are uniting communities around the hope for a better tomorrow. 

On the other hand we see a concerted effort to continue the use of education as a "divider" not a "uniter".  Whether by igniting a war against educators and public education through attacks on collective bargaining, constant efforts to undermine confidence in our public schools or efforts to privatize our schools, there is clearly a group of people who don't see the power of education as one that should be shared among all members of our society.  For these people, the "American Dream" isn't one of equal opportunity, but rather one of holding on to power and wealth even at the expense of entire segments of our population. 

In any conflict it is important to know who your allies and opponents are.  In the battles around education reform these lines are sometimes difficult to identify.  There are many people who are truly interested in improving our schools and who have been working tirelessly to find ways to make our system of public education better and more equitable.  At the same time, there are those who use the language of "reform", but who are pushing education "reform" for less than pure reasons (profit, political power or other ulterior motives).  Too often, those in the latter group are well connected, wealthy and powerful.  They are the ones whose voices are heard most often in the public debate over education.  The voices of the educators and those who work in our schools is muted by the unequal financial capital, limited access to decision makers and less public visibility that limits the audience for our message.   

These inequities in power mean that the discussions and debates around our public schools is shaped by a small group of individuals who control the direction that our educational legislation and policy making take.  The language that we use, the tone of the discussions and the climate that we educate our students in is shaped by these, small number, of groups and individuals.  The Common Core State Standards are an example of what happens as "reforms" are offered and implemented.  Without debating the standards themselves, there is a definite problem with the way that they are being used in creating curriculum and programming in our schools.    

It is in the materials, curriculum and resources that are available to educators that we see the true harm of the "reforms" offered by these supposed allies of public education.  A small number of individuals, companies and organizations are behind most of the products and services that are being sold to school districts.  This has been made very clear to me over the past few years as I have researched the companies and foundations that provide materials that MMSD educators are given during professional development sessions.  The materials we use are frequently sold to us by groups that support the privatization of our schools.
The end result of this connection between "reformers" and "educational profiteers" is that educators are now fighting against the forces that seek to destroy our profession even in our own staff meetings and professional development.  MMSD staff was given an article about the CCSS in our most recent professional development that gave thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a group that has done so much to undermine our public school systems across America.  The article seemed to be about ways to implement changes in reading instruction, but didn't miss an opportunity to criticize our past efforts and further the opinion that the new ways of educating students will magically fix our problems.  New ways that have products and programs available for purchase.

The reality that many of the so called "reformers" don't want people to know is that most of their products are repackaged ideas that educators have been using for a long time.  While there is no doubt that we can continue to improve our methods of teaching, the fact that we already have qualified professionals with a wealth of knowledge and skill in our schools shouldn't be ignored.  The efforts of professionals in our schools are being limited by the increased amount of time taken to administer assessments and learn supposedly new ways of teaching.  We are told that we need to improve our practices by doing things that we are already doing.

Whether placebo (CCSS) or poison pill (privatization and testing), the prescription leads to the same result unless public educators and their supporters are able to change the current educational trends.   As many top authors expressed in a letter to President Obama recently, "We are alarmed at the negative impact of excessive school testing mandates, including your administration’s own initiatives, on children’s love of reading and literature. Recent policy changes by your Administration have not lowered the stakes. On the contrary, requirements to evaluate teachers on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration."

Labor News. . .
Recent news from the ongoing struggles around worker's rights. . . 
While the effect may be short lived, public sector unions in Wisconsin won a victory in the courts as WERC was found to be in contempt for ignoring Judge Colas' ruling.

Madison educators were able to negotiate a contract for the 2014-15 school year, but the confusing legal situation continues to cause uncertainty and anxiety for us.

Of course the assault on the rights of employees in the workplace shows no signs of slowing down either locally, or nationally.  

Political News. . .
The struggle over the government shutdown has ended with the Democrats emerging on top, Republicans are concerned about the upcoming 2014 elections and the economy is continuing to show signs of recovery, yet the mood among Progressives is still apprehensive and cautious.  One of the major reasons for this is the fact that with all of the positive news, the debates on issues of importance are still being framed by Conservatives.  Whether it is education reform, economic policy or issues like electoral reform, the discussions still begin with austerity, anti-government rhetoric and other Conservative talking points. 

Despite their recent defeats and questionable track record Republicans are gathering strength to fight another day.  Here in Wisconsin they control all branches of government and are working to set the tone for the 2014 races that will be vitally important on both state and national levels.  This means that there will be a concerted effort to portray Governor Walker's policies in a positive light.  A couple of examples. . .

Despite record cuts in state aid for schools, the headlines give the impression that schools are receiving more aid from the state.  The increase in aid in the current budget doesn't offset the cuts in the previous budget.

Walker and the GOP will attempt to portray any problems with the ACA and healthcare issues as the fault of Democrats.  They will try to ignore and cover up their own efforts to make the system fail.

Property tax relief will become a political tool to bolster Walker's claim that he is looking out for the taxpayer.  Yet, the small gains for individual taxpayers are part of a plan that gives landlords and large property owners more relief.  The claim that property taxes have gone down because of Walker's policies also ignore the reality that in many cases, the reason for lower taxes is lower property values.  

Progressives in Wisconsin are hoping that the Democrats will be able to put a candidate against Walker who can not only win the race, but represent our values once elected.  Values that include public schools, equitable policies and a restoration of collective bargaining rights for all workers. 

My family and I have been enjoying the TV show The Walking Dead, and I have been reading some of the books that are set in the world of the show.  This quote from The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury caught my attention.  While the Walker in the quote refers to flesh eating zombies, not our governor, the message still resonated with me.

". . .This is how the world ends not with a bang but with a Walker, a constant reminder of the end of society and government services as we know them." 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

#135 October 20, 2013- Battles in Politics and Education

Getting Ready for the
Next Battle. . .
With the end of the recent standoff in Washington D.C., many around the nation breathed a sigh of relief and moved on.  In fact, this is exactly what those responsible for giving us the recent crisis would like to have happen.  The most extreme members of Congress and their supporters don't want the public to remember their words and deeds over the past couple of weeks.  Instead, they hope that the ACA will fail miserably and that the public will focus attention on that, not their own divisive, inequitable and unsustainable policies and beliefs.    

What exactly did the extreme conservative faction of the Republican Party do that should cause all citizens to be concerned?  They changed the rules of House to limit the ability of members of Congress to call for a vote on the shutdown.  This limitation of power extended to all members of Congress except for a select few.  They took our nation to the brink of the economic unknown.  They further divided a nation that is already struggling to find reasonable ways to resolve our differences.  That they did all this for what really appears to be a combination of political vindictiveness and short sighted political gains makes it all the more problematic.      

Wondering how your elected representatives voted?   

What was made crystal clear during the recent conflict in D.C., and what should be obvious to anyone living in a battleground state like Wisconsin, is that this recent defeat for the radical members of the GOP isn't the end of their efforts to undermine our system of government.  In many ways the defeat will only fuel the fire of the most extreme members of this faction.  The most terrifying side to this is that, instead of admitting defeat and trying to make our system work for the majority, these radicals will return to their demographically isolated enclaves and create schemes to destabilize our democracy.  

Wisconsin is gearing up for our next political struggle.  The next election will help determine what direction our state will move in, as well as be a benchmark for the nation.  We are already seeing significant interest on a national level in the upcoming race for governor and Congress.  Wisconsin's Congressional delegation was divided along party lines in voting to end the shutdown.  In 2014 we have a chance to make a real change in current political trends.

Wisconsinites also have an opportunity to determine what kind of society we want to live in.  Too often politics and elections offer relatively similar candidates with ideologies that are too similar to really provide significant choices.  The argument that a moderate Democrat and a moderate Republican are virtually the same candidate isn't too far off the mark.  Yet, the current brand of Republican candidate pushes the debate far to the right.  The strategies, philosophy and policies that these candidates support put an emphasis on money and power, while pushing quality of life and opportunity for all out of the debate.  

We will see and hear lots of claims that the conservative agenda here in Wisconsin has improved our state's economic outlook, its political functioning, and made Wisconsin a better place overall.  However, there is another side to the "facts" and figures that the Republican Party of Wisconsin will either ignore or attempt to hide.  

An example of this is the ongoing debate over tax relief and the efforts of the GOP to help the middle class.  They have framed the debate so that it appears that there will be some relief for taxpayers, and created a situation where a vote against their proposal will appear to be a vote for higher taxes.  Yet, the property tax relief that is proposed is more beneficial for wealthy residents and large scale property owners.  Ignored in the debate is the potential increase in property taxes due to an inequitable school funding formula and cuts in state aid to public schools.  School districts across Wisconsin face the potential need to increase their tax levies to meet the needs of students.  This provides fodder for more attacks on our public schools and the high cost of educating our students, when the reality is that the state isn't meeting its Constitutional obligations regarding public education.    

Also ignored are other ways to help families meet the costs of higher education.  

Education Reform, Why We Need It and Why We Need to Fight It. . .
Reform has become a controversial and often despised word for public educators.  We face a continuing onslaught of "reforms" that come from outside our schools, are promoted by "experts" with few real educational credentials, and that do little to help the students who need the most support.  

These "reforms" change the way we teach and impact the daily experiences that our students have in schools.  Testing, interventions, core instruction and a constant pressure to implement new curricula so that students are "rigorously" challenged to develop new skills, all have a significant impact on our students and our schools.  Educators are told that every minute of every day must be applied to activities that will produce measurable results.  Too often ignoring that we may not be able to measure the most valuable skills students learn, or that 9 year olds are not factory employees.  Note #2 on the following list.

We spend so much time collecting data and evaluating our practices based on measurable statistics that we ignore the humanity that is the children we are educating.  School Improvement Plans in the Madison schools are reduced to improving student's test scores, ignoring school climate and student engagement.  Students lose opportunities to study science, social studies and the arts so that they can receive extra instruction in literacy and math.  Yet, this extra instruction doesn't seem to impact their achievement, and reduces their love of learning.  Specialists like school social workers, psychologists, bi-lingual educators and others are taken away from students to help with assessments.  The monster of data that has been created is quickly devouring students and schools.     

The phrase stating that there are, "Lies, damned lies, and statistics" applies directly to education in today's America.  Statistics are thrown around in discussions about our schools, but they are often misleading and frequently self serving.   

We even see our need for data impact national foreign policy as we seek evidence that deaths of innocents caused by drones may, or may not increase the allure of terrorist organizations.  This debate ignores the reality that killing citizens of other countries shouldn't be acceptable whether it fuels terrorism or not.   

Reform shouldn't be a "bad" word for educators.  In fact, we need reform now, more than ever.  The divide between the "haves" and the "have nots" in our society is widening.  The gaps that exist in income, social status and political influence are mirrored in our schools.  Our society is becoming more segregated and less equitable as these gaps widen. 

Our public schools could be a vehicle to address the inequities in our society and potentially provide the "tools" necessary to make significant, positive change.  Yet, we are mired in a constant struggle to simply maintain what we currently have.  We engage in debates over details, but don't impact the larger picture.  We are creating an educational climate that will only increase the gaps that exist.  Students from poverty, students from different cultures and students with exceptional needs have been failing in our system, and they will continue to fail unless we act to make real change happen. 

These efforts to resist "reform" are often portrayed in one of two ways by "reformers".  One view is that fighting school reform is part of a series of radical, liberal attempts to indoctrinate the youth of America into Socialist ways of thinking.  Schools are Liberal hotbeds of educators plotting to overthrow all that is "good" in America.  The second view is that the resistance to "reform" represents the efforts of educators and their unions to hold on to the status quo that fills their pockets and fuels their political efforts.  By forcing educators who disagree with testing, standardization of curriculum and other "reforms" into one of these two camps education "reformers" can portray them as radicals and out of touch with what the public wants for education.    

Too many educators simply give in to the demands that are placed on us.  The loss of union protections and collective bargaining agreements weakens our ability to resist.  The vast scope of the attacks leaves us frustrated and without the time and energy necessary to resist.  We face public opinion that has been shaped by the fallacies and misleading statistics from those who seek to "reform" our schools.  We receive policies shaped by leaders who don't live and work in the same schools that we do.  They see numbers and we see families and students.

We do need to reform our schools in some ways.  However, the reforms that we need are not the ones that we are currently implementing.  Those "reforms" come from people who are outside the system, and who far too often don't even send their children to the schools they create policy for.  Those "reforms" are driven by business and economic interests and don't provide opportunity for all students to access the skills that are needed to be successful entrepreneurs, scientists and leaders.        

Instead of going along with the current "reform" movement in education, educators, public and private, need to make a stand for their students, their families and their profession.  We are professionals and we work on a daily basis with our students.  We need to make connections with our families, our community and those in policy making positions to insure that all voices are heard.  We need to unite and support each other in our efforts to meet the real needs of our students, not the needs of business and lobbyists.   

This is a national debate, but one that plays out in the personal lives of millions of children in our nation.  It is a debate that we must win.  All students deserve an educational experience that is enriching, engaging and that opens the doors to a brighter future.     

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Issue #134- Contracts, Shutdown and Wisconsin Politics

Contracts!!! and Other Education News. . .
Great news for MMSD employees!!!  The only MMSD contract not yet approved is the AFSCME 60 contract which employees are voting on this weekend.  It is anticipated to be approved by the members and then approved by the School Board next week.

These contracts are so important, not only for MMSD employees, but also for the future of public education in Wisconsin.  The contracts give employees in the second largest school district in Wisconsin a voice to speak out about the continuing efforts to privatize our state's schools.  

They give us a voice to continue to speak out against the "reforms" that harm our students.  "Reforms" that often are a product of profiteer's, not educator's, efforts to improve educational opportunities for all students.

They give us a voice to fight to maintain and protect the professional standards that we have worked so hard to achieve.  Standards that are under attack by "reformers" who want to radically change the way that we teach and the ways that our efforts are evaluated.
Here's an interesting site with lots of links to articles and editorials.

"Any Group of 1st Graders Could Solve This Problem". . .
As we continue to see little progress made towards resolving the issues around the government shutdown, the frustration builds among people from all sides and ideologies.  While the blame is directed at different players in the conflict based on political ideology, one common thought that is voiced is that this is a problem that should be easily resolved.  Whether that means that one side completely capitulates, or that some compromise is reached, many Americans feel that the shutdown is a symptom of either the incompetence, or the dysfunctional nature of our national government.

One thread of conversation that I recently followed equated the behavior of our president and members of congress to that of children involved in a simple dispute.  The end result of this conversation was general agreement that issues around the ACA and the funding of our nation's government were so simple to solve that "Any group of 1st graders" could end the stalemate.  This attitude about such an important problem isn't uncommon in a nation that so often prides itself on its use of "common sense".

Yet, in many ways it is our reliance on "common sense" and the American public's unwillingness to recognize the complex nature of the problems that we face that gets us into these situations.  As a whole, we are too easily swayed by the idea that a simple direct approach can eliminate significant challenges and we look to politicians who voice simple solutions.  Here in Wisconsin we fell victim to this type of campaigning in 2010 when Scott Walker unveiled his "Brown Bag Movement" with a simple message that resonated with many voters.  We saw this simplistic approach validated when he stuck with his "plan" throughout the recall race while Tom Barrett was criticized for talking about bringing people together to discuss the complex issues.

"Common sense" is a dangerous concept simply because "common sense" is so uncommon and so dependent on one's ideological viewpoints.  What is "common sense" to one person, is controversial or illogical to another.  There are also analogies that appear to make perfect "common sense", but really are comparing apples to oranges.  The idea that our government's budget is directly analogous to a family budget is one of these things. 

Another way that "common sense" fails on a societal level is that, while most of us can agree on generalities, the devil truly is in the details when it comes to applying the values and beliefs that many of us hold so dear.  Most Americans can agree that they want people to have freedom, that they want people to be able to survive independent of governmental support, and that all people should have equal opportunity to succeed.  These common beliefs make it appear that many of our problems could be easily resolved, after all, if pretty much everyone supports an idea, why can't our system make it happen.  How we achieve these things is where we encounter difficulties.  For example, does the belief that everyone should have a right to personal safety mean that everyone should be able to walk around armed, or does it mean that we empower our government to protect us?       

"Common sense" can only be applied when we have the knowledge and/or experience to base our opinions on.  "Common sense" without some knowledge is of little substantive value.  We are vulnerable to a lack of information, or misrepresentation of the realities that we offer our ideas on.  By relying on either simple "common sense" or on biased sources of information to base our opinions on, we simply allow others to control our thinking and become pawns in a game that others will win.    

Another significant problem with applying "common sense" to our societal conflicts, is that there are those who stand to gain power or wealth by continuing or escalating quarrels.  They may use the language of "common sense", but don't apply the principles that make positive resolutions happen.  This is where the analogy of 1st graders really breaks down.  In my experience, most children involved in playground disputes are involved in conflicts that center around immediate personal needs.  They don't have long range plans to disrupt recess, and aren't setting the stage for future encounters.  Many of the social, economic and political battles we are engaged in have long histories and are ongoing into the foreseeable future.  This makes conflict resolution much more difficult to achieve.  

The end result is that our efforts to instill some "common sense" into the process fail, and the citizens of our nation end up divided along ideological, social and economic lines.  We see different standards applied to participants in events based on our beliefs.  The "Wisconsin 14" are viewed as obstructionists and cowards by some, who then claim that  House Republicans are participating in a noble struggle against tyranny.  A local radio show host talks about how the ACA will raise her insurance rates over $250 which is an amount that is "enough to make someone sell their house".  Yet, that same host has continued to tout the retirement contributions required by public employees under Act 10 (about triple the increases in her insurance rates for my household) as insignificant, minor and much needed reform.   

The full impacts of the conflict in Washington remain to be seen.  Yet, it is difficult to imagine that there won't be significant consequences for our nation, both short and long term. 

We aren't seeing the struggles around "common sense" reforms limited to those involving the current fiscal battle.  The same language and ideals are used in other areas as well.  


However, the current conflicts are resolved, the reality is that they are symptoms of a larger, even more significant problem.  Until the American people decide to truly become informed and to hold our elected officials accountable for resolving problems, not creating them, we will simply move from one crisis to another.  The end result of the crises will be a continuing deterioration of the rights, privileges and standard of living for a majority of the citizens of our nation. 

Wisconsin Politics. . .
As we move towards the 2014 elections things are heating up in Wisconsin.  Over the next several months the Democrats will determine who will oppose Governor Walker in a crucial election.  While it is still early in the process, I still believe that it is important that there is a primary race for the Democrat's ticket.  That would allow for the people of Wisconsin to see where the candidates stand on issues that are of great importance to us.   

Along the way, we must also work to counter the propaganda that will be coming from the Republican Party.   

There is a significant amount of information that voters need to know before they vote next year.  

The race for governor won't be the only important one on the next ballot.