Sunday, January 26, 2014

#149 January 26, 2014- Public Ed., Technology and Social Justice

Vouching for Public Schools. . .
We are constantly being showered with rhetoric that tells us our public schools are failing, that a significant number of our educators are either incompetent, unmotivated or both, and that we need to make drastic changes in the system in order to increase the equity in educational opportunities for all students.  Yet, the attacks are grounded in some false assumptions, half-truths and a legacy of efforts designed to undermine our public education systems across the nation.

Neither political party and very few interest groups have really stepped up to defend our public schools, despite the fact that these schools are the only place where services for students of all needs and demographics are mandated.  Instead, we have seen a call for re-segregating our schools and recreating a separate and unequal system that is not only unfair, but also unconstitutional.  Our public schools have been consistently maligned, underfunded and overregulated by those who claim to be acting "for the children." 

Yet, when funded and supported we have seen achievement gaps closed by our schools, and it is only in the last 25 years, as cuts to funding and new mandates were implemented, that we have seen this progress halted.  Here in Wisconsin we've seen cuts to education that are unprecedented in scale, and the efforts to demean the efforts of public educators intensified.  Data about our schools are twisted, and "reform" rhetoric has become the norm in discourse about public education.       

We are seeing pushback from supporters of public education.  A great example comes from those fighting against the efforts to promote legislation creating a special needs voucher (re-titled scholarship) program.

Tech, Trust,  Obstruction
and Advocacy . . .
Technology can be a valuable tool in our daily lives, and plays an important role in the education of our students as well.  The Madison school district recently unveiled an ambitious plan to improve access to technology for students in the district.    

Response to the plan was mixed, and there were strong opinions raised on all sides of the issue.  This topic has become a source of some controversy and intense feelings with a few unnecessary snide comments thrown in.    
Please take some time to look at the plan. If you have thoughts, questions, recommendations or even a reaction to share, we’d love to hear from you. Fire up the digital device of your choice, and send us an email at If you think we’re making a mistake by proposing to race headlong into this technology thing, let us know that as well. But you might want to deliver that message via the Postal Service.

While you should take time to read the plan itself, and formulate your own opinions, I want to take the time to expand on the position of those "opposed" to the plan. 

First, to identify us as opposed to the technology plan is inaccurate.  We support a plan to get technology in to our schools and in to the hands of our students.  Technology is a huge expense and these are tough financial times for schools.  To add technology, or any other initiative without careful planning and open, honest dialog would be a huge mistake and one that would likely cause more harm than benefit for our students.  The opposition arises not from an anti-technology viewpoint, but from an effort to insure wise implementation, to address existing needs, and to protect things that are of value from funding cuts. 

I would hope that in a district committed to education of all students, that opinions from the community would be a valued part of the discussion.  To imply that those who question the plan are out of touch with the modern world, as Board President Hughes does in his article on the MMSD website, does little to build support for the plan, or to foster open communication around this, or any, issue.

That leads directly to the issue of the speed with which supporters  are moving forward with the plan.  While they are making the argument that the tech plan has been a topic of discussion for months, many in the district have only become aware of the details in the past week or so.  Educators and students in the district have suffered from the quick implementation of district wide initiatives that have had mixed results in recent years.  The adoption of a district wide reading program for elementary students in the recent past is an example of this type of action.  One of our strengths as a district is the well educated and highly involved community that our schools are embedded in.  Through discussion and public input we will see new ideas come forth, and a stronger plan developed.

This isn't to say that we need to study, discuss and reformulate technology plans over the course of years, but rather that opening the discussion to a wider audience, including educators at a variety of buildings, will give us better results in the long run.  In the week or so since the plan was introduced we have seen input given, and modifications made in the plan.  Clearly there is an opportunity here to develop a positive and sustainable vehicle to get technology in to MMSD schools.  We appreciate the willingness of administration to listen to concerns, and hope that more opportunities will be given before a final plan is passed.               

The question that Tech Plan supporters have is, why would anyone resist improving the technology available to MMSD students?  After all, technology isn't going away and our district has not consistently kept up with the latest innovations and advances available.  Once again I remind you that those voicing concerns about the plan are not opposed to technology, nor are we simply obstructionists who want to criticize any new initiative.  In order to support a Tech Plan, or any initiative, I feel that a few basic issues must be addressed.

1- It must not take away from existing or new programs that build human supports for our students, families and community.  Education is a labor intensive endeavor and we need as many people as possible actively involved in the process.  Things like Ready, Set, Goal conferences, school staff in the most at-risk communities and enough staff to insure the diverse needs of all learners are met need to take precedence over any technology or materials that are purchased. 
While we are being assured that the Tech Plan won't restrict spending on these needs, it is difficult to believe that we will not see technology pitted against human resources at some time in the not so distant future. 

2- It must build on the strengths that exist in our schools, and fill a genuine need in a meaningful way.  There are many innovative ways that MMSD staff is using technology right now, and we should build off of these programs.  If we simply put devices in our schools we will not get the maximum benefit from our investment.  Putting decision making about technology at the school level can insure that we tailor purchases to the needs of a building and that funds are used in the best manner possible. 

3- It must be sustainable and supportable.  Too often we see our current technology failing us for a variety of reasons, and the idea that adding more will somehow improve things seems illogical.  There will be significant costs involved in educating educators to use technology most effectively, and to maintain the devices in buildings.  The best plans are often simple and develop over time, once again building on the strengths in each school around the district.

Unfortunately, there is also a history here of initiatives being rolled out to great fanfare, and then abandoned just as quickly.  It is unfair, and short sighted to oppose initiatives solely for this reason, but also very human to feel apprehension when a huge plan like this is unveiled.  Those anxieties are increased when a plan is accelerated through the system, and when those in favor of it speak in stark terms of "your either with us, or against us."  I hope that we can continue the dialog and emerge with a plan that will feature the best possible solutions to some very challenging problems.      

I invite everyone to come to the regular Board of Education meeting on Monday, January 27th @ 6PM in the McDaniels Auditorium at the Doyle Building to hear more about the plan.  Several SCAPE members will be offering their ideas, and we hope to hear from others in the community as well.  

State of My State. . .
"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is […] the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice."  These words come from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and ring true through the years.  I would argue that we are facing conditions that are returning us to an America where access to opportunity and justice are becoming more restricted, and that we are seeing issues of injustice becoming more widespread with every passing day.  While visibly true for citizens of different races, all of us are feeling the effects of policies designed to divide and conquer us.  Whatever your demographic identity, it is becoming clear that we are facing a concerted effort to return American society to a time in history where phrases like, "All men" meant some men, and "The general welfare" referred to a select few.      

The idea that Dr. King espouses about "the white moderate" can be expanded to include anyone of any demographic who is satisfied with the current status quo that exists in our state and our nation.  We are hearing a lot about "freedom", "opportunity" and "equality", but the words are ringing hollow when we see the reality that so many of our fellow citizens are experiencing.  Too many of us are simply willing to sit on the sidelines and allow those who are in power manipulate our system and speak for us. 

We need to increase the tension in our society in a positive way.  This means speaking up for what we believe in and not accepting the word of social, political and economic leaders as truth simply because it was uttered by someone with credentials.  We need to make sure that we stay informed and involved and use whatever methods available to make our voices heard in the debates that currently occupy our attention.  We also need to make sure that we are aware of future struggles looming on the horizon. 

Dr. King was a champion for Civil Rights, which included rights for all people.  He was a voice for labor, a voice against violence and a voice for equality for all.  His message and legacy, which we honored on Monday, is one that we need to make sure is heard throughout the year, and applied to all situations.  It is interesting to see how Dr. King's memory is juxtaposed with the message that was delivered by Scott Walker on Wednesday.  Walker used some of the same words like "opportunity" and spoke of putting "power back in to the hands of the people."  However, the truth behind these words is not the truth that Dr. King spoke about. 

It is up to us to reject order unless it leads to justice, and to create the tension that is necessary to lead our state down the path towards opportunity and justice for all.  We must refuse to allow empty words and promises to replace the collective actions that promote widespread equality and positive relationships between citizens of many different demographics.  We can't forget that all the talk of budget surpluses and tax refunds are part of an agenda that focuses on building economic success for a few on the backs of the many.  As George Washington said, "Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains taken to bring it to light." 

The Good, The Bad
and The Ugly. . .
The Good . . .  A victory for labor!!

The Bad . . .  Another federal court case that could change things drastically for unions around America.  Meanwhile, Wisconsin unions await our Supreme Court's ruling on MTI's case against Act 10.  

The Ugly . . .  We know that there are inequities in the distribution of wealth, but this is startling.

Meanwhile, most of us are working harder, and losing ground.  

Sunday, January 19, 2014

#148 January 19, 2014- A Society of Bullies?

Bullying, Fear and Anger. . .
Bullying is a word that has become widely used and misused in our discussions about the direction our society is moving in.  We hear the word used in a variety of settings and situations.  It is used to describe actions and to either promote or attack groups beliefs.  In fact, the word is so commonly tossed around that it is in danger of losing its power and meaning.  Just like racism, harassment and discrimination have become a tool and a target, so too bullying is in danger of becoming a caricature of itself in our discussions about important issues.

The use of these words in our society have followed a similar path.  First, groups of people who are suffering some type of difficulty, discrimination or other injustice begin to stand up for themselves and call attention to the issues at hand.  The issues may be large or small, but they are of importance in our society's effort to move forward towards achieving the goals that our founding documents lay out for us.  The groups involved fight for their rights and often achieve successes that lay the groundwork for future progress.  They face difficult odds and entrenched beliefs, but their message and energy helps break through some of these barriers.  Our historical landscape is filled with evidence of these struggles as our nation grapples with huge issues of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and even just the simple goal of being able to go to work or school and to feel safe there.

These successes are usually achieved through legislative or legal means as groups try to cement their successes in our society and prevent the destruction of their achievements.  We pass laws that protect the rights of specific groups in order to codify the protections and rights that have been won in the struggle. The affected groups enjoy their successes and our entire society benefits from the progress that has been made.

Then there is pushback from those who, for whatever reason, fight against the efforts to promote equality and opportunity for others (or sometimes even for themselves).  This pushback is grounded in some form of fear and hate and seeks to return our society to the previous status quo.  Sometimes the resistance to progress is overt and instantaneous, and sometimes it is subtle and grows slowly over time.  All of this builds towards another cycle of struggle as the affected groups find the need to reassert their hard earned rights in our society.

One of the side effects of the struggle is that certain words and phrases become a part of our national lexicon.  At the outset these words have specific and direct meanings, but over time the words become so commonly used that they lose their impact, or change meanings.  People choose to use and define the terms in different ways, some that build their power, and some that diminish it.  Different groups struggle to control the use and definitions of these terms and our society grapples with the consequences of the struggles.  Those on all sides of an issue use the language of freedom and justice to promote their ideas and try to paint their opposition in a negative light. 

Another way that terms are defined is by associating them with some extreme, unusual or at times ridiculous position or action.  Opponents of a movement will choose the most outlandish examples in order to discredit those who have different opinions.  Too often we focus on the extreme, the ridiculous and the unusual and forget that most of our experiences exist in a more narrow range of "normal".  Thus we see important issues and concerns relegated to sideshow status and those with legitimate problems suffer the consequences.  People also tend to apply their own experiences, or allow other to define what "common sense" would dictate to be a proper definition of any given term.  This means that  we see claims in the media that school children can be bullied, but NFL players can not. 

What exactly constitutes bullying, discrimination, harassment and other similar terms is defined in different ways by the law, by individuals and by groups in society.  Yet, all of the words and ideas that are associated with the fight for equality, opportunity and justice share a common thread in that they involve groups with limited access to power and their fight to increase their influence politically, socially or economically.  It may be true that bullying can be done by anyone, even someone without power, but the reality is that most of the conflicts we engage in as a society are based on inequities in power.

The impact of an individual's or group's actions is directly related to the amount of power that they wield.  This is why we need to be careful when we use terms like bullying to describe the actions of groups fighting for their rights.  Public sector employees who belong to unions have been called bullies and thugs in an effort to dishonor their efforts to engage in collective bargaining and to maintain their rights and benefits in the workplace.  At the same time we see unionized public workers being vilified we see politicians like Scott Walker and Chris Christie lauded as heroes for standing up to the bullies.  This language has led some members of the public to question the rights of employees in general to unionize, yet the power of the individual worker pales in comparison to the power that management wields. 

We are living in a climate governed by fear, and as Yoda said, "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering."  It isn't only in fiction that we see this connection between fear and a regression in societal values.  FDR in his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1933 stated, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."  By giving in to fear we twist words to make it seem like the oppressed are the ones causing the problems and the oppressors are a combination of victim and societal champion.

Fear is used to manipulate public opinion and divide people in order to allow a small number of people to maintain their elite status in our society.  Of course it isn't only public employees who are engaged in the struggles.  We have a host of groups and issues that are currently seeing their causes under significant attack.     

Fear and greed make many want to support economic policies that dole out crumbs to the many.  The increased tax revenue could be used to support our schools or otherwise improve our society, but instead will be given out to individuals in tiny increments for political gain. 

The rights and opportunities of all workers in America are being attacked in an effort to promote the interests of large business and the wealthy.  

Our fear and anger allows us to believe that executions will somehow deter crime and provide justice to victims. 

Women across the nation face significant challenges in their efforts to achieve equality in many aspects of life.   

The poorest Americans have always been seen as problems, and not as equal citizens.  

Issues around race have been a constant source of discontent since the founding of our nation.  

Politics and the press are venues where we have to be aware of those who would manipulate the system for their own gain.  

What makes these challenges all the more difficult is that they arise out of our own actions, interactions and inaction.  All of us act to preserve our own self interests and to advance our own objectives and those of the people who are closest to us.  To some degree we all engage in behavior that at times is bullying and can infringe on the rights and opportunities of others.  Issues like White Privilege are difficult to comprehend and accept for many of us, so we turn to a more comfortable way of looking at the world.  We are quick to blame, but slow to find compromise and goodness in others.  Our society is moving in a disturbing direction where "doing and being right" is less important than appearing to win on any given issue.  As a society we condone bullying and applaud those who aggressively attack others, as long as we are not their targets.   

Yet, we are all responsible for the society we live in.  This is true no matter our race, religion, gender, or any other demographic division.  If we are truly to live in a nation that can claim to provide justice and opportunity for all, then we need to be ready to look at our own beliefs and actions as well as those of others.  We need to recognize the impact that hate and anger have on the world we live in see how it divides, isolates and segregates us into self-interested, small-minded groups.  At times it may seem like we will never succeed in our struggles, but to continue the fight is to work to achieve a vision that has been shared by great individuals throughout history. 

On Monday we will celebrate the life and legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and it is worthwhile to remember him not as an historical figure, but rather as a icon who we should be working to emulate.  His message of non-violence combined with a relentless drive to broadcast the values that America was founded on give us hope for the future.  We can all work towards achieving a society where opportunity is open to all, and we truly look at everyone as fellow citizens, not as separate pieces of a puzzle.  A puzzle that is created and framed for us by others, and one where our role is defined by our demographics.  Instead we must break the barriers that bind us and change the very essence of what we define ourselves to be.  As Dr. King said:   

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

In this way we can counter the effects of fear and hatred and truly work towards a better Wisconsin, a better America and a better world. 

The Good, The Bad and
The Ugly. . .
The Good- People around the state continue to "speak their truth" and speak against bills like AB549 that will harm our students and our public schools.  

The bad side of this is that we will need to continue to fight negative education legislation as long as the current crop of legislators is in office.  

The Bad- Those of us wishing for a primary to select the Democrat's candidate for governor saw their hopes fade this week.

The Ugly- The public sees the debate about expanding the voucher system in Wisconsin through a lens that distorts and simplifies the facts to make it seem like a battle between freedom and government control.  The reality is that our public school system has flaws, but also a level of accountability and responsibility to our children that a privatized school system will likely never come close to achieving.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Issue #147 January 12, 2014- Organize and Act

Organizing for Education. . .
There is a tremendous amount of misinformation and destructive rhetoric being touted as fact about our public school systems in recent days.  While this isn't a completely new phenomena, the most troubling thing is that now there is significant legislation and policy that supports the rhetoric.  Supporters of public education face a real battle on many fronts as we seek to defend a valuable societal resource.

We are trapped in a cycle of anti-public education rhetoric, followed by implementation of anti- public education policy which then creates circumstances that allow anti-public education forces an opportunity to continue their attacks. 

We are facing well funded, corporate forces who are willing to bend and twist the rules in order to profit from their activities.

Educators find themselves trapped in the middle.  We are a strange combination of superhero and supervillain.  On one hand, we are considered first responders with a duty to serve and protect our students and families.  At the same time we are given little support in many circles and our activities are scrutinized and critiqued at every turn.  

Educators have not been idle while their profession, schools and students are under attack.  While the overall picture presented in the media and in political circles may be bleak, some positive strides have been made as well.  

What we are seeing is a need to counter the misinformation and misleading data provided by the education "reformers" with a different set of data and narratives that show the power, and potential, of our public schools.  This means changing the dialog about our schools.  It also means organizing our efforts in different ways.  Our opponents have the resources and the access to power here in Wisconsin that allow them to dictate the debate.  While we can't give up and must continue to testify at hearings, present our views in the press and engage in other more traditional policy impacting actions, we also need to look for other ways to get our message out.

One of the primary problems in the debate over public education policy is the fact that every school has different needs and different issues are of importance to different communities.  While all involved in our public schools recognize the need to deliver quality instruction to all students and to provide the maximum educational opportunity possible, how we deliver this instruction and what quality and opportunity mean are often debated. 

On a larger, policy making scale, these issues become highly politicized, generalized and often lose their focus on the actual students, families and communities involved.  Those who work and learn in our public schools become political "footballs" and pawns in a game that benefits groups and individuals who are distant from the classrooms where the real work needs to be done.

The challenge is to find ways to get the different groups in schools talking together.  Often there are barriers to having these discussions.  They may be institutional, personal or societal barriers, but whatever the source, the effect is the same.  We see discussions about public education happening, but it is happening in isolation with the same people talking to each other in the same ways.  Often offering up the same solutions that haven't resolved our problems in the past.

Breaking these barriers and changing the way we talk about our schools is challenging.  The primary difficulty is that the major parties involved are so segregated.  Educators talk only to educators, parents only talk to parents with similar backgrounds and experiences, political figures and other leaders talk to constituents who have the same ideological ideas, and so on.  This isolation of thinking only builds more barriers to real conversation and problem solving around our public schools.  The current climate is toxic to compromise and proactive solutions.      

Many participants in discussions about public education also feel powerless to enact change in the system.  This is true for families, community members and even many educators.  We feel caught up in a system that is large and bureaucratic in nature.  As individuals we have little real power to act in ways that can positively impact the overall picture.  

It is possible to combat the isolation of ideas and the feelings of powerlessness.  One positive way to share information and make positive change happen in public education is to make personal connections between the different groups and interests in each school community.  We have been trying something new in my school community for the past year.  A few parents and educators have organized a group called SCAPE (School Community Alliance for Public Education) that meets regularly to discuss issues related to school reform as well as issues of policy relating to our school and district.  We have spoken and written to local decision makers and have acted on several issues that were defined by members.    

The real strength of the group is the fact that we are making an effort to break down some of those barriers that exist in the conversations around public education.  Having educators, families and community members in the same room talking about issues changes the dynamics of the discussion and gives insights to all parties involved.  The group consists of over 50 educators, family members and community members with a range of backgrounds and expertise.  We have met in different neighborhoods and are working to increase the diversity of our group's demographics and increase our diversity of ideological beliefs as well. 

The premise of SCAPE is to get dialog about public education started and then determine ways to influence the policies being implemented in our schools.  We are encountering many of the expected challenges in our efforts, but are firmly committed to this process.  A process that seeks to widen the involvement of all in discussions about public schools, something that our society could use much more of.            

The Good, The Bad, and
The Ugly. . .
The Good- While most sources focused on the struggles of UPS and FedEx this holiday season, the successes of the U.S. Postal Service should be highlighted instead.  The USPS provides another example of how public services are often vilified, usually under appreciated, but continue to provide valuable, quality service to all Americans.    

The Bad- Spring elections usually receive little attention from voters, but we are also seeing fewer candidates running this year.  Of the 37 seats up for election on the Dane County Board of Supervisors, only 7 will be contested.  Only 1 of the 2 Madison School Board seats up this spring will have a contested race.   

The race for Seat 6 on the Madison School Board will feature two candidates who were defeated in the last School Board races.  Wayne Strong will face Michael Flores in the upcoming election.  You can bet that the same anti-union, pro- "reform" debates will be brought up again (MTI endorsed Flores in the past election), whether the arguments are merited or not.  Instead of looking at what solutions the candidates offer, much of the coverage of the race will continue the focus on what our district's challenges and shortcomings are.  It is also interesting that in a city where racial Achievement Gaps and a lack of workforce diversity is a concern, two "minority" candidates are squaring off and a white male is running unopposed.

As a lifelong Badger it is hard to see Minnesota poking fun at us.  Even worse to know that they're correct.

Adding to the frustration that Wisconsinites feel is the reality that with the current policies being advocated by our "leaders", it is likely that things will get much worse before they get better.

The Ugly- Another attack on worker's rights in the name of "Freedom."  Anyone who has worked an hourly wage job knows just how much pressure can be brought to bear to "encourage" workers to "volunteer" for extra shifts.  Odds are that many of these jobs don't offer much in the way of overtime or benefits for workers putting in all those extra hours as well.  A better economic policy would be to increase wages for workers, thus allowing them more spending power and the time to use that power.   

We have a real problem here in America regarding the distribution of wealth and poverty.  It is a problem that we could do a much better job of addressing, if we stopped listening to the rhetoric from those who tout the supposed advantages of the "Free Market."  We can successfully combat poverty, but we need to commit our national resources towards a coherent effort, not the haphazard ineffective attempts we have historically seen.

Yet, we continue to hear about how workers need to sacrifice in order for business to prosper.  Until we change this dialog and give respect and power to the people who do the work, we will continue to see the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us increase.