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.  

1 comment:

  1. We have Netbooks in our middle school. Class sets on carts. To compare is perhaps unfair, but I'm going to anyway. We've only had them 4 years at the most, and at what cost? ( I honestly do not know.) Will tablets have a longer useful life? When a tablet does not power up because the student who last used it did "something" that requires a master reset by the tech or librarian, will the table cart have another tablet he can grab (use.) Will ALL staff be given PD on an ongoing basis to learn apps that will be used? I have yet to sit down with a netbook and learn how to use the keypad.

    As an SEA who supports a student who, per the legal document called an IEP, is to use the iPad throughout the day, I'm not even given the 15 minutes per week the IEP states I am to have, to be able to assist this student in the iPad use. The school does not have an iPad I can use to learn how to use an iPad.

    That said, are the 600+ SEA's going to continue to watch from the sidelines as the students and teachers work on their i Pads?

    And THAT said, of course students should be given the opportunity to learn how to use a tablet. There are incredible apps that can be great additions to learning. I know this because I was financially able to buy one so I can assist my student.

    But one for every student grades 2 through 12 is a huge leap. Why isn't the board doing the traditional "study" of other districts that have given iPads to all? Starting slow, perhaps with a weekly specials type class?

    (I must post as anonymous due to the legal implications of the failure to implement an IEP)