Sunday, February 23, 2014

#153 February 23, 2014- Education's (Dis)-Uniting Effect

Divided We Fail. . .
On the surface it seems like the education of our young people could, and should, be a topic that we could unite as a society around.  After all, there is no more precious resource and nothing more universally treasured than the children of any society.  Children provide a society with hope for the future.  We know that we need to provide our young people with opportunities to learn and grow as individuals, as well as members of a larger community.  The support and education that we provide our youth are clear indicators of what we as a society value.

This makes the current climate around public education that is shaped by discourse and policy all the more disturbing.  The bitterness and anger that we see reflected in our debates about education show just how divided our state and nation are when it comes to a significant number of issues.  While the debates are supposedly focused on educational policy, the conflicts around educating our children really mirror the issues that are in play outside of our schools.  We see the same groups struggling in schools that struggle in "the real world."  We see the same issues of inequity and injustice reflected both in schools and in society.  We see the same efforts being made to control access to social, political and economic opportunity and power.

The same values and instincts that make supporting children so important to people are the very things that make the debates about education more bitter and divisive.  Everyone values their children, and the children in their immediate personal circle, and this means that they are willing to put their own interests ahead of others, no matter what the societal cost may be.  It is difficult to ask families to sacrifice any opportunity for their own children, and the fact that education is a costly endeavor and resources are limited means that conflicts are inevitable. 

At the same time there are those who would use the devotion we have for our children against us.  Our children become political pawns and our hopes for them are exploited by unscrupulous political, social and economic leaders.  They use fear and frustration to divide and conquer those who oppose them and the policies that emerge from our legislatures too often reflect this lack of concern about children and education.  We are told that our public schools are not safe, that they are not providing quality educational opportunities and that they are undermining our society's values.  The fear that is created drives an industry of power that seeks to perpetuate a system that benefits a small number of citizens.        

These educational myths become the reality that too many people accept and live in.  The party of the candidate doesn't seem to matter, it is a culture of power that needs to create either a villain (in this case teachers and public schools) to distract the public from the reality that would create a climate of real change around our schools, and our economic and political systems in general.    

Public educators are left to function in a system that is driven by tests, standards and curriculums that are dictated to us by people outside of the schools and classrooms that we work with our students in.  No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core, and countless other "reforms" are vehicles often    manufactured by corporate interests and driven by politicians who care more about $$ and power than children.  Whatever your personal beliefs are about any of the "reforms", the reality is that classroom educators, families and students are never given a viable voice in the decision making process.      

Instead of focusing on students, education becomes a partisan issue.  We lose the ability to discuss and debate educational policy on the merits of student learning and truly best teaching practices.  Opportunities to collaborate and cooperate on issues in education are lost due to political divisions.     

The rhetoric that flows undermines educators and adds to the fear that drives us down paths leading to segregation and inequity. 

The battle that we are engaged in is vital to our society on many levels.  It is important to individuals who care for their own, or other people's children.  It is important to our nation because democracy needs a well educated population to support it.  It is important to our economic success for obvious reasons.  How we educate our children is a clear demonstration of just what our society values.  Putting all of these things together, it is clear that we need to continue to fight to truly put every student's needs ahead of politics.

The Good, The Bad, and
The Ugly. . .
The Good . . . The data is here, now we just need some strong leadership to take on those who cry wolf and say that more equitable pay for employees will destroy our economy.

The Bad . . . We know that something's not right, but will anything come of the investigation?

The Ugly . . . Money in our political system.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

#152 February 16, 2014- Transitions and More

Educational Transitions,
Where Are We Headed?. . .
The reality of life is constant change.  Part of this  perpetual change is the need to make transitions and adapt to new situations, conditions or experiences.  Often it is these transitions that determine either the future directions our lives take, or the success of the decisions that are made.  This is true for individuals and also for groups of people.  Changes are often challenging, and occur for many different reasons.  Some changes are under our control, but others are forced upon us.  This is clear in the definitions of transition from one on-line dictionary.  Transition is defined as either "the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another," or to "undergo or cause to undergo a process or period of transition."

Public school systems across the nation are experiencing a time of significant transition.  There is no doubt that our school systems need to make changes.  This is part of the inevitable reality of humanity.  Our school systems need to evolve to incorporate new knowledge about how humans learn, we need to adapt to changing demographics, and we need to reflect our society's concern for all citizens and insure equal opportunity for all.  Here in Wisconsin the pace of change has been accelerated by political considerations and a number of other factors in addition to those that are directly tied to educational objectives.  

While change is inevitable, and a necessity for the health of our public schools, at the same time we need to take a close look at the speed and direction that these changes are taking.  We must make sure that we are making changes that are necessary and that move our public schools in directions that are positive for the students that we serve.  We must also consider just how drastic the changes we make need to be.  In some cases, subtle shifts in our way of doing things can have just as large an impact on the achievement of our students as major changes. 

One of the first questions that should be, but rarely is, asked is who is making the decisions about our schools?  It seems obvious that we should include the voices of the educators who work in our schools and implement policies and curriculums.  We choose members of the affected profession in almost every other sector of our policy making endeavors, but too often we fail to do this in our appointments and hiring for positions that control decision making for our public schools.  Instead we hire businesspeople, listen to entrepreneurs and allow bureaucrats with few, if any, ties to classrooms and schools to decide what our public education policies will be.    

Here in Wisconsin we are doing everything possible to insure that educator's voices are silenced by eliminating collective bargaining in almost every school district in the state.  Educators without "Just Cause" protections provided by collective bargaining are silenced.  They are forced to implement new programs and policies not because of their confidence that the "reforms" will work, but rather out of self-preservation.  We can't pretend that Act 10 and the "reforms" or "tools" that Walker provided school districts aren't valuable weapons in the educational "reformers" arsenals.     

One might wonder why this is the case?  The answer is really quite simple and straightforward.  It was always about money and the power that accompanies wealth.  

The results are policies that are designed to benefit a select few, or to make a profit.  Too often they are not policies that are good for students, educators or families who work and learn in our schools.  In fact, the current brand of "reform" being offered in Wisconsin is often in direct opposition to what the people of the state truly want and need.  

The changes that are implemented from outside our schools force rapid change on those who work with our students.  One of the most powerful forces of change has been the concept of accountability for educators and schools.  Whenever I am asked about accountability I always have the same answer.  Tests and sanctions don't make me more accountable to my students and families.  Teaching a required, and often scripted, curriculum doesn't make me more accountable to my students and families.  I am accountable because every day I have to answer to my students, their families, my colleagues and myself.  It is the triad of personal, professional and community responsibility that truly holds educators accountable, not test scores or my ability to implement ideas that others attempt to enforce upon me. 

In fact these, so called, accountability measures are often just thinly disguised efforts to undermine and eliminate our public school systems.    

The data that drives our changes is often distorted by unsound educational practices and other factors. 

All of the fear and stress creates an atmosphere of change where we move quickly to adopt ideas that are not always supported by best practices, that often go against what we know about child development and that drive our transitions in directions that ultimately are not good for our students, their families and our community.  Kindergarten is the focus of these articles, but as an upper elementary teacher I can say that our primary teachers are not alone in seeing the impact that our policies of fear and anxiety are having on our students.   

All is not lost.  We are seeing concerted efforts to resist the changes and to force our policy makers to honestly consider those who work and learn in our schools when creating policies.  In order for this to happen we need to open the eyes of the general public who hears things like "rigor", "higher standards" and "accountability" and assumes that those words mean that our politicians are doing their job of controlling the "ultra-powerful", "ultra-liberal" and "greedy" educators.  We also need to combat the idea that the best schools are the ones that spend the least money and really dialog as a society about what we expect, need and want from our public schools.  Finally, we need to make sure that we are hearing the voice of all people who rely on our schools as their first line of defense and their hope for the future. 

Public schools are a public resource, and they must always be a part of the fabric of our society.  They should reflect our society and change with it, but we must always make sure that we are moving in the best possible direction and making changes for the right reasons.    

The Good, The Bad,
The Ugly. . .
The Good . . . Powerful and right on.

The struggle continues around the nation.

Keep thinking about how you spend your hard earned money.

The Bad . . . With all the other issues that our schools and our educators need to deal with, this one seems like it should be pretty far down the list.  Attempting to make it seem like a dress code will somehow improve student achievement shows just how out of touch policy makers are.  It also shows a complete lack of trust and respect in the educators who work in the district.  

The Ugly . . . It seems like the current defenses for their jury-rigged district mapping from GOP legislators are either, "So what?" or "The Democrats did it too."  Neither one sounds like anything other than vindictiveness, and/or a blatant attempt to maintain power in a state that cast 53% of their votes for Democrats and still saw the GOP maintain a huge advantage in the Assembly.  

One of the Good Guys. . .

Madison lost a wonderful educator last week.  Bruce Dahmen, long time principal, teacher, coach, and community fixture died unexpectedly while traveling to visit a former student.  I only had a few opportunities to work with Bruce, but he always demonstrated passion and caring for students, educators and education.  His powerful presence as an advocate for all members of the community will be missed greatly.  Thoughts and prayers go out to his personal family as well as the school family that he loved for so many years. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

#151 February 9, 2014- Race, Poverty and Education

Race, Poverty and
Education- Divide and Conquer. . .
Our public schools are not perfect places.  This shouldn't be a startling statement, after all, they reflect a society that is constantly grappling with a host of issues.  The reflect a society that has struggled to find ways to meet its lofty goals of freedom and opportunity for all citizens.  Our public schools exist within a context that makes it difficult for educators, families, students and the community to create a reality that lives up to our expectations.  We are constantly searching for reasons why our efforts fall short of our potential.  While there are many individual reasons why students struggle to succeed in schools, when we talk about Achievement Gaps there are two main causes that are put forth.

Some argue that the issues revolve around race.  When you look at the data it is clear that we have a real problem in our schools with the achievement of specific groups of students.  It is just as clear that the same groups that struggle in our schools, also struggle in our society in general.  This doesn't absolve our public schools of responsibility, but it does demonstrate that our societal difficulties in dealing with diversity are not exclusive to our public education systems.  

Others argue that the struggles of our students are tied more closely to poverty.  Once again, this assertion is supported by data.  Our students who live in poverty, no matter what their other demographic characteristics, don't succeed at a level that their middle and upper class peers achieve.  This is reflected in society outside of our public schools as well.  A person's social-economic class is relatively fixed and very difficult to change.   

These two sides have been competing for years.  As a public educator I have seen initiatives started to address student achievement and race, and I've seen initiatives started to address student achievement and poverty.  I've seen these two positions played against each other and I've seen students and educators lose because of these battles.  Dwindling school funding has been poured into targeted efforts to address achievement of specific groups and subgroups as though we can somehow separate the different aspects of our students' lives from others with any degree of success. 

So many factors play into our achievements in life.  Am I personally successful because of my status as a white male?  I certainly didn't achieve at the level I was capable of during my own public school days.  In fact, it wasn't until I reached my mid-twenties that I really started to achieve any degree of measurable success.  Did I benefit from my status as a part of a middle-class family?  I'm sure that gave me more leeway to take an indirect path to the place I occupy today.  I know that I enjoyed some benefits because of my different demographic characteristics.  Yet, at the same time they were not guarantees of success.  I know that many of my peers who share similar backgrounds with me have gone many different directions. 

In the end, success or failure is not only difficult to define and quantify, but it is also difficult to determine the single greatest reason for each individual's outcomes in any aspect of their life.  Our lives are so complex and involve so many different variables that we can rarely identify a single cause for any result. To try and point to any single characteristic as being the sole reason we succeed or fail is not only virtually impossible, but I also believe is counterproductive.

What happens is that we pit different groups against each other and end up failing to address the problems that we hope to solve.  Are many of the students who are failing in our schools African-American?  Yes.  Are many of the students who are failing in our schools English Language Learners?  Yes.  Are many of the students who are failing in our schools living in poverty?  Yes.  Do many of the students who are failing in our schools belong to multiple groups that are struggling in schools and society?  Yes.  Do we have students from all different demographics who are succeeding and failing?  Yes.    

How do we determine whether it was poverty, or some other factor that caused the struggles or successes of any given student?  How do we define success and failure in our school system?  How do we work to address these problems and attempt to meet individual student needs?  These three questions are often grouped together and are topics of intense debate. 

Yet, while we debate the answers to these questions, real human beings are grappling with realities that will shape their future.  We see different groups pitted against each other when the truth is, they share the same goals for our public schools and for every student who attends them.  As an educator I often see that strategies that work to effectively educate students of one demographic are just as applicable to other groups.  While we may need to change a few aspects of our structures or delivery, students are students just like people are people. 

The more that we try and isolate causes, the more we try to quantify and institutionalize successes, the further we travel down the road towards segregation and divisive policies that pit different groups within our school communities against each other.  Our public schools can be most successful when we work together as a community to support all of our children. 

The only way that we can work together as a community, is if we are able to talk, discuss and dispute together as well.  Unfortunately, too many conversations occur in isolation and too many voices are not heard when we talk about our public schools and those who work and learn in them.  This is the case at all levels, local to national, and on all topics.  We hear from a select few, but the majority of the families who rely on public schools to educate their children are silent. 

This silence exists for many reasons, but it certainly is a real problem when we try and develop solutions to the many challenges that our schools, educators and students face.  It is a silence that is accepted, and even welcomed by some.  The silence of families allows for some leaders to claim to speak for the underrepresented populations, but doesn't force them to truly be accountable to those they claim to speak for. 

The result is a collection of policies that sound good, and that sound like progress is being made towards addressing the inequities in our schools.  However, the promises and progress is based on flawed logic and often guided by profits, not results.     

Once again, this isn't a phenomena that is exclusive to public education.  The same forces are at work in our political and economic policies as well.  

In the end, does race matter?  Yes.  Does socio-economic class matter?  Yes.  Do people matter?  Yes!!  We need to shift our focus back to people and what works for real individuals.  We need to have conversations about issues that may be difficult, but that focus on the realities of our current situation.  Policy makers need to actively seek out the ideas of those that they represent and craft solutions to problems based on what works for people, not what works best for our existing systems, those who are in charge, and those who are currently benefitting the most. 

Along the way to finding real solutions it is true that we will need to deal with issues around race, gender, language and poverty.  However, in order to find lasting solutions we will need to find answers to our most challenging questions that work for all the people in our society.  For me, this is why our public school systems have the potential to be the cornerstone to building an America that meets our Founding Documents lofty ambitions.  If we can craft a system that unites all citizens in an effort to achieve a common goal that benefits our entire society we will truly have done something amazing.  This begins with an effort to address the problems we face, not in isolation and in cutthroat competition, but in a spirit of community, compassion and with an eye on our society's future.  A future embodied in all our community's children. 

The Good, The Bad, and
The Ugly. . .
The Good: It's always good to see recognition of the efforts to combat education "reforms" by people around America.

Education is a serious topic, but there's always room for some fun.

The Bad: The fact that we are so concerned about money and where it is coming from overshadows the issues that should drive our electoral process.  

The Ugly: People have the right to protest in the manner of their choice.  I find it frustrating that this movement to boycott Girl Scout Cookies is gaining traction among members of an ideology that was so vehemently opposed to public employees exercising their rights to protest.  Not to mention that it is a misguided and narrow minded effort.  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

#150 February 2, 2014- Education, Labor and More

Educational Decision
Making. . .
Education is many different things to many different people.  For some it is a pathway to a career.  For others it is an enjoyable pursuit that leads them to new discoveries and widens their world view.  For others it represents hope for the future.  There are many different views of what an education is for, and what it means to be educated.  The topic of education is one worthy of significant public discussion, and our efforts to create thoughtful and meaningful public educational policy are among the most important that our public officials can undertake.

While there are many things that education can be to people, there are some things that it shouldn't be as well.  Education should not be a for-profit industry.  When we create a system that is driven by bottom-line thinking, we inevitably see a loss of opportunity for those who need access to it the most.  Unfortunately, we are seeing the lure of profit encroaching into the decision making processes that create policies for our public schools.  Many of the "reforms" that are being touted as educationally sound practices, are actually financially sound (for investors in education) and financially driven practices instead.    

Education shouldn't be a political tool used to attack those who are of a different ideology either.  Yet, we are seeing this becoming a regular feature in debates over public education as well.  Public educator unions have been a thorn in the side of Republicans here in Wisconsin for decades, and the GOP is taking advantage of their majority status to try and eliminate their opposition.  Initiatives like turning control of "failing" schools over to private companies (who will be prohibited from hiring existing, often unionized, staff) are poorly concealed ways to destroy the base of unionized public educators in Wisconsin. 

The people of Wisconsin are resisting changes like this, but these ideas don't go away, especially when supported by top GOP officials.  

Unfortunately, it isn't just Conservatives, or Republicans who are seeking to privatize and 'profitize' public schools.  Democrats don't have a great track record of providing meaningful support for public schools.  Instead, they often adopt parts of the GOP's plans and simply put a slightly different spin on them.  

What needs to happen is for the educators, families and students who value and support public education to join together and make public policy makers understand what education really means for our communities and our nation.  Equal educational opportunities need to be available for all no matter what the race, gender, income, zip code, etc. of any individual or group.  We can't allow our policy making to be guided by panic, shortsightedness or profitability.  Those who work and learn in the public schools, those who send their children to our public schools and those who live in the communities that our public schools serve need to have the loudest voice when decisions are made.  

Labor and Business. . .
Just like educational decision making is driven by the potential for profit, so to are our economic decisions.  Of course, this makes sense to a significant degree.  After all, businesses, unlike schools, should exist to make a profit.  No one can reasonably dispute the reality that if a business doesn't make money, it is not viable as a business.  While there have been many different economic philosophies put forward over the years, and some of these include thinking that radically shifts ownership and distribution of profits, the reality is that in almost every economic system developed around the world there is a stratification in wealth and control of financial resources.  Some people earn more, control more and benefit more from these economic and political systems.

At the same time, an argument can be made that huge disparities in wealth and power are not conducive to long term, sustainable success for any society.  When these huge economic gaps occur, they are usually followed by some degree of change in either the system, or in those who control the wealth.  Whether through legislation, revolution or other means, those with less access to financial resources find a way to advance their cause.  The questions often are, how radical, violent, or unpleasant is the change going to be, and what will the changes look like?    

America has endured many different periods when we struggled to resolve issues around distribution of wealth and power in very visible ways.  From the very beginning of our nation there was a tension between different groups around these issues.  These struggles haven't gone away with time.  America has not found a way to resolve economic, class and labor issues with any degree of permanence.  Yet, our recent history has been one of relative stability in terms of labor issues.

There are many reasons why we've enjoyed relative labor peace in the years after WWII and leading up to 2010.  The trends certainly haven't favored labor in many ways.  Yet, systems were in place that put a band-aid over the wounds caused by the conflicts between classes, labor and management.  Unions existed to represent some workers.  Collective bargaining existed for public employees in many states.  While a significant number of workers labored without protections, the general mood of the nation didn't support upheaval or change.  The case can be made that labor should have been more active and engaged, but in general the decades leading up to 2010 were the calm before the storm.

That all changed with the elections of 2010 and the electoral victories that gave Conservatives significant power in many states including Wisconsin.  Not content to continue to erode the power of labor through systematic, but gradual, attacks, these radical Conservatives used their power to try and eradicate the power of labor.  Needless to say, this awoke organized labor and created the uprisings and push-back that has been occurring around the nation ever since.   

The current picture is very troublesome for those who support worker's rights and a more equitable distribution of resources.  We are facing challenges in all areas, including the fight for public opinion.     

Yet, at the same time, labor has experienced a "Great Awakening" and we are seeing activism and awareness increasing significantly.  Hope is the greatest asset that unions provide, and we will continue to see workers fight for their rights to organize and represent their interests.    


                  The Good, The Bad, and
The Ugly. . .

The Good . . . Despite the constant efforts of many to discredit and demean the U.S. Postal Service, there are many who continue to recognize the importance of our mail carriers.  For me, this ongoing debate over the viability of the USPS is a symbol of the struggle that we are engaged in as a society.  We need to retain the benefits that humans delivering tangible messages and items provide.  That this continues to exist as a public service is also important.    

Labor and management can work together!!!

The Bad . . . More evidence that money is damaging our political system.

The Ugly . . . We can't allow our political system to be controlled by a wealthy few, who then use their power to harm citizens, our environment, and our way of life.