Sunday, November 30, 2014

#190 November 30, 2014- Creating a Vision for Public Education

A Vision for
Public Education. . .
Public schools are supposed to provide opportunity, community and hope for the future.  The concept of public education is one that finds its roots in the ideals that America is supposed to represent.  The idea that, as a society, we are responsible for providing educational opportunities for all students, without exception, is a powerful one.  Public education, done well, has the potential to unify our diverse society and to provide the opportunity for all citizens to achieve their goals, hopes and dreams.

Yet, this potential has gone unrealized in too many places.  This happens, not because the concept of public education is a poor one, not because those in the system are not working hard, and not because those accessing the system don't want to succeed or don't value education.  Instead, it happens because we fail to articulate just exactly what it is that we are trying to achieve and how we can accomplish the lofty goals of our educational system.  Because of this we, as a society, have never fully supported our nation's public schools and instead have used our vast resources and abilities in inefficient and inconsistent ways. 

When we think about our public schools and what we hope that they provide for students and society, we too often find ourselves simply stating broad, even unachievable goals.  Think of the mission statements and visioning statements that our schools use.  In Madison one of our previous ones was "Success for All."  Now we see a movement to make sure that every student is career, college and community ready.  These our great goals for a school district, but the important aspects of these statements don't lie in the words, but in what those words mean. 

Everyone I've ever met wants the same things from their public school.  Whether family member, educator, student, policy maker or community member the basic goals are the same.  We all want safe schools where every student achieves their potential and leaves ready to live a happy, productive life.  While this may seem simple, and even obvious, the issues arise when we begin to define specifically what we mean, and work to incorporate a diverse set of viewpoints into a complex endeavor.  What is success?  What does it mean to be productive?  What tools do we use to educate our students?  How do we provide a safe, positive environment?

We live in an incredibly diverse society, and this means that the answers to these, and any other questions we ask will be as divergent as the society that our public schools serve.  This makes people incredibly uncomfortable.  We like to think that educating our students is as simple as the traditional teaching of the "Three R's" and that any policies around our schools will be able to meet the needs of every person in the system, no matter what their background or role.  Yet, we constantly are reminded that there isn't any way to create a perfect system, and that the efforts to provide public education to all students is every bit as difficult as operating a democratic and socially just society.  Our schools, just like the society they are embedded in, are in a state of constant tension, change and evolution. 

However, because our public schools are as much a bureaucratic institution as they are an engine of change and progress, we see efforts made to "reform" and standardize our schools.  There is a strong movement that exists to create measurable, concrete objectives and to push all of our students through a system designed to meet those goals.  These efforts provide a false sense of stability and purpose in an uncertain and confusing process.  They take some of the realities and constants of education and twist them into a package that is easily sold to the general public.  Along the way, they provide opportunities for economic and political gain for some, and divide our society along different, pre-existing lines.         

Edutopia blogger Mark Phillips examines eight myths that drive education policy, including the value of homework for students and merit pay for teachers, the irrelevance of funding and class size, and the fairness of college admissions.

If we are to counter this message of standardization and profiteering from our schools, those who support public education must become a voice that offers a different narrative about our schools and education in general.  This is challenging because there isn't the same, single-minded unifying sense of purpose among the many diverse interests that seek to restore a balance to our public education system.  Instead, we have become a collective voice of resistance and opposition, something that hasn't been effective in combating the propaganda of those who seek to privatize and standardize our schools.  Those who oppose education "reform" need to articulate a vision that can be used to build a positive argument for truly reforming our schools in a socially just and sustainable way. 

This vision will be diverse in nature because it must be broad enough to incorporate the many different aspects and needs of all members of our society.  In fact, our vision of what education can, and should be, is not necessarily policy in and of itself, but rather a discussion starter that will create a climate where we can truly support and nurture our students and our public schools.  By moving the dialog away from combative and divisive arguments towards more inclusive discussion we can create an environment where we can create policies and systems that are community based and supported, as well as ones that are truly in the best interests of our students.   

Our visions may be diverse in nature, but they should address some key, universal elements. 

They must clearly identify and define key terms and concepts such as education, achievement, accountability, opportunity and success.  If we fail to do this we will continue to struggle to provide the supports that our students, staff and schools need.  Our efforts will lack focus and will move in too many directions.  We need to positively define what it is that we are doing in our schools.  This will provide us with a base from which to build policies and systems that truly work.   

Author David Price writes: "If schools are coming into direct competition with the learning opportunities available in the informal social space, it has to be said that this is a pressure, which barely registers within the political discourse."

Public education advocates have shied away from taking …

By not defining what we are trying to accomplish we will continue to see our efforts to improve and enhance our public schools derailed by misconceptions, mis-perceptions and outright distortions and untruths.  The public supports public schools, but they also support accountability and concrete results while not always knowing what they mean by these ideals.  As long as we define success by test scores we will see the emphasis on standards and assessments retain its power.  

Two new surveys try to quantify the number of standardized tests students take in school — an estimated 113 by graduation.

The visioning must include all students and families and recognize positive intentions not negative assumptions.  Currently our dialog is driven by a small number of people who have specific interests.  We must make sure that all voices are heard in the process and seek out those who have not typically taken part in the dialog around our schools.  This would build widespread support for real reform efforts and change the dialog around our schools.  Our current climate is one where it is too easy to divide and conquer those who need our public schools the most.  We can't afford to let efforts to really reform schools become one where only a small number of voices, and ones that are already loud enough, are heard.      

In the latest dispute over standardized testing, hundreds of high-school seniors in high-performing, wealthy districts are skipping science and social stu

MADISON (WKOW) -- The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released results from the final...|By Greg Neumann

We also know that our schools are part of a larger society where inequality is the norm that must be changed.  Policies like the MMSD Behavior Education Plan are steps in the right direction.  However, without the proper supports we will continue to see inequities exist.  Each suspension has a context that must be considered as we work to change our systems.  By discussing and defining key aspects of our schools with all stakeholders we can begin to move beyond the data and rhetoric and truly support the needs of all who learn and work in our public schools. 

The number of out-of-school suspensions was 773 in the first quarter of the school year, compared to 373 a year ago.|By Pat Schneider

We have to make sure that educators who work directly with students are at the center of the discussions.  Currently we see a disturbing reality where the people making decisions about our schools don't work in the classrooms that their policies impact.  This has frustrated educators and created dissension and division where cooperation and unity is needed.    

A recent Gallup poll indicates that students' emotional engagement and well-being at school is powerfully tied to academic achievement.

An open letter to parents: 'If keeping our jobs means harming children and squelching them during a prime developmental span, then we want no part. '

Educators need to seize the moment and expand the efforts of their unions and professional organizations to include issues of social justice as well as more traditional contractual ones. 

The value of public education must be made clear.  By allowing education to be defined in financial terms we have allowed it to become a commodity that can be measured.  Education becomes valuable only for economic reasons and loses its power to transform and enlighten. 

The One Question Every Parent Should Quit Asking
In an effort to prepare our kids for the dog-eat-dog, competitive world before them, we fill their days with activity. Schedule them from dawn to dusk to maximize their potential. So they can learn. And grow. But I fear that in our quest to help them,...

The public accountability and the fact that public schools are responsible for all students, not just those who are admitted based on school defined standards, is an important part of the discussion.  Public schools are inclusive in ways that privatized schools never will be.   

We can't forget that we have the power to make change happen, and we must use this power.  Families, students and educators working together have the ability to articulate, create and implement a vision that works for the benefit of all.  We can't accept the status quo as the only, or best way of doing things when we know that excessive assessment, inadequate funding and overly standardized curriculum are not in the best interest of anyone.  It is up to us to utilize our power.  To not do so is irresponsible and damaging to our society as a whole. 

I've said it many times before, our public schools are a mirror of our society.  They provide an insight into who and what we value.  They don't exist in a vacuum and can't unilaterally impact their students.  Reforming or transforming our public schools involves making positive change happen on a societal scale.  The time to make this happen is now.      

Why haven't education reform efforts amounted to much? Because they start with the wrong problem, says John Abbott, director of the 21st Century Learning...

The Good, The Bad and
The Ugly. . .

The Good . . . High turnout, huge victory for Madison educators, and educators around Wisconsin.  The struggle continues, but keeping our unions gives us more power in the fight. 

Educational assistants, substitute teachers, support staff and security staff all also strongly backed recertification of their bargaining units.|By Pat Schneider

Educators remain committed to the role of the union
The results of the November 2014 recertification elections are in and underscore the fact that educators remain committed to the role of the union. 97% of the teacher units seeking recertification...

The Bad . . . For someone who ran on the premise that he'd fixed our budget issues this seems a "tad" troubling.  Running and winning  on issues of integrity and fiscal responsibility, and then following up with a "whoops we aren't as well off as we thought" press release shows just where this administration stands.  Those who were duped by the ads and the rhetoric (or who simply didn't vote) have given Wisconsin another 4 years of this. 

Gov. Scott Walker's administration says Wisconsin faces a $2.2 billion budget shortfall by mid-2017, a problem that will have to be tackled by the Republican-controlled Legislature next year as...

The Ugly . . . Satire or not, this type of comment is easily found on real message boards, in comments online and in political commentary around the nation. 

“Are we seriously going to allow our children and grandchildren to be in a position where they’re expected to vote for a Hispanic president?!”

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