Sunday, February 15, 2015

#200, February 15, 2015- What Education Should Be

Milestones provide us with a time for reflection and an opportunity to collect ourselves as we move forward.  This 200th edition of "Open Forward Thinking" has gotten me to do just that.  What began as a "more efficient" way to share information with colleagues about the events and actions during the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising has evolved over the years.  It has changed from a summary of meetings, protests and actions and become a place where I can share my ideas and the ideas of others about the issues and events that are impacting all of us.  In some ways it is my "online therapy" where I can express some of my frustration with the current climate around public education and beyond.  The things that I share are things that are constantly on my mind, and the mind of many other concerned citizens. 

At the same time, I have always tried to provide hope for the future and share opportunities to have a positive impact on issues of importance.  I believe this combination of information along with potential positive actions is critical as we seek to make positive change happen in a world that often seems filled with pessimism and hopelessness.         

It is in this climate of negativity that this edition opens.  We know that we don't have to look very far to see the major problems that exist around us.  Some of them are "big picture" societal ones.   

America is a nation bound together by moral panics; in the absence of an actual moral center or a compass of justice, we find power in collective outrage in the...

This climate of constant fear, anger and "isms" gives some individuals an opportunity to gain and maintain power in many ways.  Wisconsin has become a "poster state" for the divide and conquer way of doing politics and policy making.  Add in the ability to corrupt the system with huge sums of money and we have a recipe for disaster.     

I was both surprised and bewildered last week when I saw a news clip of you stumping in Iowa about Megan Sampson, whom you called “The [2010] Outstanding Teacher of the Year in my State.” This was baffling to me since in 2010, I was named Wisconsin High School Teacher of the Year (Maureen Look-Ainsw…

There’s more than 2 million reasons why Walker is backing school vouchers, as you’ll notice when you...|By Wisconsin Democracy Campaign

The negative climate and opportunistic "leadership" leads to policies that are counterproductive, ineffective and divisive. 

Prepare to be floored.|By Mic

The implications of this toxic climate are far reaching, but the impacts are very real for all of us.  These effects can be seen very clearly in the area that is of primary concern to me, public education.  I strongly believe that a thriving and vibrant public education system is vital to the long term success of our nation.  Public schools have the potential to provide opportunities for all students, no matter what their demographic or personal situation.  Public schools can provide a framework that gives everyone access to skills and knowledge that do more than build our economy, they build our national identity and create a foundation for future growth and success. 

Yet, these institutions are under attack in a number of ways.  One of the most obvious is the fiscal assault on our public schools.  This was a two pronged attack that hit employees through Act 10 and decimated school budgets by slashing state aid in the bi-annual budgets that have been proposed by the Walker administration.      

Facing a hit of about $900,000 under Gov. Scott Walker's proposed state budget, Wauwatosa School District officials are planning meetings with lawmakers to...

The governor's budget bill was released last week. If the education-related items within the proposal prevail, it will be a crushing blow to public education in several ways. I will touch upon just two of those...

The district reduced salaries for three teachers based on performance.

Public support is essential for the University of Wisconsin to be both good and affordable,

This isn't just a Wisconsin phenomenon.

Today, Jeb Bush and wealthy special interests will gather in Tallahassee for a self-congratulatory conference about how they have turned Florida’s education system into a profit-making machine for out-of-state corporations. (Of course,...

At the same time our schools have been weakened financially, we have also seen an ongoing effort to change the way we provide education to students, and even a fundamental shift in the way we define what education is.  Instead of providing a well-rounded education (one that so many of our founders valued) we are seeing a movement to narrow the definition of education to include only things that make an individual more economically desirable. 

New education standards emphasize technical reading skills over an appreciation for literature and the deeper values it can instill.|By Michael Godsey

Common Core continues to place greater demands on our youngest students with little to no regard to years of research on child development. For example,...


"Asking kids to meet target on standardized tests is like making them meet a sales quota. Our kids are not commodities." ~K.L. Nielson In many nations...

The harm that has been done to our students is measurable, and public educators have also been negatively impacted in so many ways.  While there are some who would discount the impact that undermining educator morale has on students, the reality is that students learning conditions really are educators working conditions.  The stresses placed on all parts of our educational system result in real, tangible and negative outcomes. 

By Kathryn Doyle The more depressive symptoms third grade teachers had in a new study, the less progress in math their struggling students made during the school year. Teacher depression may be one of many factors that determine...|By Kathryn Doyle

We know that our public schools are not perfect places.  We have achievement gaps, opportunity gaps and many other struggles that are all too well documented.  We can recognize the flaws in our public schools, while still holding out hope for the future, and also realizing that the alternatives of privatization and standardization currently being offered don't come anywhere close to solving the existing inequities and struggles of our public school systems.  Instead of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" we need to look for ways to retool, reconfigure and revitalize public education for the good of all citizens. 

We have to recognize that we can't continue with the status quo, and certainly can't continue on the path laid out for us by educational profiteers pretending to be reformers of the system.  The stress and animosity that exists is unsustainable and destructive.  We see groups that should be united, being divided and in conflict while a small number of people profit from the ensuing chaos.        

By Jonathan Stith | Originally Published at Huffington Post Black Voices. February 11, 2015 12:44 PM EST | Photographic Credit; Getty Images There is a war...
A federal report says students attack or threaten to injure Wisconsin teachers at high rates.

'Almost every day, I slip food to one of my students. Both of his parents are in prison. Or, one of his parents is in prison and the other is dead. We can’t quite...

As Gov. Scott Walker calls for scrapping a new state achievement test after just one year, the exam is coming in over budget and lacking key functionality.|By Erin Richards

The British publishing giant Pearson had made few inroads in the United States — aside from distributing the TV game show “Family Feud” — when it announced plans in the summer of 2000 to spend $2.5 billion on an American testing...|By Stephanie Simon

One other aspect of the educational challenges we face can't be ignored and that is the self interest and basic human nature that we all share.  No matter what ideological beliefs we have, and no matter our social and economic demographics, there is an immediacy to education that causes us to look out for our own children, school and community before considering the larger picture.  For many of us that means that we struggle to make our voices heard and have a say in policies at the most immediate, local level.  Yet, there are a larger number of people with time and money whose influence impacts policies and legislation in ways that help expand our existing gaps of all types.  Unless this demographic is "educated" on the impact of their policies they will continue to believe that they are doing no harm when they support "reforms" that sound good, but create divisions and inequities.  In other words, the world is filled with people who want a level playing field, just as long as it tilts in their favor.      

I first encountered the upper middle class when I attended a big magnet high school in Manhattan that attracted a decent number of brainy, better-off kids...

It is in this too real and demonstrably bleak educational landscape that we find ourselves looking for ways to address our challenges while at the same time maintaining our vision of equity and social justice.  We struggle to find ways to get our message out and to unite the diverse groups who share a common interest in preserving and promoting a strong public education system.  We are facing an uphill struggle against a combination of well funded and well connected opponents who see benefits in promoting the privatization of our schools.  We know that our vision of public education provides a strong and equitable way of providing a valuable resource to all citizens, but we also know that the message isn't being received by enough people. 

What exactly is this vision of public education that would close gaps, unite communities and provide opportunities for a more sustainable future for our society?  While there may be many versions of this vision, here is what I would like to see become the focus of discussion as we work to truly reform our public schools.

Stop living, working and educating in fear.  Right now everyone in education is operating under the specter of failure and fear.  Whether it is educators fearing the next cut, the next initiative or the next media story about failing schools, families wondering how their child is being disadvantaged or underserved, administrators looking over their shoulders or politicians using all this to garner votes the fear in public education is tangible.  Education is supposed to be about hope and opportunity, yet we have turned it into a quagmire of fear, anger and divisive dialog.  Instead of preaching about accountability and looking for ways to find problems, our leaders need to begin talking about a common vision for education that unites us.  This won't come at the higher levels of leadership, but rather must begin at the local and individual level.  We need to have conversations with neighbors, friends and families to change the climate around education and public schooling.    

Truly share decision making power with employees and those knowledgeable about education at the classroom and school level.  Few, if any, of the major decisions about education are made by educators who are directly connected to classrooms.  This is true at all levels of the system and simply put, needs to change.  Once again, this needs to happen at the local school and district level.  Instead of having decisions made by administrative groups in isolation, educators need to be consulted, and need to be a part of the decision making processes from start to finish.  This will not only result in better policies, but also will eliminate some of the barriers that come with the existing mistrust that exists between educators and administrators.  There is a long history of adversarial relationships here, and it needs to change.  Everyone in a school system should be united and supportive of each other for the system to work.  This doesn't mean lock-step agreement, but rather mechanisms for productive dialog to occur. 

We also need to build on the existing strengths that exist within every school and every district.  Too many times we see decision makers looking outside of their own staffs to find answers to the challenges that exist.  Yet, the professionals who were hired to work in schools are where the answers can be found.  Whether curricular or policy decisions, the professionals who work in schools, with students are the best resource for potential solutions.  This doesn't mean we ignore the expertise and resources that exist outside our schools, but we start our conversations internally first.     

Make things relevant and important, not easier.  As an educator I am constantly hearing about how this policy, this curriculum or this resource was chosen to make my job easier, or to take something "off my plate."  I can tell you that I am not alone when I say that I knew I was getting a "full plate" when I decided to become an educator.  I knew I would be putting in long hours and spending sleepless nights trying to address the needs of my students.  I don't want an empty plate, nor do I want a plate filled with desserts and "fluff."  I want to tackle the "meat" of the challenges that exist and am fully prepared to do so on all levels. 

This means that I don't want to spend my time figuring out how to fill out a form, administer an assessment, learn how to teach a standardized curriculum, or gain knowledge about another initiative that doesn't really help my students or improve my teaching.  Too much of my time is spent doing these things and creating a system that makes this easier isn't in my or my students best interest.  We are overwhelming educators with non-essential tasks masked as "vitally important" and then giving them "relief" in the form of more efficient bureaucratic procedures, or standardized curriculums.  It is no wonder that educators who worked in the time when we could develop our own integrated curriculums and teach students based on their individual needs are leaving the profession in droves.        

Dismiss the myths of rigor and elevated standards.  Part of the fear and apprehension around education exists in the myth that somehow our students are not being challenged and our educators are not being held accountable.  Yet, most non-educators I talk to who come into a school are amazed at what students are learning and what we are expecting them to do on a daily basis.  Our students are being exposed to a variety of challenging tasks and concepts every day, and are being assessed beyond any reasonable expectation.  In fact, in many ways they are being asked to do things beyond what is developmentally appropriate and then labeled as "at-risk" or "behind" when they fail to achieve the set benchmark.

The new standards and increased "rigor" that we are experiencing in education isn't a reality.  After spending a half day of professional development exploring new rubrics for writing, several veteran teachers I was with looked at each other and shrugged off the idea that the "bar had been raised" for our students.  Instead, we had new words and more concrete ways to express what we were already telling our students. 

It is also true that "raising expectations" such as knowing math facts, applying algorithms and reading more non-fiction text at earlier grade levels doesn't close achievement gaps.  Instead we see our students who were already "successful" maintaining their status, while our at-risk students fall further behind.  In part this is due to the disconnect between applying culturally and linguistically relevant practices in classroom activities and then assessing students in more traditional, individualized ways.  It is also a product of the fact that not every student will learn in the same ways and forcing traditional methods of problem solving on them won't change this reality.

Finally, rigor and high expectations already exist in classrooms in ways that our new assessments and curriculums don't demonstrate.  Take for example the skills involved in opinion writing.  In my classroom students are expected to use multiple sources to develop an informed opinion and then work to express this in written and verbal formats.  Using this type of instruction we have had discussions about achievement gaps, affirmative action and how to get more time to eat in the cafeteria (and better lunch selections as well).  Many of our current assessments and curriculum require students to rely on only one or two sources for information.  In our effort to expose students to a wide variety of types of writing we restrict our ability to explore any genre in greater depth.    

Give real opportunity and flexibility to our students.  In this day and age of "unlimited opportunity" we are seeing many policies enacted that actually limit our students choices.  By testing and tracking student progress from the moment they enter school, we force them into programs that "intervene" and remediate when they really want to explore other options for learning.  By the time they reach the upper elementary level they have established a view of themselves as learners that restricts their vision of what they can explore, learn and become. 
Students become pieces of data very quickly as the numbers of assessments that are required and performed on them increases. 

In our effort to give students a sense of purpose, or pathways, in their educational careers we also constrict their opportunities.  My son's, a freshman in high school, course selection sheet included a career pathway section that would guide him towards a vocational or technical track.  If he wanted to take more AP or broader liberal arts classes this wasn't a real option.  In other words, we are tracking our students away from a diversified learning experience in order to guarantee a sense of concrete purpose.  Of course few, if any of us, really know at the age of 14 what we want to be when we grow up and need to have a wide range of experiences in order to fully develop our potential. 

At the same time we know that the more traditional methods of instruction haven't reached a significant number of students.  Many groups of students are simply dropping out before graduation because they don't see the connection between school and success, or are unable to fulfill the educational demands placed on them.  However, instead of turning their high-school experience into a tech school it would be worthwhile to explore some of the strategies used in alternative educational settings and apply them in all of our schools.    

Identify what we value in education.  Education needs to be more than simply a pathway to prosperity.  Education is valuable simply for the role that it plays in developing complete, happy and engaged humans.  Yet, it also needs to prepare students for employment and citizenship.  These two purposes are not mutually exclusive.  However, for us to blend them together we need to be able and ready to talk about our collective vision for our schools.

This means having difficult conversations, forging alliances and compromising for the good of the greater collective whole.  It also means accepting that education will occupy different roles for different people.  For one person a concrete, technical education serves their purposes well.  For another a liberal arts education with more ambiguity is more desirable.  Our systems need to be able to fulfill the needs of all our students and our community as a whole. 

It also means that our educators need to have a voice, and need to make sure that their voice focuses on social justice and representing the needs of all our students, families and the communities we serve.  Often educators are the only people at the table who are able, or willing to give voice to those who need it the most.  In order to be most effective in this role our educators need their unions, and their unions need to be focused on social justice issues that extend beyond simple contractually bargained items. 

Accept, embrace and guide change as it happens.  Education isn't a static field.  New concepts, information and techniques are constantly being developed and implemented in our effort to best meet the changing needs of our students and society.  Change is difficult, but also a sign of societal health.  Some of the angst that surrounds education today is a symptom of the growing awareness that our society needs to do a better job of addressing the needs of all citizens.  We can no longer simply do things the way they've always been done.  Yet, we must also realize that our public education systems have never been fully supported in ways that would make them equitable and accessible to all.   

There are many positive things happening in education today and we need to build off of our successes while effectively communicating about the reality that currently exists.  At the same time we must also pressure our political and economic leaders to fully support real educational reforms that benefit all students.  Public education deserves the full support of our entire society.  With all of the resources our nation enjoys, there is no reason why our public education system shouldn't be of the highest quality possible for every child and every community.

The Good, The Bad and
The Ugly. . .
The Good . . . We are seeing more and more educators becoming active politically in recent years.  This should translate into more political power for educators and a more positive political climate around education in the future.  

An unusually high number of teachers are running for Chicago City Council seats, propelled by Karen Lewis and financial support from the Chicago Teachers...

A “Stop the Cuts – Save UW” protest will gather at noon Saturday at the Library Mall and march to the state Capitol.|By Pat Schneider


When: February 16th; 6:00 - 9:00 pm
Where: Edgewood College, Madison (Anderson Auditorium, main building)

Leaders from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s teaching assistance union say there is a possibility they would walk off the job in response to Gov. Scott...
The Bad . . . We know that economic inequality is not healthy for our society, and extreme inequality is extremely unhealthy. 

Your portal for news, analysis & facts on economic inequality.

The Ugly . . . Costs for health care continue to rise, health insurance costs are increasing, and MMSD employees may soon be asked to foot the bill.  At the same time we are hearing about how public educators need to tighten their belts top executives in local health care are drawing hefty salaries.  Something needs to be done to correct this imbalance and alter this unsustainable trend.  

Hospital leaders in Madison earn more than the national average of roughly $630,000, and compensation last year for the top executives at Dean Health...|By DAVID WAHLBERG | | 608-252-6125 | @DavidKWahlberg
The Madison School Board discussed the 2015-16...|By Molly Beck | Wisconsin State Journal
Following is MTI Executive Director John Matthews’ response to the State Journal, as regards the discussion of the proposed 2015-16, by the Board of Education Monday evening.

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