Thursday, January 26, 2012

Governor Walker, It's Personal

Last night, I did my social studies duty and suffered through Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s State of the State Address. I agonized through Gov. Walker’s disingenuous thanks to public school teachers, his reiteration of his largely gratuitous education reforms, his excitement over eliminating the state deficit solely on the backs of teachers and public employees, and his self-promotion in ending collective bargaining for public employees.

Gov. Walker’s address chiefly pandered to his conservative colleagues and the Wisconsin business community. However, he did have some parting advice for angry Wisconsinites, like me. Gov. Walker’s final thought:  “Don’t personalize your differences.”  

Instantly, Gov. Walker’s concluding message reminded me of the often-repeated Godfather line, “It's not personal Sonny, it's strictly business.” Similarly, Gov. Walker might view this past year as strictly business from his distant perch, but for those of us directly affected by his radical initiatives—it’s not business, it’s justifiably personal. 

Public education is personal. Schools involve people—not products. Gov. Walker may be able to emotionally detach himself from the educational funding policies he implements, but I take Gov. Walker’s political agenda personally when I see my students (and my own children) going without important services and programs thanks to his radical shift in the public school aid formula.

It is understandably personal when Gov. Walker’s initiatives directly harm my family. The adverse effects of Gov. Walker’s cuts to education hurt my children—now serviced in factory-like class sizes. My wife and I (both educators) now have to manage more with less and for less in our classrooms. Additionally, the unexpected tens of thousands of dollars my wife and I will pay out over the course of our professional careers as part of Gov. Walker’s initiatives is a real hardship on our middle-class family budget—especially on the heels of funding our own professional development (graduate work).

Discrimination feels personal—especially when Gov. Walker talks of “shared sacrifice,” but targets only teachers and public servants to fill the state deficit. Gov. Walker is well aware that the state budget deficit was the direct result of a recession created by unregulated investors--who recklessly spurred and crashed a housing bubble. I take it personally when these same investors get out of paying one extra penny while hard-working, middle class public workers foot the bill for their mistakes. Equally egregious, Gov. Walker gushed in his speech about a $100 savings in property taxes for some Wisconsinites, yet he insensitively ignores the thousands of dollars individual teachers and public servants sacrificed to make this happen.

I am personally offended when Gov. Walker fawns over the ideas business leaders have for running our state, but then hypocritically ignores the insights and experience of educational leaders. It is personal when I see non-educators, like Gov. Walker and his bureaucrats, implementing unproven business measures—like merit pay, data-driven education, and competitioninto our collaboratively designed profession. I take it personally when my union rights--that have provide steadiness, perspective, and common mission to public education—are stripped for political purposes.  

Education is an intricate, intimate, and people-driven profession. Business-minded politicians, like Gov. Walker, must learn that public education is much more personal, complex, democratic, and multifarious than most business environments. A diversity of educators, taxpayers, parents, and students all have a voice in this complicated conversation.

This teacher’s final thought:  “Education is not a business Gov. Walker, it’s personal. To sincerely move Wisconsin’s schools forward—let’s use more personal touch.” 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Governor Walker's Gratuitous Reforms

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker unveiled another round of largely gratuitous education reforms this past week. Most bothersome, Gov. Walker proposes more government-mandated measurements to allegedly make schools, teachers, and administrators more accountable.     

The cost of such accountability initiatives should be at the forefront of this legislative discussion. However, Gov. Walker neglected to provide the important financial details about his latest education proposals. In the wake of radical education budgetary cuts, it is reckless to heap expectantly expensive accountability measures on Wisconsin’s DPI, local school districts, and charter schools.

The business-minded Gov. Walker usually promotes initiatives for smaller government and less regulation—yet paradoxically seems to have no qualms creating more unproven, bureaucratic regulations for local public education. I am sure Gov. Walker and his reform supporters will argue that these measures are additional “tools” for parents in seeking out the best public education for their children. However, this free-market thinking applied to public education is dubious, at best. I contend Governor Walker’s accountability measures, like previous attempts at accountability,  are a waste of precious educational energies and dollars.

A student’s education is largely a complex, intimate, qualitative experience. Students, parents, and educators working collaboratively is paramount to meaningful student learning. Expensive, quantitative rating systems proposed by Gov. Walker are a blow to the collaborative, intimate, caring communities educators are trying to create in classrooms and schools. State-mandated regulations are not the answer to the educator accountability question.

In fact, if Gov. Walker is sincerely in search of better schools, he and other accountability-obsessed reformers need to start asking the more important questions. They should not be asking how government can better regulate schools, but rather how society can better support educating all students. I yield in this final argument to Chris Nye of the Whole Child Initiative.

We need to shift the paradigm and refuse to conduct discussion with the implicit agreement that accountability-focused thinking will ever be able to get to what is most important in child development and education. Accountability for any large, bureaucratic system necessarily means quantitative measures. What we want for our own children...integrity, inquiry, intuition, initiative, creativity…doesn't fit that paradigm. (Chris Nye, blog posting)

Most educators I engage with have already made this important paradigm shift for better schooling. Wisconsin educators now need our elected officials to support us in supporting our students.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Nonsense, Like Blaming Teachers

Blaming teachers for growing ignorance is like blaming doctors for rising obesity rates.

American obesity rates continue to grow at a scary pace. Fairly, few fault physicians for a fatter America. Despite this unhealthy trend, giving the healthcare system a free pass on the growing obesity epidemic makes sense. Physicians are not culpable for Americans increasingly sedentary habits and unhealthy diets.

The public should afford educators this same reasoning. American students continue to falter on international assessments. The public does not pretend that United States medical doctors are responsible for less healthy Americans, yet many radical reformers make-believe teachers are largely accountable for the growing struggles of American students.

The Center for DiseaseControl and Prevention (CDC) finds that “the causes of obesity in the United States are complex and numerous, and they occur at social, economic, environmental, and individual levels." This makes sense. 

Let us cut and paste this thinking. The causes of ignorance in the United States are complex and numerous, and they occur at social, economic, environmental, and individual levels. No single bullet or superman is going to tackle a complex issue like ineffective learning. 

Reformers must look at perceived problems in America’s learning habits from all these abovementioned levels. Genuine reform must examine larger issues--namely the rising poverty among our students (as recent studiesindicate). Solutions must be bigger and broader than concentrating on greater accountability of teachers.    
The CDC’s approach to America’s obesity epidemic is a model of how education reformers should proceed. Recognizing the widespread problems associated with obesity, the CDC lays out a community-based plan for “Making Health Easier.”  This plan has no time for nonsense, like blaming practitioners.

Likewise, education reformers should formulate comprehensive plans that address the extensive problems associated with ineffective learning. Education reformers should adapt the CDC motto and work on “Making Learning Easier.” 

This reform model will require quality resources, working with community-wide collaboration, partnerships with teachers, support networks for the needy, ongoing research, and a relentless PR program that promotes a culture of learning in homes, communities, and schools.  This plan has no time for nonsense, like blaming teachers.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

If I Had a Million Dollars

An energetic colleague I respect once publically stated, “I do not think I would work any harder than I do now if I were paid a million dollars a year.”

Growing up in a house with eight siblings and having to share one bathroom, I often dreamed of what I would do if I had a $1,000,000. Prior to my colleague’s comment, my financial fantasies always focused on the merit end of the financial windfall. My million dollar dreams involved lots of travel, some altruistic efforts, some expensive toys, security for my family, and plenty of bathrooms. Never did I consider the sacrifice end of earning the extra million bucks.

After much reflection—stirred by the merit pay proposals bombarding public education in this new age of teacher accountability, I concur with my aforementioned colleague. I would not work any harder if I were paid a million dollars.

I do not want to come off as disingenuous in this post. I am a dreamer to a fault. I would not refuse a million-dollar bone thrown my way. However, I would not work harder. I already put in 40-plus hour workweeks during the regular school year, teach during the summer months, and fill some of my non-contract time with curriculum and teacher development activities. I could work harder, but at the detriment of my children’s development, my marriage, my relationships with extended family, my neighbors, and my community. This sacrifice is not worth a million dollars.

As one of my brothers often says, I am already a king. Even without a $1,000,000--blessed are those who work hard but are involved in their children’s lives, rich in marriage, enriched by time with friends, family, and neighbors, and civically engaged in their community. I, and other educators, try to model this healthy, rich, and balanced lifestyle for our students.

Obviously, a certain balance of work and pay makes for this “kingly” (middle class) world. The current, well-defined pay schedules already used by most school districts provide the security necessary to motivate educators. Consequently, in Wisconsin, we have seen how attacking this security lowers morale.

If merit pay advocates know of a better way for me to teach, prove it to me and I will do it. If pay for performance proponents are concerned about motivating teachers, why not just ask teachers what they really want? I will bet it is not a $1,000,000.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Really Ineffective?

Last November, Wisconsin’s DPI, released the rough draft of its federally mandated teacher evaluation system, titled Wisconsin Framework for Educator Effectiveness. This pending program falls in line with the nation-wide false presumption that teacher ineffectiveness among public school teachers is widespread.

Part of me fears that this program is further MBA-thinking infiltrating education. In the wrong hands, I worry an effectiveness plan could disrupt our collaborative public school culture with the competitive “carrot and stick” mentality prevalent in the business world. Some reformers might recklessly tie the program’s data to unproven ideas like teacher merit pay. I also worry that the accountability system tied to the educator effectiveness program will sap public school monies and energy that could be better spent directly on teacher and curriculum development.

The final product is surely to be billed as another new and revolutionary reform of a presumably failing public school system. A teacher effectiveness overhaul assumes that something is drastically wrong in teacher effectiveness and, therefore, teachers must be held more accountable for student learning and teacher development.

I contend that these presumptions are false. I sometimes feel I stand on an island with few others, when I feel satisfied with my teaching development and the education my children have received in the SDJ. Ironically, without a federally mandated teacher evaluation system in place, I know I have grown as a teacher and have seen how my youngest child is taught differently (and possibly more effectively) than my oldest child. Certainly, I could always do a little better in developing my craft and hope for a bit more for my own kids’ education—but I just do not see the need for an overhaul of a system that already promotes teacher and curriculum development.

Despite my apparent angst, I have actually resigned myself to the tsunami of reform initiatives headed our way. To be fair, the DPI design process for has been very democratic, transparent, and involved many from the public school community—including WEAC. Putting my fears aside, I hope this will be yet another well-meaning school reform wave I will ride out safely.

Spirit of this Blog

In a true spirit of democracy, Superintendent Schulte recently suggested I funnel some of my energies into a “teacher’s perspective” blog. I am going to follow up on her suggestion and hope I did not bite off more than I can chew.

The essence of this blog is to create ongoing discussion about educational policies and opinions affecting our profession and district. A couple years ago, I took a transforming graduate course through UW-Stout that promoted (what Professor Alan Block called) “the complicated conversation” (which I believe was originally penned by the author William Pinar). The course was designed under the premise that curriculum dialogue never settles and involves numerous perspectives that often evolve over time and sometimes to better ideas. We read and wrote many perspectives on complicated matters in that graduate course. My own perspective changed many times in the course of the course’s discussions. I think some of us might call this process learning. 

This blog will be “One Teacher’s Perspective.” In actuality, however, I hope to incorporate more than just my perspective by including the perspectives of some of my favorite educational writers. I also hope some of you will involve yourselves in the complicated conversation.

To be clear, this teacher’s blog does not necessarily represent the views of the Janesville Education Association (JEA) or the School District of Janesville (SDJ), despite my affiliation with both. Appropriate comments will be allowed, but also do not necessarily represent my views, the JEA, or the SDJ. Only registered posters will be allowed to comment on the blog and all posters should realize that this blog is essentially public record.