Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Anti-Union Movement in Wisconsin: Myth vs. Fact

The Forum for Education and Democracy has set out to distinguish between the myths and the facts around the turmoil in Wisconsin as thousands continue to march on the Capitol to oppose anti-union legislation.  They ask their readers to rethink some of the myths that are circulating.  We share their ideas about the myths with our readers to rethink also.

•Myth #1: Public employees in Wisconsin and elsewhere are overpaid. The truth is they’re probably underpaid when you factor in things like level of education. In Wisconsin, nearly 60 percent of public employees hold at least a four-year college degree – double the private sector workforce. That’s because many are teachers and other professionals. When you compare apples to apples, they earn 4.8 percent less than comparable private sector workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

•Myth #2: Public employees aren’t sacrificing their fair share. In the last round of bargaining in Wisconsin, the American Federation of Teachers alone offered more than $100 million in concessions in the form of higher health insurance premiums, furlough days and increased pension contributions. In Ohio, unions representing public employees gave back more than $200 million in concessions, essentially balancing the budget on their own backs.

•Myth #3: High employee benefits got us into this budget mess. Wisconsin was looking at a budget surplus until Republicans gave $117 million in business tax breaks. The reality is that the state is now facing a budget gap, but the gap is 13 percent of the budget. The average gap in other states is 20 percent, so things in Wisconsin are actually better than the norm.

•Myth #4: The state retirement system is in trouble. Again, Wisconsin is in a better position than many states. The $72 billion Wisconsin Retirement System is over 97 percent funded according to the Center of Retirement Research, a non-partisan think tank. By comparison, the fund in neighboring Illinois is only 52 percent funded.

•Myth #5: The governor has no other option. This is clearly not the case. The public employee unions have already said they will give him concessions to erase the budget gap – if he backs off his pledge to crush their bargaining rights. Also, Wisconsin and other states have large amounts of unspent stimulus funds that could be used to ease the burden. If ever there was a rainy day, this is it!

Friday, February 18, 2011

John Dewey: America's philosopher of democracy and his importance to education

Our journal's consulting editor, A.G. Rud, Dean of the College of Education at Washington State University, has produced a short YouTube video on "John Dewey: America's philosopher of democracy and his importance to education."  As one commentary on YouTube put it, "Well done. Not an easy task to give an overview of JD and his more than 700 articles in 140 journals, and approximately 40 books."  We agree.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Our 100th Post Provides Translator for our Global Readership

Today marks our 100th post to this blog.  We have added the Google Translator to the blog today to assist our ever-growing global readership.  I was going to use "Babel Fish" that will translate an entire page, I believe, but that doesn't seem to work on this blog.  Google seems to be limited to 300 characters.  (You can go to Google Translate Homepage link on this page to copy in larger text but that is another step.)  If anyone has recommendations on a useful translator, let us know.  We want a very convenient and accurate translator for our readers.  In the meantime, try it out and see what you think.

Ok -- after playing around with this, I found that if you go to the Google Translate Homepage link on this page, you can just type in our website address or URL and it will translate the entire page.  Or you can just copy a post and translate it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

An Open Letter to President Barack Obama

We have printed several posts on the direction of President Obama’s educational reform on this blog. (See all) Today we are reprinting with permission an open letter by Professor Daniel Tanner published in Education Week to continue the conversation.

An Open Message to President Barack Obama
By Daniel Tanner
Professor emeritus in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University

Education Week
Published Online: February 1, 2011
Published in Print: February 2, 2011, as An Open Message to President Barack Obama
Vol. 30, Issue 19, Pages 22-23

Reprinted with Permission

A principal conclusion of the American creed is the belief in public education. The United States leads the world with the oldest continuing public school system, universal secondary education, and open-access higher education.

President Obama, when you were elected in 2008, teachers, parents, and most of us with an abiding faith in the public school envisioned a new era of school support and renewal in accord with the hopes and promises engendered by your election campaign. Instead, the centerpiece of your education program so far, the Race to the Top, reinforces, expands, and intensifies the No Child Left Behind Act of President George W. Bush and the America 2000 manifesto of President George H.W. Bush—all of which have embraced nationalized high-stakes testing as the instrument of accountability imposed upon children and teachers. Their presidential agendas, and yours, have promoted the charter school movement. But your Race to the Top competition has gone even further in promoting external testing and splitting up the American school system through the federal support of charter schools.

As with your predecessors, your unrelenting faith in high-stakes testing as the key metric for accountability not only lacks validity, but also is likely to have many unintended deleterious consequences for curriculum and the attitudes students have toward learning. No nation has ever tested itself out of an educational or social problem. The public schools cannot be blamed for children victimized by impoverishment or the failures of other social institutions. Yet our public schools have willingly and eagerly accepted responsibility for all the children of all the people.

Early in the 20th century, John Dewey warned of the need to invest in building and strengthening our unitary school system by providing for adequate facilities and resources, and of a danger in splitting up the school system by forming yet another kind of school even though it might be the cheaper route.

Mr. President, you have repeatedly boasted that our nation has the world’s leading system of higher education. But this would not have been possible without a unitary public school system capped by a uniquely American invention: the inclusive comprehensive high school with its comprehensive curriculum.

Under your initiatives, children and adolescents are being denied access to a full and rich curriculum and facilities with modern studios, shops, laboratories, and libraries where they can really work at their studies. And instead of undertaking the needed funding for a rich, full curriculum for the renewal of the American unitary school system, you are calling, in effect, for it to be dismantled and broken up into charter schools when the body of research fails to support your strategy.

In our large cities, school capacity is commonly calculated by the number of seats. But children and adolescents are not made to learn by sitting and listening for most of the day. Children like to engage in active investigation—in looking into things to find out how they work. They like to construct things; they seek to engage in socialization through language, play, and collaboration; they love to draw, paint, sculpt, and sing; they want to learn to play a musical instrument—and all of this requires some physical freedom from their seats.

Standardized tests are error-oriented. Real education is idea-oriented. At a time when our greatest need is to build a more civil society for American democracy, the American high-stakes testing syndrome has gone to such an extreme that the New York state commissioner of education has declared, as reported in The New York Times, that teacher education programs should spend less time on abstract notions like the “role of school in democracy.”

Back in the years of the Cold War, our public schools were blamed for contributing to the alleged missile gap and the prospect of losing the space race. Federal initiatives resulted in curricular priorities in our schools given to mathematics and science, to be led by university scholar-specialists. What students learned from these initiatives was that they did not like math and science. The consequence was that university enrollments in those disciplines plummeted, leading the president of the American Chemical Society to declare in his 1967 address at the society’s annual meeting, “We have committed a crime against a generation.” Earlier, Harvard University President James B. Conant had called for a moratorium on national testing. The situation is far worse today.

The current assault on teacher tenure and unions also raises a great danger to American democracy. Virtually every modern democracy embraces teacher tenure in recognition that the teacher must be free to teach if the rising generation is to be free to learn. Over the course of our modern history, our schools have been subjected to the censorship of curricular materials, with pressures exerted against teachers who address controversial problems. The external national-standardized-testing epidemic effectively diminishes the prospects of addressing controversial issues or ideas in the classroom.

Your promotion of teacher merit pay based on test scores can be traced to the system of “payment by results” practiced in 19th-century English schools serving children of the poor. For the privileged, such a factory-like production scheme was deemed inappropriate and offensive. Your initiatives under the Race to the Top competition are reducing American teachers to the status of employees, whereas teachers are recognized and treated as professionals in almost every other civilized nation. Year after year, the Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll reveals that the public, as a whole, sees the biggest problem facing the public schools as the “lack of financial support/funding/money.”

There is a great danger to our democracy with out-of-school adolescents constituting by far the largest unemployed group. Sigmund Freud held that work defines one’s place in the human community. We cannot continue to ignore the consequences of social disaffection resulting from the massive and growing population of youths who are out of school and out of work.

Toward the end of the Clinton administration, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich belatedly found that his proposal for a German-style apprenticeship system in our country to solve the problem of unemployed American youths was unacceptable to the American public. At the time, I was participating in the annual meeting of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. At the conference, the air was buzzing in anticipation of a national plan for consolidating, or at least coordinating, the last two years of high school with the two years of community college as a four-year unit for vocational-technical education. Through what is known as the 2+2 or tech-prep program, adolescents would be able to bridge the chasm between high school and gainful postsecondary employment and higher education. In the mid-20th century, a committee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences pointed out that if the public schools actually tried to carry out the purely academic program advocated for the high school by many university liberal arts professors, our whole national life would be in danger of collapse. Unfortunately, we backed away—beginning in the 1960s—from a commitment to meaningful preparation of young people for life after high school.

Mr. President, your metrics for determining school success treat the problems of education as problems to be worked out with a yardstick—to paraphrase the late American philosopher Boyd H. Bode. As Bode reminded us in his book Modern Educational Theory, “We put shoes on a child to protect his health and not to bind his feet.” The Race to the Top approach is relegating the studies and activities that children love—civic education, the arts, career education—to the bottom rung of the academic ladder.

At the opening of the 20th century, John Dewey, addressing parents in a lecture and essay titled “The School and Social Progress,” declared: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon, it destroys our democracy.” The American people should expect no less of our national leadership.

See Also
For a teacher’s response to Race to the Top, read: "A Letter to My President."

Daniel Tanner is a professor emeritus in the graduate school of education at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J. He is the co-author of Curriculum Development: Theory Into Practice (Pearson Prentice Hall, 4th ed., 2007) and has written extensively on the history and politics of the school curriculum in the United States and internationally.

Editor:  Despite his educational reform direction, President Obama knows what kind of school children deserve as illustrated by the choice he made for his own children.  For a look at the kind of education Malia and Sasha are receiving, see our post by David Marshak, entitled, "Obama's School Choice:  Shouldn't the Education that Malia and Sasha Receive Be Available to All?"

Watch for our upcoming issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy on the theme: "The Education and Schools our Children Deserve" scheduled to go online in the summer of 2011.  Our next issue in the summer of 2012 will focus on "The School-to-Prison Pipeline."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Rational and Fruitful Discussion of the Achievement Gap

We have posted several posts on the achievement gap in the past along with critiques on the simplistic solutions often offered  --- close down schools, blame unions, etc.  Today, we are pleased to reprint an article by Eric Cooper and Yvette Jackson of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education with their permission.  Our readers will have the opportunity for a change to read a more insightful and rational analysis on confronting this very series social issue.

The 'Fierce Urgency of Now': It's Time to Close the Gap
Narrowing Race and Culture Gaps Between Students and Teachers

By Eric Cooper & Yvette Jackson
National Urban Alliance for Effective Education

Education Week
Published Online: January 25, 2011
Published in Print: January 26, 2011, as The 'Fierce Urgency of Now'
Vol. 30, Issue 18, Pages 22-23

Reprinted with Permission

The recent national conversation about our K-12 schools has done a remarkable job of reducing complex issues to simple choices: Failed traditional public schools or successful charter schools? Ineffective union teachers or excellent nonunion teachers?

And the list goes on—though not for very long.

The truth is that these conversations are the easy ones and not the ones that will solve the real challenges in underperforming schools. Just below the surface are far more perplexing issues of race and culture that continue to leave students of color behind academically and economically.

To be sure, the nation has made the performance of students of color a priority, at least in terms of tracking and documenting student achievement so that schools can’t hide behind top performers. But the focus on accountability that made closing academic achievement gaps a national priority has revealed another chasm that is harder to measure and equally pervasive.

Teachers in urban classrooms often feel unable to connect with students of color or students from cultures different from their own. This cultural and relationship gap is one of the biggest barriers to helping students of color reach their intellectual and academic potential. The teacher’s role is especially important for students who face daunting family circumstances and primarily depend on school for their intellectual and character development.

We know this because for 20 years teachers have been telling us so, asking for our help, and thanking us when they connect with students in ways that promote student growth and confidence. Students also know this. In survey after survey, students say they want caring adult relationships and teachers who understand them and their communities.

Nearly a decade ago, the No Child Left Behind Act offered hope for pushing through such barriers by pressuring states to revamp teacher preparation, define quality teaching, and put a high-quality teacher in every classroom. But today, just as surely as NCLB remains on the books, its goals for teaching are more an aspiration than a reality—particularly for African-American and Latino students. That is because neither NCLB nor resulting professional development has focused sufficiently on systemic ways to help teachers fully respond to the needs and identify the strengths of culturally and racially diverse students.

Today, far too many students of color sit in classrooms waiting for opportunities that will elicit and nurture their attention, creativity, and intellectual potential. They long to excel beyond the potential that their schools, teachers, and other adults see in them. But while they wait, many will see their skills atrophy, perpetuating the serious issues of underachievement by students of color.

Today, far too many students of color sit in classrooms waiting for opportunities that will elicit and nurture their attention, creativity, and intellectual potential.

We can end their waiting by acknowledging that teachers often do not feel qualified to bridge gaps in experience and background with students in ways that draw out students’ strengths, make connections with them, and maximize their potential. This doesn’t mean that these teachers are “bad” or can’t succeed with some students, but instead that these educators need new strategies and ways of thinking.

There is a lot we can do right away, starting with how we as a nation approach professional development. We must:

• Shift the perspective of teachers and schools so they no longer see students primarily as test scores and put too much focus on their weaknesses. Teachers need practices that help identify, affirm, and build on student strengths, using “dynamic” assessments and observations on how learners approach rigorous content. When students and teachers learn that a relentless focus on increasingly complex content is ultimately more important than the grades students receive, the more successful students become.

• Help teachers who feel unprepared to meet the needs of students of color or economically disadvantaged students. Classroom relationships are especially challenging for many of these teachers. Not knowing what is meaningful and relevant to students and misunderstanding reasons for their underperformance intensifies these challenges.

• Give teachers strategies that connect learning with the lives of their students. This will help students understand concepts and other classroom material and, just as importantly, allow them to demonstrate understanding and build their confidence.

• Design professional development that is part of long-term learning objectives that are embedded in curriculum, creates high expectations on a daily basis, engages students in the professional development with their teachers, and provides strategies and accountability measures to meet these expectations.

• Provide greater leadership. Too few principals are adequately involved in professional development, and the result is a gap between leadership, support, and lasting momentum.

We must be realistic about the challenges teachers face. It is not easy to believe that a 5th grader who is reading at the 2nd grade level and inattentive is going to be at grade level any time soon without extensive support. But the wrong assumption is that the student doesn’t care or doesn’t want to participate or learn. Instead, it may take a structured conversation with that student, a survey of personal interests, or a connection between learning and the real world. The barriers can be broken down.

If a teacher finds that the student was rarely read to outside of school, then someone should read to him. If that student loves exploration, then someone can read to him about exploration and the academics embedded in the texts. But don’t stop there. Once he’s interested, get him to talk about his interest and then expose him to virtual field trips to prepare a presentation on exploration using multimedia resources.

The next part of this journey unfolds when the students are assigned increasingly complex projects in which they mentor others. In this way, the goal is not the grade or a test score, but sustained effort. This kind of effort helps students and teachers get beyond “stereotype threats”—the destructive forces that encourage students to play down to lowest expectations, particularly widely held beliefs about their intelligence.

Re-evaluating how we address the needs of students of color is not an option. Today, on average, 55 percent of black and brown Americans graduate from high school, while the graduation rate for white Americans is approximately 78 percent. Sadly, many of those students who drop out end up going to prison. Nearly two-thirds of America’s inmates are people of color.

We can do better if we recognize that wide-scale improvement cannot be boiled down to simple choices between options that promise pockets of excellence. There are some 3.5 million teachers in the United States. Real change will mean engaging all of them—and especially those in urban centers who are seeking help.

Only then will we begin to break down barriers to high intellectual achievement that otherwise will condemn another generation of brown and black children to poverty or worse. Unfortunately, for these children, society has created circumstances where failure is an option. This will continue if that is the option we adults allow. We can do more, though we must do it now. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us of this when he spoke of the “fierce urgency of now.” Collectively we can do it. We must do it.

Eric Cooper is the president and founder of the nonprofit National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, in Syosset, N.Y. Yvette Jackson is the organization’s chief executive officer.