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A Debate Over the word “Democracy” in Michigan’s Social Studies Curriculum Lays Bare Conservatives’ Opposition to the Term… and the Concept

April 8, 2019 Leave a comment

A front page article by Dana Goldstein in today’s NYTimes should give everyone in the nation pause. Titled “Is the US a Democracy? A Social Studies Battle Turns on the Nation’s Values“, the article describes a five-year battle over the definition of the government of our country. In a country where it is seemingly impossible to achieve consensus on the teaching of subjects like reading and mathematics— let alone evolution, climate change, and reproduction— it is not surprising that reaching a consensus on social studies is difficult. But unlike the debates where the facts are clear, social studies content focuses on shared values, and as one who worked in public education for four decades I would have thought that politicians, parents, teachers, and voters would readily agree that we live in a democracy. I write this knowing that I do not believe it is the case— but believing that no organized group would want to argue the fact. As Ms. Goldstein writes, though, I am off-base with that presumption: a proposed revision of Michigan’s standards drops the word “democratic” from “core democratic values,” and reduces the use of the word “democracy”. Why?

The changes were made after a group of prominent conservatives helped revise the standards. They drew attention to a long-simmering debate over whether “republic” is a better term than “democracy” to describe the American form of government.

That the two sides in that tussle tend to fall along party lines, each preferring the term that resembles their party name, plays no small part in the debate. But members of the conservative group also brought to the table the argument that K-12 social studies should be based on a close, originalist reading of the United States’ founding documents.

They contended that the curriculum ought to focus more on the nation’s triumphs than its sins.And they pushed for revisions that eliminated “climate change,” “Roe v. Wade” and references to gay and lesbian civil rights.

Given a desire to base social studies on “a close, originalist reading of the United States’ founding documents”  the elimination of the terms “…”climate change,” “Roe v. Wade” and references to gay and lesbian civil rights” makes perfect sense! After all, the founders didn’t want to allow anyone but white, male landowners to vote. And those who penned the original documents could not foresee the impact that industrialization, advances in medical science, and changing morays might have nearly 250 years in the future.  Indeed, the founders realized that they were not writing a set of commandments since they provided a means of amending their original document, probably because they realized that 250 years prior to the writing of the Constitution literacy was barely in place and the notion of democracy was fanciful given the monarchies and feudal economic systems in place.

The article describes the protracted process that carefully expanded the number of participants in the writing process as it attempted to draft a set of standards that would allow every student in the state to “see themselves” in the instruction. But despite all of the efforts to be inclusive, at this juncture the definition of our government remains elusive. Ms. Goldstein writes:

But in the days before the document was to be sent to the State Board of Education, fundamental questions about how to describe American government and citizenship had not been resolved.

It was not just that some Democratic-leaning committee members liked the term “democracy” while some Republican-leaning members preferred “republic.” The debate was really about bigger disagreements that transcended party lines: about how to deal with populism and protest, and about whether the United States is a unified entity of citizens or a conglomeration of groups divided by race, class, language and other identities.

On March 7, the heads of all the subcommittees gathered at the Historical Society of Michigan in Lansing to go through the draft one last time. The laptop screen of the head writer, a district social studies consultant named Dave Johnson, was projected onto the wall as he made last-minute revisions in a Google document.

It strikes me that process of developing the standards, something I called “management by rough draft” when I was leading schools and school districts, is an apt description of our governing model at it’s best. And when the process was complete, here’s how it ended up:

The list of core values that the standards writers eventually agreed on was “equality; liberty; justice and fairness; unalienable individual rights (including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness); consent of governed; truth; common good.”

And after months of sometimes bitter debate, the group decided these values could still be called “democratic.” As part of a compromise, the nation’s political system would be referred to primarily as “American government,” but also, in some instances, “constitutional government” and — yes — “democracy.”

But the conservative lawmaker who protested initially and whose protests led to the lengthy and contentious debate, was not pleased.

Mr. Colbeck, the former state senator who had helped write the previous draft, was displeased. Calling the nation a democracy was not “politically neutral and accurate,” he said.

As one who leans left, I agree. I believe we are now living in a plutocracy…. and I would have to believe that Mr. Colbeck and his anti-democratic colleagues who support an originalist interpretation of the Constitution would be OK with that. After all, Mr. Colbeck is a white male who owns land… HE would be able to participate in making decisions about the direction our country is headed.

In the end, Ms. Goldstein final sentence concludes that our debate about who we are will continue…. and implicitly agrees that the management-by-rough-draft will persist:

The process of retelling the nation’s history — deciding what gets left out and who is heard from — never ends.

I hope she is right… and that the pendulum that is now swung in the direction of the plutocrats who want to change the core values of our nation swings to the left.

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ESSA and the “Death of the Compassionate Democracy”

March 18, 2019 Comments off

NYTimes columnist Margaret Renkyl offers a scary and scathing insight into the synergistic efforts of the religious right and pro-business libertarians to undermine democracy in Tennessee in the name of God and mammon. In so doing she describes how the notorious Koch brothers use the causes of the religious right to help advance their goals, which are described in Nancy Maclean’s book “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America”as follows:

According to Dr. MacLean, the Koch network’s goal — and the goal of all legislators in thrall to the Kochs’ PACs — is to weaken unions, suppress voter turnout, privatize public education, undercut climate science, roll back existing environmental protections, dismantle the social safety net and, of course, stack the courts with sympathetic judges.To enact that unpopular agenda, they’ve had to make common cause with the religious right.

And so we have a world where religious zealots who presumably believe in the teachings of Jesus are stripping poor people of medical coverage, relegating their children to substandard schools, and subjecting all of their fellow citizens to polluted air and water… all in the name increasing the bottom line of corporations.

Ms. Renkyl’s column is full of excellent insights, but it’s closing paragraph overlooks one reality that is most unsettling:

For all its often-empty swagger, the Tennessee General Assembly has made one thing very clear: If Americans don’t start paying closer attention to what’s happening in statehouses across the country, the republic may never recover.

The one reality that Ms. Renkyl overlooks is that Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, the champion of the bi-partisan disaster known as ESSA, has enabled states like Tennessee to set their own standards for education and, in so doing, effectively support the notion that STATES should be able to define curriculum standards… and if Ms. Renkyl doesn’t think that the Koch brothers are willing to throw science education standards, reading lists, and literacy under the bus in the name of free enterprise she is not paying attention herself.

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If It’s Booker vs. Trump? I May Seriously Consider “None of the Above”

March 11, 2019 Comments off

A number of friends I know who do not follow the privatization movement closely see Cory Booker as a viable alternative to Donald Trump. An eloquent African-American who embodies racial justice and has ascended the political ladder from Mayor of Newark to U.S. Senator, Mr. Booker is the heir apparent to the Clinton-Gore-Obama legacy of centrism in the Democratic Party— a level headed moderate. But, as Jacobin writer Eric Blanc reports in his bluntly titled article “Cory Booker Hates Public Schools” Mr. Booker is really the embodiment of neoliberalism, a candidate who fully embraced every element of the so-called “school reform movement”, and— therefore— is a candidate who would attract both Wall Street and Silicon Valley backing.

I am among many voters who begrudgingly cast a vote for Hillary Clinton knowing that such a vote effectively endorsed the Obama-Duncan legacy but fearing (rightly as it turned out) that Donald Trump’s direction for public education would be even worse. If Mr. Booker is the nominee for the Democrats, who can public educators– or for that matter any public employees– turn to?

Over the past two decades I’ve witnessed NCLB, RTTT, and now ESSA, take instructional decisions out of the hands of teachers and put them in the hands of those who design standardized tests. At the same time, governance decisions about public education moved from local school boards to the State Houses who favor test-and-punish methods and free market solutions to public schools. Ultimately vouchers will enable all but the neediest parents to abandon public education in favor of sectarian and/or high-priced private schools… and while those schools will be free from the constraints of teaching-to-the-test the public schools will continue to be “measured” by standardized tests linked to age-based grade-level cohorts.

Given the devolution of public schools under GOP and neoliberal leaders, I may well cast a vote for none-of-the-above if I am faced with Booker vs. Trump. I await some kind of word from the other Democratic candidates on their positions on public education… but do so in dread for I fear that the “reform” movement has captured the imagination of voters.

The Beat Goes On: Oakland Joining Denver and LA Pushing Back Against Billionaire Reformers

February 15, 2019 Comments off

The first three paragraphs of Nick French’s Jacobin article provides a good overview of the national pushback that is underway:

Wherever there’s a battle over public education lately, a billionaire is somehow involved. Los Angeles, Newark, the “education reform” project as a whole — the ultrarich always have their hands in efforts to antagonize teachers.

One city they’ve now set their sights on: Oakland, where teachers are in the middle of union contract negotiations and just authorized a strike. Some teachers stayed out of school in one-day wildcat strikes in December and January, joined by many of their students. According to posts circulating on Facebook and Instagram, Oakland students have planned to call out sick in solidarity with teachers today.

Just like other teachers’ union battles these days, the contract fight pits students and working people against billionaire pro-corporate school reformers and the politicians backing them.

Slowly but surely the word seems to be getting out…. privatization is corroding public education and undermining the kind of instruction that teachers provide to children. MAYBE one of the political parties will realize that their “bi-partisan” support for the test-and-punish “reform” beloved of the billionaires and privatizers is hurting children, demoralizing teachers, and diminishing middle class jobs.

NY Times Education Reporter Sees Change Blowing in the Wind as Teachers Reclaim High Ground

February 4, 2019 Comments off

Dana Goldstein, a veteran education reporter for the NYTimes wrote an op ed piece recently reviewing the changes she has witnessed in the coverage on public schools over the past thirteen years. The biggest change is that the union and teacher bashing that she witnessed at the outset of her career in 2006 has ebbed and in its place is a new respect for both unions and teachers. She writes:

I was at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, when one of the hottest tickets was to a panel discussion in which rising stars in the party, including Cory Booker, then the mayor of Newark, spoke harshly of teachers’ unions and their opposition to charter schools, which are publicly funded, privately run and generally not unionized. Union leaders argue that charters draw public dollars and students away from traditional schools…

Back then, it was hip for young Democrats to be like Barack Obama, supportive of school choice and somewhat critical of teachers’ unions. But now, the winds have changed pretty drastically.The revival of democratic socialism within the party has left many elected officials — even Mr. Booker — much more hesitant, it seems, to critique organized labor. Across the country, red-clad teachers on strike, sometimes dancing and singing, have won the affection of grass-roots progressives over the past year, leading to a new political dynamic around education, just as the Democratic primary field for 2020 emerges…

At this point, I was in complete agreement with Ms. Goldstein’s analysis. But then at the conclusion of that paragraph, she used an oversimplified, deeply flawed, and tired dichotomy to analyze what is happening:

…The emphasis now is on what education experts call “inputs” — classroom funding, teacher pay, and students’ access to social workers and guidance counselors — and less on “outputs,” like test scores or graduation rates.

While she recovered somewhat in the next paragraph by acknowledging that “…both inputs and outputs are important” and that “…the battle is ideological, over what role choice should play in our education system”, she missed the overarching ideological battle: whether public education is a commodity that can be changed through market forces or a public good that must be changed through democratic processes. She also did not make note of the reality that there is no “output” measure that can capture what public schools provide. Neither test scores or graduation rates can indicate whether a student is experiencing daily success in the classroom, is motivated to continue learning after his or her formal education, and is gaining the social and emotional skills needed to support a democracy. Those “outputs” elude fast, cheap, and easy measurement yet they are far more important than the content students are learning. She also overlooks the fact that the inputs needed in today’s public schools are far different than those needed even 13 years ago. Schools are increasingly expected to provide mental health, counseling, and nutritious meals for all students… and the span of students they are expected to educate and care for is expanding as well.

Ms. Goldstein concludes her article with a quote from the late Fred Hechinger, who reported for decades on public schools for the NYTimes:

“I began to realize that a country’s approach to education in general, and especially to its children, could tell more about its social, political and economic background than a whole battery of interviews with politicians.”

What does it say that we are spending no more on schools now than we were when Ms. Goldstein started? What does it say that our so-called “thought leaders” believe public education should be marketed like cars and household appliances? What does it say that despite what we call our federal legislation that we are leaving more and more children behind, we are offering wages that race to the bottom, and we are not providing the funds needed to make certain that every child succeeds?

 

Koch Brothers Plan to Disrupt Public Education, the “Lowest Hanging Fruit”

January 30, 2019 Comments off

The Koch brothers are the most disreputable of all the “reformers”, blatantly seeking profit at the expense of those who were unfortunate enough to be born into families where there wasn’t a billion dollars per year in trust funds…

Meanwhile… in the USDOE, Ms. DeVos is contemplating undoing the supplement vs. supplant language… From where I sit this is related to the Koch takeover: it reinforces the notion that efforts to provide equity is “government overreach” and the regulations that accompany federal dollars are onerous and interfere with innovation… just merge those dollars into local budgets, lower taxes, and use more technology that can be managed by low-wage paraprofessionals… and bingo: the low hanging fruit is picked!

via Koch Brothers Plan to Disrupt Public Education, the “Lowest Hanging Fruit”

DeVos Revisiting Supplement vs. Supplant… A Story that Will be Buried But One that will Undercut School Funding Nationwide

January 30, 2019 Comments off

There is so much happening with the ongoing investigation of the President, the aftershocks to the month long government shutdown, the ongoing debate about the need for a wall, and the severe weather that results from climate change that the USDOE’s intent to review the supplement versus supplant language can get pushed off the stage altogether. Here’s a report from Politico earlier this week on the USDOE’s decision to revisit the “supplement vs. supplant” issue:

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION TAKES ON ‘SUPPLEMENT, NOT SUPPLANT’: The Education Department is out with proposed guidance under the Every Student Succeeds Act that DeVos said makes clear to districts that they have “significant flexibility” when it comes to spending.

At issue is a requirement known as “supplement, not supplant.” The requirement was meant to ensure that poor and minority students get their fair share of state and local education funding by requiring that the federal education funds enhance, but not replace, state and local funds.

The department says the requirement “had become restrictive and burdensome.” Now, “in order to comply, a school district need only show that its methodology to allocate state and local resources to schools does not take into account a school’s Title I status,” the department said in a statement. “For many school districts, the requirement can be met using the school district’s current methodology for allocating state and local resources.”

In previous years, when Title I funding was “…more restrictive and burdensome”, districts had to demonstrate that the federal funds targeted for students raised in poverty were, in fact, spent on those students. In my experience as a Superintendent, this DID require a lot of complicated bookkeeping and there were some occasions where auditors from the USDOE could be picky, but these accounting rigors did ensure that federal funds did not displace the local funds. This strict segregation of federal funds from local and state funds meant that ALL districts— including those serving affluent students— would raise their voices in support of federal funds that were earmarked for children raised in poverty and especially those funds that were earmarked for disabled children.

Those who want the federal government to stay out of education often fail to acknowledge why the federal government got INTO education to begin with. The federal government was advocated for the voiceless children raised in poverty and shunted out of the public schools due to their race or disabilities. Most elected officials at the state and local levels ignored the needs of these children and because their parents did not have the ears of the officials their children suffered in underfunded and sub-standard facilities. The War on Poverty and the Disability Rights movements injected federal funds into public education and with those funds came the so-called “restrictive and burdensome” regulations that anti-public education voters despise.

This just in: government regulations protect the poor and disabled children from underfunded and substandard schools in the same way government regulation protect all citizens from pollution and foul water. Yes, government regulations can be “restrictive and burdensome”, but that is a small price to pay for a just and equitable public education system.