from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A conversation on education 

A conversation on education

NOTE: This is being crossposted at dailykos, myleftwing, boomantribune,heartlandpac.org, and teacherken.blogspot.com

On Wednesday Sept. 21 I participated in a conference call about education. This was because I was invited as an blogger on education. Tom Vilsack, Governor of Iowa, has established HeartlandPac to help those Democrats running for governor. Among his ideas is to develop a portfolio (hope you like that image, Tom) of points on issues that Democratic candidates for governors can use in their pursuit of elective office. The first topic on which he has focused has been education.

A couple of points. First, Gov. Vilsack was considered to be on Kerry’s short list for VP. Second, many observers consider him a possible candidate for national office in 2008. although he insists that the purpose of this PAC is to help elect Democrats to gubernatorial positions in 2005 (VA and NJ) and 2006/ Third, his wife Christie is herself a long-time teacher. Fourth, Iowa is the only state of which I am aware that has not moved towards high stakes tests for high school graduation. Fifth, in this conversation it is clear that Gov. Vilsack has real awareness in some depth of the nature of the issue about public education: he talked about his criticisms of NCLB - he opposes the kind of high stakes testing, it was not funded as was promised, and he thinks the punitive nature of sanctions, taking money way from schools in trouble, is counterproductive.

There were two bloggers participating, yours truly, and Joe Thomas of Shut Up and Teach. The two of us had an extended conversation privately after the 30 minutes of the conference call, a phone conversation that went for about an hour, despite the fact that it is Joe's wedding anniversary and for me and my wife the 31st anniversary of when our relationship began when we encountered one another at the Bryn Mawr PA railroad station.

Gov. Vilsack believes that education is, after basic public safety, the most important issues governors confront. he has reached out to education bloggers because he is seeking ammunition - what do Democratic candidates say when at Rotary Clubs or chambers of commerce and people raise issues about accountability? HOw do we address the fact that the Republicans have been systematically undercutting public support for public schools

I cannot say that either Joe or came up with any magic bullets in either the conference call or in our later private conversation. Both Joe and I believe that to answer in terms of accountability is to lose before one begins, that - in the terms George Lakoff would use - the frame is wrong.

I will not hear rehearse all that each party said. I did not announce that I was live blogging, and it would be unfair therefore to disclose the entirety of either conversation. Gov. Vilsack listened well, and processed and responded to points both Joe and I raised. And he encouraged us to continue the discussion by posting at www.heartlandpac.org, which is one site at which this will be posted.

What I want to do is share some of my (very preliminary)thinking on this subject. I think the focus has to be on each individual child. And rather than respond by using statistics, follow Reagan’s example and tell stories. Remember, that for many people, when you resort to statistics, their reaction is MEGO (my eyes glaze over) - they cannot connect. Tell a story that has a hook for them, and you have their attention, and you may get their agreement.

So if someone starts talking about the importance of accountability (= high stakes testing and punitive measures for teachers, schools and student) describe a student who the day before the mandatory test found out his grandfather had cancer. Suppose that was your child, and suppose it was your father who had cancer. How important is that test score to you right now?

Respond to the question with another question -- what is the purpose of public schools? The Governor said to produce productive citizens. I might reframe that as citizens who can be productive, but I still have trouble with the adjective -- it is too much framed in what appear to economic terms, and I do not believe that economics are the sole measure of a human being (heck, with what I am paid as a teacher, how could I and still remain sane -- that is, if I am sane, a point on which many of my students might raise a question or two).

I put this out for consideration, and with a request for a wordsmith or two to find a way to phrase this in a more felicitous manner than my meager rhetorical gifts allow.

The purpose of our public schools is to enable every student to become who or what she or he want to be. That is, our measure is not the test scores achieved, the number of AP classes completed. It may not even be what college is attended, or even if college is attended. If we truly value every American, as we should, then the man who fixes my car is as valuable as the lawyer who drafts my will or the doctor who treats my influenza. If our educational system does not understand that, then there is something perverse about it.

And if our purpose is to produce citizens in a democracy, then why are our schools such undemocratic places, wherein neither teachers nor students have that much say in how their lives are run.

I asked the Governor how he evaluated those personnel who reported directly to whom. He rightly and proudly discussed how there is a negotiation of the terms of performance, with the employee even having some ability to specify the kind of reward for exceeding the expectation agreed to (money is not the highest value for everyone). I then asked him why we cannot take a similar approach to how we evaluate both our teachers and our students.

I have said previously that I believe education is the ground zero in the battle for the future of this nation. If you want to read those words, try reading A teacher’s view - the Real Battlegournd a diary I posted (at dailykos among other places) back in March. I agree with Gov. Vilsack that this is an issue on which we must help our Democratic candidates for Governor (and other offices) find a way of communicating a vision that is something far better than the endless and debilitating cycle of testing and the follow-on recriminations about ”failure” which NCLB represents.

I look forward to responses of any kind, and hope that others will choose to participate in this dialog, in whatever forum you happen to encounter this post.
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