Dear Catrina

Catrina Edit 2

 

Dear Calavera Catrina,

I remember meeting you for the first time in an art store on the Puerto Vallarta Malecón. You were there in the hundreds, small and large, garish and elegant–and always possessed of a haughty stare and a set of ivories that would do justice to a shark.

I’d met you before, of course, but never understood that in-person encounters with individual representatives of your archetype pale next to your cumulative effect on society.

You are easy to recognize, and you demand that recognition. Your clothes and demeanor always mark you as one who has access to wealth and power beyond the peons you expect to bend to your will. You’ve always been a dilettante, dabbling in public affairs with little expertise or experience to guide you. You’ve also been absolutely sincere, a true believer in the appropriateness of turning over public institutions to the private sector for exploitation. After all, it’s usually your friends and family members doing the exploiting.

Campbell Brown is but the latest acolyte in your stable, and I’d say she emulates your appearance, attitude and intellectual depth with precision. Someone might have warned Campbell that attacks on teacher rights to due process ought not to be paired with statements like “I do think there should be equality in money.” After all, it will cost a lot of public dollars to correct the effects of unequal funding of public schools, if that’s what she truly intends. I rather think that she’d prefer to withdraw public funds from wealthier districts than support poorer communities…it’s a “Catrina-like” solution to the situation she created with her off-the-cuff remark on the Colbert Report. I wonder if her husband and former investment banker, Dan Senor, would approve? After all, he managed to help us lose nine billion dollars of hard-earned U.S. taxpayer cash to fraud and theft in Iraq during his time working with the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Michelle Rhee exemplifies your attributes as well, Catrina. It’s apparent that she has worn out her welcome, but her crusading efforts to destroy unions, establish charter schools, and whip students into shape with standardized testing are based on absolute conviction of the righteousness of her cause. She will never view herself as anything but a warrior against forces of darkness…even though her denial of the reality that poverty is a fundamental cause for academic difficulty has been repeated time and time again. Catrina, you know that Michelle has attached herself to Sacramento Mayor (and former NBA player) Kevin Johnson; power and money attract your ilk like sugar water attracts hummingbirds. I expect Michelle will flutter in and out of educational politics for the foreseeable future.

But even Michelle can’t outdo Eva Moskowitz when it comes to out and out fabrications. Eva is the face of “Success Academy,” the ironic name for her chain of academically un-successful charter schools. Her “Catrinaisms” reach so far beyond the truth that fact-checkers can get whiplash just listening to her. The successes her academies have achieved have been almost entirely financial…she’s been able to secure funding for her schools from private hedge funds in addition to the public dollars she collects. Still, her students perform no better than those in poorer public schools.

But gender is no barrier to you, Catrina. Your attention to personal grooming and manifestations of power are also evidenced in the male personas you inhabit. Peter Brabeck, for instance, is a magnificent specimen. Only recently, Peter managed to turn thousands of years of social obligation on its ear by denying the right of humans to free access to water. Why, if we accept that the basis of life is open to exploitation by corporate enterprise, what argument can be made for any common good to remain in the public sphere? Education becomes another endeavor subject to the laws of supply and demand, for the only ethical principle a corporate leader is bound to follow is, “…to maintain and ensure the successful and profitable future of his enterprise.

Individually, Catrina, your minions are easier to dismiss than the damage they collectively inflict on society. Catrina, you are not separable from death, for death is what you bring wherever you go. You have killed the hopes of generations of poor Mexican peasants, the dreams of poor black and white sharecroppers, the opportunities of the late middle class.

Catrina, your passion for the causes you promote is founded on a level of understanding as superficial as your smile. I remind myself that your smile is what most see last, just before your shark-like maw tears apart the tender fabric of societal protections necessary to meaningful democracy.

Will I live to see your demise, Catrina? Unlikely. You’re a slippery customer–attacking public education today, but shifting to other targets as the public becomes aware of your deceptive tactics.

No, Catrina, you’ll be with us in one shape or another…and your smiling countenance, thirst for power and impeccable taste will mark you for those with eyes to see.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

The Crucible

Crucible 3

Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible survives to this day as a metaphor for accusations without merit that damage reputations and lives. The advertisement that appeared this week in USA Today after the Vergara decision contained such an accusation, which might as well have been of witchcraft and evil spells cast upon students by malevolent kindergarten teachers. The same organization that created that ad had another rejected by the Chicago Tribune, because it conflated teacher unionism with racist segregationist attitudes a la George Wallace. Teachers can likely expect a continued barrage of similar ads in the media, funded by privatization interests.

Maintaining a sense of dignity depends on the deference and support shown to you by society in light of your contributions. When major media publications accept ads portraying student feet protruding from a garbage can, and accuse teachers of placing students in that demeaning position, they accept hate speech as a legitimate source of income. Teacher sensitivity to outright lies is less a product of being targeted for criticism—that’s part of life in the public sector— than it is due to the duplicity of the bad actors that create those lies. They demonize teachers on the one hand and extend the other for profits to be earned by displacing unionized teachers with ill-trained, easily controlled dupes working in charter schools, among their many crimes. The “Center for Union Lies” does not criticize teachers; it intentionally distorts and mischaracterizes their achievements to enable corporate gain.

When you deprive teachers of dignity and meaning in their work, you strike a blow against public education. Of course, that is exactly the point for some. For others, it is “collateral damage” that must be accepted to improve instruction and raise test scores. If test scores rise, then education must be improved. If living and breathing teachers who will demand immediate compensation can be replaced with technology that raises test scores on tests written by testing companies whose shareholders seek short-term profits…well, all the better.

What is lost if public education is lost? Just as terrorism is a front in the war for the soul of Islam, attacks on public education—one of the sources of our common good— constitute one front in the war for the soul of democracy. Democracy can withstand challenges from without which are obvious and overt; whether democracy can withstand challenges from within is unknown. Dismantling public institutions encourages individualism and loss of community. That loss of community opens a democracy to manipulation and exploitation by powerful  corporations.

Still, we teachers as a group fail to see the forest for the trees. We imagine that what we experience in the form of attacks by individuals and organizations on teachers and education is somehow unique and unrelated to other events. We feel our institution being assailed, and we forget that there are others in the public service enduring similar mistreatment.

How have we ended up in this situation? Corporatists have built a myth of excellence and efficiency in the private sector, and a specter of malfeasance and incompetence in public institutions. Their tactics include attacks on public institutions, accompanied by demands for firings and accountability measures. They then demand new “standards” for performance that are clearly impossible to reach, and place blame on those same institutions when they fail to attain them and attempt to cover it up. Finally, they seek to withdraw financial support from those institutions, citing the failures they themselves engineered. This has happened in education with NCLB and RttT, and will occur with CCSS, if it is not more widely abandoned. It has happened as well with the Veterans Administration. The VA (underfunded and overwhelmed by demands resulting from the Iraq/Afghanistan debacle) was accused of not providing timely care for those who deserved better. The solution? A standard was set that could not be met, a 14-day window for care, and accountability measures for not achieving success. When that couldn’t be accomplished, managers found ways of lying to make it appear that things were fine. Uncovered, the VA was again blamed for incompetence. Calls were made to privatize an institution that attempts to fulfill a public obligation to those who have stood in the line of fire for us all.

We teachers can easily comprehend what VA employees face. Our experiences are not unique; they are part and parcel of a wider attack on democracy. The sooner we accept that and coordinate our actions with other institutions that are also suffering, the sooner we will begin to turn the corner. We become powerful when we recognize our community, and weak when we abandon it. Badass Teachers know what it means to acquire community; we need to remind our colleagues of the role their unions need to play in preserving, protecting, and extending that community of public service employees. NEA and AFT have accomplished much in the past, but are only lately stepping up to the plate on this issue. They can do much more, and will need grass roots support to do so.

We are not just educators. We are warriors for democracy, and we fight a dangerous opponent. We fight for free, fair and appropriate public education, just as our brothers and sisters fight battles for better public health care, better public transportation, and improved public security. Part of our fight is to act with dignity and demand dignified treatment from society. We need to build a new myth of the public employee, one that recognizes our commitment to service and champions our achievements in creating community.

Arthur Miller is calling to us now.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Churn, Churn, Churn

Quote

Churn, Churn, Churn

[With sincere apologies to the late Pete Seeger…]

 

For charter schools– churn, churn, churn

There is one purpose– earn, earn, earn

And no time for equity in education

 

A time to recruit, a time to hire

A time for ads, a time to conspire

A time to fib, a time to conceal

A time to invest, a time to make the deal

 

For charter schools– churn, churn, churn

There is one purpose– earn, earn, earn

And no time for equity in education

 

No time for doubt, no time to think

No time to reflect, more bucks for machines

No time to inhale money’s stink

No time to heed the voice of learners

 

For charter schools– churn, churn, churn

There is one purpose– earn, earn, earn

And no time for equity in education

 

Get rid of real pros, the TFA plan

Get only the young, they don’t have a clue

Get rid of the educators who squawk

Get rid of all who are not the true believers

 

For charter schools– churn, churn, churn

There is one purpose– earn, earn, earn

And no time for equity in education

 

A time to open, a time to close

A time to arrive, a time to flee town

A non-profit gig that pays owners well

The public’s been conned, I hope it’s not too late!

 

 

Charter schools are for the Byrds.

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Academic Football with No Pads

batsfootball2

 

I’ve got to admit a level of hypocrisy when it comes to the subject of football. I’m against it. I’m also a Seattleite who went as nuts as anyone when the Seahawks took all the marbles. Still, those are two different subjects, really. Putting children in a situation where concussions are likely, not just possible, is unconscionable in my book. The risk an adult athlete wants to take in order to earn a significant salary is, short of outright murder in the ring, an appropriate decision to leave up to the individual.

The children in our care in the public schools are subjected involuntarily to a daily game of academic football, minus pads. The “concussions” are emerging even now; Louis C.K. speaks eloquently on that subject, and I expect many, many similar stories to emerge in coming days. When abusive standardized testing is forced upon students, the curriculum narrows, the educational experience is diminished, and the need for more testing is justified…and the circle goes ‘round and ‘round.

It’s time to admit the damage done due to institutionalized underfunding that has led school districts everywhere to become dependent on federal or corporate dollars. That need for funding has opened the door to coercion of state and district leaders by federal officials who have no constitutional authority to demand anything of them. When dollars, politics, and educational philosophy intersect, it ain’t a pretty sight, though…stuff happens.

The damage is evident when students—regardless of developmental disability, emotional instability, academic background or language understanding—are required to take a test, lest the school be penalized for being unwilling to test everyone. When a decision for kindness, for reason and humanity is declared inappropriate in order that corporations may more easily calculate “academic goals” in winning educational contracts, the system tosses children without reasonable protection into a game they do not comprehend. These students gain nothing from participating in the process, but are mined for information of value to a corporate entity.

The damage is evident in the diminished commitment to the process of education I see in student eyes year by year. As demands for “rigor” have grown, alongside the institution of “safety net” classes to improve test scores, the academic breadth of experience has diminished for students who give up “electives” to double up on a purely academic subject. Increasingly, we will see these remedial courses placed on-line, and if any specific connection is necessary between student and teacher…best of luck. Students who experience learning as a deeply personal collaboration will resent the constraints of “standards” as much as they do standardized testing now.

The damage is evident in the time students lose for further enrichment and guidance in the classroom due to excessive standardized testing. The amount of time varies widely from state to state, but it has increased dramatically for all during the past two decades. A lost week? Is that justified? How about places where yearly testing takes up even more time? Are their teachers able to use the time while students are testing to do productive work, or are they misused as very expensive proctors? How much do students lose when school administrators, office staff, and instructional support personnel are entirely focused on the organization of test materials, staff training, and test administration rather than the real and present needs of children? I think the public at large would be outraged to know the true costs of standardized testing, including hours spent on proctoring, organization and administration.

Students deserve a safe, healthy environment for learning. Excessive standardized testing is not conducive to that end. The information generated by those tests is unlikely to benefit students either directly, or through the creation of greater opportunities in their future. Rather, that information will be exploited to extract value in form of payment for increasing student adeptness in taking those same lousy tests that tell students nothing.

The only profit in public education should accrue to the learner, who should feel that they have gained by the opportunity to pursue happiness in a socially responsible way, and that they are ready to accept the responsibilities of citizenship. When that basic principle is met, students will find themselves in a safe and healthy environment , with pads firmly in place as they compete and cooperate in the supreme individual and team full-contact learning challenge!

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

AlbertHandsome

I used to live in a room full of mirrors

All I could see was me

I took my spirit and I smashed those mirrors

Now the whole world is here for me to see

Jimi Hendrix

 

It is maddening to be assaulted with the cacophony of demands on public schools today. Schools (and by that I mean teachers) are expected to “fix society” in any number of ways. Each of these goals has a degree of merit, and it is not surprising that non-educators might hope that they would be met within the K-12 years. These expectations cannot be met, however. Schools have never, and will never, “fix society.” Instead, schools reflect the society they exist within.

Anti-bullying programs will not rid us of people who want to push society in one direction or another. Ask the Koch Bros. and Bill Gates if this isn’t so. “Raising standards” will not cause children to escape the effects of poverty or emotional deprivation. Teaching Shakespeare in elementary school will not inoculate future generations against the Duck Dynasties of the future.

The purpose of public schools is to preserve a democratic society by assisting citizens in their pursuit of happiness and to prepare citizens to take an active role in public affairs. Corporatists instead insist that education is utilitarian; that it functions to provide a workforce that will maintain American dominance in world markets. They work toward ensuring that every reflection of corporatism remains permanent—toward a society that shapes itself to a corporate structure, paralyzed by a need for certainty.

Corporatists are determined folks. They can amplify their messages and the political consequences of their beliefs in proportion to their willingness to use their cash. They believe that their position in society is evidence of the equivalence of capitalism and democracy, and that their socioeconomic status therefore entitles them to dominate the political scene. It’s a circular argument that has the added advantage of perpetuating their power.

It does not serve corporatists to have an engaged citizenry. They would much rather that citizens be passive spectators, disaffected by political chicanery and alienated from a government they do not think they can affect. This leaves civic affairs firmly in the hands of the one percent who distort democracy by manipulating the language of debate and purchasing the loyalty of persons who possess political power.

Corporatists want us to change the “mirror” rather than change our society. They demand a school system that conforms to market-driven forces. The mirror they offer is a distorted one; one that reflects with limited focus and exaggerated promise the possibilities of an instrumentalized education. We who have great experience in keeping the mirror in focus have been excluded from decisions that only those anointed by corporatists or their lackeys are permitted to influence. These anointed ones possess little or no experience with the population of students we engage with daily, yet feel entitled to meet behind closed doors to undermine the curriculum and limit student opportunities.

Jimi Hendrix encouraged us to smash the mirrors surrounding us, but I believe that refocusing and a bit of polish may yet permit us to enlarge and expose the image of society those mirrors reflect. Truth exists in mirrors that are square and plumb, not those built with distorting curves. That refocusing can only begin when the warping curves of education deform are straightened by teachers who demand transparency in the processes leading to determination of curriculum and the goals of public education.

At the same time, we must not permit corporatist initiatives such as CCSS and excessive standardized testing to dishearten us. If we do, our dismay will breed the apathy that permits corporatists’ unfettered control of the one institution that exists to provide students with experiences likely to instill commitment to democracy rather than oligarchy.

No, mirrors don’t fix anything, but they do permit us to consider those aspects of ourselves that might deserve attention. The discussions that can result from honest self-reflection are the heart of democracy. But there is no honesty in the reflection I see from the corporatist’s mirror. Their vision is of a profit-driven and profit-producing educational system, for that is the sort of society they are committed to. It is a society as bereft of humane interest as it is ravenous for mammon.

And yet, the number of people who have encouraged me during these “dark times” heartens me. If we all will reach out to others with and for support, our schools and world–and we ourselves–will be better for it. If we connect, then we will be able to make a commitment to a society that we will be proud to be mirrors for. My commitment is to a society that is inclusive, supportive, and fundamentally democratic and to an educational system that reflects those values.

What do you want to see in the mirror? Let’s make the changes to our society needed to bring that vision into focus in our schools.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

Money Talks…says the Court

DeaconPogoCourt

 The Path to Oligarchy

So how does a person go about obtaining power over what–on the surface, at least– appears to be a democracy?

1. Disrupt and deform the educational system–it’s the main tool a democracy has for preparing citizens to take an active role in public affairs.

2. Take advantage of the fact that our Founding Fathers could not have anticipated that corporations might be equated with living, breathing human beings by federal courts…

3. Ask Roberts, Scalia, et. al. to cement the power of the wealthy ȕber alles by permitting unlimited “donations” to candidates.

4. Wait and watch as the “little people”  become apathetic–after all, how many of them can spend $3.6 million per election to make their voices heard?

5. Remind the persons you put in office to enact legislation (pre-written and vetted by ALEC) guaranteed to line the pockets of your corporations and prevent any demands for reasonable taxes on your personal wealth!

An Alternative to Oligarchy

But we don’t have to allow the oligarchs to reign.

If the Supreme Court finds it constitutional to permit democracy to be destroyed and oligarchs to rule unencumbered, it’s time to help them out.

Change the constitution. We’ve done it before when we’ve noticed the Founding Fathers made a boo-boo…like leaving slavery intact after establishing freedom as a basic right.

No, it’s not easy–it’s not supposed to be. We do it only for very important reasons.

This is important.

Preserve the voices of all Americans by demanding a constitutional amendment limiting individual contributions to a level within the reach of most citizens…and define individuals as those who vote. Doing so will also limit the ability of the wealthy to dominate the political scene and encourage participation by every citizen.

What can you do? Write to your Congressperson; to your U.S. Senator; to your state legislators; to your union officials! Yes, it’s a bother. No, I know it’s a drag to use your valuable time this way. So do the Kochs. Do it.

I’m confident that the Founding Fathers would approve.

AlbertPogoSupreme

The Common Good For Sale?

Obamole Payment for Testing

“Where we demand rights and deny obligations, we assert Entitlement. We secure our rights when we accept matching obligations.“  Robert Fripp

Persons who have never heard of Robert Fripp have likely heard his music. He is  guitarist extraordinaire for the likes of King Crimson and David Bowie. Mr. Fripp has been fighting a lengthy battle against piracy of his music by both individual listeners and corporations who enable that piracy, like Grooveshark. He justifiably bristles at the notion that persons feel entitled to deprive him of earnings by illegally “sharing” digital files of his music.

But Mr. Fripp’s quotation is one-sided, and requires a corollary:

Where we prescribe obligations and violate rights, we assert Tyranny. Where rights are demanded, or obligations are pronounced by one party without consent by the other – citizen taking advantage of society or unilateral demands of citizens by government – both individual rights and the common good are endangered.

We need to acknowledge the reciprocal relationship between individuals and society that democracy demands. For example, students have the right to expect an appropriate educational program in the public schools as long as they respect the institution and facilities that serve that purpose. Another student obligation is to do a reasonable amount of work to justify the investment society makes in their pursuit of happiness. As adults, they should also support that society by paying reasonable taxes and contributing to the improvement of government through active participation in public affairs.

Society, on the other hand, should accept that the student and their family will have a reasonable level of input into the determination of the purpose and process of the educational experience. The rules of education should not be changed midstream; the benefits of the educational experience should be primarily to the student. Society must also accept that this investment meets a public obligation to support the individual’s rights to a true “education,” and that this education is not guaranteed to produce compliant workers. A society’s only “profit” from education is in creating a population committed to democratic principles that sustain the social order.

When organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations make remarks like “students are leaving school without the math and science skills needed for jobs in modern industry…These efforts build on President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which was the first federal effort to measure and publicize student test results, and the success of charter schools and voucher programs, which allow families to choose the best school for their children,” they reveal the dark undertones of their vision. John Ralston Saul calls such statements indicators of “an anti-public sector campaign that has created a sense of panicked urgency around the subject of privatization and cuts.”

The current “Standards Based” movement is a cause that threatens Tyranny. It is being implemented despite the fact that it is less than likely that such a plan will facilitate the pursuit of happiness by any individual. It is excessively focused on producing what the corporate structures that rig the game demand—obedient taxpayers who will strive to maintain American economic dominance in a world economy.

But education has never been a sufficient means to that end. It is a necessary part of the equation, but is distorted in purpose when an economic outcome becomes the measuring stick for success. Economists wrongly argue that anything and everything has its price—that learners (or their tax-paying parents) are simply consumers of the ”product” of education, and that cost/benefit analysis is sufficient criteria for assessing its value.

This distortion exposes the inappropriate role of corporations in educational policy. Bill Gates feels entitled to use his wealth to reform schools. His attempts, however, do nothing to amplify the voice of the individual who obtains an education and much to increase the obligations of the individual to accede to the prescriptive approach for schooling that the Standards Based movement represents.

It is time to make schools a place where democracy is not just “taught,” but practiced. When we make that commitment, alienation of students and teachers from the institution they share will lessen. Educators and legislators need to tell Bill Gates that America’s schools are no longer for sale, and they then need to build democracy by providing students with direct experience of that fundamental value during their twelve years of public education.

© David Sudmeier, 2014