Into the Unknown

Into Unknown

 

A collective sigh rings out at this time of year from educators at all levels. That relief is a sure sign that our teaching and learning environments are toxic. The negative reinforcement that accompanies our escape from the classroom prompts a wide variety of utterances that are symptomatic of that toxicity, but which are also red herrings. We wail and gnash our teeth when parents challenge carefully considered student evaluations; we despair when administrators fail to support us and change grades unilaterally. We moan and groan over our own annual evaluations and the amount of energy spent collecting supportive data for them. We fume at the excessive standardized testing required of students and the time we spend proctoring. We throw up our hands in dismay when union leadership appears too willing to accept corporatist ideals.

What we seldom do is consider the root causes of our dismay and discouragement. We hope that temporary escape from these various symptoms will cure the underlying disease. Unless we confront our demons, we simply return in the fall and repeat the cycle. Each passing year breeds further alienation from the institution we once cherished.

We are walking in circles. All of the hubbub concerning CCSS (including the hubbub emanating from this site) and the anger against Bill Gates, the Kochs, etc.–is hot air unless it results in an ongoing reconsideration of all public educational policies by professional educators at all levels.

The inclination teachers have to carp about the complaints students and parents make about grades is more a symptom of loss of power and dignity than it is a comment about student performance or behavior. Likewise, the complaints we make about “harvesting student growth data” or administering standardized testing has less to do with either task than it does the corruption of a supportive student/teacher relationship. When we focus on these symptomatic issues, we allow these tangential problems to distract us from what is most important, and we continue on our circular route.

Attacks on union leadership in education also distract us from more important issues. We look to NEA and AFT leadership to challenge the rush to corporatism in education, and when their efforts seem timid, we assume they must be cozy with corporate deformers. To be blunt: do some union leaders receive compensation that is excessive? Do they not represent teachers but instead front a corporatized entity that pretends to represent us? Perhaps, but the stated purpose those leaders serve is to improve workplace conditions, pay rates and benefits to rank and file members so that those workers can focus on student needs. Vote ’em out if they aren’t effective in these areas. Compare that purpose to the goal of CEOs in private corporations − maximizing returns to stockholders. Consider the amazing inequalities of income and benefits that exist between executives in private companies and their workers, and ponder the fact that those companies thrive on that exploitation. We have little to complain about. Focus on the bigger issue, and deal with the little fish at election time.

The root issue—the underlying disease– for educators today is an excessive and often abusive reliance on evaluation measures that strip both teacher and student of dignity and power. Corporatists honestly believe that defining goals and measuring progress toward them−a practice that serves well when manufacturing consumer goods− ought to provide a solid foundation in the educational world as well. We can restore dignity and render the issue of power moot by demanding reconsideration of the role evaluation ought to play in the educational environment.

I’ve given my share of grades to students, and I’ve never felt productive or positive when doing so. Students who are just beginning to comprehend the basics of a discipline do not need categorization− they need support and encouragement. Students who are at advanced levels in study do not benefit from microanalysis of their performance− they benefit from reflection on their practice with the input and advice of established experts. Take it closer to home– we do not provide a significant other with an evaluation of their performance according to a set of proficiency standards. Why not? We inherently sense the inappropriateness of judging the performance of a loved one according to a set of external standards. Why do we view the appropriateness of evaluation for learners any differently? We should stop now.

How do you feel as a professional when you sit down with an administrator to find out whether they have labeled you as “Distinguished,” “Proficient,” “Developing,” or “Below Expectations?” Do you feel emboldened to push into new areas of pedagogy and curricular development? Or do you feel relieved that your paycheck is safe for another year? We put students through this experience regularly, and we have no evidence that they − or us−are better people or learners for it.

Evaluation is not a necessary part of learning. It is, at best, a number or letter external to the learner’s personal experience. It is a means of quantifiable coercion at worst. It is unproductive and unnecessary.

John Lennon’s song, Imagine, represents the challenge in front of us. We take the first step toward freedom of mind and spirit when we begin to imagine alternatives to our own history. Imagine there’s no report card; I know it’s hard to do− Imagine all the students learning; learning for themselves… That is the relationship I envision between my students and myself, and I’ve long wondered why it doesn’t exist.

And now I know. The corporatist vision demands absolutes. Evaluation is a natural and necessary part of their absolutist domain, and they demand we participate in that world. They prescribe standardized tests and Danielson rubrics to ensure that we do participate.

I prescribe abstinence. I prescribe the unknown and unfamiliar.

It’s wise to venture into the unknown if you do so with a sense of purpose and a sense of direction. But please, reconsider both that purpose and your direction from time to time; don’t just walk in circles.

That’s the difference between adhering to standards and using standards as a framework for professional judgment.

 

© David Sudmeier, 2014

One Step at a Time

Quote

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I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”                         Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

Hope is an aspiration in itself. I’ve grown in hope as well as in despair for our public school system for some time. I’ve learned that hope and despair are necessary partners, not oppositional forces. If you are working for recognition of a fundamental truth in conflict with the interests of the wealthy, history says that you will learn this lesson. A few examples:

  • Thomas Clarkson, worked from 1787 to 1846 to eradicate slavery as a part of the British Empire and the United States. He did not live to see America in upheaval over bondage, and probably doubted it would ever occur, despite the demise of slavery in British colonies.
  • David Walker wrote aggressive abolitionist literature to contrast the lives of slaves with the values of democracy. He saw the Nat Turner rebellion crushed.
  • And finally there is Abigail Adams, whose entreaty to her husband, “remember the ladies,” went largely unheeded. Her suggestion that women’s rights existed absent a law to protect them only brought forth fruit in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. There is no indication that Mrs. Adams felt her words had no effect on her husband, or lost hope for women’s rights. Still, she must have been galled by the revocation of suffrage for women in New Jersey in 1807.

Each of these people not only did not live to see their fight “won,” but also witnessed setback after setback in their attempts to promote the idea of equal rights as inherent to a functioning democracy. We should expect no less. As our voices rise in volume to proclaim public schools off limits to corporate exploitation, we will be subject to political attack and professional harassment. Corporations can purchase loud amplifiers for their messages, assuming that if they drown us out, we’ll shut up.

Let’s not.

Instead, when we feel beaten up in the press, or when corporate dollars do prevail in a given political campaign, let’s take it as a sign that our voices have had an effect on public debate. It’s going to be a long, hard slog to make our message connect with the lives of persons who send their children to us for an education.

Right now, there is something each of us can do in the fight to protect public education.

Remember, corporatists value the bottom line more than anything. Now, individually, we can’t make much of an impression by refusing them our patronage. As a group, however, we can have a real impact. Why give your consumer dollars to corporations who work to violate the right of citizens to have an education free of corporate influence? Martin Luther King, Jr. said as much in his “Mountaintop” speech when he encouraged people not to purchase Wonder Bread. And that’s a great place to begin.

Flowers Foods: These guys produce Wonder Bread, Tastykakes, and Nature’s Own brands, among many, many others. They also give a greater percentage of their political donations to Republican organizations that sponsor attacks on public education than any other corporation. Surely you can find another bakery—perhaps in your own neighborhood—that bakes bread, but doesn’t scorch basic rights in the process?

I challenge you to identify and publish the names of other products peddled by corporate pirates who target the democratic values of a free and public education. Put them in a reply to this blog—and provide at least one link to substantiate each of your claims.

Help us compile a list that all soldiers in the fight against corporatism can consult. Then, we will post the list wherever those soldiers may be.

Just another step. It’s one step we can all take, whether we individually ever see the “Promised Land” ourselves.

 

© 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