Friday, November 9, 2012

Indiana Education Politics: Explanations &Predictions Part II

Glenda Ritz, Educator
in the Lion's Den

Predictions: Politics as the 300 Pound Gorilla

The problem that faces Indiana education now is that we have a non-politician, Democrat, classroom teacher against a political machine that is in-power, looking for payback, and willing to believe that this was at worst a fluke and at best the emotional reaction of people responding to whiny teachers who struck at the right moment.

Governor-elect Pence has already gone on record with the position that voters, because they elected a Republican legislative body, are in support of the educational direction of Indiana despite the ouster of the head educator. While this blind-spot makes for a great topic of discussion in an information literacy or digital citizenship class, it should be frustrating for voters who want to see reform of the #edreform agenda.

Prediction #1: Going Nuclear on Indiana State Teachers Association

Since it is easy to blame this kind of organized response on the organization, ISTA is in the cross-hairs of a super-majority Republican congress. Expect to see legislation in the next term that goes after the union at its heart: member's dues. This one shouldn't be too surprising given the anti-union sentiment around the country and particularly in red states. I would expect to see a bill that makes unions unable to deduct dues (willing or not) from teacher paychecks.

This will not dismantle the union, and certainly the right spin ("Are you going to let politicians take away your voice just when you have found it?") will help. But the point is that a union-busting response takes attention away from the matters-at-hand:
  • We are over-testing our students to the detriment of developing skills that are in demand.
  • We are using unscientific and uncontrolled data to draw conclusions about what is going on in the classroom
  • We are allowing systems, machines, programs, and numbers to replace the relationship between the student, the teacher, and the learning
Impact: Unknown. I think ultimately, the union will be a distraction that will allow those who are so inclined, to dismiss all of these issues as political rhetoric. If teachers are allowed to be characterized as simply protecting their undeserved jobs, we've already lost a crucial moment.

Prediction #2: Shifting the power away from the State Superintendent's office

The governor already has a number of mechanisms that share power with the position. This includes the legislature, Education Roundtable, and the State Board of Education, a policy making body with 10 voting members, nine of which are appointed by the Governor (the State Superintendent is number 10). I would expect to see more and more power shift away from one office and into another. There are few legislative or constitutional protections to stand in the way of an #edreform agenda. The protections that are there can be stripped away. Stopping this move would require the ability to navigate bureaucracy, form strong coalitions, and work backroom magic -- it would take a politician, not a career educator.

Impact: Significant. Without protection in writing or political skill, power will flow away from this office quickly. Soundbites and interviews only go so far. What is necessary to change Indiana's test-prep ship is going to be dialog and conversation, legislation proposed and marked-up, and debated on its merits. We need a strong office to carry this banner.

Prediction #3: Remove the Superintendent of Public Instruction from the Ballot

This can't happen right away. There is too much scrutiny right now. But after a few years of being stonewalled by the legislature and reduced to a shadow of office by the executive branch, it will not take much for the political spin machine to show how much more effective the position could be if it were appointed by the Governor.

Impact: Like prediction #1, this is a political play that would serve to undercut the issues that matter. I have no doubt that a good Governor can appoint a good educator to the role. But if we are caught up in the drama of this move, we will lose sight of the fact that this change was not about was about policy.

Changing the Future -- Using 21st Century Skills to Counter the Political Machines

Ultimately, I believe that few politicians care about the details of education. They care about education in general but leave the details to people they consider to be experts.They want to be able to talk about great teachers (remember, on the individual level, teachers are loved. its only collectively that we become lazy and evil), good students (potential workers) who graduate ready to face the world, and innovative classrooms, preferably with some kind of glowing apple in each child’s hand.

Politicians do care a lot about saving face and making sure that they maintain political control and power. Seen in this light, stripping the unions of easy funding, shifting power away from a political opponent, and then making sure this embarrassment never happens again makes a lot of sense. Our job, as teachers and parents, friends and family who were able to make yourself heard on November 6th, is to convince your legislators and Governor that this vote had little to do with politics and everything to do with making a choice about how we want to see learning in our classrooms.

Interestingly, the same 21st century skills that the test-prep culture drains from our classrooms hold the key to conveying this message to the statehouse:
1. Effective Communication: We need to communicate with the politicians who are in office. We need to write letters describing what is going on in the classroom. We need to share stories, and infographics, pictures and video clips. We need to explain that voting against treating students like test scores is something that conservatives should support. We need to show that voting against the lackluster electronic wolf of test-prep dressed in an individualization-sheep’s clothing is a winning political stance.

2. Collaboration: We need to find our allies in people to whom politicians listen -- I suggest businessmen. As we tell our classroom stories, we need to tell them to businessmen. We need to share with them the trade off between 17 question pre-tests and projects that encourage brainstorming, teamwork, and collaboration. We need to show the lack of critical thinking that is involved in any bubble-filling assessment. Most importantly, we need to explain in no uncertain terms that teachers are not afraid of tough and critical evaluation -- we just want to be evaluated on those things that we a) can control and that b) impact actual learning.

3. Research and Information Processing: We need to provide innovative solutions that counter the #edreform rhetoric. We need to give examples of schools that thrive despite rejecting an obsession with evaluation. We need to show how innovation in empowering students, effectively using technology to engage in real experiences, and learning in a safe and caring environment can have real impact on developing the skills that matter to colleges and employers.

4. Effective Use of Social Media: We need to get people talking about this new vision for education: A vision where we spend more time focused on learning and less time assessing memorization; A vision where teacher’s are evaluated by qualified and invested administrators who care for students and teachers and demand excellence in the context of a trusted relationship; A vision where students are treated as individuals with thoughts and feelings and needs and interests -- not just deficiencies to be re-drilled and tested again. As we share this message, we need to get this message back to the politicians from multiple people from all walks of life.

Ultimately, the solution is one of policy not politics. But until we are able to make the conversation non-political -- because the evidence is overwhelming and because it is not a weapon that politicians use to beat eachother -- then we are at risk of losing this precious opportnuity for want of political manuvering.

Tuesday was a good night for classroom teachers -- but in order to make it a great start for Indiana students, we have to accept that Tuesday was just the beginning of our work.