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.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Indiana Education Politics: Explanations & Predictions, Part I

I'll preface this by saying that I am stripping out sources from this article, particularly the predictions section (which I will post in part II). I don't feel comfortable naming people who talked to me as a friend and I don't want them in hot water with politicians. I’m aware this hurts the overall credibility, so apply grains of salt as needed.

Tuesday night was a great night for classroom teachers.

Glenda Ritz, a veteran classroom teacher and financial underdog, was able to oust Tony Bennett, a nationally known advocate of the #edreform movement that is characterized by high-stakes testing of students, evaluation of teachers based in part on those same tests, and school choice in the form of one of the strongest voucher programs in the nation.

As I watched the early results and continued watching through the night, the various local political pundits were scrambling. Despite their claims of social media savvy and clear understanding of the minds of Hoosier voters, not a single one seemed able to explain what was happening or why. They went to stalwart cliche's involving words like "grassroots" or "union-influence" depending on the side of the aisle from which they were stammering.

It was a lot of fun.

Now it is two days later. Educators: You had a win, and it was the first when you’ve had in a long time. That victory is going to leave a bitter taste in your mouth if you think that this battle is over or that you can go back to teaching your students, secure in your Tuesday night victory. I hate to say it, but your work has just begun.

Interlude: Setting the Context
Parents: Does this make you feel informed?
The other night, Undivided Middle, my 8 year old, brought a stack of papers home to review.
This is a frustrating time as a parent. The majority of the week's "work" does not look like traditional homework as pre-test-craze adults might remember it. There were few pages with spelling words or math problems. Few red X's that could be discussed with the child to begin remediation.

The majority of the work consists of printed pages with a single column on the left hand side. The column is numbered 1-17 and next to each number is a circle (good) or an "X" (bad) -- 3 Xs is a C+. 4 is a D. On the left hand side of this paper is a list of key words, presumably the content or skills that were tested by this mysterious computer program with a hyphenated name. The words might be "Setting" or "Plot" or "Simple Division". -- There are no problems to work through. There is nothing to correct. There IS an expectation that we, as parents, sign the sheets so that we can acknowledge that our child has been adequately tested and that her knowledge (or lack thereof) is well documented and communicated.

Welcome to modern education.
End Interlude

I have talked about these issues a lot, most recently discussing parents getting tutors for their kindergarten children and analytics/data experts admitting that the field is in its predictive infancy and not the great evaluator that is claimed by charter-school/textbook sponsored educational reformers. While Indiana is not as bad as some other states (a friend of mine describe 40+ days of standardized testing complete with audits from state officials - cringe), the entire enterprise of education is now dictated by A-F ratings for schools, standardized outcomes on assessments, dehumnaizing software that "individualizes" for students while removing that messy contact with other human beings, and using the disparate systems to pass judgement on the effectiveness of individual educators without much care toward the impact of poverty, parents, or other causality.

When I was able to meet Tony Bennett at a parent education meeting, he was open to discussing teacher evaluation by student test score, but ultimately ended the discussion with "well, we have to do something" -- it was an odd acknowledgment that there were flaws while simultaneously holding onto this particular idea as the last hope.

What happened? An Outsider's Explanation

Bennett had more name recognition, more money, and was a republican incumbent in a Republican state. Simply, this was no contest. And for the better part of the election season, that is how Ritz played it.

There were no TV commercials. Few ads in general. Just a teacher visiting schools. Meanwhile, Bennett played a completely positive in-the-spotlight campaign right out of the front-runner playbook.

What I noticed was that about two weeks before election day, teachers began flipping profile pictures to the "Ritz4edu" logo. The other thing that I noticed was that teachers were talking about what was happening in the classroom. They were sharing the pressure of a looming school letter grade that led administrators to remove project that encouraged collaboration or critical thinking -- those things aren't on the standardized test. They shared the evaluation systems that looked less at how a teacher interacted with a struggling student and more about whether the state standards of the day were written on the board. They shared the obscure use of single-data-points to draw conclusions about students as if they were scores in a video game and not snapshots of the responses of a human being.

They shared with friends and family, people who had kids in school and people who's kids went to school before test-prep had become the watchword.

...and people listened.

The conservative pundit on WTHR quickly fell to an attack on the Indiana teacher's union. "They want this bad," he grimaced. But this wasn't a movement of union drones -- public and private teachers, union supporters and people who had burned by the unions' classic last-hired/first-fired policies, even conservative teachers -- it was a compelling stand. Because of the timing of this move and its truly grassroots, social media nature, there was neither the time nor the inclination to bring more outside money to bear. Even news stations who were all too willing to proclaim the number of tweets-per-minute the election generated seemed absolutely unaware that this ground campaign was being conducted.

When the final numbers came in, it was clear that this was not just a teacher revolt (although, to be fair, if there were THAT many teachers, we would not have any issues with class size). People who voted for Romney, and Pence, and maybe even Murdock were splitting off the ticket to vote for Ritz.

Tuesday night was a great night for classroom teachers.

But three days have passed...

(Part two will be posted tomorrow with predictions, warnings, and a call to action)