Sunday, October 20, 2013

Education Dialogue Seeks Common Good

Pace of state reform demands focused involvement on all sides

written by NEIFPE Co-Founder Phyllis Bush, for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette

Conventional wisdom tells us that elections have consequences, and right now we are reaping the consequences of our last election. Given that Republicans have a supermajority in Indiana and given the fact that our legislators have decided that public education is in dire need of rapid-fire reform, for those of us who are alarmed by the urgency with which these reformers are doing their reforming, what can we do?

To make our voices heard in this contentious atmosphere, it is essential to find common ground and to reach out to one another to use common sense to find the common good. No matter what our political stripes are, most everyone would agree that we all want what is best for our children. Where the difference lies is in the process by which we choose to accomplish that goal.

Let’s assume that these sweeping policies are made with good intent, but let us also allow that some are based on misinformation. Rather than approaching our legislators with pitchforks and invective, perhaps we simply need to present these good people with correct information.

Talking points spoken long enough and loud enough have a tendency to produce firmly held beliefs, which lead to policies based on anecdotal evidence rather than on facts on the ground. Since most of these reforms have now become law, here are a few of the questions that I would like for our policymakers to consider:
  • Will there be any oversight or accountability requirements for voucher schools beyond test scores?
Are there any data to measure and track voucher successes and failures? Are there any statistics being generated to follow the child?
  • Given that public school districts will not know whether students will be leaving, will there be any assistance to help them plan for fixed costs? Has the fiscal effect of the loss of voucher students by public schools been evaluated? Will this be studied and will this information be shared with the public?
  • Has research been done to show whether a school’s grade is correlated to demographics?
  • Is research being done to show whether using test scores to evaluate teachers has driven good teachers out of poorly performing schools?
  • Have any studies been done to show whether the emphasis on data collection has had either a positive or an adverse effect on children?
In the business world, competition is a good thing, but making schools compete on a somewhat questionable playing field for the resources they desperately need perpetuates a system of winners and losers. Is this what is really best to build strong communities? If schools or children or teachers are not achieving, maybe we need to look at how we can help them rather than punish them.

Needless to say, competition and choice and accountability and rigor are buzzwords that have been bandied about in the reform discussion, but what do those words really mean when we are talking about our children’s education? Perhaps it is up to us to remind our legislators that our young people have only one shot at being children. Rather than looking at children as data points, perhaps we should ask how the wonder of childhood and the joy of discovery and of learning can be measured.

In all the reforms we have seen thus far, where do we see anything about helping to foster healthy and happy children? Isn’t that what most parents want for their children? If we are to find common ground, we need to quit talking past one another and work together toward a system where all children have an equal chance at being successful.

For those of us alarmed about these changes, it is up to us to get informed and engaged. If we call, write and email the policymakers and the newspapers, if we schedule appointments to visit legislators, and if we go to Indianapolis to voice our concerns, perhaps we can open the lines of communication. We need to let our legislators and state board members know we are paying attention. If we are to have genuine reform, it must be built on what we know works best for our children and our communities.

Let us use some common sense to figure out what is best for all of our children.

Phyllis Bush is a retired Fort Wayne Community Schools teacher and one of the founders of the Northeast Indiana Friends of Public Education. She wrote this for The Journal Gazette.


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