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Monday, July 30, 2007

The Broken Heart

A heart is a terrible thing to waste...

The world to me is always an amazing place. I am frequently intrigued by the emotional reactions that the public has to the realities of horror. The latest insanity has been the Michael Vick case where it has been alleged that his property was used for dog fighting. Vick and his cohorts have been accused of, “knowingly sponsoring and exhibiting an animal fighting venture.” (AP) When these animals are not prepared or aggressive enough to fight, they are often disposed of. The report states that dogs were “killed by hanging, drowning and/or slamming at least one dog’s body to the ground.” Can you imagine the reality of actually seeing that happen? To watch a dog suffer in pain and to physically see its life ended in such a grisly manner? And thus what has happened almost immediately: PETA and the ASPCA held demonstrations demanding for the immediate firing of Michael Vick from the Atlanta Falcons for his involvement. They organized to show their outrage.

Another situation that I have seen the public grow in strong levels of discontent over the last few years is the Iraq war. So far, the United States has lost 3636 soldiers and has acquired 26,558 casualties since the invasion. Outside of the extreme sadness of death, the injuries sustained by some of the soldiers include lost limbs, eyesight, and brain damage from severe head injuries. Whether its been Fox, CNN, MSNBC, or CBS, the pictures of destruction and mayhem have been graphic and disturbing. Many times, these images make imprints on the brain that last forever. Although some may disagree with her plight, Cindy Sheehan began a crusade to end the war because of the death of her son in Iraq and her belief that the war was started under false pretenses. She has felt the pain and seen the results of the carnage as a parent. Her anguish has been mirrored by countless others who have experienced the same. Thus, she and many others have marched around the country, demanding justice from the government and congress. The ultimate results of her efforts will not be known for some time, but the dialogue has at least initiated in congress to pull out of Iraq.

One might ask, then, what do these situations have to do with each other? The answer defines much of who we are as humans. It is our nature that when we physically see or hear of extremely painful situations, our gut instinct is to protect that which is valuable to us from it. Whether it be our children at war or our precious animals who are often defenseless, the notion that they could be “next” is real because the pictures, sounds, and graphics have proven the danger to us in the media. The question is posed then: WHY HAVE WE NOT, AS A SOCIETY, RALLIED TO PROTECT OUR CHILDREN FROM AN UNJUST EDUCATION LAW? I propose that the main reason is that not enough parents have SEEN the pain, HEARD the cries of their children, and FELT the hopelessness that many teachers have felt since the inception of the No Child Left Behind education law. If they saw their child sobbing the day of the “big” exam, or crushed because they were labeled as “basic” on some bar graph hanging for all to see, or knew their school could be closed, the masses of folks would be out in droves.

Human thinking and emotion is often silent during times of distress. It is kept in the dark because of embarrassment, shame, worry, and fear. Students worry about being “smart” enough or not being a good addition to the classroom because they haven’t performed well on a standardized test. A study out of Chicago shows that NCLB has literally failed to work for students in the lowest performing ranges. They have actually done much worse. Many of these kids come from the poorest areas where parents have been incarcerated or on drugs, maybe even have died as a result of violence. This AFFECTS children negatively. At any given time, up to 5% of all kids 9-17 struggle with depression (National Institute of Health). These children often have failure in school, and the pressure to be “proficient” scoring on a bubble test over, and over, and over, and over can only add to the problem. In the teen years, these types of students are more prone to truancy, substance abuse, and suicide.

So, WHERE ARE THE PARENTS MARCHING? How do we MAKE VISIBLE the anguish of our children and teachers? How do we get the message out that NCLB is KILLING our kids’ minds? Must we wait until they have suffered an entire 12 years of poorly researched assessment and forced curriculum such that they turn out unable to think with reason and have a desire for life long learning? Talent and joy have been purged from many classrooms and will continue to be unless the pain is VISIBLE. Teachers need to share their agony and report their students’ feelings to school sites and congressmen. They need to reach out to parents and let go of their fear. Parents will protect what is valuable if they know the danger. Which is worse: To eliminate NCLB and start over, or to bury the future of the child that died of a broken heart?

Friday, July 06, 2007

Decimated Democracy and the Harlot

(Fictional Account)
(but not that far off!)

The year is 2050. After decades of struggle, the public school system has been eradicated. Hewlett-Packard High schools, the Broad Foundation Elementary Network, and the Gates Conservatory for Education Production are the primary schooling institutions across the country. At first these elites were in the same corner, brothers against teachers’ unions and the freedom of thought and creativity. As time has passed, however, now they battle each other. Using test scores and rhetoric as their weapons, these near-monopolists use whatever means necessary to compete for the public’s money. Although the federal government, once a protector of young children, has tried to monitor the uses of funds and programs, it has been nearly impossible. These privatized firms have moved and shifted voucher money about with such varying patterns, that it has been next to impossible to track how it has been used. A Packard representative stated, “We hold the right to privacy of our company’s holdings and stock owner’s portfolios.” Without oversight, any and every scheme has been used to publish the differences between the schools. Possible inflation of graduation rates and test scores, along with inaccurate dropout numbers have been alleged by opposing sides. No one knows the truth. Even though many of the employees secretly disagree with the teaching methods used, they must follow orders to keep the fragile positions they hold.

It wasn’t always this way. In 2007, public school educators had the chance to do away with the highly controversial No Child Left Behind Law. With many voices calling for its dismantling, it was thrust into the spotlight. Many teachers and parents were tired of the droning test preparation in classes that caused their kids to hate school and thus leave for less restricted charter or private schools. However, many more stayed and attended board meetings trying to let their voices be heard. In that same year, merit pay became the buzz word. Teachers would be paid primarily on their ability to raise the test scores of their students. Most teachers balked. But some gave into the system, sacrificing the solid educational pedagogy that they promised to uphold as a professional. As harlots for money, they “collaborated” to come up with the best practices for getting students to pass standardized tests. Some parents saw that teachers liked the idea, so they too, began to support the experiment by raising taxes to fund it.

The years that followed were tumultuous. As the initial surge in some test scores appeased the public, more people began to buy into the “fair-playing field” ideology of the private workplace when determining a teacher’s quality. The National Education Association, stuck in its own political quagmires, was unable to organize and was unwilling to see the carnage that lay ahead. Many teachers argued that children were not toasters to be bargained for. The draw for higher pay caused continual fighting that broke up many unions, a soothing sight to corporate roundtables. Union after union fell to the new idea, hoping for better pay.

Some schools scored better than others, and those who did poorly were taken over by the state, had their school board eliminated, and had oversight by private corporations. Parents, believing in the almighty test score, wanted to trust in this new way of running schools. They thought that the low scoring schools were “bad”, and thus voted for vouchers. As the law came into effect, tens of thousands of parents of all races and socioeconomic levels began to apply to the schools of their choice. The wealthier schools, in a desperate measure to maintain a higher scoring student populace, began selecting children on the basis of their test results. They also raised the cost of the attendance to several thousand dollars higher than the vouchers given out. Some parents realized what was happening as spouted, “racism!” and “favoritism!”, because many impoverished students were left out, unable to make up the difference in cost. Large numbers were forced back to their old schools, most of which were taken over by the state.

As the Annual Measurable Objectives began to climb, with each school’s goal to be 100% proficient on standardized test by 2014, more schools began to struggle to pull all students up. The ten percent raise in the bar every year was horrendously difficult, if not impossible, to match in the rate of improvement. School after school closed and was harnessed by corporations. The Heritage Foundation, Eli Broad, and Bill Gates continued the public mantra of “teacher accountability” without any for themselves. Schools began firing teachers by the droves and rehiring people who would follow the format. With so many teachers out of jobs, the market was flooded with educators, allowing the controlling companies to hire for lower wages. Test score improvement “bonuses” made very little difference in their overall pay. The poorest children were taught the lowest skills, no parent being the wiser, as the school boards no longer existed as a voice of reason.

Schools began sending recruiters out to the highest scoring households to try and get them to change schools. Often, these people arrived at the same house at the same time, getting into verbal and even physical confrontations over the “rights” to the student. Meanwhile, in the poorest neighborhoods, the children were wrought with constantly rotating staffs. This instability caused many students to hate and leave school for work, many as young as 12 years old. Some would work directly for the company who ran the school, doing odd jobs for minimum wage. Others joined gangs and lived on the street selling drugs. Parents who were mired in their own low paying jobs, had no energy or will to change what seemed impossible to face. There was no support. Military recruiters came to these neighborhoods to give a “way out” for many unfocused people.

The test score phenomena began to unravel, but it was too late. Private groups already had the school system under wraps. With continual competition for the best scores, millions of children were set aside except for the elite test takers. The remainders were prepared for menial service labor as their future. In 2040, only a few companies remained in control of the vast fortune of federal dollars awaiting them.

Now in 2050, the unemployment level of the country has hit an an all time high of 17%, the number of incarcerated youths under 18 has skyrocketed, and most parents are working two jobs apiece to make ends meet. Outsourcing has all but eliminated high profile positions at utility, software, medical, and many other well paying jobs. The number of good paying service sector jobs has also dropped significantly. Remaining are the simple, low wage tasks that are required of people trained to think that way. The corporate thread runs through everything now, some speculating it controls congress completely. The time for revolutionary ideas came and went in 2007 when democracy was shattered.

Except that it’s not too late.