Thursday, November 20, 2014

We must, indeed, all hang together..

We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately - Benjamin Franklin

These words spoken by Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 resonate to this very day. This was a turbulent time in our nation’s history where political ideologies clashed and remarkable individuals with often disparate backgrounds and beliefs came together and compromised for the common good. At that time there was no “United” States, but rather only the dream of something greater. Something that could stand up to the might and oppression of the British Empire. Prior to this declaration, there had been rising sentiment in this country for a break with England and a move towards independence. Many local groups in different states began advocating loudly for this course of action, however it was not until the decision was made to act in unison that ultimate progress was made.

Although the situation in which we now find ourselves is not as dramatic as the founding of a new nation, the outcome of the educational debate in this country will truly establish what type of country we will be and what type of future we will provide for our children. Right now our power and voice are divided and often the groups pushing back against the state and federal “reform” initiatives are as busy arguing with each other as they are with our policy makers. It is time for us to find common ground and “hang together” to advocate for positive change.

Parent and community groups, teachers unions, administrators are all advocating for change and pushing back against the deluge of mandates coming down from the state and federal government. The problem is the lack of coordination between these groups. The consequence of that is that although the noise is increasing, legislators are not hearing a clear unified message. In order for true lasting change to occur we must move our legislature from their chosen course of action. In order to do that we need to make it clear that it is in their best interest to listen.

The problem with crafting a unified message is that there has historically been friction between the groups currently advocating for change. Unions and administrators sit on opposite sides of the bargaining table and often find themselves at odds over employment issues. Parents at times find themselves in conflict with administrators and/or teachers over differing opinions with regard to a course of action for their children. However, there are tensions inherent in any relationship and the situation we are faced with is important enough that we must work together to overcome these challenges.

Those responsible for propagating the current “reform” initiatives have money, power and influence. We have the numbers and the votes. Regardless of the influence that money plays in our political system today, we are still a democracy and in the end it is the votes and the electorate that have the final say in our future. We can find common ground and we can’t let the fact that we do not agree with all proposed strategies of a group stop us from being willing to engage them in discussion around those areas upon which we do agree.

One example of this for me is the strategy of advocating for parents to “opt-out” their children from taking standardized tests. While I respect the impetus behind this approach, I don’t believe this is a beneficial strategy because, if successful, it will have a detrimental impact on a district’s scores thus opening the door for negative consequences from the state. The risk is too great and the endorsement of this strategy by public action groups often causes administrators to shy away from participation in those groups. Although I do not endorse this as a strategy, I will still participate in the discussions with groups that do and work to find those areas where we can agree on both the substance of proposed changes as well as strategies for working to advocate for those changes with our policymakers.

There is no danger in discussion, debate and the open exchange of ideas. The danger comes when people stop having those conversations and only listen to themselves or those that share their beliefs. Speaking in such an echo chamber does not accomplish the goal of reaching those we need to influence. I encourage you to reach out to members of other groups working towards the common goal of advocating for change in this standardized, centralized, top-down mandate driven school reform environment. While you may not agree with all their priorities or tactics, finding areas where we can work together are essential to promoting a message for change. Right now that unity is lacking and thus we are weak. Be involved in the discussion. Tonight I am participating in a forum at Westfield State University to meet with individuals concerned about the status of education in our country. I am sure I will not agree with everything that is said at that gathering, but I am certain of a several things. I am certain that all who participate care about children and education. I am certain that all who participate believe that the overemphasis on standardized testing to judge students, teachers and schools is inhibiting necessary effective change in our educational system. And finally I am certain that I will be part of the discussion. Will You?