Archive for May, 2016

Teachers and Free Speech

In a recent public announcement the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) is lifting the ban on public school teachers exercising their Constitutional right of free speech to criticize standardized testing. The obvious presumptuousness, this was apparently a momentous recognition on the part of those in charge from the Governor to the PED chief and who knows whom else in between, that Americans have a right of free speech even if the government doesn’t like what is being said. Of course there was prodding from the ACLU. The gag rule was promulgated during the Richardson administration which was not itself exactly a bastion of enlightenment and was hung on to by the Martinez PED. We may now expect to hear from New Mexico’s beleaguered teachers on the current regime of testing that replaces authentic teaching and learning.

Following her election to Governor in 2010, Susana Martinez had some pay-back obligations to her sponsors, such as the Koch boys, from whom she took in at least $10,000.00 directly. Consequently she appointed an individual to head the PED who had been vetted by such right wing luminaries as Jeb Bush. It mattered not that the new PED director had no degree or experience as an educator nor were there any apologies for the appointment of an unqualified individual. In fact, Skandera could not have been hired as a teacher in New Mexico because she could not meet the minimum requirements such as: 30 to 60 semester hours in an Elementary Education program including student teaching, a minimum of 6 semester hours of credit in the teaching of reading if you entered college or university after 8/1/01, and a minimum of 24 semester hours in one teaching field such as mathematics, language arts, reading, history, and so forth. To add insult to injury, Skandera was, at that time paid $125,000.00 a year against the average New Mexico public school teacher’s $39K to $49K (all below the national average by the way).

This is about politics after all and the ultimate outcome desired by the sponsors is the privatization of public education – a holy grail, if you will, being sought in nearly every state in the US with a Republican controlled state house. As one billionaire, Rupert Murdoch, famously put it, education is a 500 billion dollar opportunity for which he an others like him are salivating. It should also be noted that Skandera was a participant in the same venue at the same time as Murdoch made this declaration.

Which takes us to the entire idea of standardized testing in elementary grades. Aside from its use as a diagnostic there is absolutely no justification for standardized testing at that level. If anything such testing is a disincentive to authentic teaching and learning. In fact, there should not be grades between kindergarten and the transition to Junior High school a transition better determined by age and appropriate evaluation. In-grade retention of children at any grade level is antediluvian and antithetical to the purposes of proper schooling. It is also cruel. It is no wonder that across the US fewer and fewer children are completing their full course of public education – mindless endless testing regimes and draconian consequences for not performing well on standardized tests are largely to blame. Have you ever met a standard kid by the way? Neither have I.

Truth is children want to learn and schools are there to help with that natural instinct. Unfortunately schools and schooling have become politicized across the country and mostly in states with right-wing reactionary government. What is being called school reform is championed by non-educators, politicians with campaign debts to entrepreneurs who wish to turn public schools into profit centers. Parents are, in many locations, pushing back against this onslaught against teachers and children in the name of profit. It is going to take a great deal of political action to remove people from office who are so anti-social and anti-child that they are willing to sacrifice one of America’s greatest achievements – universal public education. It has to be done – it must be done. Parent must take interest and be vigilant because the profit motive never sleeps.

The Henny Penny Syndrome

Do you remember Henny Penny, a.k.a. “Chicken Little”, who became convinced the sky was falling when an acorn dropped on her head? As a consequence of Henny’s alarm, a number of her panicked chicken colleagues were eaten by a wolf. All of this the result of just one acorn falling. It is only in the general, the sum total of a number of particulars, that we become able to correctly see larger patterns, the tectonic shifts in the social contract for example, and the proximate causes that tell us if the sky is really falling.  Presently there are very many particulars going around and it’s a challenge to properly identify, characterize, and project them as indicators of future possibilities. These days, if you pay attention to the news, it’s difficult not to be somewhere between the extremes of outrage and fear.

Are we, as a society, as cohesive and secure as we believe we are or are we kidding ourselves? Rousseau defined the social contract as a collective moral body and I think he would be challenged to find such in the United States today. Would such populist sloganeering and propaganda as “America First” or “Take Back America” be politically useful if large segments of the population were not feeling an acute sense of insecurity? It’s hard to judge from the extremes of protestation and acting out behavior going on across the country. Supporters of one populist candidate have staged violent demonstrations with out of control tempers, brandished guns, blows being struck, and people bloodied. Much of it seems to be about emotional racism and unarticulated class resentment.   

True Believers are striking out at the “usual suspects” those being people of color or non-standard sexual orientation. Where people pee is inspiring death threats. And while protestors seem inarticulate about their grievances and unable to describe what exactly the source of their angst is, they are certain their candidate will solve it for them. Given the enormous disparity of wealth and opportunity this is certainly not surprising.

Obviously when an economic system permits the export of well paying and even marginal jobs in search of people desperate enough to work for low wages, the inevitable consequence is unemployment in the society being abandoned. With chronic unemployment comes impoverishment, and with poverty the inability to sustain a viable much less a vibrant economy. Fear, resentment, and anger are the inevitable byproducts. People who are powerless resent their sense of impotence and tend to take their frustration out on others and politicians are ruthlessly taking advantage of this dynamic.

The present election cycle has exposed a deep body of unfocused acrimony and repressed anger caused by an economic system that has impoverished and disadvantaged many. There are company towns with no company. Angry Americans want a fence. But, while a fence might keep migrants out it certainly won’t keep jobs in.

At root, the underlying problem is the perception fostered over time that Capitalism and Democracy are synonymous. Capitalism, the driving force behind the foregoing social problems has achieved quasi-religious and patriotic status and is thus cannot be questioned. Capitalism has replaced Democracy as the foundation stone of our social contract. Social Democracy remains an experiment and not a delivered reality. Although the United States has never been a true Democracy it is even less so now. Oligarchy has existed far longer than Democracy and is going strong in this country concentrating wealth, influence, and power much more intensely and narrowly than ever before.

Experiment and experience derive from the same root, we experiment in order to experience an idea – imagination is the inspiration. An important quality of experiments is that there is no failure. We experiment seeking outcomes or results, it is a learning experience. And, brother, are we ever learning these days that Democracy remains an ongoing experiment. Maybe the sky is falling.

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