Windmillin'

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Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

Oh, for Art’s Sake!

Charlsie Dewey at the Business Journal notes the transformation of arts education. Or more precisely the separation of arts education from the school curriculum. And it’s not that the school community, or the community at large is indifferent to the benefits of the arts.

In the last several years there has been a strong push by educators and those involved in the arts communities to emphasize the value of arts education. Numerous studies have shown that students who receive an arts education — either through dedicated discipline classes like music, painting and creative writing, or through integrating the arts with other disciplines like math or science — are more successful academically.

And it’s not like the arts are only for the kids. Dewey notes the economic impact of arts in Michigan: an Art Serve survey found arts accounted for more 16 percent of Michigan’s total tourism — likely more, since the survey only covered 10 percent of arts organizations.

With that impact, you would think that arts might have a higher place on the curriculum, but no. Instead what we have are arts organizations stepping up to fill the gap left by receding dollars and commitments. Is this the wave of the future? Perhaps.

Whether economically troubled schools that have had to cut or end arts education classes can find a way to integrate the arts into the core curriculum and preparations for standardized tests remains to be seen. It does seem like a new model for delivering arts education to kids and young people is on the horizon.

But it’s not new.

Call this the AAU model of arts education, the love child of privatization and high stakes testing. We can no longer afford our arts generally because of the cost, so let’s fob it off on the community. This is in silent accord with the tacit philosophy of education at work in the State. Elite, liberal arts education for those of the better-off suburbs and their private counterparts, and a more vocational/careerist model for the poor. The strivers of course, are caught in between — for a lucky few there are the programs.

This is the very opposite of the vision for public education that has driven our schools.

The place of arts in the curriculum is a political and philosophical statement. It is an assertion that cultural goods belong to everyone, and not simply the property of a few.  The arts are not an adornment to a life, but help shape, even define a life.

Arts education lays the groundwork for self-governance. In our arts, we create the free inner space, a self-awareness and empowerment, that is the prerequisite for self rule. The excellence of arts not only shapes how our understanding, but finally empowers — as any parent who has ever put up a picture can tell you.

Without art, we end up with the circus, entertainment as a consumer good. The small and private screen. Arts education would give our children something more: the world. They certainly deserve it.

[A shorter version of this also appeared at Written and Noted]

Filed under: Community, , ,

Lisa, Lisa, Lisa

During the debate on HB 4813, a measure to provide for the dissolving of the Buena Vista and Inkster school districts,  Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons uttered the famous words, heard round the state.

“Pigs get fat, and hogs get slaughtered. I am done now talking about political parties and adult interests. I want to focus on the problem that these adults created.”

Not surprisingly, many took the words as referring to teachers. The representative has been on the defensive ever since. In today’s Grand Rapids Press she tries to explain herself. It wasn’t teachers she was referring to , but

“special interest union leaders who were playing political games with amendments and the bills.”

This packs an  unusual amount of irony, given the legislative history of the measure. In her column Lyons summarizes the bill

After much negotiation, Democrat and Republican lawmakers agreed to an amendment in the bill that would have provided for displaced teachers from the dissolved districts to be the first hired in the receiving districts.

Exactly. The only difficulty was that wasn’t the bill that came before the chamber. The substitute measure (H-4) stripped those very protections from the bill. The “special interests” standing in the way of children? That was the proposed amendments from the Democrats, seeking to restore the teacher protection.

The legislative history is abundantly clear on this, it wasn’t the unions or Democrats who brought forward the measure, but the Republican caucus. Trying to blame it on the unions then, is misplaced, and instead only shows the pique of the GOP leadership. The tragedy here s that a real bipartisan bill had been crafted, but the animus of some to teachers apparently was such that  “just to show them” they made the bill more onerous and destroyed the bipartisan cooperation.

Oh, there certainly were political pigs in the room.

Likewise, Rep. Lyons displays a remarkable lack of understanding about the structural problems that have been driving Michigan schools into crisis. It’s all the fault of the school districts:

Funding isn’t the problem; mismanagement and administrative negligence led to this crisis.

That might be true were it not for the fact that over the Recession most school districts (GRPS being one of the few exceptions) actually had their fiscal problems worsen. The challenges schools face are structural. Schools have seen a decrease in enrollment from the Recession coupled with the rising role of schools of choice (Bridge  reports Pontiac lost roughly $14 million because of transfers). Add to this the Legislature’s shifting of money away from the schools that only compounded the economic impact of the loss from enrollment. This was the storm that has hit not only Buena Vista and Inkster, but Muskegon Heights  and others.

The fact is, if we really believe that opportunity should not be restricted to Zip Codes (oh, like 49331), then we had better be passing appropriations and legislation that actually back that up. And if that won’t work, how about this: quit blaming the unions for the failure of your own party. Deal?

Filed under: Education Policy, Republican Folly, , , , , , , ,

Singing from the populist songbook

This week Michigan Senator Patrick Colbeck (R-Canton) introduced a set of bills to in part,  prevent “censorship of our founding documents” (SB 120). Typical stuff . While that can be dismissed as the usual hot air of  political posturing, one of the other bills is  more substantive, one (SB 423)

establishes requirements for schools to incorporate teaching provisions of the U.S. Constitution, the Michigan state constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and would require the Michigan Department of Education to incorporate those subjects into standardized testing of students.

Left unsaid in  MLive, was that our Senator Mark Jansen stepped up as a co-sponsor.

It is a measure, in short, right out of the concerns (and playbook) of social conservatives. At its heart it wants to create an educational space for God, anti-Federalism, and free enterprise. It’s the standard issue stuff of old time southern populism, and not surprisingly, it can be found in ALEC’s book of model legislation. We’ve seen this before.

There is a healthy irony here, where otherwise education-skeptical, limited government conservatives stand up and mandate educational requirements. Then again, it perhaps unintentionally reveals a view of education in the conservative heart. Schools are seen as singularly powerful, absent the cultural considerations (poverty, race, etc.), so what is taught or not taught can then become the determiner of our social life. Education is not only ideological, but presently teaching the wrong ideology, the ideology of the elites rather than the presumed normative stance of the non-ideological, neutral stance of the average citizen.

So it is, that the recipe for fixing what is wrong in American education must turn about changing its ideological heart by teaching

America’s founding documents, including documents that contributed to the foundation or maintenance of America’s representative form of limited government, the Bill of Rights, our free-market economic system, and patriotism. (SB 120)

Yet even a cursory review reveals what’s missing: the total absence of any of the great national documents regarding African Americans. Well, yes, in politeness, they did leave off the bit about slaves being worth only 3/5 a vote in the original Constitution (that was white of them), but where is the insistence that children of this state learn about the Emancipation Proclamation? Or the Lincoln’s great Second Inaugural. Or for that matter, the Gettysburg Address? For a party that once championed, bled and died for these great truths, this is a peculiar omission.

And this provides the other head-scratching item: it would have been so simple, so obvious, such an easy play for shoring up Republican image before minorities. But that omission is not a flaw, but a feature of the underlying ideology. The southern populist view of education is forged in the Jim Crow era with the educational disenfranchisement of blacks, America and its schools were self-evidently for whites. In contrast, the educational vision of Michigan rooted in the Northwest Ordinance was always broader, bigger, bolder. Although Michigan residents could be every bit as prejudiced as the southern populists, the schools were shaped by the Federalist (not the anti-Federalist) vision of republican virtue and equality.

Filed under: Horace Mann, Republican Folly, Uncategorized, , , , , , ,

Whitmer was right

Sunday’s editorial in The Press began well enough, unpacking the proposed structural changes to the States public schools. Even from the cursory comments, it is clear these will be substantive. Then in something of a Parthian shot, the editorial turned to the Democratic response, noting

Democrats already are attacking the plan, with Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, calling it a “voucher plan that would end public schools as we know them.”

But for too many Michigan students, the public schools they know are failing them.

The difficulty is that the last and righteous statement, that we are failing our students now, does not negate Whitmer’s substantive point.

If this reform is about traditional public school districts, how they are funded, which students they should accept, then how is Sen Whitmer wrong saying that it “will end public schools as we know them?”  Substantively, her concern is correct: the Governor is looking at a plan that will in fact alter the public schools substantially. With the opt-out provisions, it becomes a program of a two tier system. Forest Hills and Rockford get one kind of (traditional) plan, Kentwood and Northview something quite different.

As the recent discussions around the closing of Creston revealed, the schools can not simply be disaggregated into a collection of individuals or families (the anytime anyplace fallacy), but also function as important pieces of our social and economic fabric, linchpins for neighborhoods and communities.

The consideration of this social dimension will be one if not the central battleground on this so-called school reform proposal. The underlying question is to whom do the schools belong: are they merely to be considered as a instrument of the State, a deliverer of (social) services? or as expressions of particular communities and so accountable to those communities? This is the heart of the conflict.

Filed under: Education Policy, , , , ,

Code Breaking?

It sounds so innocent. Even noble. In today’s editorial from the  Grand Rapids Press, Dave Murray writes

(Governor Rick Snyder) also believes that the quality of a child’s education shouldn’t be determined by his or her ZIP code.

Embracing an “any time, any place, any way and any pace” philosophy, the plan removes district “ownership” of a student, allowing them to take a course, some courses or all their courses from any districts. That includes the growing use of online courses.

With a bill of 300 pages there are bound to be some issues as well a host of potentially unintended consequences, with none bigger, perhaps than the illusion that this is somehow going to crack the zip code.

Still, one does not dismiss the matter of online education. The emergence of MOOCs suggests the way that higher education and likely secondary education will be substantially transformed. But if this is the way, then the questions of accountability and outcomes necessarily follow.

But that’s only a start. Just as critical would be the deal breakers.

Deal breaker 1. Zip Code.  Schools can opt out of the program. In fact with this option, zip code would still determine who gets what kind of education. A set of elite suburban districts would keep their programs while everyone else is in the other pool. Non-participation and presumably continued funding allows such districts to effectively to go their separate way. Zip code becomes destiny. And an unhappy one at that.

Deal breaker 2. Funding. If education follows the student, this puts an emphasis on equal funding. Leave aside whether such a measure violates Prop A, in the context of the present Legislature, equal funding almost certainly means less funding.

Deal breaker 3. Local Control. If funding flows with the student, local communities surrender most effective control of their school, how then do they escape being creatures of Lansing rather than of  local voters? Where local voters and communities lose the ability to meaningfully supervise their schools, local democracy of the right and left loses out.

Deal breaker 4. (Non) Transparency. Lastly,  the proposed expansion of educational services, raises the question of what reporting mechanisms are to be installed. This is both a matter of fiscal control, but also of educational priorities, too. Without transparency we end up with self-dealing. Or the too-easy settling for low expectations. Both would set our State back.

The deep irony of this bill (at least for conservatives) is how it would impose the very sort of educational structures they so often rail against: control from Lansing, funding from Lansing, and the local community shut out. Before they get too giddy with their electoral powerWould lack of transparency be a deal breaker?

Finally, the question that should be asked is how these efforts will produce the educated workforce Michigan needs in the next decade. The Press’s proper role is to ask such questions in order to clarify the legislation and to lay the proper foundation for reform and vibrant local schools.

Filed under: Horace Mann, Michigan, , , ,

Urban School Hope from Philadelphia

Dave Murray writes about the Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia. An urban education program driven by high standards and backed by civic leaders. He concludes, asking

Sometimes I wonder of a solution to urban education’s woes came before us, would we reject it if we didn’t like where it came from? Or, are we so invested in the excuses for failure that we attack anyone who challenges them?

The questions about such an experiment abound. At the most practical, Murray notes this is a question of scalability. Grant the success, to what extent is it the property of the culture of the organization itself, and can it then multiply, scale-up? This is the recognized problem of charters: their accomplishments may be too site specific. What are the lessons that we are to learn from such institutions, such successes? Is it only a form of academic tough love? If other comparable programs are any indication, it is a question of resources, both the hard and the soft. Of course, given the success of a program like Mastery, there will be the temptation of civic leaders to adopt a comparable model as the silver bullet, another cookie cutter solution. There’s stuff to be learned here definitely, we should also know that one size is always a bad fit.

A second question lurking is for the charter school community. While we often contrast such successes with the public schools out of which the programs emerge, the other question to ask is about the  charters themselves. After all, with 50 percent of school-age children in Detroit already in a charter, why then don’t they show the same achievement? Their “no excuses” style may be the key, but I would bet we could find a host of other programs that try to emulate the same with not so stellar success. No one has ever denied that some charters will succeed very well (case in point: Black River), the question is why don’t other charters succeed, as well.

And lastly there is simply the issue of our own hopes. These stand out schools seem to validate our own ideals for education, that we can overcome the great barriers in our lives. That a few can do it then becomes a validation of our ideals and ironically spurs us on to do… nothing. The real lesson in Mastery and other such models is that we can do something, that these efforts take a great deal of resources, far outstripping those in the surrounding community and often in the political culture. It can be done. But that some do it turns to become the opposite, that those who succeed must obviously point to the moral failure of the others.

Mastery tells us that there is a legitimate hope for urban schools; we are not mistaken. However, we cannot learn the lesson without doing our own homework. And of course, making sure that the schools have the resources.

Filed under: Horace Mann, National, , , , ,

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