Can you change the world with a conference? Patch things up with a few panel discussions? The answer, of course, is rarely yes. So I don’t make any huge claims about what was accomplished at the conference, “Fresh Paths: Ideas for Navigating Wisconsin’s New Education Landscape,” on Nov. 17 in Eckstein Hall. (I say that as a person who worked on organizing it.)
But stirring the pot can move the cooking process forward. Spreading important and provocative thoughts can get people thinking along lines they might not have considered previously. Bringing a wide range of committed people together can lead to conversations – informal, as well as formal – that start something rolling.
I hope, and I’m even a bit optimistic, that we served some of those purposes at the conference, sponsored by Marquette Law School and the Marquette College of Education and attended by almost 200 people. The audience included key education policy figures across the spectrum, from union leaders to an advisor to Gov. Scott Walker.
I thought of the conference as a musical piece in four movements: What can be learned from what has been done in developing a new school system in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005; getting a handle on the rapidly developing movement nationwide to overhaul teacher evaluations as a key to improving teacher effectiveness; a look at community efforts to improve educational outcomes overall in Milwaukee; and general assessments of what is needed in educational thinking to move Wisconsin forward. That meant we had three keynote speakers, all of them figures of national standing who were fresh faces to Wisconsin’s educational debate, and more than a dozen panelists, including important figures in state and local education policy.
Feel free to sample the nearly five hours of video that we have posted online from the conference. And let me share with you a few moments that stick out for me:
Paul Pastorek, the former superintendent of Louisiana schools who was one of the architects of what has happened in New Orleans, railing against conventional school systems that he said are broken when it comes to giving many kids a chance to succeed. Pastorek said, “My argument is not against unions, it’s not against teachers, it’s not against administrators, it’s not against legislators, it’s against the damn system. If people work in a broken system, the system designed to achieve the results we’re getting, they cannot be successful.” He called for systems that support strong leadership of individual schools, with strong accountability for results.
Pastorek and Sarah Carr, an education reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, touching nerves in the debate over the impact of high levels of poverty in shaping educational outcomes. They were joined by Marquette’s Howard Fuller, who has also worked extensively in New Orleans, and Prof. Brian Beabout of the University of New Orleans. (If you’re going to watch one thing from the video, go to this exchange, starting at 1hour and 23 minutes.)
Carr said, “I do think the leaders in New Orleans have made a mistake in viewing school change in isolation from broader societal change.” She said poverty cannot be used as an excuse for why children don’t succeed in school, but issues such as early childhood education, criminal justice, and mental health services need to be addressed as part of “a broader revisioning” for New Orleans.
With some heat, Pastorek responded, “I would argue that as far as educating kids is concerned, what comes first in getting success with kids is getting success with the classroom. . . . Educate the kids first in the classroom successfully and then the dynamics in the outer environment change.”
Fuller said, “There’s a difference between saying you got to end poverty before you can improve schools and saying ending poverty is a critical factor in our overall effort to improve schools.” He said if people such as Pastorek and himself don’t listen to what Carr is saying, many people won’t regard them “as real.” And he drew applause when he added, “You can’t support stuff that says, I’m all for the kids in schools, but I’m going to take away health care, I’m going to take away jobs, I’m going to take away housing, I’m going to take away every single thing those kids need — but I’m with you.”
Sarah Almy, director of teacher quality for the Washington-based Education Trust, pointing to places around the country, as close by as Illinois, that are making major strides in improving the way teachers are evaluated and using the results to spur more effective teaching. Mike Thompson, deputy Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction, followed by describing how Wisconsin is joining that effort, and Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, said a joint management-union initiative in Milwaukee Public Schools is well ahead of what the state is doing.
Republican State Sen. Luther Olsen, a key figure in legislative action around education, saying that the goal is to improve teaching and not to be vindictive against teachers, as many teachers fear. “The most important thing in teacher evaluation is the professional development that comes afterward,” Olsen said. (But, so far, seeing that this happens is a question that hasn’t been addressed.)
Dan McKinley, executive director of PAVE, an organization that primarily has assisted private and charter schools in Milwaukee, invoking the Dalai Lama, with a simple prescription for improving the overall scene: Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t work.
Bill Raabe, director of the National Education Association’s Center for Great Public Schools, calling for teachers to be given an important voice they often haven’t had in figuring out how to accomplish better results for children. He said that beyond disputes over collective bargaining, there need to be ways to use the knowledge of those who know the most about what is going on in classrooms.
The conference certainly filled a central goal for public policy programming in Eckstein Hall: to provide a forum for intelligent, fair-minded discussion of important issues. And maybe it did more. At a time when Wisconsin’s educational landscape has changed dramatically and every educator and advocate is trying to figure out how to move forward, maybe we gave the pot a useful stir.
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