Stirring the Education Policy Pot

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.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. William R. Hittman

    Paul Pastorek made a profound statement when he stated that “change the student and you can change their family and home environment.” He and Dr. Fuller differed in that taking away jobs, health care, and housing are critical to a child’s development. Paul did not downplay any of those factors; he did look at the situation from another lens. A teacher can have a profound impact upon a child and in turn that child can have a profound impact upon her or his family environment. Thus, the families so impacted will take action to bring about change in their overall environment. It is a different perspective that is well worth exploring and hopefully acknowledging. I was impressed with Paul Pastorek’s presentation and his passion for changing the system. The other presenters did not really address the basis of Paul’s presentation. All the presenters were sincere in their attitudes, but they really did not address the premise of Paul’s presentation.

    New Orleans dared to change the system and thus far they have had success. They have a ways to go before I would declare that their new system is effective and relevant to the children and families they serve. I cannot say that for Milwaukee Public Schools. Milwaukee Public Schools has some very talented and effective teachers and administrators trying to make a difference in the lives of the children and families they serve. The system they work in is not effective and needs major change.

    What is happening in New Orleans is a program that is worth exploring to see if Milwaukee could benefit from what New Orleans is doing. We tend to listen and then ignore what others are doing and saying. I commend Marquette University and Alan for bringing us together and arranging for Paul and others to present. Sarah Almy gave an interesting presentation with much data to review and analyze. Her presentation went too fast for viewers to digest the data presented. I certainly got her message and appreciated the research.

  2. Rev. Bobby L. Sinclair

    I listened with an intent ear to all of the pressenters and I agree that intelligent research was presented, oftimes with definite passion. To say that the MPS system is broken is to overstate the obvious. However, I am concerned that many well-intentioned (leaders) are willing to settle for minimal success. I can applaud the efforts to establish a recovery school district that will benefit 25% of the children in the next five years. But what is there to clamor about when you have 75% that are being underserved?? I remember that learning was exciting when I was a child. Did the classroom lose something? What about the parents? Why are they intimidated or even afraid of the education system? Are they afraid because it’s the same system that took away their dreams or expectations and left them to other systems (judicial, penal, unemployment) that continue to abuse them and wrest away their remaining dignity? The tale of the lion hunt is sesldom told from the lion’s perspective. I think we need to think on a broader spectrum and put our shoulder to the same rock and push together. This is not just an education problem, but a broad regional issue. In conclusion, I believe I heard that in all that the presenters shared.

  3. Jesse Mazur

    Accepting Pastorek’s “different lens” as a successful way to alter and shape a child’s reality, and thus, dictate a successful course for a new future is unfortunately a chimerical notion. In fact, this is precisely the old model of thinking that has resulted in many students being left far behind, educationally stunted, morally vacuous, and largely incapable of seeing relevance in a traditional educational system.

    Mind you, I have seen the impact that a terrific teacher can have on a student’s life and it is beautiful. Yet, this powerful interaction is limited in its scope relative to the masses of students who lack the skills and ability to impact the their own dysfunctional family environment beyond the confides of poverty. Frankly, it is absurd that we adhere to a system where we have to cherry pick urban success stories and promote them as the standard-bearer to validate a failing system here in Milwaukee and other large impoverished areas.

    So what is the solution? It is obviously complicated but to start, we need to fundamentally change a child’s worldview. How do we do this, and can a teacher help? Absolutely! However, I would argue that today’s educational landscape, in which success is characterized by double-digit academic gains, obedience to compliance tools designated by the state to give the appearance of having a remedy, fundamentally, neglects the core being of an individual. Simply put, developing in a child a sense of decency, right and wrong, resiliency and the capacity to productively, problem solve is an essential remedy, often, if not entirely, neglected.

    I’m now brought back to Pastorek’s comments and I conclude he is in fact correct. The interaction between the teacher and the student is of fundamental importance. However, the focus cannot be on algebraic expressions, algorithms, and comprehensive literacy plans. We are asking our students to promote good character and values to the adults that rear them…………hmmmmmm, but its a start.

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