Do Americans, even in anxious times, prefer an optimistic leader or an angry one?
On August 30 the newly-formed School and District Accountability Design Team held the first of five meetings on the UW-Madison campus. The Design Team is led by “Quad-Chairs” Governor Scott Walker, Senator Luther Olsen, chair of the Senate Education Committee, Representative Steve Kestell, chair of the Assembly Education Committee, and Tony Evers, State Superintendent of Schools in Wisconsin.
Republicans hail this as a bi-partisan effort, though there was only one very skeptical Democrat in the room, Representative Sondy Pope-Roberts, ranking minority member of the Assembly education committee. Though invited to participate, the state teachers’ union, WEAC, declined. In a July 22, 2011 press release, President Mary Bell stated, “trying to address difficult problems requires leaders at the table to have shared trust, respect and mutual commitment to public schools. There’s no evidence of shared values in three of the four leaders of this task force – they just slashed state funding for schools by nearly $1 billion and took away the right of educators to have a voice in their schools.”
According to Supt. Evers, the purpose of this team is to create “an accountability system lever to promote change within the districts.” Senator Olsen cast a more sinister light on this vague statement in his introductory remarks: “When people hear accountability they think of punishment. It’s really about what we in the business community and education community believe what’s important in education.” So much for public schools serving the educational needs of kids. It’s all about churning out human cogs for the needs of the business community.
The business of education reform is enormous, and a growing segment of the industry has to do with “accountability” initiatives requiring testing and assessment products. The people who were introduced on Tuesday as “facilitators” of the Design Team are actually high-paid consultants working with the American Institute for Research, a company that racked up $299 million in revenue for the 2009 fiscal year. Contracting with a wide variety of US military and civilian departments as well as many state departments of education, AIR is a major player in the field of developing and selling educational testing and assessment material.
The three consultants working with the Design Team are also working with Governor Walker on various other task forces and reform initiatives. In fact, Rep. Steve Kestell noted, “All of the task forces might seem like they’re too much, but I can’t think of anything better to do. This is part of an overall conversation going on.” Unfortunately, the conversation is only going on between those who hold the purse strings to Wisconsin state tax funds and the multi-million dollar corporations who want a part of it.
The 29 members of the Design Team include exactly one teacher and one parent group representative. Other members include Directors of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), Wisconsin Charter School Association, Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, School Choice Wisconsin, Institute for the Transformation of Learning – well, you get the picture.
The Team broke into small groups three times during the day. Once to establish “guiding principles” for the system they are charged with devising, next to define what “college and career readiness” means, and finally to establish “performance benchmarks” for each of four grade groupings (k-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12) to determine college and career readiness. They had 30 – 45 minutes to discuss each topic.
As the day wore on, the group’s rubberstamping nature became more and more evident. Not being educators themselves, most team members were at a loss as to where to being with these topics. The representative from WMC said, “We don’t know enough about this topic to comment on it.” Luckily, the AIR “facilitators” had done much of the background work ahead of time and presented the group with templates and “guidelines” for discussion. The small group that included the teacher came up with their own benchmark for evaluating the material presented to them: Whether or not it made them cringe.
On the topic of developing age-appropriate benchmarks for college and career readiness, Rep. Kestell suggested that they being with the final outcome and work their way back. “We need to ask the employers what qualities and attributes they want to see and then figure out how to develop those from the earliest stages of education.” No, this is not science fiction; this is actually how the public education system is being shaped in Wisconsin and many other states. Members of the “education community” such as the AIR consultants will be paid millions of dollars to develop testing and assessment products to meet these needs.
Scott Walker was not present during the morning session, but he did join the group after lunch. Dogging his trail was a group of protesters who named the elephant in the room: The $1.6 billion in cuts to education contained in Walker’s current state budget. Utilizing whiteboards at the back of the room and a spare flipchart, protesters wrote, “fund public education, not corporations” before Walker’s security detail escorted them out of the room. Others wrote “SHAME” on their fore arms in black ink and held their arms out wherever Walker cast his gaze, while sounds of vuvuzuelas and “Recall Walker” wafted into the room from outside.
Though due to run until 3:30, protesters caused enough of a disturbance to shut the meeting down 45 minutes early. I had a chance to speak with Rep Pope-Roberts afterwards. She related her skepticism about the team and her role in it stating, “My biggest fear is that this is just more in the process of getting rid of public education completely.”
Rebecca Kemble is an Anthropologist who studied decolonization in Kenya. She serves on the Board of the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and as the President of the Dane County TimeBank.