Sharon R. Daly
Erosion is defined as the gradual destruction or diminution of something. It is an apt term to describe what is happening to education in Wisconsin and in the nation at large due to misguided policies and legislation that are wearing away at the fabric of public education. I have been a teacher for the past three decades. Initiatives come and go, but the bedrock on which we stood has always been solid. Now it is shifting underneath our feet as the removal of funding, fair representation, and bad policies wash away the very foundation of public schools. Educational funding is being diverted into vouchers and privatization of charter schools. We are losing some of our brightest minds due to budget cuts at universities and rigid curriculum mandates. Last week many Wisconsin parents received letters, from the UW-Madison office of Educational Outreach and Partnership, informing them that weekend and summer enrichment programs for advanced academic learners have been cut- effective immediately- due to budgetary decisions by the governor and state legislature. These cuts will undermine the quality of the UW-system schools and the many special programs that addressed the needs of students in the K-12 system. These programs were influential in providing students with in depth opportunities to further their knowledge about science, technology, and the arts, and think about exciting future career options. They allowed students to envision themselves as college students who would attend Wisconsin universities, and contribute to the collective good after graduation.
In addition to funding cuts, erosion of education is progressing at an alarming rate due to the state and national emphasis on standardized testing. Burdensome testing mandates have taken away much instructional time, and contributed to joyless classrooms. In an age of accountability, we can seemingly quantify everything about students, but miss what is most important. Education should foster inquiry and active engagement. It should not stifle creativity. Students should know that they are more than the sum of data points. That learning is not all about next steps, and college and career readiness, but being fully present in the everyday moments. Education is the process of making meaning and crafting a life. It should create citizens who have skills in consensus building, rather than in adversarial debating that polarizes; creating winners and losers. The Social Studies standards for the state of Kansas sum up the purpose of creating students that will help fulfill America’s promise:
America’s greatness is reflected in its ability to innovate, analyze complex problems, ask cogent questions, assemble and evaluate critical data, and seek creative solutions, going beyond the recall of factual information. These are the skills of a democratic citizen, and failure to teach them threatens the future of the United States. To be an American citizen requires developing a democratic mind – the intellectual ability to entertain contradictory or opposing ideas, hold tentative judgments, and make decisions based on facts supported by evidence.
I don’t know any standardized tests that will adequately measure these ideals. I don’t know how we can teach this to our students when it is not modeled in the halls of the Wisconsin State Legislature. I don’t understand how the highest elected official in my state can compare peaceful citizenry expressing their constitutional rights in the heart of the Capitol Square to global terrorists. I don’t know how students will value education, when it is constantly attacked by policy makers who are not in classrooms to see the fallout. I don’t know how public education can survive the erosion of common sense and needed support without losing the shoreline completely and discovering that we have no place left to stand.