Sunday, April 10, 2011

Beware, Republicans!

Winds of change are blowing across the Arab world taking down dictators; an earthquake-caused tsunami killed thousands in Japan and damaged an atomic energy plant causing radiation releases and possible meltdowns; and a black man named Barack Hussein Obama is president of the United States.  Glen Beck, the Fox News clown, tells viewers we are entering “the end of days.” But as political satirist Jon Stewart said during his Rally to Restore Sanity, “We live now in hard times, not end times.”

In the wake of the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, with millions out of work and still losing their homes, American voters were scared and frustrated by the slow recovery in 2010. Corporations with their newly granted freedom of speech, which the Supreme Court has defined as the freedom to spend without limit to influence elections, spent hundreds of millions of dollars in support of Republican candidates.
Detecting a breeze blowing to the right, away from government spending that stimulated the economy just enough for us to avoid depression, many voters turned to Republicans. They gave them a majority in the House even though it was Republican leadership that created the deficit and brought on the recession with policies of lax financial regulations, tax breaks without spending cuts, and refusal to raise taxes to pay for wars, even on those who could easily afford it.

They promised they would focus on jobs, but since taking office have been demanding budget cuts to programs they don’t like and are threatening to shut down the government if Democrats don’t go along. Since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have subscribed to the theory that cutting taxes for corporations and top earners would create more jobs. Though this “trickle down” theory has been proven wrong again and again, it is still their only idea for creating jobs. Meanwhile, newly elected Republican governors face deficits that in some cases have been created by irresponsible tax cut giveaways to businesses. Instead of even considering raising needed revenues, they wage war on public employee unions and make draconian cuts to social programs and education.

Have the Republicans created one single job? How many jobs will be lost if they have their way with the billions in cuts they propose to the federal budget? Which way will the wind blow if Republicans will not sit down with Democrats to make reasonable compromises, thereby shutting down the government?  Is there any chance they will be willing to try to come up with sensible measures to solve long term deficit problems?

Those who thought it ridiculous to compare the protests in Wisconsin to those in the Middle East should think again. The struggle for jobs that pay fair wages in safe working conditions, for a secure retirement, for affordable health care, in short, for entry into the middle class is ongoing world-wide. The recent uprisings were sparked in Tunisia by a vendor who had his fruit cart confiscated and burned himself alive in protest. A growing, educated, yet underemployed youthful population with access to the tools of the information age, and working people sick of corruption and low wages, united to protest peacefully in the tradition of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and force out two dictators. Granted, the stakes were much higher and the grievances far more severe than in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, and Michigan, but for too long Americans have watched their wages and benefits shrink while executive salaries rise and corporations move jobs overseas and find ways to avoid paying taxes.

 In the United States, the middle class has faced a headwind in recent years. Income disparity is greater than at any time since the Great Depression. The deficits are great, but our creditors are not calling in our debts—it’s not the crisis the Republicans claim it is, and even if it were, their proposed cuts do not begin to solve the problems. Senate Democrats can stop the proposed Republican cuts. President Obama could veto them even if they did pass. In either case, they could do that in the name of saving jobs and the economy. If that shuts down the government, the fault will lie with the intransigence of Republicans. Democrats have already grudgingly agreed to ten billion of the sixty billion in cuts proposed in the House budget in two continuing resolutions to keep the government running (more in recent negotiations). Republican lawmakers risk a tsunami of resentment if they don’t sit down with Democrats to find ways to create jobs, strengthen the economy, and seriously talk about long term debt.

This essay was published in the Charleston Gazette (WV) on April 5, 2011

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Cut that Hurts

Recent cuts to the 2011 federal budget have ended funding for the National Writing Project (NWP), an organization I care about deeply (full disclosure: for several years it has provided me a part-time job, something most teachers need). NWP received $27 million in 2010 and distributed much of it to over 200 writing project sites around the country in operating grants of under $50,000.
When I was in my third year of teaching, I participated in the West Virginia Writing Project’s “Invitational Summer Institute,” an intense program of writing, of reading research and teachers’ stories of teaching writing, and of designing and presenting demonstration lessons. This experience, as it is for many of the thousands of teachers each year who participate in NWP programs around the country, was career changing. Life changing, in some ways.
Before that, in my education classes and in professional development offerings by my school and district, I had understood that someone else had the answers and becoming a teacher, a good teacher, was a matter of doing what I was told in ways that I was told research said would work. Unfortunately, research could be found that said just about anything would work. In practice, I, like most beginning teachers, found the actual classroom experience daunting, challenging, exhausting, and often filled with failure by students who seemed to lack the skills and motivation to achieve, especially when asked to set pencil to paper.
Dr. Fran Simone, who served as director of West Virginia Writing Project at that time, created an atmosphere in which each teacher felt valued as a member of a professional community searching for the best possible answers to the questions and challenges the classroom experience presented. We became better writers and created a caring community by sharing our stories, which were often personal in nature. Over a few weeks of full day workshops and evenings working on our own writing, we learned more from each other than from any article or book that we read, though we learned from them as well, especially the ones written by other classroom teachers whose writing was more accessible than university based researchers, and whose classroom experiences rang true. Through this transformative experience, I became a better teacher, a better person—one who began learning to nurture the voices of students, to encourage their self-expression and through that to impact their skills and their motivation to learn.
In the years that followed that experience, I implemented many of the practices and lessons I had observed—not all at once, but as I was ready and able. Eventually, I became a leader and innovator, and have been recognized by NWP and the College Board for the work I’ve done at Ruffner Elementary School. In a perfect world, the type of professional learning community created through the NWP model would be re-created in every school and district in the country. However, it rarely occurs in schools.
Perhaps it is too much to expect teachers to share their successes and failures, frustrations, their personal stories with those who evaluate them and pay their salaries. Perhaps only an outside player like NWP, a university/district collaboration, can fill that role.
During my twenty-four year teaching career, I have had the opportunity to do for others what Dr. Simone did for me: facilitate professional learning communities with teachers who come voluntarily during the summer to improve their classroom practice involving writing. Now this program may come to an end. It will not cause closures of schools or layoffs of large numbers of teachers. It will not immediately impact student achievement throughout the country. However, multiple studies have found that students of teachers who have been through NWP programs on average write significantly better than students of teachers who don’t.
In a time when the challenges teachers face and the expectations the public has for them continue to mount, we should be putting more funding into cost effective programs such as NWP, which leverages support at three dollars for each federal dollar.
Some argue that the role of the federal government should be limited to defense, enforcing laws, and providing (as little as possible) for the neediest among us. Education, they insist, is only a local concern. But it takes more than a village to raise a nation of children who will be able to compete in this global economy, and we should not be throwing out any effective programs that are improving their chances of doing so.