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Asking the right questions in support of students and teachers

by KNEA President Blake West
As the new school year begins, Kansas teachers are once again bringing their best skills and commitment to classrooms across our state.  We’re ready to do everything we can to ensure each child, regardless of geography, economics, ethnicity, or language background, gets a great education.  We know that the health of our communities depends on the kind of education we provide.  This is not a challenge that we take lightly.  We embrace it.  Some power brokers, however, cannot see beyond what is profitable for their narrow interests.  They continue on a course to ensure that the wealthiest Kansans contribute as little as possible to our communities and to the schools that serve them.

Kansas is blessed with possibly the most well-qualified and dedicated teaching force to be found anywhere in the nation.  One thing that distinguishes great teachers is the questions they ask. They devise questions that elicit deep thought, generate curiosity, encourage problem-solving and motivate a desire to change the world. It’s all about the questions.

Unfortunately, a façade of “accountability” has been constructed around useless questions that oversimplify student achievement as a list of things that are easy to ask, easy to grade, easy to quantify. These are the wrong questions. We give tests that ignore social studies, the arts, citizenship, creativity, problem solving, and collaboration. Then, “they” try to analyze the outcomes from these inadequate assessments to make high-stakes decisions that label students.

For our schools, our students and our economy to thrive, we all need to be accountable: teachers, parents, students and lawmakers. And that means asking the right questions.

Crucial questions reveal core values
The Kansas Policy Institute (KPI) recently proposed holding education forums based on the premise of “Since we can’t afford great schools in tight budget times, what would you be most willing to cut from public education?” The question comes directly from anti-tax groups like Americans for Prosperity, funded by the Koch brothers, and shows little respect for teachers. The most important question is: “What educational opportunities for our children do we believe are so important that we WANT to pay taxes to fund our schools?”

Past generations of Kansans revealed their core values by paying taxes in order to build great schools for our kids, good roads for transportation, and social services for the needy. A new spirit of selfishness, though, seeks to ask “Why should the rich be punished for their success by asking them to pay the same tax rates as the poor?”

Partisan questions?
In January 2011, these new values were the impetus of storm clouds that formed in Wisconsin, then spread to Ohio, Idaho, Indiana, Florida, and beyond. We see it as the divide within the Kansas Republican Party grows wider, as moderates who worked to support our schools in 2011 have each been targeted for defeat in 2012… targeted by the new wing of their own party… targeted by people whose values are out of touch with Kansas’ priority for public schools.

For us in education, the needs of students have never been greater; the stresses on their families have never been deeper; and the resources to provide a great learning environment have never been in such short supply. Imagine cutting funding back to the level of 1999 and expecting communities to raise property tax to make up the difference … expecting teachers to pick up the slack out-of-pocket, too.

Then, using the wrong questions and extreme examples of dysfunctional schools far removed from Kansas, some would denigrate the commitment of teachers. And using flawed standardized tests and faulty analysis of results, many of those same critics question the quality of our work.

The truth about Kansas
The truth is Kansas NEA members’ values are reflected in our choice of profession. We make a difference in the world. We recognize that investing in public education transforms lives. This is why KNEA has led the fight to maintain high standards for the profession and to institute rigorous teacher evaluation that helps each of us improve our practice. We are willing to ask the questions to hold all of us — teachers, students, parents and elected officials — accountable. Kansas NEA is THE organization doing something about fixing our flawed testing and accountability system, keeping KPERS solvent, and investing the resources needed so that every child has access to a great public school education.

As teachers embark on the new school year, ask what you can do to support them. Our students need us working together. Together, we WILL make a difference!

A high school science and technology teacher, Dr. Blake West is on leave from the Blue Valley School District to serve as president of the Kansas National Education Association.

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