September 13, 2008

Politics and Policy in Education

This is my sad attempt at homework since I don't yet have Office on my laptop and am trying to write my reflective journal assignment for class on Wednesday. And I haven't written in like two months because at this time of year, work gets really awful and hectic and since I typically update my writings while at work, it's been nearly impossible. But please know that I thought of it often and I missed blogging my life. I'm sorry that my first post back has to be homework and that if you choose, you have to read my ramblings on government and politics in education, but it is your choice, so torture yourself if you will.

It does not behoove schools that are failing to have a distant government with control the same way it would not behoove the CEO of Microsoft to be managing problems in the mailroom. The government responsible for overseeing specific schools should be no further away than the state level. State officials are more familiar with the needs and contributions of communities, allowing it to be better able to facilitate the allocation of state funding, acting as a matchmaker for school districts or even community groups to share resources. For example, Detroit Public Schools are notorious for providing a less than stellar education to its students due to a lack of funding and a lack of personnel. Hope Community Church, located on the border of Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park, a mostly white community, seeks to work in the community for racial reconciliation. There exists a program at Hope that provides tutoring to area Detroit Public School students by members of the church, residents from both Detroit and Grosse Pointe Park. The needs of the school are complimented by the church members' support, and the ultimate interest of the church is served by allowing children to see people of multiple races working together, instead of the typical segregation seen in the area. While most of the control should go to school boards, there should exist a strong tie to state government. In turn, state governments should work together for the same purpose of idea and resource sharing, and to maintain a national standard of learning to remain competitive in a global market.

In his general statement of education platform, John McCain persevers on the idea of school choice, already in place in the United States, as parents can choose to send their child to private school, public school, charter schools, or home schooling. The real issue on the table is not the issue of being able to choose your child's educational environment, the real issue is who is going to pay for it. Vouchers are already used in a few states, allowing government money to be paid toward the educational expenses at the school the child attends.

McCain also asserts that teachers should be encouraged and recruited to underperforming schools, and will be given bonuses for student improvement. However, if parents are provided with choice and vouchers to carry out that choice, children will no longer be attending underachieving schools, negating the need for teachers. McCain's plan does not improve schools, it closes their doors.

Overall, McCain's platform on education is weak, almost non existant. He uses buzz words like accountability and empower, choice and improvement. Never does he make a specific assertion of how he will improve accountability, what is the result of empowering, how to make choice more accessible, and in fact negates improvement with choice rhetoric. These words, no matter to whom they are stated, communicate that McCain has a solid plan for your side of the proverbial fence, when in fact, he is not taking a side, and if elected, certainly will not take the side of America's children.

Conversely, Barack Obama's educational platform begins by siting specific issues he wishes to address and providing the statistics to back them up. He seems to be promoting the education of even the person reading his viewpoint. He pointedly mentions plans on how he will address the cited issues, and even specifically addresses information regarding higher education, a topic severely lacking in McCain's platform.

One issue that was not clearly addressed in Obama's review was an all encompassing plan for higher education financial aid. Agreed by both candidates, the financial aid process is cumbersome and confusing. Obama elects to simplify the process by making a box to check on a tax return allowing access to the information for financial aid purposes. The excellent plan does not address, however, the issue of untaxed income for families being counted toward financial aid calculations. The absence of this information creates an unfair advantage for students whose families live mostly on untaxed income. Without addressing this issue, Obama's platform leaves my professional position as a Financial Aid advisor on shaky ground, as one of my primary roles is to verify information on the financial aid application. In the future, if the information needed to apply are tax returns and those are provided by the IRS who completes their own auditing process, it eliminates my role as a processor for financial aid purposes. Barack Obama promotes a different kind of campaign, one with open dialogues, according to his website, so I have submitted my questions and am eagerly awaiting a reply.

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The topic of power was discussed in class this week, leading to a personal recognition of each position of power held individually. In a related discussion outside of class with a friend, it occurred to me that although power can be bestowed on an individual, part of the power weilded is in the acceptance of power. For example, she told of a woman at her institution that was completing her Ph.D. and was asked to be the interim Dean of the department. The woman accepted, repeatedly stating that she was only just finishing her Ph.D., asserting a personal belief that one should have completed a Ph.D. before coming a Dean.

I have been thrust into similar positions before, both at jobs from which I was let go. The first job was right out of graduate school where I was one of three new residence hall directors on a very small campus. We reported directly to the Dean of Students, however, at the time of our hiring and beginning of employment, there was no such person in that position. Because we had no supervisor, and because I was the only one with previous experience, I was put in the position of power to train these individuals and our staff, being responsible for setting the tone of the school year. Having the courage and blind assumption that I had just graduated with a wealth of knowledge meant that I pushed ahead full force, much to the chagrin of certain members of the administration. I had been given too much power, too early! I did not understand the need to move slowly in this environment that was comprised of an old boys club, and detested new ideas and new ways of doing things.

The second position was similar, a position held right after the first experience. Here, though, I treaded lightly and only did things I was told were my priorities. However, given too much responsibility with too little experience again led to my downfall. If I were to approach both these positions knowing about power as I do now, I would never have accepted them. The power you are given by others is not always done because they want you to have the power, it is often done because by default of the position, you have it. In placing me in those positions my supervisors, I can only imagine, assumed that I had the experience or the knowledge not to weild the powers that were given to me, but only to use the powers they wanted me to use.

I have learned, however, to observe at length before utilizing the power given, so that it may be used smartly, so that I may have earned the power I have been given, instead of it having been provided by default. The difference, I think, is the confidence in which I am using my power. In observation, I am able to determine the dynamics of individuals involved in the situation, how I fit into the group, and what immediate or far reaching impact my words or actions may have.

The question to pose then, is how can I use my power to influence those that have power over me, as well as how to utlize my power to benefit those whom I have power over? Specifically over the course of this academic year I would like to influence change in the way the Financial Aid Office communicates information to students and parents by creating a more user friendly award letter, and increasing communications regarding areas about which students most frequently contact the office. I would like to encourage my supervisors to be more proactive with students and parents so that there is a seamless transition between academic years, and to affect change so that students are empowered to complete their requirements to have their financial aid paid before the bill is due, and to be prepared to pay any balance that will be their responsibility. My current ideas on how to do this are by using more understandable language in financial aid letters, proactively emailing students with information about their account, providing weekly updates through email addressing concerns that are typical for that time of year.

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Questions I will seek to ask over the course of the semester:

1. Is there an explanation or rationale for why policies and political platforms seem to address K-12 teachers and their rewards more than higher ed? For example, loans offer forgiveness for teachers that choose a subject considered high need, and that choose to teach in a certain type of school or area. Hardly any attention or rewards are given to professionals that work in higher ed and address the needs of students outside the classroom. Is this because historically the majority of people do not have a degree beyond high school? If so, why is the goverment so slow to catch up to changing times?

2. What are some possible solutions to Barack Obama's plan for financial aid in higher education? What changes could be made to the process to maintain the integrity of the awarding system, but allow for easier utilization by students and families? Should the Department of Education reconsider the structure of the American family in changing the requirements of the financial aid application? Currently the application requires information from students and parents, however, there is an increasing number of students that do not have biological parents that raised them, and much ambiguity exists around the eligibility for students who have guardians whose rights do not expire.

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