A Teachable Moment

PCT President Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Education vs. Training

Those of us who value education, especially public education, are faced with overcoming the very successful rhetoric of the reform movement that like an insidious virus has invaded our understanding of what it means to be educated, rapidly replicating itself to the point where many cannot remember or do not know that education was once about more than training for a job or college entrance.

My elementary schooling taught me to read, write and do some math, but it was about so much more. It was there that I learned about classical music, not a staple in my childhood home. I learned folk music too, songs of social protest, labor songs. So much of what we did in school was directed at citizenship, at our responsibilities to others. Excellent copies of great art works hung on the school walls, works that our teachers would talk to us about. There were weekly assemblies, often focused on guests who had come to talk to us. I vividly remember a family of refugees from the Korean War coming to speak to us about the plight of their country. I remember too the Korean folksong they taught. There was time for crafts of all kinds, from making a covered wagon out of strawberry boxes to woven bookmarks. There was time for fun. The best of the teachers I had told us stories of their own lives. Our music teacher even brought her French husband to school one day to talk to us about growing up in France and what France was like under the Nazi occupation. Or Miss Levy who had a travel itch and who told us wonderful stories of her experience of the midnight sun in Spitsbergen and spending a summer in India.

My teachers did so much to make us aware of the world beyond our Brooklyn community and helped us to understand our place in it. They had time to do these things. There were no pacing charts, no high stakes tests, no psycho-babble about twentieth skills, no making us anxious about gaining acceptance to college or our need to know what we wanted to work at as adults. We didn’t go home to hours of homework. The little homework that we had didn’t require the assistance of our parents. Home was for good time without parents, listening to the radio, watching television, reading and dinner conversations. My school was about getting educated. It was not about what I could take from the world but about what I might be able to give. It wasn’t aimed at preparing me for global economic competition but rather for citizenship and an enriched cultural life. Above all else it got me thinking about social justice and human freedom.

Some of my readers will respond that the world has changed. It surely has but in ways that make real education even more important than it was in my youth.

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The Latest Common Core Scam

One of the key points in the marketing of the Common Core State Standards has been the desirability of some to compare the accomplishments of students across state lines. How do New York students compare to those in Colorado or Utah? Universal standards for what children should be able to do grade by grade in theory make such comparisons possible. It is only theory, however, a theory that omits the reality that public education exists in a roiling political environment, one in which elected officials subordinate educational idealism to electoral realities. A front page story in the New York Times this morning makes this point exactly. It turns out that states define and report student accomplishment on the Common Core exams variously, making meaningful comparisons just about impossible. A student who is proficient in one state could be failing in another, even though both have been taught to the same standard. Every so slowly, the American people are learning that they have had their pockets picked once again.

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Let’s Get Ethically Conspicuous

Both on the phone and through social media, many parents of elementary students in our district contact me complaining about the Common Core State Standards, particularly the math standards. It’s been in part through these exchanges that I have formed the opinion that the writers of the Common Core State Standards knew little to nothing about the intellectual development of children.

Last evening at a regular meeting of our board of education, a very poised and articulate young woman got up and began to talk about the response of her third grader to the math instruction. A teacher in a neighboring district, she was careful not to blame any staff in the school her daughter attends, focusing instead on her experiences as a parent with a child for whom math homework is an almost automatic trigger of emotional meltdowns. So much is expected of the children that teachers have little time to pause and reteach when children don’t get it, the rhythm of their work dictated by pacing charts aimed at getting them to cover everything before the state assessments in the spring, assessments that are tied to their annual professional performance review or APPR. Skill work in math or any other subject for that matter requires time for students to practice, practice that pacing charts do not adequately allow for.

I hear stories like this almost every day, from parents and teachers who often tell me that what they are forcing young children to do is tantamount to child abuse. Reports to the public in our district suggest that not only is all well but our children are doing outstandingly, learning concepts that only much older children used to learn. And, in fact, some are. But left unaddressed is an unknown number of children, anecdotally a very significant number of children, who are being asked to learn things they are not ready to learn to satisfy policy makers who subordinate the intellectual and emotional welfare of our children to half-baked economic ideas about international competitiveness, as though if we don’t jam as much material down children’s throats as fast as we can, the economy of the United States is going to come tumbling down, leaving us at the mercy of those evil Chinese who are training their children to economically vanquish us. Doesn’t anyone wonder how teaching children to hate learning is probably not a ticket to success, economic or otherwise?

Sadly, I think most of our board of education knows that there is something seriously wrong. Whether they have the courage to admit it publicly is another matter. If I’m correct that they know something is seriously wrong, then it seems to me they, no we, have an ethical responsibility to do whatever is necessary to treat our children caringly. Like many other Long island districts we’re into conspicuous achievement. We love awards and contests and all sorts of competitions that have little to do with the quality of our schools. How wonderful it would be if we decided to conspicuously modify the standards so that they comport with age appropriate abilities of our children – lead the way to serious reform. While we’re at it, what if our leaders all got behind the opt-out movement, strengthening this movement that will ultimately defeat the corporate reform agenda. Stop the damage here. Help to stop it throughout our state. Get on the ethical high road. Fear of state reprisals is no excuse for not doing what’s right for kids.

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The Appointment of John King

Social media were buzzing this weekend with postings about the appointment of John King to succeed Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. While it seems almost inconceivable at first glance that the President would appoint a person who became a lightning rod for the opposition to the President’s own policies, reflection suggests otherwise. Obama has been consistent on education policy from the time he first became a candidate. Our national teacher unions just chose to ignore the things he said during his campaign.

The first time I heard Barack Obama speak was at the NEA convention during the primaries preceding his election. He was one among most of the Democratic candidates to appear. I remember being struck with his chutzpah to come before ten thousand teacher union activists and brazenly support charter schools, merit pay and much of the so-called school reform movement. I listened to his speech seated next to a union leader who was so appalled by his remarks that he walked out of the hall in the middle of Obama’s speech. Some months later when the NEA despite his advocacy for positions anathema to most of its membership moved to support Obama over Hillary Clinton, it was clear that were he to win we were going to have problems with him. He surely didn’t disappoint, naming Chicago school head Arne Duncan who cleverly devised a plan to implement Obama’s corporate school reform agenda by bribing financially strapped school districts with big federal dollars if they would just sign on to his plan. That they did in droves.

Although Duncan came under growing criticism and with him Obama’s education policies, the President never wavered in his support for his friend and his policies. It’s simply a fact that President Obama subscribes to the major tenants of the reform movement, believing that if we just had the right teachers and the right standards, all of America’s children, even those scarred by the effects of poverty, can achieve at high levels. With little more than a year to his presidency, why would he change course now? In John King, he has a man whose public biography has been skillfully constructed to crafted to illustrate the power of education to help children overcome even extreme adversity, King having lost his parents at a very early age, crediting teachers with having set him on his course to success. That King spent his formative years in a middleclass environment, absorbing mainstream middleclass values, receiving the kind of stimulation children require to be successful learners is ignored in a narrative that influences the belief that if good schools saved him, why wouldn’t they be able to save all of America’s children? From Obama’s perspective, King is the perfect choice. His appointment signals Obama’s commitment to stand by his beliefs, even if they have shown to be ineffective.

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The Public Mostly Gets It

For 47 years Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup Organization have been polling American attitudes towards public education. This year’s just released poll clearly shows that the American public does not support the major planks of the corporate school reform program. The public overwhelmingly believes that students are subjected to too many standardized tests and are against holding students, teachers and schools accountable on the basis of them, understanding that they are more than the score on a snap shot examination. Despite the massive publicity campaign to discredit our public schools and the tax dollars that support them, the number one education issue in the mind of the public is insufficient funding.

So if the public does not support the corporate reform agenda, and there is almost no evidence that it is working to improve anything, in whose interest are the test and punish reforms being pushed? Our democratic institutions are threatened as never before by the corruption of our politics by the moneyed interests. Central to that corruption is the attempt to discredit and privatize our public schools, the institution that sustains our democratic values. These interests throw massive amounts of money into our political campaigns, shaping the positions of candidates with their dollars. One of the key factors of Donald trump’s popularity is his unequivocal admission that he has given money to politicians of both parties because that’s what good businessmen like him do. After all, they need favors sometimes.

There is much to encourage defenders of public education in this poll. The reformers are clearly losing the battle for the public’s support. The remaining challenge is for public school defenders to build the political movement to defeat the corporate dominated stooges who represent us. For the unionists in this pro-public education coalition this will require a dramatic break from our traditional safety first politics. In this regard, the rush to early endorsements in the Democratic presidential primary is not very encouraging.

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Teacher Morale

While low morale may be endemic to teaching in public schools owing to the emotional intensity of the work, some of the conversations I’ve had in recent days with members of our local union and union leaders from other districts suggest that teacher morale has plunged to astonishingly low levels.

As I walked into one of the schools in my district the other day, I came upon a conversation between a member and the security aid at the entrance to the building. As they came within earshot, I hear the member saying something about nine hundred as some odd days. After greeting them, I couldn’t resist asking about the nine hundred days, although I wasn’t prepared for the answer. “That’s the number of days until I can retire,” came the teacher’s answer.

That exchange has stayed with me since, causing me to think about what it must be like to see oneself trapped in a job and sustaining oneself by counting off the days, almost like a prisoner crossing off the days of her sentence. Whether it was something special about that day or just coincidence, that evening I met with a group of local union leaders who have been meeting regularly to try to energize our response to the devastating impact of the corporate school reform movement. There too, the depression of my colleagues was arresting. Leaders after leader spoke of the frustration and anger in their memberships. One colleague, while she had us in stitches with her dark humor, eloquently express her experience of the reform movement and the attempts to remedy its debilitating consequences, by analogizing the attempts of our politicians and regents to a dressmaker attempting to alter a dress that no matter what she does is never going to the fit customer. “Oh, you have a problem with the sleeve? I’ll just take it in a little here,” she said as she twisted up her sleeve. “Bra showing? If we just hike things up here a little bit, it will look beautiful,” she said as the dress began to completely distort her body. We laughed, but understood the depth of her feelings about what outsiders were doing to her work and career.

There was talk that evening of once great school districts having class sizes of almost forty students because the property tax cap has begun to bite even our wealthiest districts, rendering them incapable of meeting the challenges they once met with distinction. Governor Cuomo is calling for a reboot of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the testing regime tied to them. I’m not a techie, but when I reboot my computer, it does what it always did before the rebooting. If we are to rescue our schools from the privatizers, the philanthropists who give to get and the craven politicians who suck up to them for campaign donations, we need to do substantially more than reboot. We need to empower educators and their communities to rebuild schools so that they serve the needs of children again.

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Wait for the Taskforce Report, But Get Opt-Out Letter In

Feeling the heat of the growing parent revolt against high stake testing and the evaluation of teachers based on student test scores, Governor Cuomo has once again reached for the creation of a taskforce on the Common Core State Standards, hoping to mollify those who hold him politically responsible for the chaos wrought in the name of higher academic standards.

Early responses to the naming of his taskforce are less than enthusiastic, with NYSUT welcoming the taskforce’s creation but suggesting that proof of its worth will await its recommendations for cleaning up the current education policy mess. Opt-out movement leaders have taken to social media this morning, most alleging the taskforce to be a fraud owing to its lack of parent and teacher members.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no informed opponents of the Common Core State Standards or high stakes testing on the panel. Those I know talk about the need to reduce the number of tests and a fairer system to evaluate teachers, but basically support the concept of national standards and the use of high stakes tests to measure student progress. The influence of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers is clearly present, with Randi Weingarten its former president, Catalina Fortino and a teacher from Brooklyn all owing allegiance to that powerful local union whose President, Michael Mulgrew, passionately defended an attempt to have the American Federation of Teacher oppose the Common Core at its last convention. It was on that occasion that he made his now infamous, intemperate threat to punch in the nose anyone who tried to take the standards away.

I will be pleasantly surprised if any change other than around the margins comes from this panel. Those of us who care about the extreme damage being inflicted on our best school districts in the name of standards and accountability must continue to build the parent movement to veto test and punish education by refusing to participate in it. Let’s wait for the panel’s report, but while we’re waiting, let’s encourage parents to get their opt-out letters in.

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Competition Run Amuck

In conversations I have with parents, in posts on social media that I follow and in comments made by citizens at public meeting of our local board of education, I see a disturbing trend. Parents are increasingly seeing the education of their children as an all-consuming competition, one in which a good parent must seek competitive advantages for his own children and guard against such advantages for others. To be sure there has always been some of this in upper middle-class suburbs like ours. One can’t have taught high school students without having experienced combustible challenges to one’s grading that are often about as little as one point. It strikes me, however, that the situation has grown much worse, to the point where it influences decisions the school district makes.

Take the day that is being given over to the administration of the PSAT. Put aside the outrage that a private company is effectively mandating what public schools will do on a given day. Put aside too that many school district s like mine will pay the fee for the exam to the company. While most of the children in our high school will not be taking the exam, the district decision makes felt obligated to come up with a special program for the day because we couldn’t allow instruction to go on as that might put PSAT takes at a competitive disadvantage. That’s right. As this was explained to the public, I watched numbers of parents in the audience shaking their heads in assent, as if such a decision were axiomatic. Similarly, when the 3-8 state exams are given, children whose parents opt them out are sent to alternative areas where they are admonished not to work on anything that would get them academically ahead of their peers so as not to disadvantage them. How objectively crazy is this? Is it not a serious subversion of the reasons we send children to public school?

When we conceptualize our education system as a competitive area, we structure many of the behavioral outcomes of our children. In such an environment, one’s peers are rivals whose success diminishes us. One self-worth becomes aligned with one’s academic rank and as a student once told me when I questioned him about why grade were so important to him, “Without my grades, I’m nobody.”

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NEA To Follow AFT IN Premature Endorsement

I gather that this weekend the NEA Board of Directors will endorse Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Should they do so, they will be following the premature endorsement of the AFT and will have unnecessarily committed our membership to a candidate who as handled herself about as maladroitly as possible. Perhaps even more importantly, they will have further eroded the connection of the leaderships of both unions to the political activists in our ranks on whom they must depend to have their endorsement have any meaning.

By and large the union members likely to do the work to make our endorsement worthwhile are with Bernie Sanders. They have responded to his program for an economy that works for all of the people of our society, not just the one percent. They believe in his support for public education and trust that he stands up for what he says. The one’s I meet are both idealistic and practical. Their idealism embraces Bernie’s appeal to economic justice. Their pragmatism leaves them understanding him to be a longshot. Should he lose to Hillary, they are prepared to enthusiastically support her, but they believe, and so do I, that she will be a different Hillary as a result of their contest. Beyond any reasonable doubt, Bernie has pushed Hillary to the political left. Why not let that process continue? Why not make Hillary work for our endorsement? Where does Hillary stand on high stakes testing and its linkage by the reform movement to the evaluation of teachers? Where is Hillary on charter schools? What’s her program for addressing the achievement gap? Our premature support for her makes it much less likely that we will get definitive answers from her to any of these questions.

Once again the desire to cozy up to the powerful for the pleasure of the experience rather than as a part of a calculated political strategy appears to have overtaken both unions and thereby weakened them and the members they serve.

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New Yorkers Are On To The Common Core

A new Siena College poll finds 64 percent of New Yorkers think the Common Core State Standards have either had no effect on public education (24%) or have worsened it (40%). That then means that we have spent millions of dollars of scarce resources to fund the implementation of an approach that has diminished the public’s confidence in its schools. We have tied these standards to a regime of high stake tests of undetermined validity and in turn tied the student results to the evaluation of teachers, demoralizing our teacher corps as they have never been demoralized before.

We hired a new commissioner on the basis of her allegiance to the standards, the tests aligned with them and teacher accountability linked to student test scores. When does the absurdity of this policy dawn on our elected representatives? When do we collectively say, ENOUGH? When does it become clear to the policy makers that a few cosmetic changes will not suffice to convince the public of the merit of this policy? Must we wait for one hundred percent of New York’s students to opt out of the testing regime? Or have we reached the point where what the people of the state think no longer matters? Maybe the problem is even bigger than we think.

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The Seattle Strike

There were four education union strikes in the state of Washington this fall with the Seattle strike receiving the most attention. It remains to be seen whether this strike activity is a harbinger of increased union militancy or a phenomenon peculiar to special circumstances in the way schools in Washington State are funded.

One this is clear. The Seattle strike while about pay and benefits was also about professional conditions, the kind of conditions that have been demoralizing the people working in our nation’s public schools for some time. Already a leader in the anti-high stakes testing movement, the Seattle union representing teachers and support staff demanded and achieved two major concessions. Once and for all, they broke the ludicrous nexus between student test results and teacher evaluations, even winning some reduction in the number of tests required. Convinced that students were being subjected to more and more unrelenting academic pressures that were crowding out any time for students to relax and let off steam, the union bargained contractually mandated recess time for students. With some significant gains in special ed staffing and a financial package calling for a 9.5 percent wage increase over three years, an increase above a state funded increase of 4.8 percent over the next two years, the week-long strike certainly produced one of the best settlements we have seen in a long time.

The Seattle strike was clearly influenced by the recent teacher strike in Chicago, where a militant union mobilized the community to confront the test and punish policies of Democratic mayor Rahm Emmanuel. I want to believe that a trend is developing of a return to kind of militant education unionism that arose in the late 50’s and 60’s that ushered in an era of improving salaries, benefits and working conditions and which did so much to improve the lot of people working in our public schools and the children served in them. I want to believe that we can rebuild our movement from the bottom up and return it to a position where we sit at the table where education decisions are made as people who must be reckoned with because we are once again organized and organizing for ourselves and for economic justice in our nation.

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The Republicans and Education

Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate was notable for its almost complete lack of questioning or comments on education issues. Aside from a shot by Trump at Jeb Bush for his support of the Common Core State Standards, I don’t recall any other education remarks. Yet, it’s hard to find a state in our country where education issues aren’t hotly debated, particularly the issue of Common Core and high stakes testing. The candidates spent so much of the evening struggling with which of them is manlier and more bellicose than the others and President Obama that I suppose education was seen as a Low T topic.

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Regents Cling to the Wrong Approach

It wasn’t very surprising to learn yesterday the New York State Regents voted to make their teacher evaluation regulations permanent. While some seats on the Board of Regents were flipped last year, there are still not enough members committed to ending the test and punish approach to school improvement that is choking meaningful quality education from even our best public schools. The real disappointment came with the knowledge that Regent Tilles, a professed opponent of the test and punish policy, voted to support the regulations, claiming he had to because it is required by law. Frankly, I have always seen Tilles as wanting things all ways. He opposes the current policy but votes to support the regulations. He opposes the scourge of high stakes testing but played a vital part in hiring Commissioner Elia, a proponent of testing and its connection to teacher evaluation. I fear Tilles is more interested in becoming chancellor than he is in acting on his professed beliefs. One way or another, he has let the defenders of public education on Long Island down.

Today, parents and school personnel who oppose the direction of education policy in our state are wearing red to show support for their local public schools. The failure of the Regents to seriously revise the regulations promulgated last spring will undoubtedly serve to breathe new energy into the opt-0ut movement. It will also hopefully begin the process of targeting public education’s political enemies in Albany and devising a strategy for their defeat in November 2016. Despise Governor Cuomo as I do, the crafty devil senses that the political tide is turning against him and his education policy, causing him to suddenly favor changes to the teacher evaluation system in the direction of greater fairness. It’s going to take more than that Andy!

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Maybe Teacher Evaluation Is A waste of Time

I recently had a Facebook exchange with a citizen on the subject of the evaluation of teachers. He was responding to my view that connecting teacher evaluation to student results on high stakes tests is an absurd thing to do for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the student tests were not designed to measure teacher performance. In the citizen’s most recent post, he asked me how I would evaluate teachers. I promised him this blog post as my response.

While much of the education community is hyper-focused on teacher evaluation, to me most of the discussion is directed at answering the wrong question, an all too familiar circumstance. Just as the No Child Left behind Act was premised on the mathematical absurdity that all children could through proper education become above average, the reality is that teaching talent is also distributed on a curve or spectrum. To think that it is possible to have a great teacher in every American classroom is equally absurd, assuming we could define the characteristics of that greatness, something I think is almost impossible to do. The almost fetishistic discussion of teacher evaluation and the policies that have emerged to weed out bad teachers from the profession have been an abject failure, having accomplished little more than the demoralization of countless teachers who put heart and soul into their work.

Were we serious about raising the caliber of members of the teaching profession, we would take steps to actually make teaching more of a true profession, where good practice is determined by those engaged in the practice rather than political people and administrative hacks. We would begin by developing a more clearly defined path to becoming a teacher. In the current model, young people invest at least four years of their lives qualifying to be a teacher before they have anything like a realistic experience of what it is like to actually do the job. Suppose we took young people interested in teaching and in their sophomore college year actually put them in the public schools several days per week, giving them increasing responsibilities as they advanced through their teacher training program. We might even employ them during their junior and senior years, giving them actual responsibilities for students. These years of “clinical experience” would be under the shared supervision of the university and the staff of the public school who would have joint responsibility for certifying them as qualified to teach. Young people completing this program would know if they liked the work and whether they were any good at it. They would also know that people who actually do the job day in and day out think them capable of doing it. How different from the current model where one takes some state examinations, does a few hours of teaching and is declared fit to teach.

A sensible teacher induction process could reduce the number small number of bad teachers we have. Yes we have some, but far fewer than conventional wisdom would have us believe. No one knows about them better than the teachers in the schools where they work. My union experience defending the rights of these people has taught me that most of them really hate the job and feel trapped in it. To be sure they offer elaborate rationales for why things are not going well for them, but when I listen carefully I almost always detect, “I really don’t want to do this job anymore. I never really wanted to. But I’m now trapped in it with no economic alternatives to staying until retirement.”

A system of teacher training like the one I propose would weed most of these people who should not be teachers out. Those who remain will still be of varied abilities and dedication, but they will have already passed muster with people who actually do the job who have observed them under progressively real conditions, unlike the current system where prospective teachers watch teaching for a semester and then do student teaching for another. Once they get a full-time teaching position, I would have them under the direct supervision of the tenured members of the department or school. Most of what I learned about teaching over the years I learned from the teachers with whom I worked. While the administrators who observed me from time to time said good things about my work, I learned almost nothing from those experiences. Like most teachers and performers, self-criticism was a more powerful motivator than that of any administrator. In a system of peer responsibility that very common quality of being self-critical combined with the pressure to conform to a departmental or school consensus on the work to be done is far more likely to influence teacher practice than the current system that confuses supervision with scrutiny.

So much time money and rhetoric expended about how to rank teachers. People are evaluated on every job, people will say. I suspect it’s largely a waste of time in most places.

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When Did the College Board Get to Run Our Schools?

Am I alone in thinking it an outrage that the College Board gets to decide that the PSAT will be administered on a school day this year? How does it come to be that a company gets to decide to rob the nation’s high schools of a day of instruction? If you check the College Board’s website, you’ll find my favorite my favorite they give for this rip-off; it will allow the exam to be given without it conflicting with extra-curricular activities. Shame on any school district including my own for acquiescing to this outrage.

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Mathematical Magic

Spectators of the Plainview Board of education meeting last evening got a first-hand view of the pernicious influence high stakes testing is having on the best of our public schools, even schools whose managements profess strong opposition to this testing. The tests and the scores they generate have an almost mesmerizing effect on many people causing them to lose track of their understanding of their objective meaninglessness and harmfulness. For almost one hour, members of our administration and board talked about the scores our students received and the import of those scores for our academic program. While they from time to time reminded themselves that over fifty percent of our students opted out of the exams, the magic of a meaningless number to establish the value of an instructional program was clear as areas where “we need work” were observed.

Such careless discussion can have profound consequences. At one point in the presentation of our scores, the high school’s results on the Common Core Algebra Regents exam were discussed. Over fifty percent of the students in our district take algebra in middle school. Thus, the students taking it at the high school are for the most part are kids who don’t like math, have a history of not doing well at it or have disabilities that make math difficult for them. The fact that fifteen percent of them scored at the mastery level (Whether that designation has any meaning I’ll leave for another day.) is probably a sign of the high quality of our program. Yet, to a parent in the audience listening to this discussion, the message was quite different. When she rose to speak during public participation she passionately expressed the view that a fifteen percent master rate was a sign of failure. For her at least, the presentation cast real doubt on the efficacy of our academic program.

The propagandists of the education reform movement have used mathematical magic to discredit public education. That magic is so powerful that even those who understand it and the corporate scam behind it, can find ourselves enthralled to the point losing track of the scam.

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It’s Not About Selfies

I’m absolutely sure it would be hard to refuse to take a picture with the President of the United States. But when you are the head of the nation’s second largest teacher union and the President of the United State is Barack Obama whose administration has done more to discredit and destroy public education than any in my long memory, one has the obligation to pause and consider the message such a picture sends. Weingarten’s tweet suggests she was well aware of my point, apologetically observing that she is “not beyond a selfie w/ this special guy.” To teachers smarting under the influence of Race to the Top and the scourge of high stakes testing it unleashed, including the value added evaluation of teachers, the closing of neighborhood schools and the almost complete lack of attention to the centrality of crippling poverty to the achievement gap that test data masks, coziness with the man responsible is not the message our national union should be sending. Our members have a right to expect their leaders to subordinate personal honors for the good of the organization.

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Testing and Higher Education

In recent days, I’ve had two parallel experiences that further solidified my belief that high stakes testing is destroying any notion of meaningful education.

My partner Judi Alexanderson and I visited her daughter Kris, a history professor at the University of the Pacific. Unlike many in her business, Kris, although research oriented, tries hard to create an interesting learning environment in her courses, putting very serious thought and effort into planning each session. In one of the many conversations we had over our visit, she talked at some length at the frustration she and her colleagues experience getting today’s college students to engage in serious discussions of the content of the courses they teach. Too often they express no opinions, insisting in their exchanges with their professors that they just want to know what will be expected of them on examinations and writing assignments. Kris suggested that she had very similar experiences at Drexel and Rutgers where she previously taught.

A week later I had a visit with my brother Paul, a physician who recently retired from a career in academic medicine, including a stint as an assistant dean of a medical school. I mentioned to him my conversation with Kris Alexanderson, at which he promptly exclaimed, “I had the same problem with the medical students.” He went on to explain how when many medical schools made the made passing the National Boards a condition of graduation, students began to approach their studies through that lens, expressing interest primarily in what would be on that test.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my views on standardized testing and its corruption of education. It was eye opening to me, however, to hear two educators in vastly different fields of higher education talk of how the interests of their students have narrowed to what they can expect on their examinations.

Today’s test pushers talk about preparing students to be college and career ready. That expression irritates me no end, especially if as I suspect these two educators are correct about what is happening in higher education. One day soon, we will awake to the painful irony that all that we did in the name of preparing kids for college and careers ill-prepared them for both, additionally robbing them of the satisfaction of being educated.

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Worker Self-management and Public Schools

The more I’ve worked in and around public education the more convinced I’ve become of the need to fundamentally change the way in which they are organize. The hierarchical structure of our school systems promotes inefficiency, depresses the creativity and intelligence of the staff and undermines the democratic values the institution was created to foster. Vast sums are spent on level upon level of management whose efforts lend little to the mission of the enterprise – the education of young people

I found myself thinking again about teacher management of our schools as I listened this morning to a BBC program on worker self-management as it is practiced in several companies- large enterprises in which there are no managers. Decisions once made by bosses are arrived at by consensus of the workers who take responsibility for every aspect of the operations. Here’s the link to this twenty minute segment. How might we reconceptualize our public schools so that those who do the essential work of educating assume responsibility for their work? How might such a discussion lift us out of the accountability morass we are in?

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Are You Threatening Us?

Commissioner Elia has been making noises about exploring sanctions on districts that have high numbers of students opting out of the state examinations. That stupid talk suggests a lack of know how even more profound than her predecessor whose disregard for the thoughts and feelings of the parents in our public schools quickly became legendary. I don’t recall the arrogant King ever seriously threatening districts the way Elis has.

I strongly suspect that the more she blusters the higher the opt-out numbers will be. I believe it’s fair to observe that the highest opt out numbers last year came from districts that will suffer no great losses from a cutoff of Title I federal funding. The citizens of these districts are not about to be cowed by the threats of a Florida bureaucrat who is deaf to the problems high stakes testing has created. They will not stand by and allow the so-called reform movement destroy the fine schools their high taxes have created. Every Elia threat will enhance the cause of ending the test and punish assault on public education.

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