A Teachable Moment

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

Cuomo’s Credibility Shredded

The Times this weekend looked at Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State speech and checked the claims the governor made about New York’s schools. The result, while our angry governor would have us understand that New York’s schools are abject failures, the truth is they are much, much better than he would have the public understand. My colleague, Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress of Teachers Treasurer Jane Weinkrantz has written a penetrating piece that looks at what Angry Andy might have said about the real education problems in our state, problems that he lacks the political will to seriously address, preferring the scapegoating of teachers and their union to a real concern for our children. Jane deftly shreds Cuomo’s any credibility on education issues that he has left.

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The Duty of Civil Disobedience

I was at a regional union meeting yesterday, a meeting called to organize our response to Governor Cuomo’s declaration of war on teachers and our union. While there were an number of good ideas discussed, and while I was pleased to see by the attendance that our local leaders perceive the threat posed by the Governor’s proposals, I continue to be struck by the our reluctance to embrace bold action. There appears to be an underlying belief that if we can just find the right words, if we can schedule the right meeting, make the appropriate number of lobbying visits to our elected representatives, we will be able to prevail against a politically skillful, determined governor who is clearly seeking vengeance for our failure to support him in his last election. One local leader appropriately asked what our position was vis a vis the opt-out movement, to me one of the most potent weapons we have in the battle against high stakes testing. Our representatives to our state union running the meeting and some union staff there carefully parsed a few sentences in response when to my mind what was called for is a two pronged, full-throated embrace of the parent led movement. While I spoke about my local’s work in support of the opt-out movement and our goal to double the number of our students talking the exams from 20 percent last year, it is clear that our state union is reluctant to do more than utter platitudinous statements about parents’ right to opt their children out of the tests.

Last year over 60,000 students did not take the state examinations, over 20,000 here on Long Island. The simple fact is that there cannot be any bad consequences for either students or teachers if no one takes the tests. If we as educators believe that the current state regime of high stakes tests is detrimental to the emotional and intellectual growth and development of the children in our schools, then we must first of all keep our own children from taking the tests. To do otherwise is simply hypocritical and destructive of our credibility on this and other education issues. This belief also obliges us to encourage the parents of our students to do the same. I’m well aware that that the ability to do that varies from district to district. What all can do however is find ways to let parents know that we will not hold it against their children if they opt-them out. There are many parents who are uncomfortable opting their children out, knowing that student scores count towards their teachers’ evaluations and thinking that teachers will be angry if their kids don’t show. There are countless ways for teachers to let parents know at meetings, during phone calls etc. that we understand and appreciate their stance in withholding their children from the tests.

Our unions were formed by acts of civil disobedience. We won the right to bargain collectively by engaging in illegal strikes and other prohibited activities. Injustice invariably draws civil disobedience to it. I deeply believe that it will take many small acts of disobedience by and ever-growing coalition of believers in the centrality of public education to our democracy to save it from people like Governor Cuomo and the Wall Street interests who are funding the war against us. We ignore the duty of civil disobedience at our peril.

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Cuomo Skewed and Roasted

I got up this morning intending to add my two cents to Governor Cuomo’s State of the State speech yesterday. Though couched in progressive rhetoric, the gusts of his remarks, the centrality of competition and cash incentives to most of his programmatic recommendations, were worthy of a tax cutting pro-business conservative who sees greed as the best human motivator. I was working myself up to skewer him when I followed a link to this article by Danny Katch who wrote as clear and incisive a piece on the Cuomo agenda as there is. Some of my readers will be suspicious about it appears on the website of the Socialist Workers Party. Suspended any preconceived notions of what this party is about and read what Katch has to say. Tell me then what you disagree with.

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More Subversives for Public Education

My friend Beth Dimino caused quite a stir yesterday when she announced in a Long Island Press interview that she would refuse to administer the state’s high stakes tests to her students this spring. Beth has been a very determined fighter of the state’s testing regime and the Common Core State Standards aligned to it. While her announcement will add some welcomed juice to the movement to end the testing plague and will undoubtedly inspire other teachers to refuse to participate, we need to find ways to force whole districts to oppose the corporate drive to destroy public education using testing and inappropriate standards as some of their tools.

This spring, each of our school district must elect people to our boards of education who care more about protecting our schools from the corrupting influences of the so-called education reform movement than they do about holding on to these non-paying positions. We need board members who will hire superintendents like Joe Rella, Dimino’s superintendent, who are what I have called subversives for public education. In short, we need to mobilize the entire system – parents, teachers, support personnel, board members and superintendents, in its own defense. Together we need to say to the high and mighty Merryl Tisch and the Regents and the sycophants who do their bidding, we’ve had enough of your crazy bullshit. We are taking our schools back. We are done with spending days on testing and more days preparing for testing. We are returning to talking about education rather than test scores. We are going to carefully try to restore the morale of the staff, assuring them that we value their work. We dare you to try to stop us.

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Trapped in Their Mistakes

Our two national education unions having originally played ball with the Obama administration on ed policy have had an amazingly difficult time retreating from their positions and are growing every more distant from the members they represent. I was thinking about this problem over the weekend as I engaged in a Twitter conversation with Randi Weingarten and a number of tweeters who strenuously oppose the AFT’s support of annual high stakes testing. Both Weingarten and NEA leadership have slowly tried to distance themselves from their support for testing and the Common Core State Standards integrally tied to the tests as well as the connecting of testing to teacher accountability. Their problem has been that the erosion of teaching conditions attributable to the Obama policies has outpaced the speed of their retreat. How much better it would have been to do as Diane Ravitch has done – admit her support for No Child Left behind (that brought us annual testing and sanctions for poor results) was a colossal mistake.

Ravitch’s current views on testing and Common Core are more closely aligned with the rank and file of education union membership than the leadership of either nation union. In a recent blog post, she published a letter to Senator Lamar Alexander, for whom she once worked, exhorting him to end the folly of annual high stakes testing. I suspect that union members reading this must wonder why their union leadership can’t muster the same eloquence and passion.

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A Hopeful Experiment

I’m weary of the phony hand wringing over the plight of our nation’s poor children trapped in public schools that don’t work. We do nothing to address the debilitating effects of poverty; we do nothing to create an economy where all people who agree to work receive salaries sufficient to provide a decent standard of living; we do nothing to end the economic and racial segregation that reinforce the scourge of poverty; we do nothing but blame our society’s failures on our under-resourced public schools that are given the impossible task of compensating for our indifference to the circumstances of almost a quarter of our nation’s children.

That’s why when I hear of some effort to improve the lot of poor children that is grounded in reality and stands a good chance to help, I’m suspicious that I must have misread or heard the proposal because hopeful efforts are so rare. But sure enough the mayor of Providence Rhode Island is pushing a program that has real potential to at least close some of the achievement gap. We’ve known for some time that poor children begin school having heard thousands, if not millions, fewer words than more affluent children because generally poorer parents spend less time talking to their children. Providence has launched a program to reach out to poor parents of young children to attempt to explain the importance of stimulating their children’s speech and teaching them how to do it. You can read about this very worthwhile experiment in a wonderful article by Margaret Talbot in the current edition of the New Yorker. If you are as jaded as I am from all of the stupid talk that characterizes the contemporary public education world, read this piece.

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AFT Doubles Down on Testing

The case has never been stronger for a merger of our two national teacher unions under new, member oriented leadership. With reauthorization of the ESEA on the agenda of the new Congress, we again have the very unfortunate circumstance where the NEA and AFT are carrying a different lobbying message, neither of which resonates with the members in the nation’s classrooms. That was again evident this morning with the joint announcement by the AFT and the Center for American Progress that is sure anger many, if not most, of the rank and file. While the two organizations agreed on a bunch of mushy platitudes, central to their announcement is mutual support of annual testing as part of the reauthorization of the ESEA soon to be before the new Congress. To be fair, less of the testing they support would be part of teacher accountability schemes, but this nuanced position even if achieved in new legislation would accomplish little to nothing to undo the damage high stakes testing has done to even our best public schools. This proposal would simply increase the stakes for teachers and students on fewer tests. Maybe there’s a strategy here, but it’s not one that seeks to capitalize on the growing public anger over testing and the Common Core State Standards. It does nothing to marshal the ideas and energy of our members in the battle to preserve our profession. It does alienate us from the parents who have been working with us to end the scourge of high stakes testing. More importantly, it will further weaken the bonds of the membership to the organization.

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Research Shows What Teacher Have Known

I have written before about the destructive effects the education reform movement was having on early childhood education and the unknown long rage problems it may cause to the generation currently in our public schools. For those new to this blog, here is a sampling. (http://pobct.org/ATM/2014/08/07/look-north-for-desirable-ed-outcomes/), (http://pobct.org/ATM/2013/01/30/more-on-state-mandated-child-abuse/), (http://pobct.org/ATM/2013/01/22/state-mandated-child-abuse/)

I draw these posts to your attention this morning having read a report of research findings that confirm what our kindergarten teachers have been telling me even before the advent of the Common Core State Standards. It in fact does seem to be the case that we are forcing young children to do developmentally inappropriate things in school, substituting bizarre notions of academic rigor for play based learning with a strong focus on socialization. We now have research that confirms what our teachers have always known. Forcing children to read and do other academic things that they are not developmentally ready to do can be harmful.

This research should be a wakeup call to some of the leaders and opinion shapers in our school district and others who have pushed an academic approach to the education of young children. It should also give pause to those in Plainview-Old Bethpage who blithely believe that our Kindergarten center should be closed and the children moved to our elementary buildings where it is assured their education will become even more academically oriented.

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got t’ll it’s gone,” I think the song goes. Our K-Center was conceived as a special place for students to begin their education. When I visited it when it opened, it was customary to see children engaged in organized play, dancing to different rhythms and singing songs designed to inculcate social conventions. In short, it was an ideal place for kids to learn how to do school. Increasingly, that joyfulness that characterized this very special school has been squeezed out of the program. Teachers now report numbers of unhappy children, children complaining of psycho-somatic illness as they are required to make the children do things that many are not neurologically ready to do. Their nervous systems simply need time and the stimulation of play to develop. Rather than putting a stop to these harmful “reforms,” our district seems hell-bent to close this school that with appropriate leadership could be returned to the jewel it once was.

We know now that our teachers were correct about the harmful effects of the program they have been required to teach. Maybe, just maybe, they know more about early childhood education than the people who seek the destruction of their school.

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The Absence of Leadership

The longer I do union work, the more I come to see that the way we train school district leaders is profoundly stupid. In fact, I would go so far as to say we don’t train leaders at all and that those who do demonstrate the ability to motivate people to move in a direction they wish to take them probably developed those skills independent of any formal instruction in ed school administration programs. How else to explain the preponderance of so-called leaders who see themselves as autonomous, expecting those under them to simply respond positively to any command barked at them. I’ve been thinking about this subject as my colleagues and I attempt to deal with an administration that does not wish to honor our agreement on how teachers are to be evaluated, a “leadership team” that appears, like our governor, to be upset by the fact that our negotiated evaluation process, a process mutually arrived at and approved by the state, rated all of our teachers as either effective or highly effective. In ways both subtle and not, these people have communicated a lack of trust in both the abilities and intentions of the staff. No one with the slightest leadership skills would think she could improve things by expressing contempt for the work of the people in her charge. Throughout my career, I’ve understood that loyalty has to flow down before it flows up. There have always been members who disagree with me on issues, but few if any who questioned my belief in them and my commitment to them and our union. There is no loyalty flowing down to our members from the leadership of our district. To borrow some words from Macbeth that come to mind, those who command us are at best followed in command, nothing in love.

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The Latest Ed-tech Nightmare

While some have taken my criticism of the movement to infuse k-12 education with technology as evidence that I’m a 21st century Luddite, I’m actually interested in technology and its impact on the lives of human beings. From the advent of moveable type to the smartphone (Mine is called life companion.), technological advances often have a profound impact on the way we live, work and think. In challenging some of the uses of technology in education, I have often reminded my readers that education is essentially a social process, at its best involving a special kind of intimacy that grows between teacher and learner, an intimacy through which largely immeasurable subtle communications are exchanged that contribute to our development in ways far more important than the subject we are in a classroom to learn. I suspect that when we think of the teachers we remember best, we are recalling people from whom we absorbed ideas that remain important to us to this day, bits and pieces of thoughts that have been spliced together to make us who we are as thinking beings. Miss Levy, Mr. Jacobson, Mr. Gebhardt, Mr. Geshwind and Miss Vogel have been teachers from my school days who in ways I’m only half-aware of had a profound impression on me and who to a very real extent are responsible for who I am today. The extent to which we send children to school to stare at screens and attempt to provide them with an individualized education is, I fear, the extent to which we create barriers to this special kind of intimacy, a loss that can never be made up for or replaced. It is a loss with unknown social consequences, too potentially serious to blithely ignore as the ed-tech champions do.

I’m thinking about this subject this morning having read an NPR blog on a computer based math program being used in some New York City schools. The program is a technological step forward in turning instruction into a series of algorithms. As a principal who was interviewed for the piece observes, if the goal is teaching to high stakes tests, the program is probably good. To this teacher, however, it is a dystopian nightmare literally baby steps away from ending education as a social process. It is but the latest example of the substitution of training for education.

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The Unbashed Superintendents

Governor Cuomo talks about tightening up the teacher/principal professional performance review (APPR). Chancellor Tisch counters with doubling the percentage student test scores count towards the evaluations and increasing the teacher probationary period from three years to five. Our education leaders are racing to outdo each other in the sport of bashing teachers and holding them accountable for social pathologies they not only had nothing to do with creating but which they fight to overcome daily.

Have you noticed how in all this moaning and groaning about ineffectual teachers and to a lesser extent principals we hear little or no bashing about superintendents of schools, the leaders of these supposedly failing education institutions. As they are responsible for hiring the apparent hoards of ineffective teachers standing in front of America’s classrooms, why don’t we tie their evaluations to the same student scores? Why don’t we devise an APPR for them that includes say fifty percent student scores and a rubric that divides leadership into its component parts? The leadership rubric could be completed by having the employees of the school district each fill out a computerized form on which they award points, one to four, for the various qualities of leadership essential to the smooth running of a school district. For example, on a scale of 1 to 4, where 1 is ineffective and 4 highly effective, does the superintendent offer a clear vision of where he/she wishes to lead the district and the reasons this direction is desirable? Can the superintendent’s word be counted upon? Do you feel that the superintendent appreciates your work is and defends it from those who attack it? You get the point. It’s not hard to do. Maybe Ms. Tisch can from her own pocket hire some people to construct a uniform rubric – like the law school students hired to work on the teacher/principal APPR.

The adoption of such a superintendents’ APPR would push them from the sidelines in the battle to save public education and our profession directly into the combat. I’m unsure how many of them would be an asset in our cause, but it would sure improve the capacity of many to have some empathy for what teachers are experiencing today if they were subjected to the same stupidity that is being inflicted upon us.

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Tisch Matches Cuomo’s Ignorance and Then Some

The morale of the teachers I engage is frighteningly low. There is a growing anger in them that if left unchanneled will turn in on them and make their situation even worse. From everywhere come voices of criticism and disparagement. New York’s teachers having yet to fully absorb the ridiculous evaluation scheme foisted upon them a few years ago heard from their angry, spiteful governor just before Christmas vacation that he wants to change that system yet again to produce a higher number of ineffective teachers than is produced by the current system. Our dilettante chancellor of our state university, a person who is as qualified to preside over the state’s education system as I am the Federal Reserve System, although I vaguely remember writing an economics paper comparing the role of the central bank in different economic systems, not to be outdone by the governor has responded with a call to increase the use of student test results in teacher evaluations, extend the probationary period before tenure is granted to five years from three and the making hearing officers in tenure cases employees of the state to expedite the process of firing ineffective teachers. Not a single thing either of these leaders has proposed will improve education in our state in the slightest. All that they have already accomplished is to undermine citizens’ faith in their public schools and make the incredibly difficult job of teacher that much more onerous.

As I read Merryl Tisch’s response to Governor Cuomo, I found myself remembering the young person I was when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. But for the fact that New York was willing to substitute my Peace Corps teaching experience for the certification requirements at the time, I would never have been a teacher. If I had had to take more of the content-free education courses then required, I would have done something else. When I think of how I would have reacted to the requirements today, requirements which Tisch wants to increase, I know beyond doubt that I would have taken my life in a different direction. Frankly, I think anyone who sets out to be a public school teacher today is nuts. There are so many hoops to jump through, all for the possibility of getting a job with working conditions that erode on almost a daily basis for at best modest remuneration. It is increasingly becoming a job in which one has no professional autonomy, where the work is becoming so routinized that it is difficult to call it education. I saw the other day where enrollments in ed schools has been declining the past few years. That’s surely a sign that young people are beginning to understand what the work of teaching is becoming.

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A Must Read

As a young man, my elders always reminded me that my political views would grow more conservative with the passage of time. It used to irk me greatly to have my political thoughts countered with this bromide. I couldn’t imagine that simply as a factor of growing older and acquiring more my political sensibilities would gradually shift rightward. Was there some sort of political sclerosis that afflicts the aging that I knew nothing about?

I’ve been pleased to find that contrary to what I was led to expect, my intuition was correct. My political thoughts have grown more radical with the passage of time and appear to me to be directly related to knowing and understanding more about the world. I’m very glad that even as I reach my senior years, my mind is open to penetrating arguments like the one in Henry Giroux’s article “Barbarians at the Gates: Authoritarianism and the Assault on Public Education.” If you have followed and credited my thought on the real agenda behind the so-call education reform movement, if the substitution of training for education troubles you, if our increasingly blind faith in the centrality of technology to the education of our youth nauseates you, if you have suspected that the privatizers grab for public education is part of a much broader social agenda, read this article. You and I may not agree with it all, but it’s the kind of analysis that helps us challenge and clarify our own thoughts. I’m very thankful to the friend who sent it my way.

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Subversives for Public Education

In yesterday’s post, I outlined the beginning of a union response to Governor Cuomo’s latest battle in his war on New York’s teachers, proposing to primary or support third party candidates who support the governor’s proposed measures. There is much more to be done, however.

I remain convinced that most potent weapon we have against those who would reform public education out of existence is non-compliance with their reforms. To paraphrase the NEA’s Lily Eskelsen Garcia, we have to stop doing stupid things simply because we are told to do them. Central to this resistance is the opt-out movement, strong in New York and very strong here on Long Island. Last year, 22,000 Long Island children opted-out of the state tests. We must double that number at the very least this year, with the ultimate goal of more children opting-out than taking the examinations. We need to do everything we can to allay parent fears about withholding their children from the exams, counteracting the all too familiar pressure from cowardly administrators who fearfully toe the state line.

We need to recruit and run candidates for boards of education who are willing to challenge Albany, men and women who will not be cowed into doing stupid things for fear of being removed from office. We need board members who will demand an end to the stultifying teaching to the state tests that is eroding the quality of education in our best districts. We need board members who seek out educational leaders, not enforcers of rules and regulations that thwart children’s joy in learning and stifle the creativity of teachers who increasingly yearn for the freedom to practice their craft. We need board members who understand the difference between education and job preparation.

Teachers need to organize through their unions to resist the stupid too. They need to be encouraged to practice their craft as what the late Neil Postman once referred to as a “subversive activity,” imaginatively undermining every attempt to routinize their instruction and rob them of their craft. They need to take all steps necessary to ensure that their efforts are contributing to the intellectual and ethical growth and development of the citizenry of our nation, not training individuals for the job market. They need to be teachers again, not facilitators, not trainers, not mindless conductors of canned programs.

Those who cling to the belief that public schools are vital to the preservation of our nation as we have known and loved it must stand strong and resist attempts to dismantle it in preference for a corporate owned and controlled system designed to train the work force, not citizens of a vibrant, democratic society. We need to organize folks who are proud to be subversives for public education.

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The Angrier Than Ever Governor

At the NYSUT endorsement conference at which it was decided to have no position in the race for governor of New York, I argued for the endorsement of Zephyr Teachout in the Democratic primary and if she were defeated Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins in the general election. No endorsement seemed to me both cowardly and not strategic. It was clear to me that anything short of an endorsement would enrage Cuomo. No endorsement also left us without a candidate advocating anything like our agenda. Even worse yet, no endorsement left us with many of our members voting for a little known Republican arch conservative simply because he was against the Common Core State Standards. They completely overlooked the extent to which much of his agenda was inimical to their welfare as public employees. Our position left our members with nothing to vote for and surely furthered member disinterest in the political process.

So it should come as no surprise that upon beginning his second term Andrew Cuomo announced his intention to seek another round of punishing New York’s teachers rather than addressing the more complicated and difficult social pathologies that afflict too many of our state’s students. As the New York Times observed this morning, our education system would be much better off if Cuomo gave up score settling with NYSUT and “… and go to the heart of the matter. And that means confronting and proposing remedies for the racial and economic segregation that has gripped the state’s schools, as well as the inequality in school funding that prevents many poor districts from lifting their children up to state standards.”

So we start the new year in the sorry place I thought we would be, with a governor so angry that he vetoed his own bill providing a moratorium from the consequences of the completely botched implementation of the Common Core, railing against teacher pensions and vowing to seek yet a new teacher evaluation system guaranteed to find a larger segment of the teaching force ineffective. He gets to settle a score with us for our temerity to not endorse a sitting Democrat governor with presidential aspirations while at the same time paying off a debt to the Wall Street crowd that supported him.

The message ought to go out from our union leaders loud and clear. Legislators who support the Cuomo’s war on teachers can expect to be challenged in their districts, whether through primary challenges or support of third party candidates. We ought to be seen recruiting and grooming candidates now. We should be organizing our political action fundraising around building a cadre of candidates to challenge those who seek political advantage by demonizing the teachers of our state. It’s time to hold the members of the legislature accountable for how they treat us and the students we teach.

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The Governor’s Christmas Present to Teachers

Just when I thought it was impossible to think less of Governor Cuomo than I currently do, he expands my capacity for contempt. Seething with anger for the unions that failed to support him, he’s having a tantrum appropriate to his ego. First he lashed out at the Public Employees Federation (PEF) by sending letters to 1000 of their members announcing his intention to attempt to reclassify their jobs as management and therefore ineligible for union membership. Yesterday in was NYSUT’s turn, our state teachers union having taken no position in the race for governor, a position that I publically criticized in that I just knew he would come after us anyway.

Cuomo had his Director of State Operations write to Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner King, raising a number of questions on issues that he well knew would incite NYSUT members and their elected leaders. The letter ask Tisch and King how they would change the APPR process, assuming since only about 1 percent of teachers were found to be ineffective that change is required. How would the Chancellor and Commissioner make it easier to fire ineffective teachers? Should the teacher probationary be extended, and how financial incentives could be used to improve the teacher corps (merit pay). In all, 12 questions are posed, all carefully crafted to threaten NYSUT and its members.

While observing that the Governor has little direct influence on education issues, the letter makes clear that the budget process will be the vehicle that he will use to try to extract his revenge, all in the name of speaking for the children of the state. No one should be surprised by Cuomo’s move. His attack is his usual response to criticism of him. It is also the response expected of him by his Wall Street backers who have been financing the movement to privatize public education and convert it into a business profit center.

If NYSUT is serious about rededicating themselves to organizing, Cuomo has given them the perfect document to organize around. The Governor has openly declared himself to be our enemy. We need to respond accordingly.

I’m taking a break over the Holidays. I’ll resume blogging on January 5th. I wish all of you joyous Holidays and a very Happy New Year! See you again on the 5th.

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Subsidizing the Wealthy

During his recent campaign for re-election, Governor Cuomo’s advertising featured the tax incentives to various businesses his administration had given to lure them to our state. I became aware of the aggressive tax abatement program of his administration in an unusual way. I was in Detroit a few years ago attending an AFT convention. At that time, Detroit was on the brink of bankruptcy. In almost every direction, the city was consumed by decay. Yet, on the local TV station were commercials by Governor Cuomo and New York State seeking to lure what business was left in Detroit to New York. Seeing them in a city economically on its knees enraged me. Detroit needed help not have what little economic strength it had left sucked out of it by another state’s offer of a tax-free ride.

I’ve always suspected that a state’s taxpayers end up losing when they offer businesses from elsewhere tax incentives to relocate. A piece I read the other day by the Center for Media and Democracy confirmed all of my suspicions. Huge state and local government subsidies are given to the wealthiest companies that often bring mostly low wage jobs. These tax breaks further enrich people in the top income brackets while increasing the income gap between them and the bottom. Why have state and local governments in this country given $161 million to Walmart, a known exploiter of its workforce? In so doing, we have helped the Walton family, already worth billions each, become even richer. An even bigger question that demands a serious national debate is how is America benefited by having states compete to offer the biggest tax subsidy?

Across this nation, schools are starved for resources, bridges are falling down, water systems are failing, much of our infrastructure dangerously in need of repair, and yet billions in tax subsidies are given to extremely profitable companies that often don’t pay wages high enough to keep their workers from engaging government assistance programs. And we wonder what Americans increasingly think that our system is rigged against them.

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On the Senseless Death of Pakistani Children

Over one hundred Pakistani students killed for no reason other than they were being educated; Nigerian girls taken captive from school and apparently traded as war booty; Turkish kids assigned to public religious schools against their parents’ wills; American kids taught that the that the earth is some five thousand years old. It sometimes seems to me that these happenings are best understood as points on a broadening universal spectrum of ignorance the world is unable to find the wherewithal to extinguish.

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Teacher Pay

Most teachers are paid on a salary schedules that remunerate them for time on the job and college degrees and courses taken. On some schedules, it can take 30 to 35 years to get to the maximum pay obtainable, each year on the schedule bringing an increase or increment as it is called. These so-called single salary schedules evolved over the history of public education from its beginning when teachers essentially received room and board in exchange for their services to schedules that gradually reflected the increasing educational requirements of the profession. There was a phase when elementary teachers were paid less than secondary teachers, women less than men and minorities least of all. In many ways, the changes in teacher remuneration parallel the changes in our society from one that was once largely agrarian to the current industrial model. Many of the current ed-reformers argue the need for a post-industrial method of paying teachers. Maybe, but most tend to propose ideas that would have most teachers making less.

Little noted in the debate over teacher pay is the fact that the single salary schedule yields the peculiar situation in which two people doing exactly the same work receive widely disparate remuneration. In my own district, $65 thousand dollars separate the beginning teacher with a BA degree from the teacher with 15 years of experience and a MA plus 60 graduate school credits. Now I do believe in the value of experience and education, but surely it doesn’t take a teacher 15 to 30 years to reach the top of her game. Yet, many teachers reading this criticism of the increment system will strongly disagree with me. If we listen carefully to their criticism, what they are often saying is, “I came up through this system. Why should it be different for beginning teachers?” To them, it’s as though God decreed an immutable single salary schedule and to tamper with it is to violate the order of the universe. Yet, wedded to it though they are, the increment system has perpetuated a growing inequity of two people receiving hugely differ salaries for the same work.

But even more galling than teachers’ blind faith in the increment system is management’s current attack on it. Not content to stretch out the payment of salary to journeyman teachers to in some cases 35 years, almost all of the salary settlements in my area of New York State have been financed by stealing money from the teacher who make the least and giving it to those who make the most. This has taken many forms, all of an ethical piece. Delaying the payment of increments into the school year and freezing increments have become all too common. For several years now, I’ve attempted to move teacher union leaders on Long Island to see this attack on the increment system as one that must be resisted, sadly to no avail. At a recent meeting of local leaders, several presidents appeared to be of the view that the next generation of teachers will simply not have it as good as we did, a sentiment that was later ironically added to with, “The Young members don’t care. It’s impossible to get them to do anything.” There’s a view to build a strong union movement on.

I recognize the facts that state aid has yet to return to 2008 levels and that New York’s property tax cap is in the process of doing to our state what Prop 13 did to California. But the failure of our unions to counter the attack on the increment system is sparking a generational conflict in our memberships that will ultimately render us less capable to combat all attacks.

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No Time, No Time

One of the hardest ideas to introduce into any discussion of education reform in the United States is the notion that our teachers contrary to the stereotype work too much, often under the most trying conditions. Offer that idea in any discussion with non-educators and one is immediately met with vacation envy and looks of disbelief. Yet, while some international education comparisons are invidious, common sense tells us that the fact that teachers in the higher performing systems in the world often spend less than half the time in front of their students that American teachers do probably has something to do with their success.

Valerie Strauss offers a guest column this morning to Ellie Herman, a person who came to teach in the Los Angeles schools after a successful career in the entertainment industry. Herman recounts how while she loved teaching, the conditions under which she was expected to do it burned her out in a very few years. Her thoughts on how that happened to her are much more important to consider that most of the pseudo- intellectual, educationist horseshit that passes for serious discussion today. Add to her remarks the obvious fact that she was financially able to leave her teaching job, frankly admitting her burned-out status while most with similar feelings are not, and one begins to wonder how many others like her are ground into intellectual numbness by the achievable demands which they are then demeaned for not achieving..

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