A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Archive for December, 2010

Searching for Balance

This from yesterday’s New York Times: “‘Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardized tests,’ Jiang Xueqin, a deputy principal at Peking University High School in Beijing, wrote in an opinion article published in The Wall Street Journal shortly after the test results were announced. ‘For that reason, they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy.”’

So as we are led by the value added crowd to emulate the Chinese and other Asian countries who beat us on math and reading tests, this respected Chinese educator is trying to get his countrymen to emulate the United States system. America’s teachers have always known that what we need is a balance. Balance, however, doesn’t make for sexy educational policy pronouncements.

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Helping Kids Grow Weaker

A San Francisco high school teacher posts the following on a public Groupsite page sponsored by the National Education Association. “As a high school teacher, I also have to wrestle with “reading stamina” questions. We don’t teach HUCKLEBERRY FINN or DAVID COPPERFIELD or PRIDE AND PREJUDICE any more because they are just such long, slow paced works, students can’t get through them in a timely fashion. I even avoid Steinbeck’s GRAPES OF WRATH in favor of CANNERY ROW or other of his shorter novels.” The odds are very good they are not reading Cannery Row either, preferring instead to use some online summary. The story appears to be the same all over. The adults are losing their capacity to insist that difficult material be read with the result student capacity to read texts closely is waning. We demand less and less and then wonder why students know so little and lack the stamina to do hard things. In Plainview-Old Bethpage, we did away with the British Literature curriculum some years back. That move was engineered by an administrator who insisted that British Lit. was much too hard for eleventh grade students. It wasn’t then. It would be now.

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Public Scores Nurses and Teachers High In Honesty

Each year the Gallup Organization conducts its Honesty and Ethics Survey. They ask a representative group the following question: “Please tell me how you would rate the honesty and ethical standards of people in these different fields – very high, high, average, low, very low?” The top of the list has consistently been led by nurses, with 81% of the public rating them very high or high for honesty and ethical standards. Fourth on the list were school teachers with 67% of the public rating them high in honesty ahead of clergy 53% and judges 47%. At the bottom of the list are the politicians who attack these public employees unmercifully.

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Assault Coming on Obama Care

The political talk shows are overloaded with pumped up Republican s boasting of how they are going to change Obama Care, their epithet for the recently enacted health care reform legislation. To hear them one would think that we do not have over 42 million uninsured people in the United States. Rather one would think that we have the best medical care system in the industrialized world. It galls them that our country has taken a modest step in the direction of treating healthcare as a right rather than a commodity beyond the reach of many. Here’s a statistic I came across in a fabulous book I shall have more to say about another day – Winner-Take-All Politics, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. Amenable mortality is concept used to express the number of deaths that could have been prevented with timely medical care. It’s a very good measure of the availability of health care in a society. It turns out that the United States has the highest rate of preventable death before age 75 of any of the rich countries. Think about that the next time some market-mad moron tries to tell you that the invisible hand of the free market provides the best health care system.

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The Race to Leave Kids Further Behind

Say the words Race to the Top to me, and my blood pressure goes up at least ten points. Setting up a system of winners and losers as a solution to the problem of too many loser school districts never has and never will make any sense to me. From the outset, I suspected that the winners of the RTTT grants would probably waste much of the money on trendy educationist solutions to complex social problems. I never had any doubt that the educationist-industrial complex would sponge up these federal dollars and that by and large no kid’s education would be substantially improved. First out of the box were the hawkers of value added assessment of teachers. Here in New York State and elsewhere statisticians have been hired for an enterprise as far fetched as the search for a method to transmute lead to gold. Today I read in a brilliant article by Rick Hess in Education Week that the state of North Carolina, the incubator of so much reform claptrap, has decided to spend 3.5 million dollars of their RTTT money on iPads for students and staff in economically challenged districts. Here’s Hess making the point better than I can. “I’m a huge fan of using technology to rethink schooling. But it’s the rethinking that matters, not the technology. What matters is how we use these tools to solve problems smarter, deliver knowledge, support students, reimagine instruction, refashion cost structures, and challenge students in new ways. Unfortunately, in far too many places, educators, industry shills, and technology enthusiasts seem to imagine that the technology itself will be a difference-maker. Good luck with that.” Amen!

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Fat Kids Need Activity Not Rules

Schools in St. Paul Minnesota have been declared “sweet free” by the local school board. This is apparently the first such attempt to deal with the challenge of childhood obesity by making candy and soda contraband on school grounds. While I have been alarmed by the obviously growing number of fat kids, does anyone seriously think that forbidding them sweets for six or seven hours a day is going to have a serious effect? Putting aside the role of poverty on the diets of many students in St. Paul, it seems to me there is a stunning lack of focus on the inactivity of today’s young couch potatoes. Gone are the days when immediately after school kids changed their clothes and went to a school yard or playground for at least two hours of strenuous play. Today in communities like Plainview-Old Bethpage, one hardly ever sees children playing on the streets, their time now spent being driven to some lesson, tutoring service or other organized activity. Today’s kids not only miss the calorie burning activity we had, they also miss out on the many social skills learned from engaging other kids in unsupervised street games. The game may have been stickball or punchball, but the real object I now understand was practicing for adulthood. I wish St. Paul luck with their “sweet free zones,” but a program that had each school run the kids around the block each day would have a much greater chance of success.

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Skipping School Seems Legal in Florida

If you want to glimpse the dark age slowly but surely descending upon us, visit the Florida Virtual School, an online simulation of a school offering an alternative to physical attendance k-12. Watch the video that pitches the school and the simulated education offered to the adolescent mind. Why get up early in the morning to go to school? Work better after 11 P.M.? Go to school then. Sleep late. Don’t let something like school inconvenience you. You can get a quality education so much more conveniently. And, best of all, it’s free. That’s an offer many teenagers will find hard to refuse.

Know what former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is doing? He’s a leading member of something called The Digital Learning Council, an outfit that makes recommendations on how technology can advance the school reform movement. When Bush was Governor, he got the law changed so that school district funding now follows students who choose to attend the Virtual School, some 100,000 of them. The potential impact on school district budgets is anything but virtual. It’s all too real. It’s not hard to see that as state budgets grow more problematical, we will hear the cry that public education like pensions, Medicare and Social Security, is unsustainable. It won’t take much to convince a tax averse public that virtual education is the answer. “Don’t it always seem to go…”.

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Healthy Public Debate

Interesting discussion broke the usual tedium of the Plainview Board of Education meeting Monday night when Board President Bettan bravely raised a politically incorrect question. Is Project Challenge, the District’s gifted program, a program for the truly intellectually gifted which by most measures is 2 to 3 percent of the student population, or have we bowed to political pressures and stretched our definition of gifted to avoid having to tell some parents that their children are, in fact, not gifted? The spirited discussion among several Board members raised serious, difficult questions that deserve to be aired out. Do we have a special responsibility for the intellectually gifted student of an order equal to that of the special education student? Do we rely on IQ scores inappropriately to place children in the program? What is the role of teacher recommendation in student placement? Were we to limit the program to the truly intellectually gifted, what would happen to the children who would no longer qualify but who enjoy the intellectual stimulation participation brings them? The discussion was a rare opportunity for the public to see their elected officials engaged in something other than routine. The only shame was that the exchange of ideas was cut short by the administration that appeared to feel obliged to end any public disagreement between members of the Board.

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Capitulation Continues

Yet another state union has fatefully decided that to oppose evaluating teachers on the basis of their students on results of high stakes test is impossible. The Massachusetts Education Association, the NEA affiliate and the largest teacher union in the state, is proposing their own plan for utilizing the state assessments, hoping thereby to shape the state’s plan for the use of this data. Capitulation is spreading like a deadly fungus among the unions which grow less capable of withstanding the next assault each time they surrender. Fifty years ago, teacher unions were organizing to demand a say in the practice of their craft. Their leaders were outspoken and courageous. They called their members to struggle, to stand up for themselves, to demand to be treated respectfully. They had a vision. The legacy of their leadership is rapidly being squandered, and members are coming to believe they must submit to whatever outrage the so-called reformers seek to impose on them. As resistance wanes so does our dignity and status. We don’t seem to understand that capitulation is not a good union organizing principle.

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Follow the Money

Want to read a tour de force on standardized testing? Todd Farley’s article in the Huffington Post gets as close as I’ve read to what’s really driving some of the worst of the testing disease afflicting our schools. You’ve got to read it.

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Look to the North for Guidance

I’ve been asked in recent days by some of those I criticize, both here in Plainview-Old Bethpage and in other places, to spend more of my time focusing on the positive. While I believe a look at what I’ve written over the years makes clear what I favor to improve public education, here’s a different way to look at the centrality of improved curriculum to the improvement of education. I invite my critics to take a look at the curriculum guide for the Provence of Saskatchewan and compare it to anything that our teachers in Plainview or anywhere in New York have in hand. While the approach is a bit too constructivist for my taste, the expectations for teachers and students are clear and helpful. Teachers are provided with all sorts of useful suggestions on how to teach the curriculum. With a few adjustments for U.S. history and culture, we could just copy it and thereby immediately improve our offerings.

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Here Comes Value Added

We haven’t yet put in place the new APPR tied to student performance, and State Ed is apparently getting serious about a so-called value added system. Backers of such a system maintain that they can statistically predict what a child should be able to accomplish during a school year on the basis of data collected about him. Then what he does accomplish compared to the expectation for him is the value added by his teacher. Whereas we are now working on a system that would rate teachers as highly effective, effective, emerging or ineffective, while I don’t suppose the state will use these words, what they will be talking about is a system in which teachers are highly valuable, valuable, almost worthless and worthless. Expressed in plain English, the abject cruelty of talking about the work of adults this way is more apparent. Imagine someone working a whole year and receiving a form that says either literally or euphemistically, “You’re worthless. Nothing you did with your students this year was of any value.” What a mature, sophisticated way to lead adults to do one of the hardest jobs. Those union leaders who toy with embracing this pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo should be ashamed of themselves. We need to come of with a scale like this to measure the value added by Commissioner Steiner. While we’re at it, we should also me developing his CIP – Commissioner Improvement Plan.

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Unsustainable=I Don’t Want To Pay

Have you noticed how slowly but surely all of the things that most people once thought a decent society needed to provide for its people has been declared “unsustainable” by the main stream media. Social Security – unsustainable. Medicare – unsustainable. Defined pension benefits for public workers – unsustainable. The word is thoughtless repeated and repeated until it’s just accepted as true that we can’t afford these programs or benefits. To believe that we can is to defy almost all of the “information” one receives. What those who claim unsustainability really mean is that they don’t want pay the taxes necessary to sustain programs. They mean that they have been lucky enough to not have to need these benefits and deeply believe that if those that do had just been as smart and productive and hardworking as they were, we wouldn’t need these programs as well. They pretend to moral superiority but are really ethically reprehensible. They find it impossible to conceive a good greater than petty selves. They are not discomforted by the fact that 40 million people in this country don’t have decent medical care, that one quarter of Americans live in poverty, that thousands of kids count on the public school for their only nourishing meal of the day……. They’re comfortable, and that’s all that matters – except maybe being even more comfortable. How come we don’t question the sustainability of their comfort?

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A Depressing Morning

I spoke to a group of teachers at one of our elementary schools this morning. I’ve been replaying their questions and comments all day; they were so deeply disturbing. While there with Elementary Vice-President Nina Melzer to seek their thoughts on the new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), the staff worked into so many of their thoughts and question on that subject their perceptions that their jobs are more and more turning in to test preparation, their work becoming progressively removed from what the work of teacher ought to be. I sensed that they, like their colleagues in so many of our nation’s public schools, are becoming joyless about their work.

I told them what I deeply believe – that if they let their work become joyless, I was positive that the children in their charge would be so too and that the school lives of both teachers and students would become mechanistic and dull. I urged them to fight back – to close the doors to o their classrooms and theach the richest curriculum their students were capable of learning. I told them to screw the tests and make the time to teach science, social studies – to bring an appreciation of the arts into their lessons. I told them that I passionately believe that if they would do that, if they would laugh off the fools who would reduce their work to a few numbers on what are often pointless tests, their scores on those tests would ironically rise. Real education always trumps test prep.

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Unexpected Answers to Loaded Questions

A recent Stanford University/Associated Press poll funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation may have disappointed the patrons of the poll. While 78% of the respondents thought it should be easier to get rid of bad teachers, only 38% saw bad teachers as a significant problem facing the nation’s public schools. On wonders if Gates money were not funding a media blitz encouraging the public to believe that the nation employs an army of bad teachers whether the 78% number wouldn’t be much smaller. One wonders, too, what the results would be if the question were put in the following way: Do you think that after workers have successfully completed a three year probationary period they should be entitled to a due process hearing before they are deprived of their employment? Perhaps a good follow-up question would be: Do you wish your place of employment provided career employees with due process rights before they can be fired? What might such a poll reveal? I wonder if the head of Microsoft would be willing to finance such a poll.

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Cuomo: What A Guy

Yiddish has a word for Governor-elect Cuomo. It come to us from the Polish and is paskudnyak (pronounced pas?kood’?nyak) That’s the word we have for a characterless individual or a scoundrel. Where he once would stand before many union meetings I attended and praise public employees for the work they do and declare himself an enemy of those who refer to them as a special interest, today his millionaire pals are apparently set on raising $10 million to support his war on the same public employees he used to love and whose money he was every so proud to take. What a guy!

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Crimping the Curriculum

Had you been at Monday night’s Board of Education meeting, you would have witnessed the latest evidence for the curriculum crimping power of the data driven race to ignorance that passes for education reform. On that evening the Chairperson of the English Department, who curiously now seems to refer to himself as a “literacy leader,” gave a report on the English Language Arts curriculum. Before going any further, I’ll admit to having stayed for only half the presentation, my blood pressure having risen with each ignorant exchange between the literacy leader and the Board of Education. Whereas research shows that high school graduates are often unskilled in the ability to read dense texts closely, we find the district’s literacy leader explaining how we are getting away from a whole class reading the same book and getting direct instruction on how to read it closely. Do we still teach grammar, a Board member asks? Not directly is the answer. “We tend to teach it as it arises from a lesson.” The impression is left that if it doesn’t arise (whatever that means), it doesn’t get taught because he says, “There are only going to be two questions on it on the eighth grade assessment.” Not on the assessment kid – you don’t have to know it. We’re no longer interested in educating you. In many ways my favorite part of the presentation was the brief discussion of the Great Books program. From the description, one would think that the program is simply a teaching technique, the so-called “shared inquiry” approach to studying texts. Absent from the discussion is that Great Book is about reading some of the world’s great books for what they have to contribute to the growth and development of informed, cultured, ethical adults. I forgot. The state assessments don’t measure that.

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Our Minds They Are A-Changin

If you are a teacher, a parent or just a citizen concerned for the future, you owe it to yourself to read and think deeply, if you still can, about Nicholas Carr’s new book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. No Luddite, Carr was prompted to consider writing the book out of concerns, intimations at first, that the time he was spending staring at screens of one kind or another was altering the way he thought. An accomplished science writer, he delved into the research on the subject which he presents for lay readers with marvelous clarity. It turns out there is every reason to believe that protracted time spent with the inherent distractions of the internet does seem to measurably change the wiring of our brains and reduce our capacity to “read deeply,” Carr’s term for the ability to be completely absorbed in the flow of ideas in print. Carr knows what we all do – that the screens and the internet are not going away, but, I promise you, he does force you to stop and consider the wisdom of allowing young children to spend significant time in frot of a computer.

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Has The Revolution Started?

What has the world of public education come to when it becomes newsworthy to report, as the New York Times did on November 27, 2010 (“A’s For Good Behavior”),that a school in Austin Minnesota introduced a “standards-based grading system.” What’s that, you ask? This school has introduced the revolutionary notion that grades should be based on what a student has learned rather than on her compliance with directions to do required school tasks. This school discovered that doing one’s homework, coming to school every day and being cooperative didn’t mean that one learned anything. Now grades are based on class tests that attempt to measure how much of the content taught a student has learned. Wherever will they think of next.

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The Real Education Crisis

I’ve just returned from the fall meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations, a very powerful and significant caucus within the National Education Association. The local union members at meetings like this give one a clearer sense of what’s happening on the ground in America’s school districts better than anything in the union or national press. The clear message to be taken away from this conference is that the greatest crisis in public education in America is the deteriorating morale of the people teaching our nation’s children. Their hard work denigrated by rich and powerful people who don’t have a clue as to what they really do, their salaries and pensions under attack by those who seek to exploit the economic fears of the populace, their elected leaders piling on out of sheer political expediency and no one offering them any hope that they can fight their way to a better day. I left the meeting unable to imagine the despair of America’s teaching force if their leaders are as dejected as I perceived them to be.

The council adopted a series of new business items, some of which will be brought to the National Education Association convention in the summer. Common to most of them was a call to their national leaders to lead an offensive against the powerful forces arrayed against us. These leaders may be dejected, but they are angry and looking for a way to galvanize their anger into action. They’re tired of just absorbing the attacks.

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