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 January, 2011

Arrogant Nastiness Reigns in Albany

The arrogant nastiness that has already characterized the Cuomo administration got notched up late Friday with the submission to the state senate of a tax cap bill. Late Friday was picked as the date for submission because it was the last possible moment a bill could be put in and still voted on today. The almost dead of night tactics were appropriate for a bill that essentially established a hard zero percent property tax cap on municipalities and school districts. Reduced to its essence the bill, which would take effect for the 2012-2013 school year, seeks to establish the following for school districts:

1 – Votes would no longer vote on the school district’s budget. Instead they would vote only on a proposed tax levy. This vote would take place on the third Tuesday in May.
2 – If the proposed levy is lower than the lesser of 2% or the rate of inflation, a simple majority would be required for voter approval.

3 – If the proposed levy is greater than the lesser of 2% or the rate of inflation, a super majority of 60% is required for voter approval.
4 – If voters reject a proposed levy, it would be voted on again on the third Tuesday in June.
5- If voters reject a proposed levy a second time, the district levy is capped at the previous year’s levy, or zero increase.

The astounding thoughtlessness of this proposal is compounded by the expectation that Cuomo’s budget will call for cuts in the state’s commitment to public education. One has to wonder about the values of a governor who would propose such a law, one that even omits consideration of exemptions for legal judgments against a district, successful tax certiorari claims, increased student enrollment or pension or health care costs. One also must question the Republican majority in the senate that is obviously poised to do Cuomo’s bidding. Suburban Republicans used to be the guardians of the high performing suburban districts, knowing that they are at the heart of what makes these communities desirable places to live.
I asked PCT members to write to their state senators yesterday. They have done that in great numbers. I am asking all my New York readers to join them. Click on this link to get the email address of your state senator and send a strong message now to all those who would destroy public education in our state.

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Stress and Today’s Students

Wednesday’s New York Times reported on a study purporting to show that this year’s college freshmen are experiencing stress at record levels. The article focuses on the impact of current economic conditions, speculating that students are fearful of not having jobs after college and concerned about the economic circumstances of their parents who are paying the tuition.

I don’t discount any of these as causes of the high stress levels, but, I suspect, there is something else operating here, a declining capacity of students to deal with the ups and downs of human existence, a decline linked in my mind to parenting that smothers the growth of self-reliance and resilience and public schools that have increasingly bowed to parental pressures to tailor their children’s education to their idiosyncrasies rather than insisting that they conform to standards set for them. I think, too, that some of the record levels of stress are related to forcing age-inappropriate curriculum on them in a mad race to to no sensible destination (a subject that I’ve written about in a previous post). I went to public school, had lots of friends and spent many hours playing with and talking to them after school, my afternoons having been free from tutoring, lessons of one kind or another. I don’t remember any of us talking about feeling overwhelmed like some of the college freshmen in the study.

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Giving Children Age Appropriate Education

More and more I see the downward shift of curriculum from higher grades to lower ones as a central problem in even our best public schools. The cliche is that in many American public schools the curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep. In today’s classrooms, kindergarten kids whose brains are still actively developing are being forced to do academic things that are not appropriate for children whose nervous systems are not yet properly wired to do them. On the other end of the grades, high school students are more and more doing so-called college courses when they lack the more fundamental skills and knowledge to really get and appreciate what they are being taught.

I gained an insight into the absurd point to which we have come in a conversation with several of the librarians at the Plainview Public Library. Ever since our union came to represent the town’s librarians, I have had occasion to talk to them about the connections between the library and our schools. In this conversation, they were explaining how it has become thoroughly common for parents to come to the library to do the research projects that our teachers have given their children. While the children sometimes come to watch their parents do the work, it is not unusual for the parents to leave the kids home, probably to play video games, and for the parents to do all of the research. This kind of absurdity is being inflicted on children in the name of academic rigor. The reality is such practices have about as much to do with education as McDonald’s has to do with fine dining.

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The State of Public School Teaching

By happenstance, I spent two lunch periods yesterday talking with elementary teachers about their concerns. Bombarded as they are these days with anti-teacher propaganda, as their leader, I’ve been trying to spend more time with them, hopefully offering them some strategy and some hope that the anger they have been absorbing will one day abate. Each time I do one of these chats, I’m struck by how disturbed the teachers are, particularly the younger ones, by the lack of public respect for the work they do. In a very real sense, I believe they are increasingly internalizing the negative media “incoming” that assaults them almost daily. I have never seen staff anxiety so high and morale so low. Later in the day, I met with some union leaders from other Long Island districts. I left that meeting with the distinct impression that things in their districts were even worse than in Plainview-Old Bethpage.

Then came the evening and President Obama’s State of the Union Address in which he called upon young Americans to become teachers. “Your country needs you,” he said. Yes, I thought, you country needs you to study (and probably have to incur substantial debt to do so) to qualify for a job where even in the best paying areas of the country you can expect to start at less than half of what the law school graduate will make, where you will be literally dumped into a class of children with little to no support and subjected to cacophony of contradictory voices telling you how to do your job, living with the constant fear that all you have to do is rub the right parent the wrong way and you will be fired. Your pension plan will be three times worse than your aunt who retired from teaching five years ago, and your board of education will be looking alarmingly at how much it costs to provide you with health insurance. Then to top it all off, you have to listen to the President of the United States lead the country to believe that the nation’s schools are filled with incompetent teachers and wonder how many of the parents of the children you teach think he’s talking about you. Sounds like a plan for attracting the best and the brightest to work in public education.

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It’s Substance That’s Needed

For the past two Plainview Board of Education meetings, spectators have been regaled with presentations by academic department chairs on their “visions” for the future of education in Plainview-Old Bethpage. All sorts of glitzy new courses have been put forth, from high school genetics to elementary children doing research projects. To me, much of what has been presented is aimed more at parents being able to say, “Oh, my Marmaduke is so bright. He’s taking all college level classes,” when if fact all too often Marmaduke can’t put together three coherent English sentences and brags about hating to read. I’ve been a fan for some time of Leon Botstein, President of Bard College. His diagnosis of America’s educational ills needs, I believe, very careful thought by boards of education and all citizens.

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Information vs. Propaganda

The Long Island area had an opportunity this morning to contrast the coverage of the state’s budget crisis and proposals for dealing with it. True to form, Newsday’s coverage is the most incendiary anti-teacher union columnist John Hildebrand’s article “LI school cuts may be the largest in 20 years.” Hildebrand’s piece vividly develops the worst case scenario in which state aid is cut and the governor’s proposed two percent local property tax cap is enacted leaving districts, in this critique, with no choice but to cut services or demand wage and benefit cuts from the teaching staff. To “leverage” those cuts Hildebrand focuses on the attempt to scuttle the Triborough Doctrine, whereby other than salaries, the terms and conditions of expired public sector labor contracts stay in place until new agreements are reached. It is as a result of the Triborough Doctrine that teacher contracts that call for increments or steps tied to years of service to a district are paid even when contracts are expired. He reports that John Gross and Gregory Guercio, heads of the two biggest law firms representing school districts on Long Island, have invited representatives of school districts to a presentation in February at which they will make the case against these step increases. The article ends with a quote from Guercio clearly aimed at arousing fear to pitch his upcoming presentation. Talking about the need to end step increases, Guercio uncharacteristically says, “Their survival is at stake.” There isn’t a word in this piece to explain the history of increment steps or how they provide for a system in which two people do the same work and one receives twice as much pay. That’s right, looked at objectively, the system works to lower teacher wages rather than raise them.

The New York Times, however, takes a completely different approach in today’s article “Unlikely Allies Fight Cuomo’s Plan for a Property tax Cap.” Here the focus is on a growing coalition that seeks to inform the public that a two percent property tax cap lowers no one’s taxes and ties the ability of local communities to educate their children to the fluctuating value of real estate. Unlike the Newsday article, the focus here is on providing factual information. The Times writer fairly presents the view of many that using the property tax to finance things like schools is completely unfair and that we need a system that has the state taking over the financing of schools and other vital services. Even the idea of a tax cap tied to people’s incomes is explained here. In short, one newspaper tries to provided balanced information while the Long Island paper is essentially seeks to inflame public opinion against teachers.

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Where are the School Leaders?

With Governor Cuomo at the head of the pack of barking dogs calling for cuts to public education and other public services, the school superintendents and their association have been conspicuously quiet. One would have expected them to spell out for all who might listen what the ramification of a two percent tax cap would be. One would have expected them to be in an alliance or coalition with NYSUT, banging the hell out of the governor’s short-sighted plans for our state. Yesterday’s New York Times carried a report that suggested that New York’s budget could be in surplus – that’s right surplus – with an income tax increase of as little as two percent. I don’t mean to suggest that two percent is an insignificant increase to contemplate, but surely most New Yorkers would be better off with such a tax increase than the lay-off of thousands of public employees and the staggering cuts in the services those employees provide. Where are the superintendents speaking up for the schools they claim to lead and care about?

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The Tenure Debate

Today, attorney Kenneth Feinberg, hired by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, will apparently suggest ways in which the process of removing tenured teachers for cause can be expedited. Implicit in all of the press I’ve been able to read this morning is the assumption that once again the evil teacher unions have subverted justice by somehow manipulating the legal system to make it almost impossible to fire a tenured teacher. Once again Randi Weingarten is presented as the union leader willing to participate in ending this rip-off. My experience suggests that that impression is false.

Over the almost thirty some odd years I have been intimately engaged with the affairs of our union, I have observed or been a part of an number of tenure cases, one which dragged on for over five years. Most I’ve dealt with, however, were settled out of the public eye with either discipline agreed to by the district and teacher or a resignation. These cases concluded rapidly largely because the school district had either competently done its work and presented evidence of wrong doing that was going to be almost impossible to refute or the wrong doing by the teacher was of such a magnitude that, here again, it was impossible to overcome. Those that did drag on, those that wound up costing the district huge amounts of money and time did so largely as a result of factors beyond the control of the teachers facing charges. Most of the delays were related to the calendars of the attorneys and hearing officers. Finding days and time when they could all be available seriously protracted these hearings. New York pays the arbitrators hearing these cases so poorly that if they have a choice between hearing a labor arbitration or a tenure case on a particular day, their time is always going to be calendared with the more profitable labor work. While the state made some effort a few years back to get hearing officers to commit to moving these hearings along, the process is often still delayed for reasons out of the control of the charged teacher. Yet, I strongly suspect that in the irrational public debate about tenure, it will be the teacher whose opportunity for justice will be compromised.

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The New York State Regents are seriously considering increasing the high school graduation requirements. In Plainview-Old Bethpage, I listened over the course of the last few weeks to department chairs talk about exposing kids to algebra earlier, offering courses in genetics and various other proposals all put forward in the name of higher expectations and academic rigor. Now while it is true that I have been talking about the need to raise academic standards and return to a level of academic rigor abandoned long ago, I never meant and strongly object to the thoroughly inappropriate pressure to speed up the education of children in ways aimed more having them pass shallow tests than acquiring the skills and knowledge to profit intellectually from a higher education. I was pleased to find a fellow traveler, college professor Joseph Ganem who started to think about how his children were being taught math. Take a look at what he has to say. His ideas have important ramifications for much more than math. The introduction of age-inappropriate curriculum begins in suburban kindergartens where the focus on language acquisition and learning through play and song has given way all too often to the beginning of an academic grind and competition for entrance to Ivy League school

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A New Enemy of Seniority – Ignorance

Retired Lawrence Long Island Superintendent Philip Cicero, now an adjunct professor at Adelphi University, has added himself to a growing number of ignorant voices calling for what amounts to making public school teaching an itinerant profession. Never questioning the wisdom of laying off teachers to deal with New York’s fiscal problems, Cicero’s Newsday column suggests that we up the ante and do away with the system of layoff by the politically neutral seniority system because laying off the newer teachers doesn’t save enough money. It’s the more experienced ones who cost the most. Laying them off is a bigger money saver. We need to retain “…recently hired staff members with the skills and enthusiasm needed to be successful…” Experience is of limited importance to Cicero as is class size. The effective teacher is what matters, and, while he doesn’t say so, we know that in the emerging system of evaluating teachers, effective will be judged on the basis of narrow state tests. Putting aside the curious notion that experience at a job as complicated as teaching is of limited value, the only long range outcome of the kind of approach suggested by Cicero is a system in which almost no teacher, except perhaps a few with important community connections, ever gets to have a career and a stable economic existence. Whenever the teacher payroll reaches a point where it is perceived to be too high, a district simply announces the need to retrench and lays off the top earners in the teacher ranks. After all, the resulting increase in class size doesn’t really matter. Larger classes will be easily compensated for by the enthusiasm of new teachers. Actually, it is very much like the conditions in Long Island district fifty years ago before the advent of teacher unions, especially if the attacks on teacher tenure should be sustained. Why would anyone want to work in such a system? That’s a question people like Cicero never stop to answer. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about working for the kind of school system Cicero wants us to have.

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A Different View of Dr. King

I had planned to write about Dr. Martin Luther King today. As I often do, before I write, I looked to see what others had to say, hoping thereby to find my own unique perspective on this larger than life figure. In doing so that I came across a blog post by The Nation writer John Nichols whose words eloquently captured the Dr. King that pop history tends to obscure but who is indelibly written on my memory and whose influence on my life as a social justice activist was profound. I therefore yield the remainder of this post to John Nichols . After you’ve read this piece, think about what Dr. King would be saying to those who pass for leaders today who believe the way to get ahead politically is to wage war on the nation’s teachers, firemen, police and the thousands of other public servants who contribute daily to our society.

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The Influence of Money on Policy Outcomes

I have written on this blog and elsewhere of what I believe to be the undue influence of super-rich people like Bill Gates on education policy in this country. My argument has been that such people’s voices are significantly amplified as a result of their riches rather than the soundness of their ideas. Here’s the latest example. The Gates Foundation has released a preliminary study that it funded entitled “Measures of Effective Teaching” (MET). For some time now Gates has preoccupied himself with trying to bring scientific certitude to the evaluation of teachers by encouraging studies of value-added evaluation systems that evaluate teachers on the basis of gains their students make on state examinations. The MET study purports to show that there is significant evidence that such evaluation schemes are accurate and effective. Not so, says University of California economist Jesse Rothstein, whose credentials include having been the chief economist of the United States Labor Department and a senior economist on the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. Rothstein’s review of the MET study finds, “In fact, the preliminary MET results contain important warning signs about the use of value-added scores for high-stakes teacher evaluations. These warnings, however, are not heeded in the preliminary report, which interprets all of the results as support for the use of value-added models in teacher evaluation. Moreover, the report’s key conclusions prejudge the results of the unfinished components of the MET study. This limits the report’s value and undermines the MET Project’s credibility.” Although there is mounting concern about the reliability of value-added evaluation systems, New York State is going full speed ahead trying to establish one. More people ought to be asking why.

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Where Middle Class Anger Really Belongs

If there is an upsetting question to teachers it is why the public appears to have turned against them, attacking their salaries, benefits and pensions. The simple answer is that fewer Americans enjoy these benefits and have been encouraged by unscrupulous politicians like Governors Cristie, Cuomo and the mass media to believe that their wages and benefits have stagnated or declined because of the “unsustainable” salaries and benefits of teachers and other public employees and their unions. The public is offered few sources of information to counter this critique which pits working people against each other rather than allowing them to see that they have a clear common interest – stopping the erosion of America’s middle class. The fact is that there has been a massive shift in income from the middle and lower classes to the economically elite 1% of the population. For those who like data, consider the following from “Grow Together or Pull Further Apart? Income Concentrations in New York,” a publication of the Fiscal Policy Institute.

In 1947, the top 1% received 12% of the total U.S. income. In 1978, that figure was down to 9%. By 2007, however the top 1% get 23.5 % of the national income. When we look at New York State, the most income polarized state in the nation, the story is even more outrageous. In 1980, the top 1% of New Yorkers received 10% of the income generated in the state. By 2007, that number had jumped to 35%. If we further observe that New Yorkers with incomes of between $56,000 and $95,000 pay state and local taxes to the tune of 11% of their incomes while those making in excess of $633,000 pay 8.4%, we see clearly where the public’s anger should be directed but isn’t. The state’s income grew over these years. It’s just that many people got a smaller share of the economic pie.

I’m sure someone will respond to this post that I’m preaching class warfare. I’m just presenting the facts which is more than those who wish to blame our economic ills on teachers and other public employees do.

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Why is Cuomo Picking on Number 2

I’d have paid a significant sum to have been present when some poor gubernatorial aide had to tell New York’s bloviating governor that our state’s schools came in second in the annual Education Week ranking of state school systems. Cuomo is now faced with a serious decision. Does he continue to attack New York’s schools as he did in his State of the State address when he claimed we were thirty-fifth in the nation (On what scale he was measuring us, he didn’t say.), implying that NYSUT, the state’s teacher union, was somehow responsible, or does he sit down with the representatives of New York’s teachers and have an intelligent discussion of how we can work together to make New York’s schools even better? Maybe he could come to see that starving them of assets with tax caps is poor education and economic policy.

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Maybe the Unaddressed Problem Is Poverty

I’m indebted for this piece to a recent article in the Washington Post by Robert J. Samuelson which pointed me to the results of the recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The PISA assessment is given to 15 year olds in sixty-five countries, among them the thirty-four richer countries of the Organization Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Most of us are aware that the kids in Shanghai led the world, the critics of America’s public schools having used that fact to fan the flames of what is increasingly an anti-Chinese sentiment in this country. We better be careful of those sneaky Chinese. The improving education of their children is presented to us as an American vulnerability that is somehow attributable to unaccountable public school teachers. Yet, when one reads the analysis of the PISA scores and actually looks at the disaggregated data, guess what? The effects of poverty and racism on the performance of too many American children becomes evident as does the extent to which our public schools are ill-equipped to deal with American society’s failure to use its great wealth to provide all of our children with a decent start in life. When we control for the effects of poverty and race, American kids do better than we’ve been led to believe. Just think about the following taken from the “Executive Summary” of the report. Students in public schools in which half or more were eligible for free or reduced price lunch (a reliable measure of poverty) scored below the average of the OECD countries in reading literacy. Where only twenty-five percent or less of students in public schools were eligible for free or reduced price lunch, these students scored above the average OECD results. Maybe if our politicians spent more time addressing childhood poverty instead of blaming the problems of our schools on union teachers, we could do something about the poverty that stunts the educational development of so many of America’s children.

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Thinking About Tuscon

No matter what I did this weekend, my mind was drawn to the gun violence in Tuscon that claimed six lives and shattered many others. Searching for a way to fathom what had happened , I kept thinking of the handful of students I had taught over a long career who troubled me every bit as much as Jared Loughner troubled his teachers. David, who would fly into a rage when I would not allow him in class with Nazi symbols on his leather jacket; John whose written work was filled with violent allusions and who wrote a paper for a social studies assignment that he asked me to go over that claimed the Dr. Joseph Mengele’s work was very interesting and misunderstood; Bill whose greatest pleasure appeared to be shooting animals and who dreamed of joining the military because, “In the army, it’s legal to kill people.” These boys and others, existed on the fringe of our school society, all seething with anger. All isolates. All clearly mentally disturbed. All clearly crying out for help, but somehow never getting it. Given the right constellation of circumstances, any of them was capable of doing what Loughner did in Tuscon. I suspect that there were many teachers who had similar thoughts this weekend. Being a teacher sometimes means children sharing their demons with us.

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Combating Pension Stupid Talk

The late Neil Postman developed a term for speech that superficially appeared to be authoritative but which upon analysis was bereft of any factual basis. He called it “stupid talk.” There has been a tidal wave of stupid talk surrounding the defined pension benefit of teachers in New York State. The newly elected governor himself has begun to either knowingly confuse citizens about pensions or is ignorant about the subject. The pension system itself (which I’m quick to point out is not run by the dreaded teacher union) has begun to try to combat this stupid talk with the facts. They have put together a wonderful video that deserves a wider viewing than I suspect it will get. Then again, that seems to be the plight of many facts these days. Take a look. I promise you will learn some things.

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How About a Little Integrity Yourself, Governor

Every time I hear Governor Andrew Cuomo speak about “special interests” and know that he has labor unions in mind when he uses the expression, I could spit. He clearly doesn’t think I remember hearing the very same Andrew Cuomo speak to the New York State United Teachers in April of 2008. We were surely special to him then, but not a special interest. Remembering the contribution organized labor made to the election of his father, Cuomo said, “That was enough.” Cuomo went on to tell us that labor is not a special interest, as critics have charged. “They call it a lobbying group. Baloney! It is the voice of the middle class and we are proud of it and never run from it.” How we went from the “voice of the middle class” to a special interest that he is running from as fast as he can, I don’t know. I wish someone from our fearless press would ask him that at his next press conference.

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Correcting the Classics

“I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’ ” he said. “And I don’t think I’m alone.” So the Times quotes Auburn English Professor Alan Gribben who has edited a new edition of Twain’s novel to be released shortly in which Nigger Jim’s name is change to “Slave Jim.” Mr. Gribben has written that “…even at the level of college and graduate school, students are capable of resenting textual encounters with this racial appellative.” That’s nothing like some of the appellatives that come to mind for you, Mr. Gribben. Screw their resentment over the racial appellative. Supposedly, you have serious students in front of you. Are we to edit every work of art that causes someone discomfort? Where do we stop once we start doing that? To take a work that Hemingway claimed was the beginning of American literature and change it may be politically correct, but it is just as surely a sacrilege.

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It’s Screw the Unions Time

In a previous post, I strongly recommended Hacker and Pierson’s new book Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. Wrap your minds around this statistic culled from the book. Between 2001 and 2006, fifty-three percent (53%) of all the gain in income in the United States went to people in the top one percent (1%) of incomes. You probably reread that sentence, thinking I made and error. Unfortunately, I didn’t. The enormity of these numbers grows the more we think about them. This is a trend that has been growing worse over time. Call it class warfare or whatever you like; Hacker and Pierson convincingly demonstrate how federal policy under both Democrats and Republicans has enriched the few at the expense of the many. The front page of this morning’s New York Times makes it clear that things will only get worse in the short run. Across the country, elected state officials are declaring war on unions, both public and private sector, hawking the political snake oil that the powerful unions are responsible for the budget problems state and local governments are facing. Yet, if you read Hacker and Pierson you can’t escape the understanding that a significant factor in the decline if America’s middle class has been the decline of the American labor movement. That’s why the rich and their representatives are so determined to make them go away.

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