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 February, 2011

What’s Really Going On

A colleague sent me a joke that very neatly captures what I believe is the predominant narrative of the budget crisis. See what you think.

A union member, a CEO and a member of the Tea Party are sitting at a table in the middle of which is a plate of a dozen cookies. The CEO reaches across the table and grabs eleven of the cookies. He then turns to the Tea Party member and say, “Look out for the union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie.”

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Teachers Talk About Seniority

Yesterday, I wrote about seniority in my monthly TeacherTalk column on our union’s webpage. This morning, WNYC, a public radio station in New York City, played an interview they did with some city teachers of varying ages and experience talking about Mayor Bloomberg’s drive to do away with layoff by seniority. Most of those interviewed confirmed my thoughts on the subject. That may not mean much to some, but to a person like me whose job it is to speak for teachers, it’s very comforting. Give a listen.

I’m taking next week off. Look for A Teachable Moment again on Monday, February 28.

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Unions Finally Take a Stand

Finally, unions in Wisconsin have organized and are standing up to a governor and the Republican legislature who are bent on destroying them. Schools in Madison, the capitol, were closed yesterday as staff protested outside the governor’s office. At stake in Wisconsin, Ohio Indiana and elsewhere is the right of public sector unions to bargain collectively over the terms and conditions of their employment. In Wisconsin, tax cuts to corporations and the rich have left a hole in the budget that the governor would have people understand is the fault of teachers, police, firemen and all state and local workers. It is all part of the assault on the middle class in this country. Those who want the unions dead know that it was labor unions that contributed mightily to the creation of a vibrant middle class in this country. If the middle class is to be robbed of its economic rights, labor must be gotten out of the way.

The battle in Wisconsin is finally in the news. Tonight, on MSNBC the Ed Shultz show will focus on the issues in Wisconsin. The Ed Show is the only one I know of that has offered a counter narrative to the causes of the economic plight of states – the only one that understands that public employees and their unions didn’t cause the problem. The show will air at 10:00 P.M. If that’s too late for the teachers in my audience, set your DVR to MSNBC at 10:00 P.M. Who knows, perhaps if enough people watch the show, they will better understand what is going on here in New York where a Democratic governor refuses to keep in place a so-called millionaire’s tax that would wipe out half the budget deficit. That’s right! Without raising taxes, just by keeping current state taxes in place, half of the state’s budget problem would be solved. In New York too, the middle class is being asked to subsidize the rich.

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Cooperation My Foot!

Putting aside my personal belief that going to Denver to discuss labor management cooperation with Education Secretary Arne Duncan is about as useful as discussing a national health care program with Rush Limbaugh, I was nevertheless interested in the examples the Secretary gave of the success of such cooperation. He pointed to places where labor management cooperation led to new teacher evaluations systems, where contracts spelled out the details of teaching responsibilities rather than work hours and where labor and management designed a new mentoring program. Notice the assumption here that these things are important to solving the problems of contemporary American public education. That it is a completely absurd assumption, no one I’m sure had the nerve to say to Mr. Duncan. They were there to cooperate!

How hard is it to realize that we’ve had essentially the same teacher evaluation system for for years? In cities like New York, where the mayor was willing to go to the mat to get evaluations tied to student scores on standardized tests, doesn’t anyone stop to realize that with essentially the same teacher evaluation system New York was once one of the best school systems in the country. Ditto Los Angeles and others. Doesn’t anyone stop to recognize that we had good schools before mentoring programs and after teacher contracts that spelled the hours teachers are expected to work? All of this pseudo-reform stuff is designed to avoid the real issues – poverty, insufficient resources, undemanding curriculum, student accountability, a fair system of taxation to pay for our schools and finally, and most importantly, pathetic school leadership. Cooperation my foot! Why do we want to cooperate on reforms that are wasteful of time, effort and money and which are doomed in the end to further diminish the public’s support for public education?

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Cheers for the Nerve of the Snooty Schools

An article in Today’s New York Times by Sarah Maslin Nir caught my interest. Ms. Nir reports that many of the snooty private schools in New York City refrain from direct reading instruction until children reach first grade. They insist on taking kids trough pre- reading lessons, even for kids who come to them reading. As we might have imagined, the hard driving parents of some of these kids who pay many thousands of dollars in tuition don’t really like the idea that their children are being left behind the students in other snooty schools, even pulling their kids out sometimes. The article interests me for two reasons. First, if a private school has the temerity to tell a parent you can leave, but this is what we believe is very important for the education of our children, it makes it that much more pathetic how many of our schools cave in at the slightest parental provocation. Two, and much more importantly, these schools are convinced, as am I, that we start children doing focused academic work mush too soon, sometimes even before their nervous systems have developed to be able to do it. Our kindergartens are no longer devoted to socialization and school readiness through play but the beginning of what for many children is the academic grind. Interestingly, the first grade teachers in my district have been reporting for sometime that children are less ready to follow the routines of school.

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Pitting the Young Against the More Senior

I was in Albany Friday and Saturday at a board of directors meeting of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). One of the subjects up for discussion was the call by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others for a change in the state law that says that when a school district wishes to reduce the teaching force, it must do so by seniority within tenure areas. Mayor Bloomberg and his millionaire pals want this change in the law so badly that they are financing a media blitz aimed at pitting younger members of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), those who stand to be cut in the false budget crisis, against the more senior union members. A commercial I watched Sunday morning had some of these young teachers, pawns of the mayor, literally begging to have others let go instead of their young, wonderful selves.

As the NYSUT board discussed this and other issues, my colleague, Ellis Woods, the leader of a large teacher aide unit in Buffalo, turned to me and said, “Can you think of any other profession where the public seems to prefer the younger person to the older. Do most people want the young, inexperienced lawyer, doctor or dentist? Only in education.” To which I would simply ad that a mayor who was seriously interested in the education of the children of New York City would be fighting like hell to avoid any teacher layoffs. He could begin with publically opposing the expiration of the tax on the after deductions income of $200,000 for individuals and $300,000 for joint returns.

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Should We Train Them All For College?

Robert was one of the smartest kids I ever taught, a 150 IQ but failing almost ever high school course in which he was enrolled. Intellectually, he belonged in a college preparatory program. With his stomping boots, motorcycle leather jacket and tattooed arms, almost no one would have recognized him as the smartest kid in his graduating class. Victimized by a run-away father and an uneducated mother who struggled to keep her two boys fed and clothed, Robert always knew work awaited him after high school. Pat was another of my students who today we would say had multiple learning disabilities. Then, the kindest thing his academic teachers would say of him is that he was very slow. Both boys attended a high school that no longer exists in most communities. While Pat couldn’t read or write more than the simplest things, with the training he received in our autobody shop, he was able to earn a good living after he left us and when I met him a few years ago was the owner of two body shops. Robert, while he trained with us as an auto mechanic, got an opportunity to join the meat cutters union, did an apprenticeship and went on to make a living for his family with the ShopRite supermarkets.

Experiences like these caused me to respond favorably to a proposal from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education called Pathways to Prosperity. The authors of the proposal have the temerity to suggest that not everyone should or needs to go to college and that we do a significant disservice to a very large portion of our youth by forcing them to attend schools that are so over-focused on college preparation that those not headed for higher education are left with essentially nothing. I’m not sure I agree with all of their proposals, but I have known many angry kids who would have thrived in the environment they describe. Give the proposal a read. Unlike so much educationist rhetoric, this document is enjoyable to read.

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Attack on Seniority Heats Up

Yesterday’s Capitol Confidential blog on the Albany Times Union website quotes Governor Cuomo as supporting changes to the New York City teacher seniority law that are based on objective criteria. The blog post also leaves readers to infer that the governor is having discussions with the leaders of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) on this subject. Should the UFT give in on this issue, we can expect the governor and the legislature to seek the same changes for teachers throughout the state. I wonder if the governor has these objective criteria in mind. More senior teachers make more money. More senior teachers are prone to question authority and to stand up for their rights and are generally more active in their unions. Confident of their craft, more senior teacher tend to oppose the mindless focus on standardized test results to measure student and teacher performance. These are some of the objective reasons why the rich and powerful are putting their money and effort behind destroying the seniority system for teachers. You think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at this article by Joanne Barkan

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A Little Student Accountability Please

There’s more talk and concern about teacher accountability these days than there is about holding their students accountable. For years, it has become increasingly fashionable to pressure teachers to lower their standards so that student grades will appear to signify greater accomplishment than they have actually achieved. I attended the meeting of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education at which the physical education department made a presentation asking the Board to permit them to move from a grading system of pass/fail to one of numerical grades like those is all other academic areas. Phys ed staff were prompted to recommend the change in that increasingly students are participating in phys ed only to the extent necessary to receive a pass, which apparently does not require a tremendous amount of effort. The Board seemed fine with the proposal until a recommendation was considered to have the students’ numerical grade count toward their grade point average. Suddenly Board members were not so sure. Actually hold kids responsible for a serious physical education requirement? Maybe we should just put a numerical grade on their transcripts but not count it, some thought. I laughed when during the public participation portion of the meeting a retired teacher who had taught in a neighboring district observed, “If you don’t count their grade, the kids will figure that out in a minute and you’ll be back to where you started.” You can usually count on a teacher to know what makes kids tick.

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The Latest Measure

This morning’s New York Times has two pieces, one news the other opinion, that deserve to be thought about together. Forever seeking new measurements of student performance to befuddle the public and themselves about the state of our public schools, the New York State Education Department declared 23% of New York’s high school graduates ready for college level work. Exactly how this number was calculated is not stated, but what matter. The public is left with the impression once again that our schools are failing the state’s youth. In the middle of the article, we do learn that wealthier districts turn out 72% of their graduates who are college ready, but even this number, whatever it really means, is presented as failure. That district’s like Plainview-Old Bethpage graduates many more college ready students is difficult for any reader to even imagine.

On the op-ed page of the same edition is a piece by Bob Herbert, one of the few mainstream journalists who is willing to talk about what is happening to working class people and their children. The dilettantes on the Board of Regents and the education commissioner with the poshy British accent can create all the measures they want. They can close all the schools that their measures say are failing. They can create all the charters schools to take their place. In the end, nothing will fix the problem facing our urban school systems until the nation faces up to its responsibility to the families of all of the children living in poverty. For schools to work, students and their families have to have faith in the future. Too many of our nation’s children don’t.

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Anti-teacher Language

Almost anything one reads or sees that is even remotely connected to public education in the popular media is suffused with anti-teacher union language. Thus, writing in the February 7 edition Time, Joe Klein talking about President Obama’s State of the Union speech finds himself gratuitously using the expression “the stranglehold of teachers’ union work rules.” Which rules, I wonder is he talking about? How many union contracts has he read? Is he talking about clauses that keep class size manageable so that children can learn? Perhaps he’s thinking about the clauses in teacher union contracts that mandate that teachers have the books, materials and supplies necessary for them to do their jobs. Could he have meant academic freedom clauses that ensure that teachers are free to engage in honest exchanges of ideas with their students. No, he must have in mind clauses that limit the number of classes a teacher must instruct in a day so that there is a reasonable chance that by the end of the fifth one she is aware of what she and the children are saying. He couldn’t mean tenure and seniority protections in that they are usually provided for by state law (more on seniority in an upcoming post). In point of fact, I doubt that Joe Klein and the countless other who have just absorbed the anti-teacher rhetoric of our day gave his use of that expression a moment’s thought. He just accepts it as true, as many accept that illegal immigrants are ruining our country and that the recently enacted health care legislation is socialism. We may well be getting strangled, but not by teacher union work rules. The bracing breath of honest, intelligent discussion is being choked off by this kind of stupid talk.

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Cuomo Submits Tea Party Budget

The budget cutting craze that has overtaken our country forces us to consider the kind of society we wish to be. Governor Cuomo’s proposed state budget is but the latest provocation to that kind of thinking.
The Cuomo budget cuts state aid to education by a whopping 7.3%, which happens to be the largest ever proposed cut. Very interestingly, the per pupil payments school districts are obliged to pay to charter schools in their districts are not cut.
New York’s superior public colleges, universities and community colleges take it on the chin in the governor’s budget. Cuomo proposes to cut SUNY campuses by $100 million which equates to a cut of approximately 10% from last year. City University is cut some $70 million which also equates to about a 10% reduction. Community colleges are cut $46 million. These cuts will either cause tuition increases or program cuts, both having a profound impact on poor and middle class students who rely on the state, city and community college higher education systems.
Then there are the hospital cuts. $154 million is cut from SUNY teaching hospitals. Finally, a $2.8 billion Medicaid cut will impact on services to the poorest among us with hospitals treating Medicaid patients being hit in ways that are to be recommended by a commission appointed by the governor.
Governor Cuomo proposes all of these cuts that impact the young, the poor and the vulnerable as he proposes to let the 2% state tax surcharge on those earning in excess of $200,000 expire and proposes no new taxes to close the budget deficit. No wonder the New York branch of the Tea Party is supporting him. No wonder today’s New York Times editorial criticized his proposed budget saying, “But Mr. Cuomo’s refusal to consider any new taxes, or even extend a surcharge on the state’s highest earners, means that his budget — his first — is harsher than it needs to be with the heaviest burden borne by some of the most vulnerable citizens. We are particularly concerned about his deep cuts in education spending, which will reinforce the deep gap between poor and wealthy school districts.” Is Andrew Cuomo’s vision of New York the state we want?

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Thinking About The Good Teacher

I’ve never understood the certitude with which ed school graduates and todays’ ed pundits talk about the qualities of a good teacher and things like “best practice.” As someone who never took more than six points of education classes before I began to teach, and one of those I attended only the mid-term and the final, so many of these discussions seem to center around dogmatic views of appropriate methodologies for teaching students skills and so little on the imparting of knowledge to them. Whenever I think of this subject, I think of Professor Paul Siegel, whose teaching methodology was barely existent – a teacher who entered the room, began to pace, eyes on the floor, spoke in a monotone punctuated with “uh, uh, uh” and who filled every hour with more insight and information about Shakespearean tragedy and comedy than any five other professors I ever had. I was prompted to think about this subject reading a column and blog by a teacher in Great Britain who seems to understand teaching the way I do. Follow her for a while. I think she has much to say. Here’s a little quote to whet your interest. “…the best teachers do their own thing behind closed classroom doors. They do precisely what they are told not to do and dare to teach knowledge instead of skills, dare to stand in front of the class ‘teaching’ for more than five minutes, and don’t insist on their children copying down an objective for the lesson. Then, when they are observed, they put on an act to satisfy the Ofsted criteria, and live to teach another day.” It’s also interesting to see how the issues in the U.K. and the U.S. are pretty much the same.

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Craven Senate Passes Tax Cap

45 New York State senators passed a property tax cap yesterday that this morning’s New York Times, hardly a friend of teacher unions, called “…a bad bill that promotes an bad idea.” This bill is so potentially damaging to school districts that the normally tepid Times boldly encourages Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to kill the bill, something he can and should do.

We require a statesman to lead New York through its fiscal problems. Governor Cuomo is quickly showing that he is not up to the task. The Speaker should propose real property tax relief, a system that ties a taxpayer’s responsibility to contribute to the common welfare of the people of the state to one’s ability to pay. Anything short of that is unjust and unworthy of the Empire State.

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