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 March, 2011

The Revival of Direct Action

Three cheers for the protesters who occupied the capitol in Albany last night as the legislature went about the business of ripping off the working people of New York. From Wisconsin to Ohio, from Indiana to New York, working people are starting to do what must be done when democracy fails – take to the streets in direct protest of the actions of their government. Happily, America’s labor unions are starting to remember that their welfare can never be completely tied to electoral politics, that they must sometimes take direct action. Our own NYSUT has been aroused from its torpor and has played a crucial role in organizing coalitions to protest against what Governor Cuomo and the legislature are doing to our state. Rather than sit back and accept the giveaway of tax dollars to millionaires and the cut of vitally needed programs for the working people of the state, a giant rally will take place in Times Square on Saturday, April 9. The rally will begin around noon, with several thousand delegates from the NYSUT convention walking from their meeting to the demonstration to be joined by their brothers and sisters from unions across the state and unaffiliated working people who have had enough and are starting to fight back. I urge all who are fed up with the mal-distribution of wealth and income in this country, all who are tired of the assault on the middle class, all who are sick an tired of elected representatives who support millionaires over working families – I urge you all to meet me there.

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No Money for Teachers? Buy More Computers

Crying crocodile tears over the projected loss of state aid and the need to lay off 6100 teachers, the Bloomberg administration is nevertheless going forward with an expenditure of $542 million for infrastructure installations necessary to support computerized instruction. For all of the talk about the need to have “research based programs” and “data driven instruction,” you would think proponents of the substitution of computers for teachers would produce the evidence for its efficacy. The reality is that what credible research exists supports the exactly opposite view. But that won’t matter, the leaders of our high tech companies have infiltrated the educational policy making process to the point where one risks becoming the enemy of the people to suggest that education is essentially a social process, and as such still requires people not machines and software. Think of what $542 million worth of people might have done for New York City’s children. What an outrage to essentially waste so much money. In the end, teachers will be blamed again for stupid policy decisions like this one.

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Findings From The International Summit on Teaching

A week or so ago, the U.S. Department of Education sponsored an International Summit on the Teaching Profession. Representatives from sixteen countries came together to discuss the state of teaching world-wide. A few interesting themes were reported to have come out of the meeting, themes which I strongly suspect we will not hear Secretary Duncan talking much about as we go forward. First of all, countries with high performing schools are very selective about whom they allow into the teaching profession. They actively recruit top performing students who are attracted to work under real professional conditions. On average, teachers in these countries get about fifteen hours per week to confer with colleagues, observe other teachers and participate in learning activities of their own. They don’t suffer from the isolation common to too many American teachers. The best and brightest are attracted to teaching by salaries that are on a par with engineers, medical doctors and other professionals. And yes, they all belong to unions. While reports from the meeting don’t mention it, I’m reasonably sure the political leaders of these countries don’t try to blame the economic ills of their nations on teachers and other public employees. They don’t depict them as greedy and don’t look to reduce their economic status. Unlike in our country, they are treated with dignity and status.

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The Angry Governor Gets His Way

New York’s Assembly Speaker, the Majority Leader and our Angry Governor have agreed on a budget deal that gives a huge tax break to the wealthiest New Yorkers on top of the tax break they recently received from the federal government. While the state’s leaders did restore about $271 million to public education, that still leave the young people of the state with $1.2 billion less than they should have minimally had. In too many districts, teachers will suffer layoff, class size will increase, art and music will be cut and school library staff wiped out. Once again, despite a court settlement to provide a constitutionally required basic education, the Empire State will fail its children and its citizens in the name of a totally false austerity. It is essential that the coalitions that formed to oppose these disastrous cuts stay together to begin to build the movement to give the boys that brought us this deal “something to remember when we meet them at the polls some cold November.”

On a related note, in case you missed 60 Minutes last night, here’ s a piece they did about corporate greed and a total lack of concern for the welfare of our nation

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A Couple of Things

It did my old heart good to see the fabulous turn-out of thousands at the Educate New York rally at Hofstra University last night. Teachers, administrators, board members, parents, grand-parents, political activists all came to an evening demonstration to lend their support for public education and voice their strong disapproval for Governor Cumo’s budget approach of cutting aid to education while giving the rich a tax break. I was proud to see the large number of PCT members in attendance.

Speaking of tax breaks, the Times has a wonderful article this morning on how the General Electric Company and other corporations dodge their fair share of the taxes necessary to run our government. It’s a very timely piece in that there appears to be a bi-partisan consensus emerging that the United States need to reduce its corporate tax rate. Read this article, and you will close your ears to this argument quickly. Companies like GE have huge tax avoidance departments which are seen as profit centers.

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Bits and Pieces

Some bits and pieces today.

I hope to see supporters of public education tonight at the Educate New York rally at Hofstra University’s Fitness Center, located at 900 Fulton Avenue in Hempstead. I just heard that some Republican state senators are beginning to waver in their support for the governor’s budget and are moving towards keeping some version of the income tax surcharge on the wealthiest New Yorkers. It is rallies through out the state like the one tonight that are beginning to move our elected officials.

If you are interested in seeing graphically how the working people of New York are getting ripped off by the current tax structure of the state, take a look at this presentation by New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness. If you look at it, I assure you you’ll be hopping mad at the longstanding subsidizing of the rich that New York’s tax policy promotes.

The Plainview-Old Bethpage grapevine has it that my blog post on school climate has touched the guilty nerves of some of the very administrators I had in mind when I wrote the piece. Word has it that they are trying to organize an administration boycott of the PCT’s 50th anniversary celebration. That’s exactly the kind of leadership I’ve always criticized. More clever administrators, even the ones the piece alluded to, would attend the party, telling everyone, “He couldn’t possibly have been talking about me. I’m not a bully.”

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In Defense of Superintendents

Hold on! Believe it or not, I’m about to defend superintendents’ salaries from the demagogic attack launched against them by Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo, whose unquenchable thirst for power would motivate him to perform the duties of governor for free, would have New York’s school superintendents earn no more than $177,000 per year, Cuomo’s current rate of pay. The angry governor’s call to the state’s angry citizens caused 179 citizens of the Blue Point School District to petition their board of education to apply the Cuomo cap to their superintendent’s salary. Hold on again. Congratulations to the Blue Point Board of Education for having the courage to stand up to the petty, mean spirited, envious signers of that petition. No one has been more critical of the ineptitude that permeates the ranks of school district central offices than I, but their salaries have nothing to do with my critique. These days, people seem to want to compare everything in the public sector to its private counterparts. When we do that with superintendents’ salaries, it seems to me superintendents of typical suburban districts who are responsible for budgets of over $100,000,000, who supervise upwards of 1000 employees, whose jobs today require at least several very late evenings per week, whose average longevity in a district is something on the order of 4 years – it seems to me we would have to say that comparable work in the private sector customarily pays more. This is but the latest Cuomo sound bite, sound bites that his private media slush fund is pumping out literally minute after minute stirring the anti-tax pot for the governor’s political aspirations.

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School Climate

I’ve always thought that the organization of public schools contributes to the infantilizing of both the students and the adults who teach them. The latest example of the escape from adulthood in our schools came my way yesterday when the Plainview-Old Bethpage school administration’s School Climate Committee put out a form asking staff to nominate people who have contributed to a positive school climate. What a wonderful irony. It took me but a few minutes to learn that some of the members of this anonymous committee are the very people who contribute the most to the poor climate of the district, people who are essentially incompetent, thoroughly lacking in leadership skills – people who cover their inadequacies by pushing those they supervise around instead of leading them. These same people now get to pass judgment on who makes a positive contribution to school climate. Putting aside for a moment the childishness of this administrative response to a serious issue, isn’t kind of like asking Hitler to interpret the Torah? A more adult response to the issue of school climate would have been to assemble representatives of the unions representing staff and set them to work on addressing the things that militate against a better school climate. Such an approach would force us to adultly face difficult issues and differences among us. I guess it’s much easier and neater for an anonymous committee to bestow some token praise on an individual from time to time and tell ourselves that we’re improving school climate.

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Our Angry Governor Will Be More Angry Today

As more and more people oppose Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget cuts to public education, his tone grows angrier and angrier and his playing with the truth more careless. He’s bound to be in an absolute rage after Sunday’s editorial in the New York Times excoriated him for his unwillingness to support the extension of the income tax surcharge on those with taxable incomes of over $200,000 for individuals and $300,000 for joint filers. The Governor’s position the Times stated would be silly if the problem of the budget cuts falling disproportionately on those who can lest bear them were not so serious. Rather than muster the political courage to face the fact revenue increases must be a part of the solution to New York’s budget problems, the governor prefers to cling to the illusion that school districts are sitting on plenty of money in reserve to cover the projected loss in state aid. Where districts get the money next year to pay for programs and services financed from what will then be depleted reserves, our angry governor doesn’t say. It’s this approach to budgeting that is partly responsible for the state’s budget problems – one shot revenue gimmicks. Is it possible that he doesn’t understand the foolishness of his position?

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How Stupid Are We Going To Be?

The Connecticut legislature, like many, is looking at changing the way teachers are evaluated, tying evaluations to the performance of a teacher’s students. There is a parallel move to use this performance model to attack the seniority system whereby in times when there are layoffs the least senior teacher in a subject area goes first. There’s unfortunately nothing new here. The drive to change teacher evaluations by people who know nothing about teaching continues unabated. What is deeply disturbing here, if the report in Hartford Currant is correct, is that the AFT affiliate is supporting the measure while the NEA affiliate is staunchly opposing it. This is but the latest example of a suicidal streak in the education labor movement. The enemies of public education are united. The haters of unions are united, but we continue to have two national education unions sparring over what are life and death issues to public education. Do we have to wait until there is almost nothing left of our movement to form one united education union in this country? Must we continue the internecine struggles that have done nothing but weaken us? How stupid are we going to be?

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Some Perspective on Teacher Salaries

Everyone appears to be bent out of shape by the salaries and benefits public school teachers receive, especially in affluent suburban settling like Plainview-Old Bethpage. Here on Long Island salaries for teachers with fifteen to twenty years on the job customarily exceed one $100,000, a sum that irks many taxpayers who can’t bear to think of women working ten months a year making such munificent sums. Their most intense venom is saved for the teacher unions and their leaders whom they feel have ravaged their communities. Were it possible to have a rational discussion of teacher compensation, however, people might be able to arrive at a very different perspective.

I recently discovered a wonderful gadget on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website that enables us to covert the buying power of a sum in any given year into the dollars of another year. I recently used this gadget to look at the current teacher salary schedule in Plainview in 1968 dollars. When you do that, the $116,237 currently paid to a teacher with Masters Degrees plus 60 additional graduate credits in 1968 dollars is $18,278. The actual salary paid in 1968 was $13,950. Thus, 43 years of collective bargaining have produced an increase in 1968 dollars of $4,328. While a significant sum of money, that’s hardly the rip-off that political con-merchants are trying to sell the American people. We surely are better off economically today, but hardly as well of as our enemies paint us. Should one have to suffer economically to be a respected teacher in America?

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Raise the Status of Teachers

Today’s Times reports on a study done by Andreas Schleicher, the head of the organization that conducts the international PISA examinations of the world’s fifteen year olds. It concludes that central to our country’s effort to improve its schools should be raising the status of teachers in out society. To improve their status, the report recommends recruiting higher performing college graduates, putting more effort into training them and paying them better.

This report comes in the midst of an attack on teachers by many of the public who have been riled up by our elected officials and the high-rollers who fund their anti-public employee media campaigns. The call to raise the status of teachers made me laugh. Fifty years ago, when ten brave elementary teachers got together and formed a local teacher union in Plainview-Old Bethpage they had a button made to identify themselves as union. It read, “Dignity & Status.” That’s what they were forming their union to achieve. They now exist in a society that resents any economic progress they have made and the working conditions their contracts provide, conditions that have increasingly lured people from other professions to our ranks. Raise the status of teachers? It will take more than this report to accomplish that. Teachers unfortunately will have to fight through their unions to retain and extend their status. That’s what had to be done fifty years ago. That’s what will have to be done today and in the future. The report is fine, but few of our political leaders from the president on down can resist trying to make us the enemy of the people.

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A Teachable Moment

As of this morning, Governor Cuomo has proposed cutting 1.5 billion for the education budget, the state senate and assembly while cutting less still short change the public schools and neither the governor nor the senate are behind extension of the so-called millionaire’s tax set to expire shortly. That’s why Long Islanders interested in preserving quality public education will be rallying at the Fitness Center of Hofstra University on Thursday, March 24, 2011 at 6:00 P.M. A coalition of union activists, parents, board of education members and citizens who understand the importance of public education to our democracy will demonstrate with their presence that our elected leaders have no mandate to rob the public schools of the resources they need. I’m sure each of my readers has other things to do on that evening. I’m equally sure, however, that those who are moved by my thoughts to come back to this blog repeatedly will find it impossible to stay away and let others shoulder their responsibility. Have kids to care for. Bring them along. Seize the teachable moment that evening presents for your children to see democracy in action.

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Aunt Doris Knows

My Aunt Doris will be 99 on Saturday. She has been a single lady all her life, having earned her own way in the world by working 40 or so years for the now defunct Gimbels department store. While some days she can’t remember at lunch time what she had for breakfast, ask her about the local union she belonged to and how it changed the life of its members and her memories flow vividly and precisely. Whenever I visit, she always gets around to asking me about what’s happening in my union and the work I do on its behalf. On my Sunday visit I told her about the attacks on teacher seniority. An incredulous look came over her face and she said, “You mean if there have to be layoffs the boss gets to pick who goes?”
“Yes,” I said. “That’s what people like Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo are saying.”
“If that happens,” she said, “You better retire. You won’t have a union anymore.”

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Is Billy-Boy Stretching the Truth?

The evidence that Bill Gates’ interest in public education is not as altruistic as he would have us understand continues to mount. Central to his very disciplined message is that we keep spending more money on our public schools and have no results to show for it and that if we just had some suitable metric to determine who the many bad teachers are, we could significantly improve our educational outcomes. In a brilliant blog post, Richard Rothstein challenges the veracity of Gates’ mantra. It’s a must read.

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The Dirty Deed

The dirty deed is done. In the dead of night, in a matter of minutes, eighteen Republican senators in Wisconsin took a giant step towards wiping out one of the nation’s first collective bargaining laws for public employees. The state assembly which also has a Republican majority and which passed an earlier version of the bill seems certain to pass the new one. One thing became immediately clear from the changes to the bill that allowed it to be considered with less than a quorum. By stripping out those facets of it that were related to the state’s finances, Governor Walker and his senate stooges made it clear for all to see that this was never about Wisconsin’s budget deficit and always about weakening the labor movement which has tended to support Democrats. The challenge to the unions now is to develop a sustainable strategy to turn back this scurrilous attack on the rights of working people to collectively have a say in determining their working conditions. Polls appear to indicate that the public is against robbing public workers of their right to bargain. Part of that strategy must be the organization of workplace militancy up to and including strikes, something which too many unions took off the table long ago, counting on political action to completely take its place. That strategy must also include organizing every breathing worker, both public and private. We must finally find the way to talk to the needs of white-collar office workers. We need to show them how if they will come together with us, they can have pensions and benefits too, that those things should be considered a right, that all people need healthcare and the possibility of retirement with dignity. I’m not sure I know why, but I’m strangely hopeful that the great awakening of the American worker may have begun in Wisconsin.

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Education May Not Equal Jobs

From the dawn of the industrial revolution, people speculated that the day would come when humans would live lives of leisure and plenty supported by the output of their technological inventions. Paul Krugman’s March 7 column reminds us of the progress we have made toward that dream and how it is quickly turning to a nightmare unless we take some fundamental decisions about the direction of our society. Krugman’s thesis is that the promise that a higher education automatically means well paying middle class jobs is becoming a fiction, as technology and globalization increasingly wipe out many goods jobs that can now be either mechanized or sent off shore. If Krugman is correct, and he has convinced me, then we need to take steps to share our national prosperity. What we must additionally do, which he doesn’t address, is rethink the corporatist reform of public education being financed by Bill Gates and his like that is predicated on the connection between education and work. What we need to think seriously about is what an education really should be about. Perhaps we could come to see that it should be about much more than passing basic skills tests.

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International Women’s Day

In honor of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d talk about something that has been fighting for my attention for some time. While all public employees have been subjected to an unrelenting attack from the small government crowd, teachers have been the recipients of the most toxic venom. What is it about us I’ve wondered that makes us the targets of choice of people as diverse as Andrew Cuomo and Glen Beck?

I’m sure some of it stems from the fact that most people appear to harbor an incandescent hatred for some teacher who is perceived to have wronged them in some profound way that can’t be forgotten. Yet, that can’t possibly explain what we are seeing. I suspect that much of the anti-teacher emotion has been generated by the economic gains they have achieved through collective bargaining over the last fifty years and the fact that approximately seventy-five percent of them are women. They have moved themselves into the middle class as many of their male peers have been driven from it in a society that has witnessed a massive shift of income to the top two percent of earners. It’s no longer uncommon for the male spouse of a teacher to be the lower wage earner in the family and for the teacher to provide the family’s benefit package. These economic facts have touched the misogynist nerves of many. We need to be reminded that while women have made great progress since the first International Women’s Day a hundred years ago, there is much that remains to be accomplished.

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Our National Outrage

Maybe some of the media are finally starting to get it. Those that watched 60 Minutes last evening saw a piece on the growing childhood poverty in the United States, still the wealthiest country in the world. Their parents out of work, their homes lost to foreclosure, Scott Pelley interviewed some of these children living in cheap motels and sometimes their parents’ vans, children who often go to sleep hungry, who study by flashlight, children who watching their parents’ economic suffering makes them feel responsible for their families’ pain, children whose futures are probably permanently diminished because of a complete and total failure of our collective responsibility for their welfare. Twenty-five percent of the richest nation’s children live in poverty. Most such children fall behind in school. Yet, rather than a national focus on this outrage, on this criminal neglect, our focus is on budget cutting, budget cutting of many of the programs that help our neediest citizens. We need to be bombarded with the images and voices of these poor children. We must be confronted by their pain and suffering until our nation is shamed into taking their well being seriously.

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More Political Theater

The New York State Senate has passed a bill doing away with the seniority system for teachers in the City schools. The Assembly, controlled by the Democrats, appears reluctant to take it up. They have not, however, shut the door either. Rather, like Governor Cuomo, their focus appears to be on trying to legislate a teacher evaluation system to be put in place for next school year. Last year’s law tying teacher evaluation to student performance on standardized tests does not get fully implemented until the 2012-13 school year. All of this is part of the war on public employees, with the angriest attacks leveled against teachers. All of this political theater distracts the public from what ought to be the central issue in Albany. How can a rich state be giving tax breaks to its wealthiest citizens and then claim that it is unable to pay for the services its people need?

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