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 April, 2011

Core Standards or Core Testing?

At the last meeting of our Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education, the subject of the common core standards was the subject of an administration presentation after which the Board asked questions and made comments. I strongly suspect that such meetings are taking place across the country in states that have adopted the standards. Intended to line out what students in each grade are expected to know, some of us though the standards would get the focus back on curriculum and off the obsessive preoccupation with standardized testing. If our Board’s discussion is typical, that assumption may turn out to be wishful thinking. So many of the questions and comments directed at the assistant superintendent making the presentation were about the new tests that will come with the common core standards that I was left with a real sense of dread that all the standards will do in the end is over-focus us on some new tests, tests as divorced from the meaningful education of children as the ones we currently have. There is much to discuss about these national standards, but it surely is not the tests tied to them. We ought to begin with a careful analysis of the expectations they contain for very young children. I, for one, am convinced that more direct academic instruction for little kids ultimately yields weaker students rather than better ones and creates for too many children school as a place of failure.

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Bigotry About to Become Law in Tennessee

While the mass media focus on the national political debate about the future of our country, Republicans in control of many of the governorships and state legislatures are waging their own less publicized culture war. While most people are aware of the state attacks on collective bargaining in places like Wisconsin, there has been much less coverage of the attacks on the rights of women to obtain birth control and abortions, much of which seems headed at attempting to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Gay bashing is alive and well too. Take this latest example from Tennessee where a bill dubbed the Don’t Say Gay bill seems headed for enactment. This legislation would prohibit public school teachers from discussing or providing materials on human sexuality that in any way addresses about homosexuality. The sponsor of the bill, state Senator Stacey Campfield, says he wants to stop schools from teaching homosexuality, as though one’s sexual orientation is learned the way one learns geometry. It’s hard to believe that such ignorance and intolerance is comfortably put on public display. When will there come a time when such bigotry will simply be laughed out of the public square?

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What a Superintendent Candidate

I suppose I can understand the Katonah-Lewisboro school district wanting to hire a superintendent who was a very public supporter of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s battle to destroy public employee union in his state. I can still puke to think a board of education in our state would do such a thing, but I’ve been around the block long enough to know that such stupidities happen with some regularity. What’s unfathomable to me is hiring a guy who when asked at a public meeting why he wanted to come to New York said, “I’m upwardly mobile. I’m a wanderer. I want to keep moving forward and advance myself. This is a major challenge.” A wanderer? Huh? Just think about that statement. Its honesty is as staggering as its inappropriateness. Dr. Kreutzer’s answer somehow puts me in mind of a nursing school admissions essay I read as a young graduate student trying to earn an extra buck. In response to the prompt of why she wanted to become a nurse, the young woman wrote, “I always wanted to work at the oldest profession for women.”

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Enough Tests

It’s puzzling to me that upper middle class communities here on Long Island, communities which have had some of the best public schools in the state and nation, are blithely sitting back and watching their schools become test prep mills. I’m so sick of hearing people tell me that we can’t do positive things for students because of some state or federal regulation which subordinates education to preparing for high stakes tests. Where are the school leaders with the nerve to say, “The regulations be damned? Our schools are going back to teaching. Once we do that, the test scores will take care of themselves.” I came across news of what some education notables are trying to put together in the way of building a movement to return schools to teaching. I intend to ask the executive board of my union to endorse the effort. I’d ask all of my readers to think about doing that too.

A Teachable Moment will be off for spring break until Wednesday, April 27, 2011. See you then.

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Behind the Lunatic Agenda for America

If you have been thinking that I’m much to harsh in my criticism of the political right in our country, take a look at this interview with the darling of the right wing libertarians, Texas representative Ron Paul, who is also a physician. That’s of significance in that Paul reveals in the interview that he doesn’t think people have a right to an education or medical care. Those are things that must be earned, he maintains. Would you call this a serious vision for the future of America?

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Euphemism in Our Public Debate

Have you noticed how the mainstream media have cast the national budget battle as a struggle for competing visions of what America should be? Stated that way, it sounds like a noble struggle of committed patriots. In many ways it is like the debate about the Civil War, where too many Americans still cling to the rationalization that it was all about states’ rights. Yeah, it was about states’ rights – the right of states to hold human beings in bondage for economic benefit. The America of Representative Paul Ryan and his party is a land of limited government. It’s a place where no one cares that twenty-five percent of the nation’s children live in poverty. No one cares if some people have no access to quality medical care. No one cares about the degradation of the environment. It’s a place where when scientific discoveries interfere with corporate profit, knowledge is subordinated to economic gain. I’m tempted to call it a Darwinian world of tooth and claw, but it somehow sounds wrong to reach for the adjective Darwinian to describe the world view of people who by and large reject the theory of evolution. There’s nothing I would call vision in the Ryan budget proposal. To discuss the struggle for the soul of the United States that is taking place as a contest of competing visions is to elevate greed from a deadly sin to a virtue. But I forget. People like Paul Ryan did that a long time ago.

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Illinois Negotiates A Bold Reform Plan

Illinois has negotiated a deal with its teacher unions that while containing much to hate is nevertheless the product of people who, unlike those in Wisconsin, were thinking seriously. It preserves the right to strike, although putting in place a process intended to prevent work stoppages. It undermines the existing seniority system, yet provides a mechanism for a fair appeal of unsatisfactory teacher evaluations. It is clearly a reform plan that warrants serious consideration. What do you think?

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Commissioner Steiner’s Departure

New York’s Commissioner of Education David Steiner has announced his resignation. Rumors abound as to the reasons for his unanticipated departure, reasons as divergent as his repugnance at dealing with the politics of Albany to his embarrassing treatment at the hands of the imperious Chancellor, Merryl Tisch. Literally hours after he announced resignation, Steiner was a speaker at last week’s NYSUT convention in New York City. Curiously, he spent his time telling the assembled teacher union leaders how we have to fight back against the scourge of standardized tests that are getting in the way of real education. Say what, Commissioner Steiner? Aren’t you the guy who helped bring the Race To The Top game to New York? Funny, I don’t remember you speaking out against the abject stupidity of spending scarce dollars in a competition that guarantees there will be losers. Funny, Davy boy, did I miss your speech on the absurdity of value added teacher evaluations, evaluations tied to the same standardized tests you now appear to reject? Davy boy, in your months on the job were you held hostage by Ms. Tisch, tortured into making false pronouncements on testing and teacher accountability? Have you now escaped and been re-programmed? What are we supposed to make of you, Davy boy? It’s a shameful legacy you leave, Davy boy.

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New York’s State Senators Can’t Let A Bad Idea Go

It would be hard to think of an action the state legislature could take that would be more catastrophic to the education of public school students in the State of New York than the enactment of a property tax cap. All anyone with the brain of a pea needs to do to understand this reality is to look at what Proposition 13, California’s property tax cap, has done to the public schools of the Golden State. Once the premier public school system in the United States, California is now one of the worst. Starved of resources, it is unable to approach giving its students what ought to be their birth right, a free quality public education. Fresh from their budget cutting triumph that rewarded millionaires at the expense of working people and their children, New York’s state senators are making a major effort to pressure their constituents to in turn hammer their assembly representatives with the need for a tax cap. The Republican senators are proud to proclaim that they are supporting the Democratic Governor. I’ve suggested to local teacher union leadership that we begin to counter their campaign with pickets at their local offices pointing to their love of millionaires and contempt for working people and an urgent outreach to our members and their families to urge the members of the state assembly to stiffen their spines and support fairer alternatives to the property tax cap.

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Minutemen’s Agenda

Labor woke up on Saturday. Thousands assembled in Times Square to protest the war being waged against labor and the working classes of this country. Speakers representing the building trades to university professors challenged the current narrative that suggests that there is a fiscal crisis in the United States that can only be resolved by rolling back the protections of labor unions and the entitlement programs they have championed and depend on. For the moment at least, union leaders had a disciplined message that said that working people will not accept the blame for fighting two wars while giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans. The talk was great. In some cases it was even inspiring. Clearly though, it will take more than a demonstration here and there to move the agenda of working people.

Here’s and idea for the unions in New York. Why don’t we organize a picket line, just a small one, outside the office of each of our state senators who voted against extending the millionaire’s tax? Let’s have some signs that say, “I’m a Minuteman for the Middle Class. Senator ________ supports tax cuts for millionaires and school cuts for your children.”

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A Turning Point NYSUT Convention

I’m off to the convention of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) today. I’m hoping this meeting will be the beginning of a re-energizing of our state union to aggressively fight back against the forces in this state and nation bent on the destruction of public education. I’m encouraged to think that this may be the moment when we take a decisive stand. The fact that leadership has planned a march to a labor rally in Times Square at noon on Saturday is a return to the approach that launched our movement more than fifty years ago. I hope too that the convention will serve to organize our leaders at all levels to the fact that we cannot win the battles before us alone. The battles are about more than schools. The battles are about saving the middle class. Just this morning, I listened to Chairman Ryan and his plan to solve our budget deficit. Central to this Republican proposal is the privatization of Medicare and the turning over of Medicaid to a block grant program, allowing states to then do with it as they wish. No program in the history of our country has moved more people out of poverty than Medicare. No medical insurance program in the private sector has as small an administrative expense as Medicare. Yet, snake oil salesmen like Ryan want to balance the budget by privatizing it. Our 650,000 members will have to be crucial players in pushing back this Republican agenda. We will have to be the Minutemen in an army of Americans who want and deserve a fair share of the wealth and income they produce, who deserve quality healthcare and the right to retire in dignity and ease. I hope this convention has the delegates leaving with important jobs for each of them to do.

A Teachable Moment will be back on Monday, April 11. See you in Times Square at noon on Saturday!

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The Media’s Failure

Readers are familiar with my concern for the significant extent to which the ultra-rich and their foundations have co-opted any serious discussion of education policy by using their power to control the media to constrict the discussion to statistical analyses of outcomes that are measurable by standardized tests. In a carefully written article entitled “Tested: Covering Schools in the Age of Micro-measurement,” Columbia School of Journalism Professor LynNell Hancock reviews the recent history of the triumph of data collection over thought. One can’t read this article, it seems to me, without questioning the media’s failure to expose the high-jacking of the education policy of our country by corporate interests. Give it a read.

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It’s Time To Start Thinking About Militancy

Yesterday, over 300,000 public employees in Ohio became the latest victims of the Republican Party’s determination to wipe out organized opposition to their war on the middle class. The law passed there is in many ways worse than the one recently enacted in Wisconsin. Left only the ability to bargain salaries, Ohio public servants are at the mercy of their employing agency if their salary negotiations reach an impasse. In that case, the employer is free to dictate the terms of the settlement. I wrote yesterday about taking to the streets to fight back. Today I think its time to start organizing a general strike of all working people. Republican militancy must be met in kind. It’s time to take a stand against the tax cutters to the rich, the school reformers who think education is about passing standardized tests, the global warming deniers, the theory of evolution deniers, the women’s rights opponents, the attackers of middle class benefit programs, the corporate tax cheats and exporters of American jobs – its time for working people to save this great nation from the barbarian horde that has descended upon us. I’m beginning to think that it’s time for us to start looking elsewhere for a president to lead us. As Paul Krugman observed in this morning’s Times, President Obama appears to have surrendered.

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