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 May, 2011

History and Hope

Take a few minutes and read this commencement address by Linda Darling-Hammond. It is as eloquent an indictment of the testocracy calling the shots in public education as I have read. Read it, and share it with every dispirited teacher you know. It offers history and hope.

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Misapprehending Our Task

I attended a meeting of local teacher union leaders on Wednesday that was notable for a discussion that took place growing out of the universal angst at the attacks public employees, and especially teachers, are absorbing. Several speakers spoke of their concern that their own members didn’t understand what is at stake if the legislature passes a 2% property tax cap with others advocating an urgent education campaign for both our NYSUT membership and the public. Teachers just always want to believe that they can educate their way out of a problem. While that is perhaps possible over time, and I have my doubts, by the time we educate the public to the long-term destructive effects of a tax cap, the cap will have been in place for years, and we will be talking about how we educate the public to what has become of their public schools. Does anyone seriously think that the turning of the public against us is the outgrowth of an educative process by our enemies?

Our enemies have fashioned a campaign designed to play to the guts of the citizenry. Where other workers don’t have pensions and benefits, they play to their envy. In a country that doesn’t ask why everyone doesn’t have retirement security and health benefits, our enemies stoke the passions of those with less than we have and offer them not an improvement in their own lot but the hope that we can be reduced to their condition. While most of us teach in schools that do a satisfactory to outstanding job for our students, those against us pony up the dollars for propaganda vehicles like Waiting for Superman, creating the impression that most of America’s children attend failing schools staffed by grossly overpaid, benefit rich people who don’t give a damn about their students. Day in and day out, media-manipulating politicians like our Governor Cuomo maintain that we are 39th in the nation in student results but at the top of the scale of costs per pupil. That Cuomo’s statements are completely without factual foundation is of no matter. His message discipline combined with a multi-million dollar real estate industry bankroll pounds his message into the psyche of the people stoking their anger.

No, I don’t believe for a minute we can teach our way out of this onslaught. We need to develop messages that resonate viscerally with people, even if doing so challenges our deepest beliefs. If I had the money and power, I would by Drew Westen’s book The Political Brain and demand that it is read by every union leader, particularly teacher union leaders. Westen offers a bio-psychological understanding of how the brain reacts to political stimuli. It’s a must read for any political activist. To those who respond that the ends don’t justify the means I’m advocating, I remind them of what the great organizer Saul Alinsky said in response to similar criticism. He suggested that those who get bogged down in debates about whether the ends justify the means “…usually wind up on their end without any means.” I can do no better than that.

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What Have We Come To?

If we needed additional evidence that the bonds that tie us together as a people are fraying, I point you to this article a Plainview parent brought to my attention. While I naively thought that Plainview-Old Bethpage was unusual in that our Board of Education has been looking increasingly at charging families for things like field trips, it turns out that our Board is just on the fringe of a national movement to charge for school services deemed to be too costly to be paid for with tax dollars. This trend springs from the anti-tax spirit gripping our nation, a spirit that says in effect that we no longer want to pay for any services that we cannot personally consume. So screw the neighbor’s kid who wants to take AP classes. I don’t have any children in school and don’t want to pay taxes to support other people’s children. I want to pay less property tax. I really don’t care who gets hurt by the revenue shortfall of a property tax cap. It seems to me that a society that increasingly shrinks from its responsibilities to its members is doomed to become a Hobbesian home of the war of each against all.

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What Next?

Last evening’s school board meeting that went until after 11 P.M. could provide issues for this blog until at least the end of the school year. On my way home from the meeting I was sure I would be writing about the “dream team” of pupil personnel administrators who received tenure last night. A little later I thought I would take on the discussion of the middle school advisory program or the outrageous discussion of evening conferences without any understanding of the collective bargaining history of this issue. Yet, upon reflection it was a proposal from the blue that 10th graders betaken out of school for 5 days during mid-term examinations to visit a group of colleges, picked by whom no one ventured to say. Added to the proposal was something we’ve been hearing more and more when the subject of school trips arises – some or all of the costs of this journey could be gotten from fundraising of some kind.

For public schools that are already overburdened with responsibilities formerly borne by students and their parents, why do we now sense a responsibility to escort them on a college tour traditionally made by parents in the junior or early senior year? How does that contribute to our core mission which is the provide students with the opportunity develop the skills and knowledge to prepare them for whatever they choose to do after they leave us? What sense does it make to pull kids out of school, necessitating special arrangements for completing their mid-year exams under appropriate conditions? What will we do when a group of parents comes forward and says they don’t like the colleges we have picked? They wish their children to go to see schools in a different part of the country. What do we say to citizens like me who are repulsed by the idea of fundraising to provide school opportunities deemed to be important? If we decide to put some of the financial burden of the trip on to the parents, what of the families that can’t afford to go? What of the parents who don’t necessarily want 10th grade students hanging out on university campuses even if there are school chaperones around? What are most 10th graders doing thinking about college anyway? Why do we seem so determined to wish their youth away?

That such a trip will be popular is some quarters, I have no doubt. One could already see the line forming behind the bandwagon. However, that it was foolish to put forth such a proposal without considering the many questions it raises is but the latest example of how public education continues to often lose its way.

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What Bill Gates is Really Up To

Whenever a politically left-leaning commentator like me attacks a corporate mogul, I’m met with a knee-jerk response which just about accuses me of being a treasonous Soviet Union fellow traveler and an enemy of the nation. Some of my union colleagues were appalled at my anger at AFT President Randi Weingarten for her foolish invitation to Bill Gates to speak on teacher evaluation at our last convention, the same Bill Gates who is financing the war on public school teachers and their unions. Sam Dillon in Sunday’s New York Times gave my critique of Gates and his rich friends a jolt of credibility. In fact, Dillon’s work suggests that I’ve been letting Billy Boy off much too lightly.

It turns out that the Gates Foundation through which Billy Boy does most of his mischief is no longer content with education philanthropy. His focus is morphing into the shaping of education policy in clandestine ways. Who knew, for example, that the young teachers who testified before Indiana legislators against the seniority system were members of an outfit called Teach Plus, an advocacy group substantially financed by the Gates Foundation? This is a must-read article. No one who absorbs what it has to say will sit politely at a union meeting at which Bill Gates is invited to speak

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Teaching As Protest

I did a retirement workshop for our union’s members a few weeks ago and was surprised to have more than twice the attendance of previous years. A few weeks later, about twice the number of teachers who retire in a typical year put in their papers. I suspect we will see a few more before the school year is over. I’ve enquired of some of them who strike me as much too young to retire why they decided to end their careers so early. Common to all of the responses I received is the perception that they are no longer teachers as they understand that term. They appear to feel unable to follow the curiosity of their students, increasingly bound by an unrelenting pressure to cram for the state assessments. Joy in their work is evaporating, and they seem determined to leave while they can still remember a time when their classes were about learning. Thinking about the premature departure of some of our very best teachers has moved me to preach a new sermon. I’m increasingly telling teachers to close their doors, put test prep and canned programs out of their minds and teach. Imagine if every teacher in the state of New York said, “Screw what the state is asking me to do. I’m going to teach my kids the best way I know how.” Maybe, that’s it. We protest the abject stupidity of current educational policy by teaching. I love it! Ironically, I believe students given education focused beyond the limited scope of the state tests would do better on the tests.

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In our district’s just completed election for school board, the insurgent candidate had as one of the three themes of his campaign accountability. In doing so, he attempted to tie into a politically propagated misconception that is central to the anti-public education narrative. The public perception has been created that teachers and other public employees go to work and essentially do what they want with no one holding them accountable for their performance. Some union leaders have furthered the penetration of this narrative by attempting to accommodate some of the numbers based accountability schemes pushed by the political right. Yet, anyone who has spent any time teaching in public schools knows that, if anything, teachers are over scrutinized. Observed at least twice a year, more if one is deemed to be in need of increased supervision or a beginner, investigated as a result of as little as one phone call from an angry parent that alleges some wrong doing, lesson plans reviewed, exam results compared, a whole bureaucracy built essentially to evaluate them, it is simply crazy to say that teachers have not been unaccountable until now. No, we’ve always been accountable. We’ve had no shortage of bosses over-seeing our work. Formally and invalidly adding student test scores to the process will make us no more accountable. As Regent Tilles observed recently, “… using the student results of New York’s standardized tests to evaluate teachers is not an acceptable measure. A snapshot indicator of a student’s skills, understanding and knowledge of content do not give a true picture of a teacher’s performance. And our present state tests, and the way they are scaled, are not designed to measure growth from year to year. We are years away from actually having in place valid state tests designed to measure growth.” We’ve had more than enough accountability. What we’ve almost always been lacking is leadership.

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Long Island Public Supports Its Schools

The Newsday rag bellows that the public wants a property tax cap. Long Island’s Republican state senators bombard their constituents with snail and email informing citizens of their unwavering support for the cap. Yet, yesterday of the almost 100 school districts on the Island, only 5 district budgets failed. In many of these districts, taxpayers voted for increases greater that the 2 percent the proposed tax cap would establish. What are we to understand ?

Clearly, if you ask citizens if they would like their property taxes lowered or capped, the vast majority say yes. Who wouldn’t? But, when you ask them in the form of a budget to support their local schools, they rarely fail to do so, and, when they do, there are usually issues other than taxes involved. In Plainview- Old Bethpage and some other districts, they even pass their budgets with large enough majorities to over-ride the proposed 2 percent tax cap. The public knows that it is inherently unfair to finance public education on the property tax as we currently know it. In our tax system, two people owning the same model house but having widely divergent incomes contribute the same amount to the support of the schools. That’s why when you ask them if they would support property tax relief in the form of a circuit-breaker tax cap, one that would have people pay in accordance with their income, a vast majority respond favorably to the fairness of this concept. Talk to our Republican state senators though, and they uniformly reject the concept. Do you suppose it’s because the people of means who would have to pay more under a circuit-breaker tax cap contribute heavily to Republican senatorial campaigns?

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Another Commissioner

Deputy Education Commissioner John King has been elevated by a unanimous vote of the Regents to become New York’s Commissioner of Education. While I don’t know much about the man, his reported qualifications for the job are, to say the least, disquieting. Dr. King taught for a grand total of three years, two of them in a charter school. He went on to found Roxbury Prep and charter school in Massachusetts. What do you suspect are the odds that this man understands what is happening at the frontlines of public education? Can we expect him to understand the disheartening effect of so-called accountability talk on the morale of teachers who increasingly are being robbed of their craft by the data-driven dunces of the education establishment? Can we expect him to be a passionate voice supporting efforts to address the social ills that plague the children in our poorest performing schools? Can we hope that he is capable of thinking more deeply about our schools than conceptualizing their work as a race to an unknowable destination? What in his three years as a teacher prepares him to understand the dark world of today’s public schools?

On another note, if you are reading this in New York, make sure you go out and support your local schools today. Support your district’s budget, and support candidates for board of education who make clear that they want their schools to be more than institutions that prepare students to pass standardized tests.

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A Modest Proposal

Governor Cuomo, I have a modest proposal for you and all of the other silly people who would have us believe that the solution to better educating the state’s children is a tougher teacher evaluation system, one tied to standardized tests. I’m so sick of hearing this patent nonsense that I suggest that we do the following.

Let’s base the evaluation of New York’s teachers entirely on state assessments. Let’s then eliminate at least half of school administrative staff that has historically spent much of its time supervising and evaluation teachers. Let’s take the money saved and put it towards the purchase the best test-prep materials we can find, preferably ones that are computer based so as to infuse technology into our test-prep program. Let’s also use some of this money to offer test-prep classes before and after school, maybe even some evening sessions. Those building administrators who remain will be charged with seeing to it that children are on task for every minute of the instructional day, on task being defined as preparing for the state assessments. Let’s stop the slow slide away from providing education and let’s become the test-prep institutions the Governor and Regents want us to be as quickly as we can. Let’s finally be accountable.

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The Protest Grows

Today, at 2:30 P.M., I will be joining other pro-education activists in picketing the offices of New York State Senator Kemp Hannon at 595 Stewart Avenue in Garden City. This will be the second Friday in a row on which we have picketed a state representative who supports a property tax cap and is against extension of the millionaires’ tax. It is the beginning of a developing political strategy for fighting back at the enemies of public education who are hell-bent at starving it to death while criticizing fit or its lack of success. Last week we visited Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Education Committee Chair John Flanagan. We are determined to show these so-called leaders that we are determined to deliver a political cost to them for their support of these highly regressive measures. Most of the people who will join today’s protest are for providing property tax relief to people who legitimately need it. I join these folks in supporting a circuit-breaker tax cap that ties relief to one’s ability to pay. Readers, you need to lend your voice to this campaign to save quality public education. Get in touch with your representatives. Let them know that you want fair property tax relief. Demand that they support the circuit-breaker approach.

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Let Them Play!

I’ve been writing off and on for years about my concern that we are increasingly subjecting very young children to inappropriate academic work and neglecting their need to be engaged in play and the exercise of their imaginations. In doing so we ironically arrest their academic development and teach them to dislike school. This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is the latest thing I’ve read that convinces me of my view.

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No Courage in Albany

I’ve just returned from Albany where I was proud to participate in a candle-light vigil against the state budget cuts that will mean the layoff of 15,000 teachers and other support professionals in New York. It was wonderful see the spirit of union activists from across the state demanding that their elected leaders meet their duty to support public education.

What were far less heartening were the meetings I attended with some members of the legislature. Despite the fact that there is no evidence that the people currently paying the so-called “millionaires tax” would move if the tax were continued, the Republican senators are clearly bound and determined to rob the citizens of this state of the 5 to 6 billion dollars it would produce next year if it were kept on the books. These senators along with the Governor have concocted a toxic fiscal brew of reducing taxes on the rich and cutting state support for public education. To that brew they then add support for a property tax cap which can only cause the decline in the quality of our schools. What was most disheartening, however, was to see quite clearly that even those in the Assembly who are against a property tax cap and who know the devastating impact it will have are deathly afraid that it will come to the floor for a vote. They clearly aren’t sure that they will have the courage to vote against it. Neither am I. Such is the progressive leadership vacuum in Albany.

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Teachers Lead Push Back

Friday, May 6 was a great day. The PCT 50th anniversary celebration was behind us, and from all reports the party was a huge success. Friday was also the day that a coalition of NYSUT members and parents began to fight back against a New York State Senate leadership that supports tax cuts for millionaires and a property tax cap that if enacted will destroy our public schools. In Suffolk County, over 150 pickets rallied outside of Senate Education Committee Chair John Flanagan’s office to kick off an extended political action drive to educate New Yorkers to the failure of their elected representatives to serve the interests of the state’s middle and working classes. In Nassau, over 50 pickets assembled outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos. These demonstrations were remarkable in that they were put together literally in a matter of a few days. There is much more in to come, I’m happy to report.

I’m off this morning to Albany to lobby our elected representatives on these and other issues. I’m looking forward to seeing their response to the beginning of our efforts to push back their attack on working people and their children.

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Cuomo’s Mandate Relief Committee Report

Governor Cuomo’s panel to study mandate relief has made its report, and its suggestions bode nothing good for future employees of New York and its public schools. In fact, the state having just recently enacted a Tier 5 for teacher and public employee pension plans, to even be talking about a Tier 6 speaks nothing but complete contempt for public employees. But that’s exactly what the panel recommends. There is no thought in the document about fairness to employees. There is no consideration of the ability of people to work the additional time they want to require. The document simply talks about saving money, often in the most specious terms. For example, this outrageous document makes claims like the employer contribution rate to the teacher retirement has increase twenty times since 2001, omitting the fact that before the recent financial crisis the employer contribution rate was less than one percent. But read the section on Tier 6 for yourself. Or, read the whole document and see if you think we want to relieve all of the mandates addressed. Remember, mandates are often put in place to protect people and groups.

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Rob Them Blind and Pat Them on the Head

Our school district has attempted to launch a program wherein employees nominate other employees for recognition for contributing to a positive school climate. I’ve made no bones about my contempt for such approaches. To my mind they invariably yield two classes of employees – the good guys and the bad guys, or a least that’s the appearance that is created. Such programs are also often a substitute for serious attempts to improve workplace climate, things like empowering employees to shape their working conditions and demonstrating real regard for them as human beings. A video featuring the now infamous Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin brought this subject to mind again. In it this unmitigated lying scumbag of a politician, a man who prides himself on robbing workers of their collective bargaining rights, launches his own program to pat the heads of the state employees who now must work harder and provide better service even though their pay and benefits have been severely reduced. The video makes my point about such programs better than I ever could. See for yourself.

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