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 June, 2011

Chicago Here I Come

I’m escaping the world of tax caps and state university tuition hikes. I’m bound for the NEA convention. There, the discussions will probably be as irrational but at least different. In Chicago I will add my voice to those who think our national leadership is nuts in wanting to give President Obama and early endorsement. They act like he’s been good for public education. Unless something absolutely demands a blog post, I won’t be back until July 6. I hope you’ll look for me then. Happy 4th of July! It’s a special one to our GBLT friends who are finally getting the same rights in New York as the rest of us.

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War on the Young

There’s an inter-generational war developing in the United States. Wherever one turns, we see attempts provide the young with a lesser social safety net than their parents and grandparents have. The latest outrageous example of this was the announcement this week by the AARP that they were open to a reduction in Social Security benefits for younger workers, even though it is abundantly clear that Social Security can rather easily be maintained and even improved. We presently have stunningly high rates of youth unemployment, with even higher educated youth left to think they were hoodwinked when they were told education was the ticket to a bright future. We have a growing attack on defined benefit pensions, political leader after leaders telling the public that such systems are unsustainable. Here in New York we no sooner passed a 5th and substantially worse tier onto our public pension systems than our Democratic governor suggested a tier 6. Why aren’t the young entitled to retire in dignity? In contract after contract, in both the public and private sectors, we see deals being struck that rob the young to provide for their seniors. The crafters of these deals make impassioned speeches about solidarity as they sign contracts that pit union member against union member.

Somewhere down the road, there will surely be hell to pay for this treatment of the young! There can and will be an American spring too.

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Public Schools Join the Testocracy

Officials of our school district get very testy when I suggest as I often do that we are becoming a test prep school district, our academic program increasingly being driven by the state’s high stakes tests. The latest evidence of the cruel absurdity of this trend is an eighth grade social studies assessment recently administered. Where the state decided for budgetary reasons to drop its eighth grade social studies test, our district along with others similarly uninformed, got together and constructed a “replacement” exam. Apparently, the leadership of all of these districts couldn’t conceive of simply freeing students of even one exam. Last Monday and Tuesday in our district upwards of twenty teachers were replaced by substitutes to grade this examination. We spent thousands for substitute teachers, robbed children of a day of regular instruction to take the test and two additional days when their teachers graded the exam. But we’re not becoming a test prep district. The purpose of public school is rapidly becoming to pass tests and get a job. If that’s its reason for existence, we might just as well turn the whole enterprise over to the corporate world.

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Test Scores and Joblessness

The more I think about the absurdity of in any way substantially linking student scores on standardized tests to teacher performance reviews, the angrier I get, and the more disturbed I am by the rush of so many union colleagues to embrace this foolishness. Today I read a study entitled Children Left Behind: The Effects of Statewide Job Loss on Student Achievement. Here you will find strong evidence that job loss depresses student scores on math and ELA tests. The study also points to the distinct probability that the depressed scores in states with high joblessness are not only confined to the children of unemployed adults. All the scores of all children appear to suffer from high unemployment rates. But by all means, let’s discount this study too and continue down the road of linking teacher evaluations to factors over which they have limited if any control.

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Surprise! Surprise! Surprise! State legislators like our own Kemp Hannon work for law firms whose clients make millions from state contracts. That’s what the front page of today’s New York Times reports. The Times story quotes the managing partner of Hannon’s form as saying, “We like having Kemp because we can at least find out firsthand what is happening in Albany instead of reading it in Newsday.” Sure, and Sarah Palin is an expert on American history.
According to the Times, since 2006 Hannon has funneled $900,000 in earmarks to two dozen non-profits connected in some way to his law firm. This is the same Kemp Hannon who invited me to leave his office recently when I told him that our union would actively oppose him in the future for his support of a property tax cap and expiration of the so-called millionaires’ tax. The senator, whose district runs over into Garden City had the audacity to tell me that he didn’t know any millionaires. I suppose it’s the same general lack of awareness that caused him to tell the Times that he never had any problem with a conflict of interest. The fact that his firm represents hospitals and he is the Chair of the Senate Health Committee is nothing the public should be concerned about in Hannon’s view. Incidentally, Governor Cuomo’s new ethics reform legislation would not require that legislators disclose this kind of information.

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Cutting Off One’s Nose…

Today’s budget cutting rhetoric tends to hide the importance of government financed programs to the lives citizens. Throughout the country, pre-school programs for the children of the nation’s poor are being cut, often by right-wing politicians who do not believe in the efficacy of these programs. Yet, one of the longest studies done to date on the effects of pre-school on poor children has revealed enormous benefits that appear to last a lifetime. A cohort of poor youngsters was followed for a period of 25 years. The study showed unequivocally that students receiving pre-school showed much high school completion rates 19% more males), 28% less substance abuse, 22% fewer felony arrests (45% fewer among the children of high school dropouts)and 28% fewer incarcerations. While the study says nothing about the subject’s standardized scores, it does show that putting more money into pre-school would save money over the long run.

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The Potential of Social Media

A central challenge of the labor movement is how to combat the anti-labor media assault we have been taking, an assault financed by the bankers, real estate interests and corporate elites who stand to gain from the continuing erosion of the power of organized labor in the United States. The front page of this morning’s New York Times has an article that focuses on how business is very consciously purchasing capital equipment wherever machines can replace human beings. Nobel laureate Paul Klugman on the op-ed page highlights the political forces protecting America’s creditor class rather than the working people of the nation. How do we broadcast labor’s message to a public saturated with well financed right wing propaganda?

Perhaps we need to borrow a page from the Arab Spring and use social media to organize our own revolution. Our union, like some others, has been experimenting with Facebook, trying initially to engage our younger members through a medium they often prefer. I’m coming to believe, however, that this medium has the power to cross the generational divide and organize the rank and file into a political force able to counteract the corporate media campaign arrayed against us.

Think about the possibilities. There are almost 4 million members of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Imagine if each of them were organized to have a Facebook page that they updated frequently. Imagine each of them with as few as 50 friends who do not work in public education. Think about what could happen if a merged national union, NEAFT, put out a video on what tax caps and budget cuts are doing to the nation’s public schools, asking members to share the piece on their Facebook pages. Think of how far and wide our message could be spread at almost no cost. Think of the other things that could come from the experience of organizing our membership in this way.

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Cuomo Continues His War on Public Employees

Last year the public sector unions agreed to a new pension tier, the fifth one in a series of benefit reductions for the state’s civil servants. They did so with the layoff gun to their heads. Predictably, New York’s angry Governor Cuomo interpreted their appeasement for what it was – weakness. He has launched his own assault on the public employee retirement systems, seeking to create a Tier VI. Full of his usual bloviating bull about how the current system is unsustainable, his proposal raises the retirement age for teachers new to the system from 57 to 65 and increases member contribution to the system from 3 percent to six. If he gets away with this outrage, what do you suppose Tier VII will look like?

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Don’t Bother the Testocracy With Facts

The results of a ten year study of the effects of test based teacher accountability systems and teacher incentive programs are in. Contrary to the testocracy ruling Americas public schools, they have almost no positive effect on educational outcomes as measured by tests other than the high stakes tests employed in these systems. Yet, have we heard any of the idiots who taut these systems, who almost also always want everything in education to be research based, have we heard any of them say, “I’m so sorry for my support of these programs and the deleterious effects they have had on students and teachers alike.” We haven’t, and we won’t. Think of all the money the education-industrial complex would lose if we gave up this fool’s errand of the search for the magic mathematical formula for measuring teacher performance.

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Charter Scam

Union guys like me have been arguing for years that charter schools should be subject to the same level of scrutiny as public ones. In most states that is not the case, and public funds are spent in ways that public schools would never be allowed to. You need to read this piece of investigative reporting by the New York Times to get a deeper understanding of the rip-off of public fund being committed across this country in the name of school reform. The public finances these schools, but it often has no idea of the agenda of the people running the schools. Take a look!

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One District Has It Right

New York Times columnist Michael Winerip reports this morning on his experience observing the peer assistance and review program in the Montgomery County Maryland public schools. At a time when the media and politicians are quick to blame teachers and their unions for protecting unsatisfactory teachers, the Montgomery County schools successfully use a panel of an equal number of union teachers and administrators to try and help struggling teachers to improve and move them out of their jobs if they do not. The key to it all? Cooperation and trust. Teachers are treated as respected professionals. Interestingly, the Montgomery schools get no Race To The Top Money. Their leadership refuses to use scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers.

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What Are We Doing?

Around this time of year, I start looking forward to attending the annual convention of the National Education Association. Its impending arrival is the surest sign that the school year is over when there will be an opportunity to slow down from the frenetic pace of my union leader existence. However, an email I received yesterday suddenly changed my mood from pleasant anticipation of gathering with union colleagues to feelings of disgust.

The email invited me to a pre-convention tele-conference at which I would be informed of why the NEA Political Action Council will be recommending the endorsement of President Obama for a second term. President Obama, head of the testocracy, inventor of education as a race to nowhere with winners and losers, champion of standardized test based teacher accountability and the president who has been even worse than George Bush II on public education, we are about to endorse him more than a year before the election. Now I’m realistic enough to deep down understand that I may have to hold my nose and vote for him in 2012, but why in hell do we want to make the support of over 3 million members so easy for a person who has done nothing but screw public school teachers since he took office? I don’t get it. All such political naiveté invites is more screwing.

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Help Save Public Education in New York

Tomorrow, June 3, opponents of Governor Cuomo’s proposed property tax cap will assembly at 3:00 P.M. outside the office of Assemblyman Robert Sweeney at 640 West Montauk Highway in Lindenhurst to protest Mr. Sweeney’s co-sponsorship of this legislation. With the Assembly poised to take up this bill prior to adjournment on June 20, this demonstration is part of a massive effort by a coalition of forces trying to prevent the disaster that must surely flow should this proposed law pass. All supporters of public education are welcome to join us. One need not have an organizational affiliation.

Our union’s membership, having already called their senators and assemblypersons in opposition to the bill, will be calling the governor’s office today. They will be using a convenient number, 1-877-255-9417, which is automated to direct calls to members of the legislature and governor. I urge all New York readers of this blog to take a minute out of your busy day to help rescue public education from this misguided legislation. See what the New York Times had to say, and make your calls now!

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A District Looks At Teacher Stress and Performance

The Houston schools are taking a novel approach to looking at middle school climate. They have a grant for a three year study testing the hypothesis that stress levels at their middle schools are affecting the performance of their teachers. In a preliminary study this year, some 30% of middle school teachers had serious stress levels. Interestingly, teachers 55 years of age and older were less vulnerable to the stresses of the job.

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