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 September, 2011

Accountability Gone Mad

If you think teacher accountability has gone off the deep end with performance rubrics that are as long as 52 pages of check lists, think about what is happening in Italy. There a group of earth scientists are facing prosecution for not predicting last April’s massive earthquake in L’Aquila. Practitioners of an imperfect science, these scientists didn’t think there was going to be a big quake. That certainly deserves prosecution. It seems the U.S. is not the only society in which citizens increasingly expect perfect outcomes from their public servants. Maybe a little fear of prosecution would get our test scores up. Come on Governor Cumo! That sounds like your kind of thing.

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Do the Canadians Have a Saner Way?

I’ve been writing here and in my TeacherTalk column for years about my sense that as a society we appear to have lost the idea of what it means to educate our population. To me what you teach children is infinitely more important than how you teach a subject to them. I came across the following interview with Canadian Professor Ben Levin that contrasts the “test them into excellence” approach of the United States with what our neighbors to the North are doing. I suggest all who are interested in the education of young people read this piece and think about it carefully, particularly Dr. Levin’s thoughts on equality and competition. Here it is.

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Newsday Should Know Better

My colleague Jane Weinkrantz answered a recent teacher-union bashing editorial in Newsday entitled “Put Focus Back on Students.” As I’m not sure we will get to read her response in Long Island’s anti-public employee rag, so here it is.

Your statement, “Good teachers deserve job security, but bad teachers shouldn’t get tenure,” is 100% true and I am sure proud and professional NYSUT members across the state agree. However, to blame unions for the tenure of bad teachers is inaccurate and perpetuates the misapprehension that all teachers just want everyone to get tenure, no matter what. Actually, a teachers’ union has no part in deciding who is granted tenure. Essentially, untenured teachers are the same as probationary employees at any other job: they can be terminated at any time without reason. However, unlike probationary employees at other jobs, a teacher’s evaluative period lasts three years instead of 3-6 months. Three years should be plenty of time for a competent administrator to determine whether a teacher is a keeper or a slacker. However, if a new teacher is weak in the classroom, it is an administrator’s job to help her improve. Most administrators would rather be perceived as the “magic mentor” who turned a poor teacher around and made her tenure-worthy than the person who hired the mediocre teacher and has to admit the mistake by letting her go and beginning a new search for another employee. Teachers’ unions have nothing to do with this.

Your editorial goes on to say that, “The opposition of the union to teacher evaluations is troubling to parents and destructive to the reputation of educators. The lack of evaluations protects only the poorest teachers, but resistance to standards besmirches all of them.” To write as though there is no formal evaluation process in place is misleading since all teachers—tenured or tenured— are subject to a combination of classroom observations and written evaluations every year. More importantly, the editorial reads as though Newsday is unaware that all new contracts negotiated in New York must include an APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) agreement that rates teacher effectiveness and permits districts more flexibility in improving or terminating teachers who are rated “ineffective” two years in a row. NYSUT agreed to an APPR formula that counts standardized tests as 20% of a teacher’s evaluation. When the Board of Regents arbitrarily changed that figure to 40% this year, NYSUT went to court because this change was not in accord with the procedures that were signed into law last year. Insisting that the Board of Regents abide by the law hardly qualifies as “rush(ing) to court to stymie every attempt to (evaluate teachers)…”.

Newsday should know better.

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The Score Bore

Every time the administration of our school district reports on our results on the previous year’s state assessments, there ensues a long, irritating and essentially meaningless discussion of our results that has the unfortunate consequence of pushing us closer to having our schools become lifeless, dull, intellectual stultifying institutions. Last night was no exception. Our Board of Education was troubled by what they saw as our poor performance relative to other districts in Nassau County, and the implication of the discussion was that somehow our teachers are not doing right by their students, although no one dared say that. Also, clear from their discussion with the central office administrators is the astonishing belief of both groups that if we just install the right reading and writing programs, like the districts that did better than we did, and if we just trained our kids to be better test takers, our students would all pass, with a majority reaching “mastery,” whatever that may mean.

Absent from the discussion, and it’s always absent from these self-flagellating exercises in futility, is the asking of a few essential questions. While we have introduced program after program in reading and writing over the past thirty years, programs introduced by several generations of teachers, why have none of them seemed to have had the desired result? Why is it that our high school has historically done better on state assessments than our elementary and middle school student? Those questions would lead us into a discussion that just might improve our scores. They would include discussions of content that are always missing from these meetings. From there we just might be able to seriously better educate our students.

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Aunt Doris Gets It Right Again

I visited my 99 year old Aunt Doris yesterday. As usual, I tried to engage her reluctant mind by talking about my work for our union and giving her my world news round up. So, I talked about the difficulty of negotiating contracts in the current economic environment, of the 14 million unemployed, the additional 10 million or so who are underemployed or discouraged from even looking for work and the President’s call for a jobs plan, a plan which if enacted would be a boon to public education, but a plan which I was sure the Republicans in Congress were sure to torpedo in their deficit cutting frenzy. “Isn’t anyone doing anything about the unemployment,” she asked. “Are people asleep?” she angrily demanded to know.

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In a recent New York Times front page piece on technology in public schools, we read of teacher Amy Furman trying to teach Shakespeare’s As You Like It to a class of 31 students, some of whom are seated at their desks, some on the floor, some huddled together, all pretending to be learning Shakespeare. This is no traditional classroom, we read. “In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius. It’s enough to make this old English teacher puke to see what is passing for education in some places these days. “Technology-centric”? Why isn’t his classroom Shakespeare-centric? The article explores the extent to which while millions have been spent in this Arizona district on technology, there is no real evidence either here or elsewhere that this tremendous investment improves educational outcomes in any demonstrable way.

To me, the reasons for this lack of results were staring the reporter in the face as he watched this teacher waste her time and the time of all of her students doing things which have little or nothing to do with the study of Shakespeare. Why would anyone think that the activities the reporter observed would improve the ability of students to read texts more closely, write more precisely and coherently or appreciate great art more keenly? The unfortunate presumption of pseudo-academic programs like this one is that students can’t successfully study and profit from the real thing – that they are only capable of this debased version Shakespeare studies. Why do parents permit their children to be treated as though they are idiots? Why do teachers quietly play their part in this pretense?

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