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 October, 2011

Premature Retirements

At a recent meeting with our Board of Education, I had occasion to allude to the significant numbers of teachers who retired last year rather than face the continuing mandatory substitution of test preparation for teaching. That same day, I sent an email to our members asking them to review and comment on the new state approved teacher performance rubrics that will be used to determine 60 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation. Very interestingly, within 24 hours of my email, I had numerous requests for information about retirement. Some of the best teachers I know are being moved to consider premature retirement rather than ending their careers becoming cogs in a senseless accountability machine. I fear today’s education decision makers will not miss them. Their departure will be welcomed by those whose eye is only on the bottom line. In the obsessive drive to weed out the “bad teachers,” very quietly some of our best are leaving much too soon.

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Could Education Policy Be Our Problem?

In all the years that I have been involved in public education, I have wondered why much of the policy debate raging at any particular moment had little or nothing to do with what I was doing in my classroom. Over my long career, the policy pendulum swung from reform to reform, but my classroom was essentially uninfluenced by any of it. My students appeared to like my classes. They seemed to enjoy learning to do things that they couldn’t do before they entered my class. Their parents were happy that their kids were happy, and since no one by and large was complaining about me and my students got respectable exam grades, I was left to perfect my teaching craft, sometimes through trial and error, often through professional discussion with colleagues. Thus I was interested to run across a blog post by Harvard Professor Richard Elmore who had spent much of his professional career teaching education policy only to find that such policies are more often the cause of our problems than the solution. If you have had the feeling that you have been through one too many education policy shifts, read the reflection of a kindred spirit.

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Tax Cap reality Sets In

Buyer’s remorse is beginning to set in over Governor Cuomo’s 2 % property tax cap passed by the legislature earlier this year. The Times reports that local governing bodies in many parts of the state are coming up against the reality that quality services cannot be provided to their citizens under the cap. Thus, were governing bodies can, they are electing to override the cap with budgets that more realistically respond to needs and costs. School districts, whose budgets must be passed in most cases by the public, have only one way to deal with the irresponsible shortsightedness of the tax cap. They must convince 60% of their publics to vote for more realistic spending plans. In our Plainview-Old Bethpage district, Superintendent Dempsey recently announced that next year’s budget will fall within the cap. While we might be able to get away with this for a year, failure to develop a long range strategy to build public support to fund our schools will inevitably lead to the erosion of our program which will in turn make the public less willing to support the schools. Do you think that’s what the designers of the tax cap had in mind to begin with?

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Techsters Choose Digital Divide

Suppose you were being treated by your family physician for a chronic condition and learned that while the doctor herself has the same medical condition, she does not take the same medication she insists is essential to your treatment. At the very least, it would probably make those pills a little more difficult for you to swallow. What then are we to make of a New York Times report yesterday that many of the captains of Silicon Valley send their children to a Waldorf school that eschews exposing children to computers and other electronic devices? When those who make their living selling technology as a boon to education shelter their own kids from exposure to it, preferring the personal engagement of teachers and students to the narcotizing, isolating power of staring at a screen, it ought to scare the hell out of the leaders of too many of our public school districts who have sold out our children to the corporate interests selling their technology snake oil as a substitute for real education. This report certainly gives new meaning to the concept of a digital divide.

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Voting Republican – A Suicidal Act

News this morning that the Senate Republicans voted to block a vote on that portion of the Obama jobs plan that would help states retain teachers, firefighters and police from the layoffs they are experiencing throughout our nation, Their reason, stated by Leader McConnell is that the first such economic stimulus failed so why have another.

Today’s Republicans operate out of the belief that if you repeat a lie often enough it is transmuted in the public mind to a truth. The fact of the matter is the aid to the states in the first stimulus prevented the layoff of thousands of state and local workers, surely keeping the unemployment rate from being even higher that the current 9.1%. With that money exhausted over the two years of its existence, we are now seeing, if we choose to, just how much it did as states respond to the evaporation of that funding with layoffs.

The Republican economic plan is clear. Make the economy as bad as it can be. Drive up unemployment and precipitate the defeat of President Obama and the Senate Democrats up for re-election. They have a disciplined message from their national leaders down to their candidates for local tax collector, less regulation, more budget and tax cuts. The first opportunity to heap on them the contempt they so richly deserve comes this November in the local elections. We need to begin to kick these jerks out, from the towns and cities of this nation all the way to Washington D.C… We need to force the Republican Party to return to its roots. It no longer has any claim to be the Party of Lincoln. Voting Republican these days is tantamount to a suicidal act.

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Tough on Union Leaders

How could political operatives who so masterfully ran the first Obama presidential campaign have become so politically tone deaf? Just as the President’s populist attack on the Congress that has done nothing to deal with unemployment begins to resonate with his base and nation, Obama picks this moment to do two politically dumb things that can only antagonize those who must wage his re-election campaign from the ground.

Authorities appear to agree that the NAFTA free trade agreement cost the U.S. some 600,000 jobs, many of them good paying union jobs. Why then, with union membership tepid about working for Obama’s re-election, why does the President pick this time to push a new series of free trade agreements, agreements that Labor was fighting up to the last minute? Why too, as the Senate Education Committee unveils its rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law, a proposal that contains many features that both the NEA and AFT have advocated, why would the Whitehouse announce that the proposed changes are not strong enough in that they do not include requirements linking teacher evaluations to student performance? You’re sure making it tough on union leaders, Mr. President!

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What The Reformers Don’t Tell You

“On the latest international test, the Program for International Student Assessment, American schools in which fewer than 10 percent of the students were poor outperformed the schools of Finland, Japan, and Korea. Even when as many as 25 percent of the students were poor, American schools performed as well as the top-scoring nations. As the proportion of poor students rises, the scores of US schools drop.” So says Diane Ravitch in her review of Steven Brill’s Class Warfare: The Fight to Fix America’s Schools. If that fact is startling, read Ravitch’s piece which has a very interesting summary of the long history of school reform in the United States. There is much more that you probably didn’t know.

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Common Core Standards – A Step Forward

This weekend, I forced myself to sit down and confront the Common Core Standards, the New York version of them. The world of public education is growing increasingly anxious about them as the time for their implementation draws near. School districts in the states that have subscribed to the Standards are racing to have staff development session, thinking that putting them in place will be a major undertaking. As one who was sounding the academic standards alarm long before it was fashionable, let me say that by and large the Standards are a breath of fresh air. While they are in many places a bit optimistic about what young children can and should be taught, they are a major step forward in the kind of knowledge based instruction I have advocated. While they do not tell teachers how to teach, they do set out specific things that children must know at each grade and offer suggestions of materials to facilitate the instruction. While I’m sure some teachers who were not trained in content based education will have some initial difficulty with the Standards, in the end, while we can all criticize specific planks, there isn’t much in the Standards that is controversial. Most teachers would want their own children to know the things the Standards demand students to know. Newer teachers will find the Standards a tremendous help in overcoming the confusion that has existed about what children are expected to know.

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The Republicans Think We’re Stupid

Politico reports that the Senate Republicans have come up with their jobs plan to counter President Obama’s plan. What new ideas do they have? NONE. They offer reducing labor and environmental regulations, a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution and a further lowering of individual and corporate tax rates. Their plan has to a very great extent been put to the test. We’ve been living with the Bush tax cuts for years. Most of our state constitutions require balanced budgets, and we’re experienced the deregulation of the financial industry. Not only do we not have the jobs we need, but the deregulation of the financial industry almost completely sank the world’s economy. Do these people think we’re stupid? With the Obama plan, thousands of teachers, police, firefighters and other public servants would have employment. Schools would be repaired and updated, roads and bridges built or repaired and businesses that hire returned veterans would receive tax breaks for reintegrating these brave Americans back into the workforce. Does anything the Republicans are talking about match up to these proven ways of stimulating employment and economic growth?

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“Progress” Has Become Our Most Important Product

On Tuesday, I listened to a presentation on a test marketed by an outfit called NWEA that claims to measure the “academic progress” students make from year to year. While that very concept is absurd on its face, I agreed to participate out of an interest in finding an innocuous tool to meet the requirement of the dilettantes running New York’s Department of Education who require that 20 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation be based on a locally determined assessment of student progress.

The young man hawking his wares was pleasant enough. He even agreed when I observed that the only thing we know for sure that the test shows are the scores on the test from year to year and that doesn’t really tell us very much that is useful. What was astonishing to me was the reaction of some of the administrators in the room. They appeared to think that this testing instrument offered something serious and useful to teachers and school leaders. Neither they nor the assistant superintendent who organized the presentation showed any interest in how this test may be used to demonstrate their contribution to the “progress” of the students in their school. I suppose it’s possible that they know as well as I the absurdity this glorification of tests and data. Were they simply just responding as their superiors demand? It’s possible.

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The Next School Budgets

Have you noticed how there hasn’t been much public discussion of what school budgets are going to look like for next year when the 2 percent tax cap legislation takes hold? As it is abundantly clear that the academic programs can’t be maintained under the cap, that is without a very significant reorganization of school bureaucracies, one would think that those who profess concern for public education would be speaking out and organizing to bring pro-education budgets before the public that itself was organized to pass them with super majorities of 60 percent. Those in the know claim that no district will take a chance on a budget increase of more than 2 percent and that most districts, even affluent ones, are in for substantial cuts, including significant staff layoffs. If that happens, as I suspect it will, it will demonstrate that our schools are run by the same kind of cowardly leaders who are leading our national government, leaders whose foolish preoccupation with budgets cuts are leading us into another recession.

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Nabbed Again

The evidence for undue corporate influence on public education grows stronger daily. Yesterday’s New York Times reports that the Pearson Foundation, a charitable organization funded by the Pearson Corporation which does testing and other business with many state departments of education, has been sending state commissioners of education all over the world to attend conferences. Does anyone seriously suppose that they are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts for the betterment of public schools? Isn’t it interesting to know that the Illinois commissioner of education attended conferences in Helsinki and Rio while his department has a $138 million contract with Pearson to develop high stakes test? This is but the latest example of the educationist-industrial complex that is increasingly driving the direction of public education – a direction towards privatization and profit.

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Occupy Wall Street and Labor

Slowly, ever so slowly, people are taking direct action in response to the assault on the working classes of this country. How heartening is the Occupy Wall Street movement, daily spreading to other parts of the country. How surprising, but how welcomed, is the growing embrace of organized labor of this movement. How energizing to see labor taking some risks in joining with radicals of many different stripes. Having for too long staked its welfare almost solely on electoral politics and losing some of its militant heart and soul in the process, labor seems willing to be on the march again. Finally, labor is beginning to see that the young who are the energy behind Occupy Wall Street are not some different form of humanity who will never understand unions. They understand injustice. They understand that our economic system has been hijacked and no longer offers them the possibility that their generation will do better than their parents did. They clearly understand how to organize.

I’ve no wish to be giddy about seeing union brothers and sisters and the young in the streets of our cities demanding, in one way or another, economic justice. But I do see the opportunity for our once great unions to break through to a new generation. We need to find ways to extend the alliances that are developing out of this movement. Perhaps, our unions can find ways to create new categories of membership not tied to specific industries or workplaces, membership categories that could offer benefits unavailable to individuals but possible through the purchasing power of large unions. Maybe we can enlist them in a campaign to develop a pension system for our nation that guarantees citizens the opportunity to retire in dignity. Maybe we can form a union of the unemployed among them. I don’t claim to have all of the answers. I know beyond doubt, however, that we have a momentous opportunity to organize working people, if we can just think about doing that in new ways.

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Forgetting What Teaching Is

I met with a group of some of Plainview’s finest teachers on Monday and haven’t been able to get that meeting out of my mind since. My discussion with them raised the issue of the district’s latest attempt to resolve educational issues with the imposition of a canned program designed to provide instruction for the brainless by the brainless. The program at hand is a writing program, but the issue its imposition raises is one that cuts across subject matters. Those I met with spoke passionately about how they increasingly feel that their abilities are not trusted, how their classroom work is more and more scripted to the point where they do not feel like teachers anymore. The joy of engaging children, challenging them, being challenged by them – is rapidly disappearing from most of their days. Automaton, robot, computer were words they used to describe the contrast to what educators know as teaching. In the name of teacher accountability, we have become so over-focused on test scores that we have made our teachers accountable for providing what can only be called junk education, packaged, pre-digested intellectual pap, created by an industry motivated solely by profit. Unless we take extraordinary measures to reverse this trend, we will soon have a generation of teachers who have become essentially deskilled, who will only know how to lead students through mindless programs. They will not have had careers in which their skills as teachers are constantly being stretched in the process of perfecting the craft of teaching. It sounds crazy, but we seem to be forgetting what teaching is. As bad as it is for teachers, to allow students and parents to believe that short cuts to higher test results are the equivalent of an education is criminal.

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Reframing the Benefit Discussion

Upon signing a bill in February, 2011 that abridged New Jersey public workers’ collective bargaining rights, Governor Christie, today’s darling of the Republican establishment, said, “There can no longer be two classes of citizens: one that receives rich health and pension benefits, and all the rest who are left to pay for them.”

It will surprise some that there is a sense in which I agree with the Governor. The more Americans cease to have these benefits, the more people are open to being taken in by the appeal to envy made by Christie and others. But if we stop to think about it, why can’t we have a society in which everybody has “rich” health benefits and a pension that allows them to spend their old age in dignity? Why is that not an idea worth discussing? Certainly, the richest country could if it chose to order its priorities appropriately make this guarantee to each of its citizens. Our current system is always pitting those that have against those who don’t. When it comes to healthcare and retirement security, things that civilized people should consider basic human rights, it is well past time that we begin to discuss improvements rather than cutbacks. Rather than simply defending Social security and Medicare, progressives and especially labor ought to be mapping out a plan that offers the hope of ending the envy game that is leading most of us to the economic bottom. It’s time for progressives to reframe the discussion.

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