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 December, 2011

Year’s End

This will be my last blog post for 2011. My body still runs to the rhythm of the school year, and, while I’m no longer teaching, the approach of the winter recess has me counting down the days and hours like the kids in most every class. I need a break from APPR, common core standards, property tax caps and assorted other stupidities which have become all too commonplace in the world of public education. Let’s try to end the year on a positive note, however. The Washington Post’s Jay Mathews reminds us that education has been completely missing from the Republican presidential debates. That’s about the only positive thing one can take from those comedy shows. Let’s hope President Obama likewise forgets about public education. To the extent that he runs on things like Race to the Top, he will lose countless votes from those who work in our nation’s schools. Here’s hoping that the New Year brings us a presidential campaign that benignly neglects education policy.

See you all in the New Year!

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A Glimmer of Hope?

As school districts in New York begin to get serious about their budgets for 2012-13, and as they wrestle with the ramifications of the recently enacted property tax cap, it’s beginning to dawn on some that unless districts put up budgets that exceed the cap and work to build super-majorities to get them passed, the high quality of Long Island schools will soon be part of an ever more remote past. I was mildly encouraged today to learn that there are some superintendents in Suffolk County who are talking publicly about the need to try to exceed the cap. Where are the Nassau County superintendents? Yes, it takes a little courage in the current environment, but to do otherwise is to be a participant in the destruction of what we have all labored to build.

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Do citizens have the right to know the individual position of publicly elected members of a board of education, or may board members hide their personal beliefs behind a public curtain of apparent public unanimity? That’s the question I asked of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education last night, after Board Member Angel Cepeda proudly enumerated a list of anti-public employee, anti-union political positions which he appeared to claim were supported by the entire Board. Among the issues he reported lobbying for were the right to lay off teachers without being bound by seniority, the creation of a dual pension system in which teachers would pick between defined contribution or defined benefit plans and repeal of the Triborough doctrine by which public employee contracts remain in place upon their expiration. “Was Mr. Cepeda speaking for himself or the Board of education?” I asked.

The Board’s attorney advised them that they did not have to answer my question. Yet, how can that be? How can the public not have the right to know how each of their elected representatives sees issues as important as these? Why didn’t the members of the Board choose to answer my question? Were they afraid to reveal that while they spent much of their meeting last night praising the wonderful work our members do, they secretly support legislation that would seriously undermine our ability to earn living wages and have job and retirement security? Surely, we have a right to know what each Board Member thinks. While I won’t be surprised to find that they have a legal right to hide their views, they have an ethical responsibility to stand up publicly for their beliefs.

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The Problem Is Still Poverty

So much of what passes for education reform is an attempt to overcome our society’s failure to confront the scourge of poverty. To a very great degree, economically disadvantaged children do significantly less well in school. We once understood this and had a political consensus to try to fix the problem. However, today’s conventional wisdom has it that Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty failed. It must have failed. We still have poverty in the United States. Yet, the fact is that most of the money appropriated for the War on Poverty went into Medicare, a program that dramatically lowered poverty among the nation’s elderly. Although Johnson clung to the notion that we could have “guns and butter,” the war in Viet Nam significantly stifled the anti-poverty fervor of the nation.

Today, we don’t even think of making war on poverty. Instead, we delude ourselves into believing that if we just get the right teachers and principals in our public schools, we can abolish the achievement gap between the haves and have-nots, even though, data driven though we are, there is no evidence to support this belief. Doubt what I’m saying? Read Diane Ravitch’s summary of Duke University Professor Helen Ladd’s research. Read it and weep over the thoroughly misguided education policy of our nation.

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Let’s Try Something Else

Our Plainview-Old Bethpage District has begun the process of searching for a new superintendent of schools. The Board of Education has hired a search consulting firm, and they have started their interviews with the various constituent groups in our community. Yesterday, PCT Secretary Judi Alexanderson and I played the union officer part in the by now routine script for the selection process. I’ve played this part before. While I bear no malice whatsoever towards the two people who interviewed us, repeated experiences with this process leave me suspicious that there must be better ways of finding a leader of the school district.

What if the school district put an ad in Education Week and The New York Times announcing the superintendent vacancy and inviting applications? What if the applications were screened by a committee of Board of Education members and representatives of the constituent groups? What if, additionally, applicants were told that if they made the first cut of ten, they would be invited to participate in a public panel discussion in which the candidates would be asked to respond to significant issues facing our school district and public education in our state and nation? Maybe we need a series of public discussions, with a decreasing number of candidates. Such a process, one that forces applicants to interact with one another and to defend their ideas within a group of experienced, knowledgeable professionals, such a process would give us a much clearer insight into the strengths and weakness of the candidates that the conventional process lacks. It also has the added virtue of being essentially cost free, unlike the current process that I’m told costs twenty thousand dollars.

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DOD Schools Unreformed But Doing Better

Readers of my work are long familiar with my view that the more we focus on test scores in the public schools, the more the education of all children will be dumbed down, as the curriculum is narrowed to only what is tested and teachers become mere cogs in a testing machine, their talents and creativity stifled by the monomaniacal need to get high scores.

The latest evidence for my view comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which once again demonstrates the superiority of the Department of Defense (DOD) schools to regular public schools. More DOD school students read proficiently than their peers in regular public schools. More significantly, the gap between white and minority students has been significantly narrowed, unlike the situation if public schools at large.

Very interestingly, DOD schools are not governed by either the No Child Left Behind Act or the Race to the Top legislation. DOD teachers are not evaluated on the basis of their students’ scores, and they are freer to make professional decisions about their work. Children in DOD schools all have homes and free medical care. None of them comes to schools hungry. Most attend schools that are well integrated, the military having done a much better job overcoming the scourge of racism than the rest of society. Unlike the private sector, the military also appears to understand the need of parents to take time to be engaged in their children’s schools. Classes are even generally smaller in military schools, the DOD caring about the welfare of the children in their charge.

Will this latest evidence of the effects of poverty on school performance stop the reformers who want to blame teachers? Will it push back the testocracy’s increasing control of our schools? Don’t bet on it.

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Enough Comparisons

I’m so sick and tired of reading about comparisons of our students to those of other nations perceived to be higher performing. David Sirota has written what should be the final word on this subject, although I’m sure it won’t be. See if you don’t agree.

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New York Teacher Pensions A Great Buy

A personal need for information sent me this morning to the website of the New York State Teachers Retirement System. There, in addition to the information I required, I came upon a simple, powerful presentation showing how 90 cents of every dollar paid in teacher retirement benefits comes from employee contributions and investment income. That’s quite a bit different than what the teacher bashers lead the public to believe. Too many I meet seem to feel teacher retirees are living the life of ease while the hard working taxpayer is picking up the entire tab. This is a bit of information that every New York teacher should be armed with against the time when some smartass attacks teacher pensions. It turns out that New York teacher pensions are a great buy.

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Good News From Albany

Good news from Albany today. Undoubtedly moved by a year of intensive political pressure by the state’s unions with NYSUT in the lead and the advent of the Occupy Movement and its focus on the growing income disparity in the United States, Governor Cuomo has reached agreement with the leaders of the legislature on a tax reform package that will have the rich paying more than they would have paid when the so-called millionaire’s expires at the end of the year. The long and the short of the compromise is an increase in state revenue of almost 2 billion dollars, with middle class taxpayers getting a slight decrease in their rates. That’s a significant improvement, but probably not enough to avoid a struggle for resources in the upcoming state budget process. However, the agreement, almost certain to be ratified by the legislature, should permit the state to make good on its commitment to raise education funding, a desperate need in a year that will see the implementation of the 2 percent property tax cap. The agreement also has some provisions for infrastructure spending that should aid job creation in the state. At a time when our politicians have lacked the courage to meet the revenue needs of government at all levels, this agreement to raise taxes is welcomed. It is encouraging to see our leaders facing reality for a change.

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Early Retirement Accelerates

Today’s New York Times has a story reporting that there appears to be a trend towards early retirement of public workers in the United States. Faced with a barrage of criticism making it seem as though public employees were responsible for the financial crisis in this country, many are leaving early, believing that the longer they stay the more likely they will experience reduced pension and health benefits. My own conversations with the unusually large number of retirees from the Plainview-Old Bethpage schools last year confirm the Times report. I strongly suspect that when the new teacher evaluation system tying teacher performance to student scores on standardized test comes in, we will see a literal race to the doors by those who are eligible to retire. Who among those economically able to retire will want to work in a system that sums them up at the end of the year as a 75 percent teacher or an 82 percent teacher? How infantilizing and demeaning. Some of the best teachers I know are debating whether they want to continue to work in that kind of hostile environment. I have a question for the data fetishists: How do we calculate the institutional loss of the knowledge and skill of those who will leave our ranks earlier than we would expect?

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Bloomberg Revealed

Occasionally, the super-rich drivers of much of what passes for education reform drop their guards a speak from their core, revealing themselves at best as ignorant dilettantes and sometimes as people who wish to destroy public education, not reform it. We sure got a glimpse into Michael Bloomberg’s core when in a recent speech to students at MIT he opined, “If I had the ability, which nobody does really, to just design the system and say, ex cathedra, this is what we’re going to do, you would cut the number of teachers in half, but you would double the compensation of them, and you would weed out all the bad ones and just have good teachers. And double the class size with a better teacher is a good deal for the students.”

If one had any doubt that the mayor understands little or nothing about educating children, his remarks leave one almost breathless at their ignorance. If cutting the number of teachers in half is good, why not three quarters? Better yet, why not simply opt for the Florida solution and put public education online and hire a teacher for every subject?

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Massive Labor Protest Ignored By Media

Yesterday, PCT Secretary Judi Alexanderson, retired members and past PCT officers Dolly and John Norman and I participated in a massive labor demonstration organized by the New York City Central Labor Council to demand jobs and economic justice for working people. Upwards of twenty thousand union members and others marched from Herald Square to Union Square Park along Broadway. Yet, these twenty thousand marchers were essentially invisible to the major media outlets in New York. I searched the New York Times in vain this morning for even a mention of the demonstration. Similarly the online editions of the Daily New and New York Post ignored this outpouring of protest against the growing economic inequality in the United States. The only mainstream coverage I was able to find was a hopelessly confused piece on WNBC TV which garbled its coverage of the demonstration with a strike vote taken by the janitors union on the same day. Pathetically, the best coverage of this event I was able to find was a YouTube of a broadcast by something called Russia Today with studios in Moscow and Washington.

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Testing Chief Resigns

New York’s school testing chief, David Abrams, fell on his sword yesterday. His sin was apparently not suggesting that the duration of state reading tests be increased from 150 minutes to 240 minutes. No, his error appears to have been email blasting all of the principals in the state, letting them know this idiocy was coming at them. I guess teachers and administrators were not to know about this until the tests were upon us. Increasingly, this is what reform is looking like in New York.

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