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 January, 2012

Governor Lobbyist

I’ve spent years representing teachers defending teachers against allegations that they have in some way mishandled situations with children in their charge or even mistreated them. Some of those allegations have been substantive. Others, frivolous. Some in a grey area of acceptable professional conduct. There’s no grey area though in Governor Cuomo’s use of children in this ad entitled “Mt Governor, My Lobbyist.” If you thought Cuomo was sincere in his desire to stand up for kids, watch this, and see if it doesn’t make you puke. Lobbyist for children – INDEED! Crass, unctuous, vile opportunist – That’s our governor.

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Mutual Accountability

While we are assaulted daily with new ideas to make teacher accountability more rigorous, we don’t hear much about measuring the performance of John King, our Commissioner of Education, Meryl Tisch, our Chancellor or the Board of Regents. We have an accountability system for our state’s lobbyist for children, Governor Cuomo. His performance will be measured at the polls.

We need a rubric to measure the performance of these people who determine education policy and its implementation. We and the public need to know whether they are Highly Effective, Effective, Developing or Ineffective, just as we rate teachers according to these categories. Surely teachers and the public would like to know if our commissioner, chancellor and regents are 85% performers or 63%. While we’re at it, it’s time to do something about the way school superintendents are evaluated. Just as “drive-by observations” of teachers will no longer do, we need something more rigorous than yearly meetings of boards of education where superintendents are more often judges on their abilities to keep their boards happy than on any real accomplishments. Too many 63% teachers? Maybe the superintendent is a 55.

I’d be interested in hearing from readers as to what they think this system of mutual accountability would look like.

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Defending the Indefensible

We read this morning that the Connecticut Education Association and the state legislature have reached agreement on a new teacher evaluation system that ties teacher ratings to student performance on state assessments. Judged by the rubric of state and national teacher leaders, this will be seen as a good deal.

I completely understand why these deals are struck. When representatives of the testocracy start out demanding a majority of a teacher’s evaluation be based on tests, it seems a significant achievement when the final deal gets it down to 45% as happened in Connecticut. The unappreciated consequence of such deals, however, is that the union becomes a defender of the essentially indefensible and is perceived by many members as being remote from the needs and interests of people actually in classrooms. How have we let ourselves become the defenders of a system of teacher evaluation that we know to be ludicrous? We all know the tests have not been designed to evaluate teachers. We even know that they probably don’t evaluate students very well. When this system falls apart, do we accept our share of the blame? What can we say to members whose employment has been terminated or prejudiced by this process?

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If Not You, Mr. President, Who?

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: To teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.
President Barack Obma, 2012 State of the Union Address

Stop teaching to the test? Mr. President, The No Child Left Behind Act started us teaching to tests. Your Race to the Top program made it almost suicidal for teachers not focus their instruction on the state assessments which will be used to judge their performance. Yes, Mr. President, we need the bashing to stop, but it won’t so long as you and especially Commissioner Duncan persist in propagating the falsehood that bad teachers are largely responsible for the poor performance of too many of our students. While teachers would appreciate the flexibility to practice their craft, what we really need is for leaders like you to talk directly to the American people, asking them to face squarely the fact that unless and until we solve the problems of children raised in poverty, the performance of our lowest functioning students will not change appreciably. Yes, so-called reformers will always be able to point to children here and there who have with the help of some special teachers and circumstances conquered the debilitating effects of poverty, but we need you to tell the American people that such examples are not indicators that if only we had more great teachers, the children who are daily scarred by poverty could be made whole.

I suggest you go back and read Lyndon Johnson’s speeches in support of his War on Poverty. While we have largely won the battle against the impoverishment of our senior citizens, to our everlasting shame, we gave up on the war to save millions of our nation’s children. We need a leader to fight and win this war once and for all. If not you, Mr. President, who?

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Government Must Stick Up for American Worker

As a follow-up on my comments yesterday on American employers’ fading loyalty to their workers, I highly recommend Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s thoughts on the subject from a different angle – globalization.

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The Growing Disregard for Working People

In recent days, I’ve taken a couple of shots at Long Island school superintendents for their lack of loyalty to their employees as evidenced by their support of legislation that would both worsen the benefits their employees enjoy and cheapen their work. For people who enjoy generous benefit packages way beyond anything enjoyed by their employees strikes me as traitorous disloyalty to the people superintendents must depend on to do the central work of their school districts. Perhaps, though, they’re just doing things the modern American way.

It was through the lens of my anger at the superintendents that I read with “How The U.S. Lost Out On I-Phone Work,” a New York Times article by Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher that seeks to explain why it is that so much American manufacturing has moved to Asia. The answer is much more than the cost of labor. Companies like Apple have moved their manufacturing China and other Asian countries to exploit labor conditions that are tantamount to slavery. Faced with a need to change the glass on its newest edition of the I-Phone, the workers in the factory that assembles it were roused from their beds in the dormitory they live in, given a cup of tea and something to eat and put to immediate work for twelve hours. That sure sounds like slavery to me. Is that what we want to drive American workers to do. Here’s the kicker though. Apple could manufacture the phone here and still make a substantial profit. But they do not sense any responsibility to our country or its workers. As one of their executives is quoted as saying, “We sell iPhones in over a hundred countries,” a current Apple executive said. “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” If I ever need a heart transplant, I want his. It’s completely unused.

In the same edition of the Times was another piece on the battle over a proposed right to work law being pushed by Governor Mitch Daniels and the Republican dominated legislature. Like the governors of Ohio and Wisconsin, Daniels is determined to weaken the unions in Indiana in the name of making the state more competitive. More competitive than whom? Can’t we just see the governor salivating at the conditions at the Apple plant in China?

Left to themselves, corporate elites and their supporters in Congress and state legislatures have gotten us in a race to the bottom. No one owes the American worker anything any more. Not his boss, not his company, not his governme

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Ditto Nassau County Superintendents

On January 13, I wrote about the disloyalty of the Suffolk County school superintendents to staff who work for them in that they are actively supporting legislative changes that are inimical to the welfare of public education workers. I have since learned that the Nassau County superintendents have endorsed the same legislative agenda. No surprise, I suppose.

I hope my colleagues across the Island will ask their superintendents to reconsider their positions, finding ways to pay them back for their disloyalty if they refuse. These people are paid to be leaders. Instead they are traitors to all who labor in our public schools.

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What’s in a Name?

All students can and should make progress in school. But the painful reality is that some students, despite the best effort of the very best teachers, will not meet the expectations ignorant adults set for the. The pernicious notion that all students can learn the same things in the same time span has all sorts of consequences, some of which I saw first hand this morning on a visit to the staff of Plainview’s Stratford Road School, a school which for purely economic reasons houses all of the district’s elementary self-contained special education students. It is a school the state education bureaucrats have dubbed a school in need of improvement. Never mind that if you disaggregate the scores of these special needs students from those in the mainstream, the school does well. Out of blatant, bureaucratic stupidity, the staff of the Stratford Road School, and others like it, are needlessly, but thoroughly demoralized, believing that the state labeling them as a SIN (School in Need) has the community wondering why they are paying such high taxes to maintain a “slum school” staffed with ineffective teachers. How many would want to go to work each day to a SIN school. What parent wants to send her kids to a SIN school? Nothing good happens in a SIN school. It turns out there is a lot in a name!

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Republicans Celebrate MLK Day

Each time there is a Republican presidential debate and I find my sleep disturbed that night, I promise myself that I won’t watch the next one, but last night I broke my promise for the fourth time. I’ll leave it to others to speculate as to why struggle though I might to avoid them, I’m drawn to them like a succulent piece of braised pork belly that I know is going to make me ill but I just have to have it anyway. Actually, indigestion is a good word to describe the way I feel this morning mulling over the incredible spectacle the Republicans put on last night on Martin Luther King’s birthday.

There was palpable racism on display. There was the accusation that President Obama is the food stamp president, omitting to mention that food stamp use is up owing to a financial crisis that Obama had nothing to do with creating. One would think listening these would be presidents that only black people are unemployed and on food stamps. There was plenty of punish the poor, the subtext being that people are poor from some inner defect in their characters. If the children of the poor would just finish high school, avoid having children until they are married, have values more like ours, they wouldn’t be poor. Extend unemployment benefits for those who have been unemployed for over 99 weeks? No, that’s not helping them. Cut Social Security and Medicare by privatizing them. Send Medicaid back to the states that are just waiting to do a better job for the poor. And while we’re at it, let’s send the millions of “illegal” immigrants home and mobilize the National Guard to see to it that our borders are nailed shut. But please, let’s make sure we don’t cut the military so we can stay in Afghanistan forever while retaining enough fire power to bomb the hell out of Iran and any other country that doesn’t see the world as we do.

Quite a celebration of Dr. King’s birthday.

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Loyalty, Suffolk Superintendents?

I just received a copy of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association’s Advocacy Agenda for 2012. Reading it reminded me of a fundamental law of leadership which too many of today’s school leaders have never been taught: Loyalty has to flow down before it can flow up!

Hundreds of times each week, these superintendents tell their staffs how wonderful their work is, how central to the mission of their districts they are, how hard working and productive they are and how their superintendents and their boards of education appreciate their commitment to the children of their communities. I’m even prepared to believe that in most cases they believe what they are saying. Yet I also know that their concern for and loyalty to the people who work for them never goes beyond what is easy and convenient. It rarely goes beyond the verbal stage to real concern and support.

Each of the Suffolk superintendents who signed on to the Advocacy Agenda (a peculiar name for the document) after lamenting the loss of 1455 positions over the last two school years goes on to call for the legislature to enact laws that would surely cause more layoffs in addition to significantly reducing the terms and conditions of employment of those who remain. Thus, we have a call for the expanded use of teaching assistants which the superintendents have to know will further reduce teaching positions. It will secondarily ensure that those who are cut from teaching positions will be forced to accept teaching assistant work at a much lower rate of pay. The superintendents also call for regional collective bargaining agreements, capping employer contributions to healthcare in addition to further eroding the state’s pension benefit by creating a Tier VI.

I submit to you that leaders like this are not worthy of being followed and that the loyalty they receive from those under them is directly proportional to the perception of their loyalty to the people who serve them. It’s part of the reason why the longevity of school superintendents in this country is about three years. I note, too, that nowhere in the document does it talk about reducing superintendent benefits.

I’m thinking of proposing to our state teachers union that we support legislation that would pay superintendents one dollar more than the highest paid teacher in each district adjusted for the extra month that superintendents work. I strongly suspect that such a law would give us a better caliber of school leaders than I fear we have today. Let’s also cap their cars, 403b payments, rights to speaking engagements, severance pay and all of the other princely accoutrements that come with these jobs.

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A Principled Principal

It’s a pleasure to find a public school administrator who is as alarmed as I am at what is happening to even our best public schools at the hands of the testocracy. It’s even more heartening to find one with the courage to speak out, challenging the stupidities that pass for policy coming from powerful people at the state and national levels. Here’s to Carol Burris, Principal of Rockville Centre’s South Side High School.

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Cuomo Bull

In his State of the State speech, Governor Cuomo proclaimed that the teacher accountability measures written into law in 2010 have been a failure. The fact is they have not been put in place in most places in New York State, so the law can’t honestly be said to have failed.

Because the law requires that many of the details of the process must be collectively bargained in each school district and become a part of each new teacher contract, it was obviously going to take significant time before the new annual professional performance review process would be in place throughout the state.

To begin with, many districts had multi-year contracts in place when the law was enacted. They are not required to put the new procedure in place until they negotiate new contracts. So, in some place, it was going to be a few years before a new teacher evaluation process was going to be in place.

More importantly, even in districts where new contracts are being negotiated, and even in places like Plainview-Old Bethpage, where the district is being extremely cooperative on the issue of teacher evaluation, we have been working on developing a process for over a year, and we still have some issues to resolve. We probably would have been finished by now if the state education department hadn’t changed the rules on us several times thereby requiring us to redo work already completed. As recently as the other day, we were thrown the latest curveball by the state, when a performance rubric we had worked on for a year and amended pursuant to criticism by the state was ultimately rejected for reasons that are incomprehensible in that our rubric is objectively superior to corporately produced ones approved by the state.

So when Governor Cuomo proclaims that the process hasn’t worked, he is either totally ignorant of what was supposed to happen, or he has some other agenda. Perhaps it’s as simple as getting even with New York State United Teachers for failing to endorse him in the last election. The simple fact is, however, that the law was never conceived with the understanding that the process would immediately be in place in all districts in the state. The law set up a thoughtful process that in the end would hopefully create an evaluation process for each school district in which both labor and management could have confidence.

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Superintendent Wanted

A report at last evening’s meeting of the POB Board of Education by the firm hired to recruit a new superintendent had parents in the audience scratching their heads in wonder. The task of the presenters was report on their meetings with the various constituent groups in the district, trying to cull from those meetings a composite profile of the qualities most interviewees appeared to desire. Nothing wrong with that in theory, I suppose. In practice, however, the report became a cliché-ridden compendium of eduspeak that cannot possible serve as a clarifying lens through which to focus our superintendent search. Thus, we all seem to want a superintendent with integrity, a person with vision who is also a good communicator. She also needs to be someone who is up to the challenge of leading our districts to the upper tier of districts to which it aspires. The new superintendent needs to be collaborative, up to the challenges facing the district and supportive of a transparent decision making process.

While the superintendent opening has not as yet been advertised, it’s clear to me from the PCT webpage statistics which increased very significantly with the announcement of Superintendent Dempsey’s retirement that potential candidates are already studying the district preparing to submit applications. So to all those who will apply, if you are dishonest, a poor communicator, lack vision and are not up to the challenge of making us the equal of Jericho, please save us all some time and effort and do not apply.

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How Crazy Can the Education Business Get?

If you needed further evidence that Commissioner King is not up to the job of running the education bureaucracy in New York, his withdrawal of the School Improvement Grants (SIG) from ten of our most troubled districts should be enough to put any thoughtful person over the edge. Why did he withdraw millions of dollars from these districts? Imagine, they haven’t finished the negotiations of their Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) procedures for evaluating their teachers. That’s surely a good reason to take away funds that pay teachers and support professionals to provide programs to help children with serious needs. It’s also enough to complete the evaluation of this commissioner, and for that matter Chancellor Tisch whom he serves.

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Cuomo Attacks Pensions

Rather than taking pride in New York’s teacher and state employee pension systems that, unlike many others, are fully funded, our ambitious governor just had to do the politically popular thing in his state of the state address and call for a new and worse tier to our pension systems. He, like many, seems to believe that the road to the Whitehouse is best negotiated by the trashing of public employees, especially their pension benefits.

Governor Angry Andy surely knows that over the last 20 years our teachers’ retirement system has received $15.3 billion in member and employer contributions while paying out, $63.5 billion in benefits, the difference coming from a sound, productive investment strategy. He also knows that while paying out more than it took in, the system’s assets grew by over $50 billion. What an economical way to provide retirement security to people who spend their productive years teaching the children of our state.

The Governor also knows that the fund covering state and local government workers is also fully funded and has produced similar investment results. He knows that the investment portfolios of both retirement funds have recovered from the hit they took during the recent financial crisis and that employer contribution rate should soon begin to fall again.

Cuomo’s call for a further cheapening of our pension systems can only be understood as a cynical political act to balance a revenue starved budget on the backs of New York’s public servants making it more difficult for them to achieve what should be the right of every worker – retirement security.

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The New Year’s Beginning

So much to write about today. I hardly know where to begin. The front page of the New York Times this morning highlights the latest example of the infiltration of our public schools by corporate interests, here the technology giants. In what I think is a hopeful sign, that teachers are getting fed up with those who wish to mechanize the practice of their craft, Idaho teachers are pushing back against a recently enacted state law that obliges high school students to take several online courses and mandates that students and their teachers be given laptop or tablet computers. The article neatly juxtaposes ex- marine, English teacher Ann Rosenbaum who insists on directly engaging her entire class, challenging them with questions that force them to think rather than submitting to the pressures to become a facilitator or coach for students who with the aid of technology are supposed to essentially educate themselves. Why do real teachers like Rosenbaum have to fight to preserve the craft of teaching and serious education for children?

On another front, New York teachers better beware. Governor Cuomo is apparently to appoint a new education commission to look into improving student performance. Of course performance to him means test scores. I can’t begin to imagine the corporate representatives he will put on that commission. Does anyone think that Angry Andy will give Diane Ravitch a shot?

And what about the absurdity of Education Commissioner John King withholding grant monies from ten school districts because they have not completed the negotiations of the newly required teacher/principal evaluation systems? That’s sure to help districts like New York City and Roosevelt improve.

A new year of education mischief is clearly off with a bang.

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Once Again, It’s Poverty…

When education reformers talk about America’s failing schools, they almost always mean districts in which poor children are sent to schools that are themselves resource poor relative to suburban districts like Plainview Old Bethpage. Listening to reformers, the public gets the perception that all of our schools are failing and that the kids in the remainder of the industrialized world will inherit the earth while our children grub for a living on less than world class skills and knowledge. Recently, linguistics Professor Stephen Krashen gave a talk to the Chicago AFT chapter. It is as eloquent a rebuttal of the reformist critique that presents America’s schools as failures and blames teachers and their unions for the problem. If you love libraries as I do, see what he has to say about their potential to address the issue of educating impoverished children.

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