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 February, 2012

The Anger In Our Ranks

The anger seething within the ranks of New York teachers over the recent deal on teacher evaluation between our state union, the State Education Department and our anti-labor governor is both heartening and ominous. For the first time in many years, I’m encouraged to think that our union movement may be in the process of rekindling the militancy of its youth, when teachers boldly demanded to be treated with respect, when they felt entitled to a professional status appropriate to their education and responsibilities. Today, with more and more of our teachers working to the rhythms of corporate created programs, with their value as educators to be determined in large measure by the their students’ results on tests of very dubious quality made by the same corporations, they again hunger to be treated with respect and to fight to restore their professional dignity, A new generation of teachers may be beginning to see that for too long they have been lulled into believing that bureaucratic, service oriented unionism married to conventional political action could provide all that they needed. They are beginning to see, like the pioneers of our movement before them, that organizing for direct action is a much more powerful alternative.

Yet, we must be aware that the anger that may spark a resurgence of union militancy can just as easily turn within. That which may energize and organize us can just as readily divide us and render us impotent. I have already heard too much talk about our leaders “selling us out” and threats to leave our state and national organizations. While I can viscerally feel the anger that motivates such intemperate language, I know all too well that we must find the way to resolve our internal policy, strategic and tactical differences because deep down we all realize that to win the battles before us will require greater solidarity, stronger commitment and more resources harnessed to imaginative leadership.

I’m optimistic that we will recapture that fighting spirit that launched our movement. I believe we can and should have a vigorous internal debate about the direction of our movement. I trust that our leaders won’t confuse debate with division and that union members will not impute nefarious motive to leaders with whom they differ. I believe that while we will always have our family differences, after all of the internal debate is over, we will close ranks behind a democratically determined course of action to save public education and our professional dignity.

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Public Humiliation

The release in New York City of the ratings of teachers on the basis of their students’ performance on standardized tests, data which is know to be highly flawed, is a new low for the scumbags who believe that we can improve our public schools by shaming our teachers into doing a better job. When Bill Gates and Chancellor Meryl Tisch, two committed leaders of the testocracy, are alarmed by this event, even the diehards ought to pause. In predictable fashion, the New York Times, which litigated to obtain teacher scores, has started to showcase higher scoring teachers, giving them a dubiously deserved celebrity which will inevitably isolate them in their schools and, much worse, create the impression that the other teachers in the school are undesirable. It’s enough to make one puke. The only hopeful note is a report suggesting that city teachers have had enough and are ready to fight. We could well use their leadership in that direction! If the public humiliation of teachers doesn’t cause a militant response, there will be no hope lest for the education labor movement.

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Radical Ravitch

If facts and thoughtfulness could combat the reformist zeal to punish teachers for poor standardized test scores, Diane Ravitch’s work would be our most potent weapon. Her latest piece in the New York Review of Books intellectually vanquishes those who think we can test our schools to greatness.

The sad though I had after reading her piece is that she has a deeper understanding of the plight of today’s teachers than too many of our state and national union leaders who have simply acquiesced too often to the reformers demands. Ravitch recounts asking the education minister of Finland what that country’s teachers would do if they were told they were to be judged on the basis of the scores of their students on standardized tests. His reply should be taken to heart by every union leader in our nation. “They would walk out and they wouldn’t return until the authorities stopped this crazy idea.”

What a sad state our unions are in when a university scholar and an education minister propose more radical challenges to the testocracy than our teacher unions do. Why don’t we merge the NEA and AFT and draft Diane Ravitch as our first president? That would fulfill the goal many of us have had of one great education union speaking with one powerful, eloquent voice.

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And the Stupidity Unfolds

Sunday’s New York Times featured a front page article entitled “States Try to Fix Quirks in Teacher Evaluations” that is remarkable for its ironic understatement of the problems inherent in the new teacher evaluation protocols spreading flu-like across the country. The article opens with a Nashville principal perplexed at having emerged from watching what he understood to be a very good literature lesson but knowing that the rubric he is expected to use to evaluate the teacher’s performance will render his official report of the lesson less than very good. He will be forced to give parts of it the lowest possible score for what he knows to be foolish reasons. This is one of the “quirks” that some states are looking to fix, we are told.

It’s much more than “quirks” in the evaluation procedure that is at the heart of the principal’s problem. Assuming that he knows what he is talking about and that the lesson was to his experienced eye very good, what sort of lunacy is it to oblige him to suspend his professional judgment and mindlessly apply a rubric that assigns values to parts of a teacher’s lesson and loses track of the effect of the whole in the process? No, it’s not a quirk in the rubric driven evaluations that need fixing. It’s the entire concept that renders both teacher and principal slaves to an essentially arbitrary model of what a lesson should be, a model that degrades the craft of teaching. How long do we think it will take for students to figure out the rubric from experiencing lessons of the same shape period after period, day after day? “Here comes the group work,” I can hear them saying now.

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The Clarification of Stupidity

I’m expected, I suppose, to comment on the settlement reached between New York State United Teachers, the State Education Department and Governor Cuomo which essentially clarifies an existing law that provided for the evaluation of teachers, tying their evaluations in part to the performance of their students on state and local assessments. In a sentence, a stupid law has been made more clearly stupid while apparently increasing the power of the numbskulls in the State Education Department to reject evaluation plans that are laboriously negotiated at the local level. So, three cheers for the clarification of stupidity. It’s enough to make me puke seeing the praise Cuomo is getting for the basic part of which he had absolutely nothing to do with. I can’t wait for the day when teachers get their evaluations and find themselves reduced to an absolutely meaningless number.

I find myself thinking about a story two teachers told me the other day. A male elementary physical education teacher came upon a little boy who had defecated all over himself. The poor child was distraught and almost inconsolable. The teacher immediately took him to the bathroom and helped him begin to clean himself up, telling the child that the same thing had happened to him when he was young and assuring him that he and everyone else would soon forget all about this embarrassment. Their conversation was overheard by another teacher who immediately came to help. She quickly realized that they had to get the child some clean underwear, but none was to be had in the school. Living locally and having a child of roughly the same age, she ran and grabbed her coat, got into her car, drove home and back with a choice of underwear for the sobbing boy – boxers or briefs. What kind of ignorance rewards teachers like these by reducing their contribution to the all-around welfare of children with a number?

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An Opportunity Lost

I went to the symposium yesterday sponsored by the Long Island Principals’ Association in conjunction with Long Island University’s Post Campus. The principals have my utmost respect for their willingness to try to fight reform efforts that seek to tie student performance on various assessments to teacher evaluations. It’s a completely stupid idea which they, unlike too many in my ranks, have the nerve to label as stupid. I do wish, however, that they had planned a better a program. With an audience of people almost all of whom were completely familiar with the APPR legislation, why most of the time was spent with a group of principals lecturing the audience on the evils of the new APPR, I’m not sure I know. Why they didn’t plan to try to organize the audience of some 3 to 4 hundred people to take some action aimed at building their movement, some action beyond writing to the Regents and legislators, I can’t begin to fathom. Some years ago, when the son of an assistant principal who lived across the street from me was asked what his father did for a living, he replied, He’s a principal.” “And what does a principal do?” he was asked. “He princes and he bulls,” was his insightful reply. That’s as apt a summary of yesterday’s symposium as any.

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Narrower and Narrower

Although the new mandated teacher evaluation system that rates teachers in part on the performance of their students on state assessments is not yet in place on our district, its impact is already permeating the thoughts of teachers. Predictably, teachers are increasingly on guard to factors that might in any way depress their students’ scores and thereby compromise their evaluations. At a meeting I attended yesterday, a discussion that began about the inadequate budget for field trips quickly turned when a teacher made the following statement. “If my students’ test scores are to be a part of my evaluation, I’m going to fight all of you who keep taking kids out of my class to go on field trips. I’m not against field trips, but if they are going to cause my students to miss instruction and get lower scores on the Regents, then those trips could have a negative impact on me.” While I could lament the further narrowing of the curriculum taking place before my eyes, I realized that teachers will have to adjust what they do to protect their employment, as sad as that may be. They would have to be insane not to.

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The Army of Incompetents?

While I’m aware of the extent to which anti-teacher union propaganda has penetrated the American psyche, I was nevertheless unprepared for my Saturday evening with three old friends, all of whom I know to be liberal political activists. Half way through a plate of wonderful osso bucco, my hostess says to me, “Morty, how do we get rid of all the bad teachers?”

Drawing my friends out, I soon learned that they were convinced that there is an undetermined though large number of teachers whose exit from the professions is almost a matter of national security. It took me some thirty minutes to get them to agree that the subject of teacher quality is substantially more complicated than they had thought. I doubt that I convinced them that it isn’t a serious problem, but I did get them thinking about the alarming childhood poverty in our country and what we know that means for academic performance. I think I got them to agree that before someone has her profession taken away, there should be a fair process to ensure that termination is warranted. I know I got through for at least an instant when I recounted how often in representing a teacher called on the carpet, I find that their employment files are pristine, administration having failed to do its job. But I am absolutely sure that there lingers in each of my friends the strong suspicion that I simply can’t face the fact that there are many incompetent teachers in our schools – that my job as a union leaders blinds me to reality.

How do those of us who know that while there are incompetents in our ranks, they are few – how do we communicate that to the mind-screwed public when I couldn’t begin to communicate it to friends in thirty minutes? How do we expose the myth of the army of incompetent teachers?

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Knowing Stuff To Read and Understand

“Our kids are able to read fluently; they just are not able to comprehend what they’re reading.” The quote comes from New York City principal Derick T. Spaulding in a New York Times article reporting yet a new approach to the teaching of reading in some of the city’s lower performing middle schools. I strongly suspect the problem is not how reading is taught. The problem is the students do not have the knowledge they need to make sense of the words they easily decode. In many ways these kids are in a situation analogous to my experience as a Peace Corps teacher in Ghana where I was expected to prepare my students for the English General Certificate Examination which at the time was based on what was essentially a United Kingdom curriculum. I vividly remember attempting to teach Dickens and Wordsworth among others English writers to kids who had no knowledge of the world I was asking them to engage. Thus, snow, snuff boxes, moors, daffodils etc. were as foreign to my students as some of the things our schools and state assessments expect children to know about a world to which they have limited exposure. Why is so difficult for education policy makers to understand that one must know stuff to understand what he reads? E.D. Hirsch has been trying to teach them for years. Perhaps these decision makers lack the experiential background to understand.

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Meaningful Education Data

Let’s see if all of the data driven dunces who think they can fix public education by using student test scores to lop off the bottom ten percent of teachers each year can come to grips with the data from several studies reported today in the New York Times. Big surprise – the school performance of poor children has been falling behind that of their wealthier peers, and these studies haven’t as yet measured the fully effect of what we are euphemistically calling the Great Recession. Watch for the response from social Darwinists like Charles Murray to caution us against thinking that the lack of money and resources has anything to do with the performance of poor children. Surely it’s the inferiority, both genetically and culturally, of the poor that is largely responsible. Others on the right will surely continue to maintain that great teachers can solve this problem. One thing I know for sure – most of our politicians will not call for measures to overcome the poverty of some many of our nation’s children. Shame on all of us.

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Are We Insane?

I spoke today at our Kindergarten Center. While I was there to talk about our union’s political action efforts, I always leave time at the end of my talk for members to engage me on issues of importance to them. Several of the things they raised astonished me and deserve our serious consideration.

There is broad concern in the staff about all of the assessments they are being asked to put their students through. Why 5 year-olds are being subjected to academic assessment is any sane person’s guess. While I’m sure the idiots running State Ed Department are responsible, I don’t understand local authorities toeing the line set down by Albany. When does the conscience of school leaders say enough? I’m not about to participate in depriving children of an appropriate kindergarten education.

A curious question posed to me appears to grow out of this test mania. A member wanted to know if teachers are obliged to provide homework and classroom work to the parents of kindergarteners who have been absent for a day or so. Homework? In kindergarten? What are we doing? Why do parents think that a 5 year-old missing school for a day requires makeup assignments? What possible long range consequences could there be? Rejection from Harvard? Are we starting the grade-grind process in kindergarten? The world of public education has surely gone insane.

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Farewell, Aunt Dora

I’ve gotten considerable reaction from my posts centering on my conversations with my 99 year old Aunt Doris, Dora to her nieces and nephews. . Those conversations came to an end yesterday as she passed away 1 month shy of her 100th birthday. Aunt Doris spent over 40 years as a back-office clerk for Gimbles. She never married. Like many of her era, she was the child who took care of her parents and saw them through the vicissitudes of old age. Having come to America from the ashes of World War I, she and her sisters embraced this country with the passion born of gratitude for the opportunity to live a life unimaginable to Jewish children born in a Polish shtetl. Doris’ earliest memories were of hiding from the Cossacks’ frequent pogroms.

Doris didn’t do much to catch the notice of the world. She had no children, never made much money, and left the world with little tangible evidence of her existence. Yet, when I ask myself how is it that I have now spent over 30 years as a union leader, listening to my aunt talk with pride about her union, listening to the profound respect she had for the man who organized her local, remembering stories of the big strike at Gimbles and Mr. Gimble’s resolve to work with the union to never let that happen again, Aunt Doris played no small part n the development of my union consciousness. For this, as well as all of the Dodger games we shared, and for her unqualified love, I’m deeply grateful. Thank you Aunt Dora, and farewell.

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Drive-by What?

In recent weeks I’ve been to a number of union meetings of my state and national unions. Common to too many of the leaders present at all these meetings was a very unfortunate characterization of the evaluation of teachers prior to the recent accountability rage as “drive-by observations.” If these evaluations have been that meaningless, why is it that almost every teacher I’ve known in over forty years in public education anguishes in anticipation of being observed and takes deeply to heart every negative word in the final written document? Why is it that those observation reports that I get to read often go on for pages, documenting and criticizing almost every move the teacher made during the lesson being observed?

To suggest as some union leaders do that teachers have not been held accountable for their performance until now is to betray the people they are elected to represent. They give aid and comfort to the enemies of public education and to all of those who work in public schools. Such thoughtless, reformist positions alienate members from union leadership and weaken our ability to defend ourselves. It is essentially spreading some of the right-wing’s propaganda about us. Certainly no teacher I know believes she has not been accountable for her performance.

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Look Out – They’re Measuring Creativity Now

Just when I though we had seen every stupid metric to measure the performance of public school teachers and their schools, along come other in the accountability army seeking to apply meaningless measures to what are essentially abstractions. Education Week reports that several states are in search of a creativity index to determine the extent to which schools “…nurture creativity and innovative thinking among young people.” Should such an index be developed, it would undoubtedly lead to a rubric that rates teachers highly nurturing of creative thinking, nurturing of creative thinking, stifling creative thinking and extinguishing creative thinking. While I suppose there will be those who see in the talk of a creativity index a positive reaction to mania to test students until they perform to our standard of performance, measurement efforts of this kind have a poor history. The book is yet to be written that will do to the testocracy what the late Stephen J. Gould did in The Mismeasure of Man to the biological determinists.

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Shame on Komen

Teacher unions like the PCT have been strong advocates on women’s issues like equal job opportunity, reproductive freedom, pay equity and women’s health. We are natural leaders on these issues with memberships that are usually around 75% female. With this advocacy in our history, it’s disheartening for teacher unionists to find the Komen Foundation, a leader in raising funds to fight breast cancer, knuckling under to right wing pressure and cutting their funding to Planned Parenthood’s breast cancer screening programs. Komen’s rationale for cutting their ties to Planned Parenthood is just patently silly. They claim they are doing so because Planned Parenthood is under Congressional investigation. Sure, they’re under investigation. The anti-women’s rights crowd in the Congress is using its investigative powers to try to destroy an organization that has a distinguished record of helping women gain control of their destiny. Those who wish to see women back in their subservient place are so determined that they are even willing to deprive poor women of their access to health services. I’ve signed the Move-On.org petition on this subject. I would urge my readers to do the same. I will also be urging the union organizations I belong to to end their fundraising for Komen and support cancer research through other vehicles. Do any organizations you belong to support Komen. Urge them to reconsider.

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